March madness on the links

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

Editors note: With the University of Illinois men's basketball team in the thick of things at the NCAA Tournament, it's hard to think about any other sport than round ball. But knowing how good, and inexpensive the golf courses can be around the U-of-I campus, golf comes in at a close second. TravelGolf takes a look at the best bets for golf in a region currently obsessed with college hoops.

CHICAGO - March Madness has a double meaning in these parts these days - basketball, of course, but also golf. And you can blame the Fighting Illini.

In Illinois this spring, sports fans have to balance their relationships with two different lovers and that takes a little work. You want to spend as much time as possible with the University of Illinois and its No. 1-ranked men's basketball team as it moves through the brackets of the NCAA Tournament, but you also hear your golf mistress calling you. She's young and sweet, and at this time of year she needs you to pay attention to her. That's difficult to resist.

So, how to you not neglect one for the other? How do you satisfy both?

The best way may be to spend some time with the U-of-I faithful near the main campus in Champaign, Ill. - and sneak in a few early rounds of golf in an area of the Midwest that has some pretty strong venues.

The Illinois men's basketball team has no superstar that clearly shines above the others on its roster, but this team has been able to end the regular season with only one loss and the Big Ten Championship title. Golf in the Champaign area is not unlike the men's team - there are few superstar golf courses, but you'll find a number of solid layouts that can compete with some of the more celebrated courses in the state's more marketed region, Chicago.

Showing your school colors

Walking down the streets around the campus of U-of-I, you immediately notice the old and stately buildings mixed with the hurried yet laid-back attitude only a large college campus can have. You also can't miss the team spirit with blue and orange everywhere.

And just a few miles down the road, more blue and orange. But these are the University of Illinois golf courses. They were originally built for students, faculty and staff at the university, but for some time now they've been open to the public.

If you see the Orange Course as the true test, then the Blue Course is the quiz. To play Orange you need to study; work on your sand game to get out of the deep bunkers, work on iron shots to get to the small greens and work on your stamina to get around the hilly terrain.

The Blue is a little less demanding with its flat bunkers, bigger greens, and fewer opportunities to put the ball in the drink.

All in all, these two university courses are good places to play, but alone they are not worth a long drive to the Champaign area. You need to add on a few other courses to make the journey memorable.

Stone Creek Golf Club

Those who know the area are aware that the true name of the region around the U-of-I campus is called Champaign-Urbana. Urbana is the forgotten stepchild city, but when it comes to golf, it's home to one of the better courses in the area.

One of the first things you notice at Stone Creek Golf Club is not on the golf course at all, but in the pro shop. The place looks like it could be the best spot to hold a pep rally with its blue and orange Illini banners, golf shirts, hats and school paraphernalia literally covering the place.

The second thing you notice is all the rocks. There are a number of lakes and creeks on the course framed with stones and boulders. But where there is bent grass, there are certainly no rocks, and in fact, Stone Creek maybe one of the more manicured courses in Central Illinois.

The course is a Tim and Dick Nugent design, famed Chicago-area golf architects who gave us Harborside International and Heritage Bluffs. The Nugents have a reputation for designing tough golf courses for the better player, but very playable layouts for the average swinger. They did that at Stone Creek by giving you several tee boxes on each hole.

With all the goods thing about Stone Creek, there is one turn-off. If you don't like courses that are part of subdivisions, Stone Creek may not be for you. The homes surround the course, and although they keep their distance, some of us just don't like it when real estate mixes with golf.

Lake of the Woods Golf Club

Just a few miles from campus in Mahomet, Illinois, is a golf course that looks like it was dropped into the area by helicopter. All around this region you'll find flat farmland with very few patches of mature trees, but Lake of the Woods Golf Club is nothing like the rest of the region.

The course is in the heart of a county park and is not only lined with older trees but rolls along over small hills and valleys - not the norm around these parts. And that's what has made Lake of the Woods a popular golf spot since it opened in 1954.

In fact, the finishing hole starts with an elevated tee, drops down to the fairway below and demands you to hit your second shot uphill to a blind green. Regulars say Lake of the Woods is just more fun because of its unusual terrain.

Skip over to Gibson City

About 30 miles from the heart of Champaign, through the corn and soybean fields, is Gibson City, Illinois. That's where you'll find Railside Golf Club .

This golf course seems out of place. It sits out in the wide open of Central Illinois in a town of some 3,300 people and one radio station. Still, Railside is worthy of big city accolades.

This is relatively wide open golf course with hardly a tree to be seen, but the layout is far from easy. From the tips it can play nearly 6,800 yards and many times when you're playing Railside, you have to make a pact with the wind. The heartland of Illinois doesn't have much topography to stop the blowing.

Railside, admittedly, has had some pace-of-play problems, but it hopes it has fixed that issue with a newly installed GPS system on the carts.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

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