Review for Chicago

Reviewer Score:


I have been fortunate to play Chicago Golf Club numerous times, most recently on May 3, 2019. On that day the course was wet due to a spring of heavy rains and my host was unsure if it would be open. Thankfully it was. I have also played it when it was hot and running fast. I have played it with shorter rough as well as knee-high rough. The members that I know there are both essentially scratch golfers and hit the ball off the tee typically over 300 yards. The course plays very differently for them versus my game as this is a course that a visitor or short hitter is not likely to score well if playing the member tees.

In other reviews I have referred to Chicago Golf Club as being the best course in the world built on a flat piece of land. Others would perhaps call out a few courses in Scotland such as the Old course or Carnoustie while others might mention Kingston Heath. I consider both the Old course and Kingston Heath to have a change in elevation on each of their famous par 3’s. I will stick to my opinion.

Chicago Golf Club is a delight but also a real test of golf. It is the rare course that I could play everyday and never tire of it.

Before I begin my review, I will offer a “commercial” for acquiring a book from the pro shop that provides a history of the club. These books are usually found only in the best clubs but are well worth the price. Following a trip together to Scotland to my club and neighboring clubs, one of my hosts of Chicago Golf Club thanked me by sending me a book published in 1991 by Chicago Golf Club. It is truly interesting to read of the beginnings and major events of a club, particularly one as historical and significant to the beginnings of golf in the USA. In this book there are some very interesting facts including: the club once had corn on the land, in 1918 the sale of corn raised $1000. The club recognized in 1913 that it needed to improve the second golf course (first one was built in Belmont). As H.S. Colt was in the Chicago area in 1913 he looked over the course and submitted a plan of which little was implemented. He was paid $511.56. Building the new course was delayed by WWI. Later, C.B. Macdonald, now an honorary member after relocating to New York City, pushed for Seth Raynor to do the renovation, primarily using the plans drawn up by Mr. Macdonald who rejected Colt’s routing as having too many similar holes. The original budget for the new course was $70,000 but eventually the club spent $212,653.09. Of the final fee, the cost of the acquiring, freighting and spreading manure was four times the cost of Mr. Raynor’s fees. The new course eventually opened on July 4 following its first tournament on June 30, 1923. It was built at 6545 yards, par 70 and is essentially the routing and holes used today. For that day and with that technology, it was a very difficult test of golf and winning scores were often several over par.

Other interesting items in the book are that one member, previously a 3 index, essentially gave up the game while middle-aged and was granted approval to ride his horse at any time on the course. The course was once used by the Wheaton College for their cross-country team races. Finally, the book includes an overhead photo of the original routing (also hanging inside the clubhouse) which was very much along the boundary of the club in a clockwise manner going out and then counter-clockwise coming back in. This routing appears to have utilized not quite half of the available land; even the polo field (now the practice range) looks small in comparison to the unused land.

The land the course sits on is almost a perfect rectangle, similar to the shape of numerous greens.

The book also includes an overhead of the routing in 1991. Other than lengthening the course to 6710 yards, it is amazing how nearly all of the bunkers and greens are both in the same place and in the same shape and length. Only a few bunkers have been added since then – a fronting bunker on #4 and #7, tree removal on the right fairway of #8 with a bunker added, a tree removed to the left of #15 with additional bunkers, and five small bunkers on the right side of #17. Two bunkers have been removed from the front of #8’s green. The edges of the greens have been sharpened and made slightly bigger such as #8, #9, #13, #17 and #18. Basically the “rounded” greens have been removed. There is room on the course to add another 300 yards if the members desired it but I would question the need. So essentially the course is the same as it was when it opened in 1923. How many golf courses can say that? It is a testament to the members as well as the brilliance of the Macdonald routing and Raynor build.

The template holes are very evident on the course and they are nuanced given the flat land, yet amongst the best conceived and built by Macdonald/Raynor. For example, the redan par 3 seventh hole at 207 yards does not have the benefit of a natural change in terrain that one will find at North Berwick West, Plainfield, National Golf Links of America, Yeamans Hall, or Somerset Hills. Building the redan at Chicago required one to build a green that is elevated and then make the required slope to the hole. It is an immensely difficult and fun hole, almost amusing to try to solve the puzzle. You simply must hit the right side of the green far enough on the green and let the slope do the work. It is a very large green so choosing the right club to allow the ball to release and run is critical.

Among the holes I like at Chicago…..well, nearly all of them. There are not many courses I make that statement. Augusta National, Royal Melbourne West, Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills, Trump Turnberry and a few others come to mind. I rate all of these courses more highly than Chicago because their land is better and they have a higher number of superior holes.

The course kicks off with four very difficult holes for the average length player. The first hole is 450, the second hole is 440, the third hole is 219 and the fourth is 536. The third hole is the #17 index which is surprising.

The first hole reminds me of Oakmont in its difficulty. While the fairway is wide, if one misses they are in taller grass. One hits over a very small rise with the land falling away slightly to the left. There is a bunker on the right side of the fairway pinching in which only comes into play for the longer hitters. A series of bunkers are on both sides of the fairway as you near the green which come into play if you have missed the fairway and do not hit an appropriate recovery shot. The large green sloping right to left has deep bunkers on all sides but the left side is the deepest that one must avoid. The green has a section on its left that is much smaller and if the flag is there only the bravest will go for it. My long hitting friends usually par the hole whereas I simply do not want to start with a double bogey. The green depth is 33 yards.

The second hole has out of bounds to the left although the hole moves away from the fence line. Four bunkers go up the left side with the third one coming into the fairway. There is a bunker on the right but its early and should not be in play. A smaller mound on the right side can lead to an uneven lie. At the green which is angled away to the left there are two long bunkers on the right and a very nasty bunker on the front left. This large green is angled right to left around that front left bunker. My member friends say this is the toughest hole for them on the golf course because of the angle and the green depth at 39 yards.

The third hole is the first par 3 playing to the farthest point from the clubhouse. There is a fronting bunker short of the area where one can try to run their ball onto the green yet a swale in front of the green can prevent that. The green is surrounded again on all sides with deep bunkers to a green sloped back to front with depressions in it. It is not the typical “Biarritz” hole due to the location of the swale but it is still a very good test of golf. The green depth is 34 yards.

Four has the tee shot playing as a slight dogleg left. I have played this hole when the grass is very high and it changes the look completely to where the fairway appears as a ribbon/island before you. On the right are trees and a small bunker while the left side has a long bunker almost like the curved blade of a knife. Going down the fairway is another bunker on the left and right. The green is once again surrounded by bunkers with the exception of the opening. The green is steeply banked and crowned. One simply cannot tempt the front edge of this green because rolling back down the slope leaves a recovery shot even more difficult as it is delicate to a pin you cannot see the bottom. The green depth is listed at 31 yards but actually less due to the false front so it has clever deception to it.

Five is a par 4 of 320 yards and the first chance to breathe. If one can avoid the large bunker on the right and the smaller one of the left then a short club can be used for the approach. There is a small pot bunker on the front left but it is actually about 30 yards short of the green. A small bunker is on the left and right while once again a bunker is placed at the entire backside. There are small mounds in front of the green that will not allow a shot hit short to advance onto a green. The green has a ridge in the middle with various smaller depressions in this green.

Six is another shorter hole of 395 yards but with one of the cleverer greens wich has a depth of 37 yards. The fairway is angled off to one’s left but the hole is straight. A “principle’s nose” bunker is 75 yards from the green so it should not be in play. The front of the green is open once again and this time there are two bunkers on both sides and one at the back of this “beaker” shaped green. The green is plateaued in several areas.

Seven is the redan hole and it is outstanding at 207 yards. The green is 49 yards in depth! There are two fronting bunkers before the chipping area that provide eye candy but should not be in play. Deep ten feet bunkers run along the entire left and right side of the green although there is not a bunker behind the hole. The green is tilted upwards at the front and then substantially right to left. You have now played to another corner of the course similar to the third hole.

Eight is a par 4 of 443/413 that plays as a dogleg left. The longer hitter can easily carry the large fairway bunker pinching into the fairway from the left. The longer hitters concern is a smaller bunker on the right at the end of the fairway 275 yards out. There is another bunker on the left 100 yards from the green with two bunkers on the right front of the green. Missing the fairway to the right will result in being in thick, tall grass. The green is elevated with the right pin position being the most challenging due to those fronting bunkers. Going long over this green is discouraged due to the tilt away from you.

Nine is a par 4 of 403 yards and is one of two holes to incorporate a pond. The better side to approach this hole is from the left but one has to clear a large bunker hitting 190 yards. The bunker on the right is 214 yards out. The water begins at 319 yards off the tee. The green is very squared with only a lonely bunker well behind the green that belongs to the eighteenth hole. From the book, two bunkers fronting the green have been removed. This green is 37 yards in depth and is the easiest green to read.

The halfway house comes next and it should be enjoyed.

Ten is the second hole to have water as a feature. This short par 3 of 139 yards has a raised green sloped back to front. The green is 25 yards in depth with a spine in the middle creating two sections. Bunkers surround the entire hole. The wind is usually in one’s face on this hole so another club (or two) is often required. I have hit as much as a six iron on this hole on a very windy day…..which only made it to the front bunker.

Eleven is a par 4 of 410 yards. This dogleg left has a bunker on either side both about 175 yards out. Two bunkers approximately 100 to 75 yards out from the green create a cross-bunker effect. Due to the angle of the green off to the left, the green appears shallow yet has a depth of 39 yards. It is a fantastic illusion. The plateaued green has a substantial fall-off to the left. This is the hole that I find requires the most thinking on the course based on the quality of one’s game on the day.

Twelve is a par four of 440/414 yards reversing the direction of eleven. Like my member friends, this is my favorite hole on the course as the tee is set amongst trees on either side with a handful of trees scattered up the fairway. There is a single bunker on either side about 170 yards out that again act almost as cross-bunkers as they come into the fairway. Another bunker is on the right 260 yards up the fairway with three smaller ones as you near the green, all of which are near or in the center of the fairway. This punchbow-likel green of 41 yards is thrilling to play although not as pronounced as many other punchbowl greens.

Thirteen is another short par 3 of 149 yards to an elevated green as you play close to Charles Blair Macdonald’s former home on the other side of the boundary. The green is basically surrounded by bunkers. The green is perhaps the quickest on the golf course. There are undulations throughout the green. It is a fabulous short hole.

Fourteen is the final short par 4 of 351 yards ending at the road behind it. There is another long “knife-like” bunker on the left from 180 to 225 yards out with a smaller bunker on the right at 220 yards. There is a bunker on the right 60 yards short of the green which is surrounded on all sides except from the front by additional bunkers. From here through eighteen the greens are basically 31 yards in depth. This one that has very subtle undulations to it. It is a classic short hole.

Fifteen is a mid-length par 4 of 393 yards but often plays directly into the wind. This dogleg right has two fairway bunkers right and one left that is 250 yards out. The green once again is squared. A tree to the left of the green was there in 1992 but is now gone and a single bunker on the left has been replaced by bunkers on all sides.

Sixteen is the final par 5 at 525 yards and is the opposite of the only other par 5 on the course as a dogleg right with trees going down the right side all the way to the green. There is a short bunker left but the more dangerous bunker sits on the right at 255 yards. There are separated cross bunkers farther up the fairway about 50 yards apart. The green has bunkers that are the length of either side and is slightly raised sloped back to front with a ridge line nearer the middle. I really like this hole.

Seventeen is either a long par 4 or shorter one at 465/382. From the back tees the large fairway bunker at 240 yards out on the left is in play as well as the large mound on the right at 220 yards out. It is very narrow to thread one’s ball between the bunker and mound. A series of five smaller bunkers have been added to the one larger bunker on the right side. Fronting the rectangular green are two bunkers prior to the chipping area with bunkers left and right. The plateaued green is very speedy back to front. This is a very difficult hole from the back tee.

Finally one arrives at the finish. The eighteenth is a par 4 of 425 playing to a squared green. Three bunkers are on the right ending at 180 yards off the tee with a single bunker left at 225 yards. Eight smaller bunkers are located left and right before the green and narrow the fairway. I have always found this green to be one of the easier ones on the course but perhaps that is because I realize I am about to go to the wonderful clubhouse. It is a terrific finishing hole where someone is likely to either win or lose their match if arriving tied at the tee.

I note that some current architects/reviewers only rate Chicago as an 8. In my opinion, they are wrong. Chicago Golf Club offers everything one would want in a golf course in terms of the combination of fun, interest, strategy, difficulty, great golfing corridors, exacting green contouring, and excellent placement and shape of bunkers. For me, it ranks just behind Fishers Island and National Golf Links despite both of these courses having far superior land and views. I have it ahead of the rest of Mr. Raynor’s/C. B. Macdonald’s other designs despite most of those courses having superior land and a few superior holes. There simply is not a bad hole here. Perhaps there are a few less interesting holes to the eye, but the course presents the right mixture of execution and joy.

Date: April 14, 2020

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