Review for Canyata

Reviewer Score:


Since 2009, Canyata has been ranked no lower than #63 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses in the United States. That’s a hell of a pedigree! But due to its intense privacy there’s very little information on the internet about it. So how do you properly evaluate this course? I’m not sure because there’s certainly nowhere else I’ve played to which it compares.

It’s always been a bit of an enigma, this random yet supposedly amazing golf course out in the middle of nowhere in Illinois about two and a half hours away from my hometown. It’s been on the Golf Digest Top 100 in the US list since 2009, but so few people play it there just is not much information about it on the internet. It was so odd knowing that this mysterious place was out there, but I had absolutely no way of getting on… until a couple of years ago, their website started advertising that outside guests were welcome, for a very high price. A hefty tax refund and a COVID stimulus check left me feeling flush this year, so I figured it was time to splurge. A simple call to Rodems Golf, the course manager, was enough to get my day at Canyata set up.

After arriving, checking in, and signing the guestbook, I was informed that due to the COVID-19 pandemic I was the first guest of 2020 on June 12th. The year! Unfortunately, unlike other reviewers, I was forced to share the golf course on that day with a whopping twelve additional golfers; they said that was one of the busier days they’ve had in recent years, although every now and then groups of 30+ show up and take over the course for a day. The clubhouse/pro shop is exactly as described in other reviews; fully stocked, but nobody there except for the superintendent and one or two other staff. To buy merchandise, you sign a sheet and they bill you later. I received a bill in the mail on nice Canyata stationery a couple of weeks later for my hat and bag tag.

The course is clearly designed for playability for all skill levels, with wide fairways and large greens, but has enough undulations on those surfaces and visual deception with the holes to create a true challenge for low handicap players. The routing is ingenious, as no two holes feel similar. An odd hole here and there features a very narrow shot, but most are fairly forgiving.

The most incredible part of playing Canyata, however, was the utterly perfect course conditions. Standing on the first tee knowing that nobody had set foot on it other than maintenance workers for months is a feeling I can’t really describe. I’ve never in my life felt so guilty taking divots or leaving pitch marks in greens – even after repairing them all! It was as if I’d ripped my wife’s wedding dress; no amount of repair could hide the guilt of ruining something so pristine. I’ve read that this is what playing Shadow Creek feels like, and I think that’s an appropriate comparison, except instead of being in the desert, you’re in the middle of Illinois. The artificially built-up mounds bordering some of the holes on the back nine (presumably to hide them from view of the adjacent farm fields) also adds to that feeling.

#1: An easy opener, this par four entices the player to lay up off the tee with an extra wide fairway between the many bunkers. The green is driveable with a right-to-left shot on a bold line, but I’m not sure why anyone would try as any miss long or right will tumble into a wooded ravine (which like all others on the course was not staked as a penalty area – not surprising given how little play happens out here – but I played it as such per the suggestion in the yardage book). The green itself is large and gently slopes from left to right.

#2: Standing on the tee, staring over the canyon, one doesn’t quite know where to hit the tee shot on this par five. Turns out the line for longer hitters is much farther right than it appears. In my second time around the course, I took advantage of this knowledge gained and reached the putting surface in two shots. The hole runs along a ridge which opens up to a rather nice view of the valley on the left side, with tons of bunkers nearby to catch a wayward layup or approach. Unfortunately, the massive Biarritz-style green lends itself to three-putts if one does not find oneself on the right portion; I learned that fact the hard way.

#3: While the collection of short holes at Canyata isn’t the most spectacular, this one surely is. From high on the ridge, the green appears to jut completely into the pond below; in reality, it’s only right and long that are dead as there is a bailout area left and the green is quite large. It’s a very intimidating visual and requires the player to commit 100% to the shot.

#4: Probably my favorite par four on the course. From the back tees, the fairway appears incredibly wide, almost at a right angle to you. With the help of the yardage book, it’s a relatively easy fairway to hit even if you’re a little off-line. Once you’re there, though, the fun starts. The green is long and narrow with multiple tiers and completely invisible to the player from the fairway below. What’s more, any miss left or right will kick away and leave an uncomfortable pitch, especially on the short side.

#5: The fairway on this hole is a perfect example of the playability Canyata offers. While it’s a narrow fairway along the top of a ridge, its cross section is bowl-shaped so that it contains slightly off-line shots. The picturesque downhill approach over a creek is one of the better eye candy moments on the course.

#6: The par fives at Canyata all force long hitters to hit uncomfortable tee shots – to carry the ball farther down the fairway, you have to take a line that seems far more risky than it actually is. They’re not difficult driving holes, but require commitment. Once in the fairway, the green can be attacked in two as it’s relatively large and accessible.

#7: Canyata has a few really good short par fours; this hole is the first of them. (I discount #1 from that conversation as I see it as more of a “warm up” hole than a really good strategic short par four.) One is presented with the options of laying up short in the fairway, leaving a full wedge, hitting driver down the fairway to the left and leaving oneself a short pitch from the left to a green that runs away from you, or challenging the bunker on the right with a very long carry to either reach the green or be short or right of it which will leave a much easier pitch. The first option probably was the best one, but sadly I chose the other two in my two rounds, neither of which worked out with a birdie.

#8: Aside from #3, the par threes all seem to have a sameness to them, mostly featuring mid-irons into back-to-front sloping greens. #8 is a bit more flat and open than #12 or #17 with heavier bunkering, but there’s not much to the hole. The view of #9 behind it creates some anticipation for the wild waterfall hole that’s to come.

#9: If Canyata has a “signature” hole – I hate that term, by the way – this one would be it. With the rather impressive water feature to the right of the approach to the green that’s visible from every part of the fairway – especially so for those who choose to go to the right of the centerline bunker – it’s a photogenic spot to say the least. I liked the options off the tee that are created by the fact that the centerline bunker bisects the extremely wide fairway at a point where most players would hit driver. The green felt pretty simple, but perhaps a back pin would have caused more stress than one in the bowl area in the front left portion.

#10: The inward nine begins on a brutal par five, one that is long and features a pond down the left side for most of its length. It’s a bit of a confusing hole, as a mounded fairway bunker juts out from the right on both the drive and the layup. The layup is particularly difficult as the fairway looks incredibly narrow. Playing downwind, it is reachable, but any miss must be to the right, as I learned the hard way after a hard carom off the stone wall fronting the pond.

#11: Most longer holes at Canyata feature a fairway that is wider than it appears from the tee, but #11 is almost the opposite. It feels as though this hole corridor is as wide as anything, but the fairway pinches a bit near the long bunker to the left, and the approach requires excellent distance control due to the massive slope in the middle of the green. The hole reminded me so much of #2 at Annbriar in Waterloo, IL due to the similar length, hole shape, mounding, and green complex.

#12: The longest par three on the course, this hole doesn’t play quite as long due to being downhill and having the prevailing wind behind the players, but I’d consider it the second-best of the par threes given its large, undulating, and well-protected green complex.

#13: This hole starts the best stretch of holes on the course. The tee ball looks mighty narrow from the tee, but like #5, it plays more forgiving due to the mounding at its perimeter, so one can either lay up short of the bunker on the right or be aggressive. The approach to the elevated green is fraught with drop-offs into bunkers or woods on all sides – a complete reversal from the fairway area – so one must ensure their distance control is top notch. It’s kind of a quirky hole – especially when looking back from the green as you can see how heavily mounded the bunkers are – but a fun one nonetheless.

#14: My favorite par four on the back nine. The fairway is massive, but as angles are frequently important, a shot in the fairway isn’t enough to make the approach an easy one. The closer one plays to the pond on the left, the easier the approach to the green is. With bunkers front right and a collection area long and left, this push-up green is hard to hit. It’s a simple but ingenious strategic hole – and pretty easy on the eyes as well.

#15: Aggressive longer hitters can cut the corner on this par five, but it takes a draw over a blind corner to do so. After hitting the fairway, the hole opens up, but once again the aggressive players must attack the green with a long shot over a bunker and knoll of native grass. It’s a lovely hole that can be played a number of ways.

#16: When you stand on the tee on this short par four, you can clearly see the options that are in play. The fairway is shaped somewhat like a reverse question mark wrapping around a heavily treed valley, allowing players to either lay up short of the bend but face a shot over or through the trees, hit a slightly longer shot to the left in the bend, allowing for a more direct approach to the green, or try and bend the ball around the trees to attack the green itself. It’s a devilish little hole that I just wanted to keep playing over and over.

#17: Possibly the easiest of the par threes – and the shortest – this is a somewhat disappointing hole after the stretch that came before it. (I’d excuse this disappointment if the excitement ramped back up on #18, which it unfortunately does not.) The front pin location on this day allowed for a nice backstop for both tee shots and pitches from the bailout area to the right. Perhaps a back left pin would cause more excitement on this smallish green and thus my opinion to would change.

#18: I didn’t really think much of this hole as a closing hole. For one, it’s one of the narrowest tee shots on the course, and it’s not like the hole opens up much after that. The approach to the green itself is a forced carry over a ravine; the green is somewhat invisible from the right rough or fairway bunker. The green complex is large but doesn’t have much of a bailout area – right is the only safe place to miss, and as mentioned, anything to the right of the green is invisible from the tee. In my opinion, this would be a much better finishing hole as a slightly shorter par four with the tee pushed back a few yards and the green at the end of the fairway along the ridge with ravines on both left and right.

I was slightly disappointed with the fact that the routing in its current format does not allow for a dramatic finishing hole. In my opinion, the current #9 would make a fantastic finisher, but simply switching the nines would require the player to begin their round on a difficult par five, the current #10. I gave potential course routings way too much thought and came up with the following, more optimal routing: holes #1-#7, then holes #11-18, followed by #10, #8, and #9 to close out the round. That’s a small gripe but in my opinion the biggest thing holding this course back – the last two holes are two of the weakest ones on the course.

Like any proper born-and-raised St. Louisan, pretty much anything about Chicago makes my skin crawl a bit, but I admit they have some great golf courses up there. Unfortunately, nearly all of them are very exclusively private, thus I’ve not personally played any of the best in the state of Illinois. On this site, the highest ranked in the state I’ve played other than Canyata is Wynstone, which is #24 in the current rankings. Frankly, Canyata blows Wynstone out of the water. We’ll just have to see what the 2020 rankings bear for this obscure but magnificent facility. To me, it should easily be within the top ten in the state.

Played June 12, 2020

Review of the Month October 2020

Date: October 15, 2020

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