Bloomington-Normal: Abnormally blessed with fine public golf courses
BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL, Ill. - In a recent Golf Digest ranking of America's best golfing cities, Bloomington-Normal came in fifth among 330 metro areas. Naturally, this raised a few eyebrows from coastal snobs and Southern dandies.
But the folks in flyover land - the ones who drive here from Chicago, St. Louis, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa just to hit the local links - know the score.
Quality and affordable golf courses combine to place Bloomington-Normal among the country's best places for golfers. Illinois' "Twin Cities" are home to five public golf courses, all publicly owned (four munis and the Illinois State University Golf Course).
Whatever profits these courses generate go back into them, not into the pockets of private owners or developers. It's a formula for outstanding quality and service - not to mention green fees so low (especially for local residents and members of the university community) that even a daily round won't break most budgets.
Bloomington-Normal golf courses
There are three public golf courses in Bloomington and two in Normal. They represent a wide spectrum of styles and atmospheres.
Friendly, neighborhood-y Highland Park Golf Course (5,725 yards, par 70) features surprisingly hilly terrain, ponds and streams, and enough trees to make an environmentalist's pulse quicken. Even scratch golfers will find it a challenge keeping their ball in the fairway, despite the course's diminutive dimensions.
Prairie Vista Golf Course (6,745 yards, par 72) is the fairest of the local layouts - assuming you can avoid the water in play on 16 holes. A measure of wildness off the tee is accommodated by varied approaches to the greens, which are receptive and not overly guarded. Prairie Vista represents all that is good about the much-maligned "American Contemporary Style " of course design.
The crown jewel of Bloomington-Normal is The Den at Fox Creek (6,926 yards, par 72). The Arnold Palmer design balances expansive fairways with continual and often dramatic contouring, from the lush tees to the enormous greens. Everybody has a chance of finding the fairways and greens, but they may be forced to negotiate uncomfortable lies or long, meandering putts to score well. This is a quintessential "hard par, easy bogey" layout, and it doesn't look like any muni you've ever seen.
Ironwood Golf Course (6,960 yards, par 72) is not flashy, but it has the neighborhood feel of Highland Park. The holes are straightforward from the tees, making this an ideal golf course for beginners, juniors and seniors, but the length from the tips offers better golfers a challenge.
The Illinois State course (6,730 yards, par 71) is a classic 1962 Robert Bruce Harris design that was renovated and updated by PGA and Champion's Tour pro D.A. Weibring, an ISU alum. The topography is also unexpectedly undulating, and the trees are a factor on every hole. From the opening par 4, golfers are presented with choices and targets off the tees and demanding second shots if they fail to execute.
Bloomington-Normal mixes numerous entertainment options into a small-town Midwestern feel, ideal for golfers and non-golfers of all ages.
One of the best and newest children's museums in the Midwest is the Children's Discovery Museum, featuring exhibits on health, art, and nature and recycling along with smaller areas of education and imagination. The highlight is the Lucky Climber, a maze-like two-story structure suspended on a web of cables from the ceiling.
Miller Park Zoo is a great small zoo for families, especially those with young children. Highlights include sun bears, reindeer, a Sumatran tiger, sea lions, river otters, red panda, bald eagles and red wolves. There are several large spaces, including Wallaby WalkAbout, Zoolab, Children's Zoo, Animals of Asia and the newest exhibit, the Tropical America Rainforest.
Visitors can catch concerts, circuses and other national touring shows at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum. For gamblers, Par-A-Dice Casino and Hotel is about 40 miles away in Peoria.
Bloomington-Normal is dominated by Illinois State University, so college-type bars and restaurants are plentiful. Arguably the best upscale menu in the area can be found at the Central Station Cafe, which serves lunch and dinner in what was once the Bloomington fire station. Entree prices are high ($15-$30) compared to the college-market eateries in town, but so is the quality and variety.
The Loft, upstairs at Central Station, is a trendy martini bar open Tuesday through Saturday. Golfers take note: The dress code prohibits ball caps.
The place in town for Italian is Lucca Grill, family-owned since 1936 (with a friendly vibe to match) and home to the locally legendary A La Baldini pizza.
Golfers looking for an outstanding breakfast close to Prairie Vista and The Den at Fox Creek should try CJ's. Lunch and dinner are also served, and you can end the day in the same building's Froggy Bottom's Bar.
Stay and play
If Bloomington-Normal falls down on any count, it's the rather nondescript lodging options, dominated by chain hotels, the best of which is the Doubletree.
There is precious little in the way of locally owned or historically unique properties, and no stay-and-play packages - although with green fees this low, and all courses offering very low replay rates, who needs a package?
March 8, 2007