St. Louis golfers shouldn't discount a round in the fall

By Ron Cobb, Contributor

ST. LOUIS - Like many other cities in the Midwest, St. Louis suffers through summers that can be hot and humid and winters that can be cold and icy. When it comes to weather, St. Louis will never be confused with San Diego.

But from mid-September until the end of October, there's not a better place to be. The humidity has made its exit, rain is fairly rare, and warm, sunny days and crisp, cool nights are the rule. It's a great season for golfers.

For reasons that defy explanation, some golfers put away their clubs around Labor Day — much to the benefit of true-blue golfers who find the courses less crowded and vastly more visually appealing with their colorful fall foliage.

Visitors coming to St. Louis for whatever reason — to see the Cardinals in the playoffs, perhaps? — would be wise to pack their golf clubs. The area offers an assortment of exceptional golf courses, including one that is virtually within sight of Busch Stadium.

Gateway National Golf Links

Just five to 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis, Gateway National stands apart from the other courses in the area in several respects. It's close enough to the Mississippi River to offer nice views of the Gateway Arch. It sits next-door to Gateway National Raceway — so close, in fact, that the sound of race cars is an occasional soundtrack for golfers.

Gateway National is also the only public course in the St. Louis area with bentgrass fairways. All of the other upscale courses are zoysia.

Aside from the nearby St. Louis skyline, Gateway National offers little in the way of scenery. It's more of a links-style course, and trees come into play on only a couple of holes. The difficulty lies mainly in its length — 7,178 from the tips — and an abundance of bunkers.

John Daniels, a retiree and a 15 handicap from Maryville, Ill., likes the course but says double-digit handicappers have trouble with the longer holes.

"It's a great course, but it puts a wood in my hands a lot because of the length," he said. "Anytime you have a wood in your hands twice on a hole, you're not having fun. But it's always in great shape, and there's no trouble."

Green fees: $25 to $63.50, cart included
(618) 482-4653

Annbriar Golf Course

If St. Louis-area golfers were asked in a poll to name their favorite golf course, Annbriar in Waterloo, Ill., would be a good bet to finish No. 1. Rare is the golfer who has anything bad to say about this Michael Hurdzan design. If it has a flaw, it would be its somewhat remote location, a 40-minute drive south of downtown St. Louis.

Annbriar owes much of its success to its knack for being both upscale and down-home, offering a restaurant that serves good food with the ambience of a roadside diner. Former car dealer William Nobbe built the golf course at the suggestion of his daughter Ann. A couple of months before the official ground-breaking in 1991, Ann was killed in a car accident, and the course was named in her honor.

Rare is the avid golfer in the St. Louis area who has not played Annbriar. Herb Markwort, a 14 handicap who belongs to a private club in St. Louis County, is a new devotee, having played the course for the first time this summer.

"Annbriar was better than I imagined," he said. "When I tell friends I played over there and how much I liked it, they all have great things to say about it, too. Seems like I was the only guy who hadn't played it."

Annbriar features a fairly generous front nine, followed by a tighter back nine that brings trees into play and offers several elevation changes.

Green fees: $40 to $65, cart included.

Far Oaks Golf Club & Stonewolf Golf Club

Although these two courses are technically in different muncipalities, they're really neighbors, located on opposite sides of Illinois Route 159, about 10 minutes east of downtown St. Louis off Interstate 64.

Stonewolf in Fairview Heights, Ill., is a Jack Nicklaus signature course that opened in 1996, offering the Golden Bear's trademark short par-4s and plenty of bunkering. Far Oaks in Caseyville, Ill., was designed primarily by former Masters champion Bob Goalby and his son Kye and opened in 1998. Both courses revolved around big, impressive clubhouses that smack of private-course elegance.

Most St. Louis-area golfers would probably give a slight edge to Far Oaks.

Green fees: Far Oaks, $40 to $67, cart included
(618) 628-2900
Green fees: Stonewolf, $39 to $65, cart included
(877) 721-4653.

Spencer T. Olin Community Golf Course

In the mid-1980s, the St. Louis area was barren when it came to public golf. Then came a wave of new courses, beginning with Spencer T. Olin in 1989. Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay, director of design for Palmer's design company, designed the Alton, Ill., course, which sits within Gordon F. Moore Community Park.

The course is named for a successful Alton businessman, who met Palmer in a St. Louis pro-am in 1955, when Palmer was a PGA Tour rookie.

"Spencer T." was a state-of-the-art course when it opened, and it remains among the area's best, but it has been eclipsed to some extent by some of the newer high-profile courses.

Last year, the course adopted an "all you can play" policy on weekdays that included free breakfast and free lunch. Reduced greens fees on weekends, with free lunch, have greatly increased the number of golfers on the course, but it's also created some slow play and ill will.

Green fees: $19 to $55, cart included.
(618) 465-3111

Norman K. Probstein Community Golf Course

For a truly St. Louis-style golf experience, this is the course to play. But first things first — call it Forest Park, as the locals do, rather than the Norman K. Probstein Community Golf Course.

The course occupies the northwest quadrant of Forest Park, one of the nation's great urban parks. Larger than New York City's Central Park, Forest Park also includes the St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum (plus a mediocre semi-private nine-hole golf course called the Triple A Club).

The golf course sits on the site of the 1904 World's Fair, where, according to local legend, the ice cream cone was invented. The golf course's first nine opened in 1912. An intriguing and somewhat quirky layout — including a par-5 that played across the front lawn of the Art Museum — endeared the course to golfers. But, like many other municipal courses, Forest Park was poorly maintained.

All that has changed, however. In anticipation of this year's centennial World's Fair celebration, all of Forest Park has been renovated, and the golf course has enjoyed a remarkable, $12.5 million makeover. The result is 27 holes of manicured golf course revolving around a new clubhouse and restaurant.

The course has generally received rave reviews. John Dennan, a 10 handicapper from Webster Groves, Mo., is among the few who aren't enthusiastic about the finished product.

"I never played the original course, but I think it's plain vanilla," he said. "Many holes are similar in appearance, with generally flat greens. It's in decent shape since it was rebuilt, but the pace of play can be tiresome."

Green fees, 18 holes: weekdays, $24 to walk, $35 to ride
weekends, add $10.
(314) 367-1337

The verdict

The majority of the best public golf courses in the St. Louis area can be found across the Mississippi River on the Illinois side. Annbriar, Gateway National and Far Oaks are as good as it gets around St. Louis. On the Missouri side, only the Missouri Bluffs and Tapawingo belong in that group. However, expect to pay between $50 and $70 on weekends. Other reputable courses on the Illinois side include Fox Creek in Edwardsville and Belk Park in Wood River. Many of the run-of-the-mill courses in Illinois are old-fashioned rural courses where a snap hook is likely to send you on a search into a farmer's corn field.

Places to stay

Super 8 Motel
112 Warren Drive
Waterloo, Ill.
(618) 939-2020

Tara Point Inn & Cottages
Grafton, Ill.
(618) 786-3555

Drury Inn
12 Ludwig Drive
Fairview Heights, Ill.
(618) 398-8530

Places to eat

BoBeck's Sports Bar & Grill
1324 Jamie Lane
Waterloo, Ill.
(618) 939-8300

Fast Eddie's Bon-Air
1530 E. 4th St.
Alton, Ill.
(618) 462-5532

Casa Gallardo
6600 N. Illinois
Fairview Heights, Ill.
(618) 632-4404

Ron Cobb, Contributor

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