Central Illinois' Eagle Creek Resort: Perfect for the rugged, outdoorsy golfer
FINDLAY, Ill. — So let's say you like to golf, but you just feel like the perfectly manicured fairways and greens are, well, a little tame. You're the rugged, outdoorsy type, the type who'd fight off a badger with your bare hands if it meant saving that ProV1 and a penalty stroke.
Well, have we found the place for you.
How does 34,000 acres of forest and an 11,000-acre lake sound? And how about a golf course that requires a merit badge in orienteering to find some of the fairways from the tees? And if your spouse is a tenderfoot, let's toss in a 138-room full-service hotel just for fun.
And last, but not least, let's plop the entire destination square in the center of Illinois, a region known more for corn fields than rugged topography.
If this oasis of golf and outdoor activities sounds like a fantasy, then you've never been to Eagle Creek Resort and Conference Center in Findlay. Perched on the shores of Lake Shelbyville, Eagle Creek Resort offers something for golfers and non-golfers alike — but golfers are especially rewarded (and punished) by the 6,942-yard course, which will test all your survival skills.
How it plays
Eagle Creek was designed by Ken Killian, past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. The difficulty of the layout is evident from the rating and slope from the tips: 73.5 and 132, respectively. Gorgeous and memorable it is indeed; fair — especially to first-time visitors — it ain't.
Before detailing the plentiful good, and the vexingly frequent bad, about Eagle Creek, it should be stressed that one little amenity would alleviate a lot of headaches for a lot of golfers: A YARDAGE BOOK.
According to Assistant Professional Dustin Plummer, there used to be yardage books, but there have been no new ones printed for a couple of years. Why this might be so is apparently a mystery. And it's a tragic mystery at that, because the spectacular routing of many of the holes here is tainted for golfers who find themselves picking the wrong club and bad lines from the tee and into greens. There are frankly too many blind or semi-blind shots and hazards here to not offer some sort of guidance.
Generally, when golfers think of "resort courses," they imagine vanilla routing with wide fairways mounded on both sides to keep errant shots in play and benign greens. Yawn. One of the most striking exceptions to this dull rule is the Thoroughbred Golf Club in Rothbury, Mich.
Eagle Creek bears a certain resemblance to that outstanding Arthur Hills design in that both are routed through dense woods and plentiful water hazards, challenging each and every shot. The two differ, however, in that the Michigan course provides guidance in the form of yardage books. Playing Eagle Creek is a bit like being dropped off in the middle of the forest for a survival course.
This theme of "guess it and rip it" plays out from the very first hole. On the 405-yard dogleg right, you need to pick the precise angle over the oaks on the corner of the dogleg from the tee, or a good drive will go through the fairway into trees. And if it's your first time here, you have no clue what the fairway looks like beyond that bend.
In fact, 10 of the 14 par 4s and par 5s are doglegs, all of which call for local knowledge to know the lines to obscured landing areas. A few even feature cross hazards, so club selection is also often a guessing game.
On the plus side of this wild and wooded layout are the spectacular views on the approach shots. When you round the bends in the fairways — hopefully spotting your ball in the short grass — you are struck again and again by the stunning green complexes, framed perfectly by verdant foliage and deep, flash-faced bunkers. This is one of those courses where you might want to take a camera, if you're into artful photos of greens.
It's difficult to pick out the two most lovely of this collection of memorable holes, but the 170-yard eighth and the 580-yard 12th would be near the top of the list. The idyllic par 3 plays downhill over a stand of bulrushes.
The brutish par 5 presents players with a narrow fairway with dense undergrowth and towering trees on both sides. There's no chance of seeing the green upon your approach unless you've laid up to at most 100 yards out. From that point on, the fairway runs steeply downhill to the small green, behind which is a wonderful view of Lake Shelbyville.
The beautiful 395-yard 14th is the favorite of the guys in the pro shop, but they have played it before. First-timers have absolutely no clue what to hit to the fairway, which is bisected by a rough-filled ditch.
Two fingers of the lake probe deeply into play on the left side, and the entire hole tilts toward the water. The green complex is also banked toward the lake, making the experience from tee to green a potential nightmare for players who like to draw the ball — and for anyone who has not been here before.
The 535-yard 18th is the toughest closer I've seen yet in Illinois. About 95 percent of the landing area is blind from the tee, thanks to the tall trees growing up out of the ravine your drive must carry. The landing area itself is also not very wide and it narrows quickly into a ribbon-thin fairway than snakes downhill through impenetrable brush.
Water looms to the left on your lay-up second shot. The approach is then back uphill to an elevated and heavily bunkered green that has some of the most sever undulation on the course.
When I finally completed this hole, there were three turkey vultures circling overhead. Thank God I'd brought flares.
Eagle Creek is flat out tough — arguably too tough for a "resort" course. If it ever gets crowded way out here, it is easy to imagine six-hour rounds as golfers hunt for balls and try to guess at yardages, lines and clubs.
That said, Eagle Creek is also blessed with natural beauty not often seen in central Illinois courses. It looks more like one of those northern Michigan golf courses, minus the bear and elk. You won't soon forget your round here, but whether the memories are good or bad, well, that depends on how well you can guesstimate and how lucky you get.
Conditions are generally good, but the bent grass fairways and greens do not drain terribly well here in the lake basin. On the day of my visit, recent rains had made the fairways gooshy (that's the technical term, I believe). The sand in some of the bunkers was perfect, while in others it was as hard as dry concrete.
Greens fees with cart are $40 May through October for county residents, $55 for non-residents. There is no discount for resort guests, aside from the various stay-‘n'-play packages (see below).
All things considered, these rates are reasonable for such a unique test of golf. In more traditional golf resort areas, the cost would be at least 50 percent higher.
And the survival course is, as they say, priceless.
Stay and play
Eagle Creek Resort is perfect for families or groups of golfers. There are 138 rooms, including deluxe king rooms that overlook the outdoor pool.
The Landing is a separate eight-room house that can be rented for larger private groups. The outdoor pool and deck overlooks Lake Shelbyville and nearby is a fun mini-golf course.
The resort has a hunting lodge feel, with a large central brick fireplace in the lobby and hand-made Amish furnishings in the rooms. You might in fact run into a few Amish, who are frequent guests at the resort. Fishing guides, bike rentals, canoe rentals and other outdoor activities are all available.
Stay-'n'-play packages all include unlimited golf, unlimited range balls and breakfast for two. They range in price from $218-$699 per night (double occupancy).
Just off of the resort lobby you'll find Crenshaw's, a sophisticated yet relaxed bar that overlooks the pool and lake. Appetizers run $7-$11, sandwiches $7-$8, and pizzas $14.
Right next door is Rosewood Restaurant, also with great views. Entrees here range in price from $18-$33.
Downstairs, next to the pro shop, is Bunker's, a bar and grill for the golf, pool and putt-putt crowd.
October 16, 2006