There is generally only so much shoreline to work with, even at a nautically-themed golf complex, so the Starboard Course at Harborside International features “only” four holes directly on the water. Dick Nugent understood that many people come to the shore for the sand just as much as the water and so he uses that element to challenge the golfer while making Starboard aesthetically pleasing.
It shows up first at the potentially drivable par four No. 3, with one enormous bunker playing along the left side of the entire hole, and wrapping around the green. Later, holes 11, 12, 14 and 15 (notably, these are most of the holes on the back nine without lakeside property) all play around a massive waste hazard.
Granted, people are here for the lake holes and Nugent makes their wait worth it. No. 16 features a centerline bunker that forces players to either attack the lake or take the conservative route away from the ideal approach. No. 17 lives up to its title, “Buccaneer’s Cove” (with a lot more "cove" than pirates waiting to steal your ball), and then finally a 590-yard par five with shore all along the right.
A few years ago, I made a work trip to Chicago and managed to play golf while visiting. A local friend suggested that we go down to the Harborside International Golf Center where he scheduled a round on the Starboard course. When I conducted some research, I saw that it was built in a very industrial area southeast of the city, near the Indiana line, over what appeared to be wasteland previously. An aerial view showed a course that was very clearly manmade and seemingly flat. My expectations architecturally were low, and my mood was sour when Chicago greeted us with a drizzling, 45 degree day in late May
Alas, my preconceived notions about this property were put aside almost immediately upon arrival. Even from the parking lot, towering dunes and interesting land movement were apparent all around the course. With nautical flags whipping through the wind and lush fescue grasses looming, I felt as if I had just stepped overseas to the home of golf. The practice facilities were superb, and on the driving range, I realized that the course drainage was excellent, leaving conditions firm and fast despite the rain. Kudos to the superintendent and their team for perfectly manicured, lush turf throughout our entire day.
The Starboard Course had a number of interesting, memorable holes, including:
• #2: The amount of dirt that must have been moved on this property is remarkable. The tee shot on the par four 2nd plays to a wide fairway, but based on the wind, the player may need to only hit a metal. With the narrow, long, bunkerless green down a deep ravine, getting the proper angle is a must.
• #3: My favorite hole on the golf course was the short par four 3rd which played directly downwind. At just 300 yards from the tips, going for this green was fabulously tempting. However, trouble awaits in all directions – penalizing bunkers for 100 yards before the green, menacing sloped rough behind and to the right, and out-of-bounds left. While par and even birdie could be likely by hitting a 175 yard followed by a 125 yard shot, what golfer could possibly take that route with the breeze at their back?!?
• #5: The course used a variety of bunker styles well throughout the round. One such example that is rare on most courses, but effective for developing strategy, are centerline bunkers. The par five 5th incorporates one on the landing area, a devilish prospect when playing directly into the wind.
• #10: Continuing on this theme of sand variety, the par four 10th felt more like something out of Donald Ross’ playbook, incorporating a cross bunker, and a beautiful short grass collection area beyond the green.
• #11: This unique par four reminded me so much of Tobacco Road back in my home state of North Carolina. A massive waste area ran down the entire left side of the hole. The severely sloping green allowed for a wide range of effective shots to reach tucked pins if hit with the proper spin.
• #12: Bunkers used at the par five 12th provide effective visual intimidation. With a series of small traps located on the approach, it ‘appears’ that there are a number of greenside bunkers. In fact, the aggressive player could very well reach this green in two with a running shot, as those bunkers effectively create a false-front appearance.
• #14: This lengthy, 462 par four sits directly on Lake Calumet which runs against the right side of the fairway. Again, fascinating centerline bunkers force the player to think – playing left leaves a longer approach and far worse angle, but safety from the water, while right is risky, but offers the potential for an exceptional award.
• #18: With a tee shot that asks the player to cut-off what they wish, the par five finisher was memorable for providing the opposite challenge as some of the other three shot holes, instead asking for precision, rather than depth or aggressive second shots.
For a course that is modern and manufactured from the ground up, Harborside International’s Starboard course set the bar pretty high for my perception of Chicago golf. While I initially dreaded the rainy, windy day we had, I honestly did feel like I had taken a plane overseas; the course played firm and fast, rolled naturally over massive dunes, and had lush fescue grasses throughout.
There was SO much variety – in fairway sizes, styles and placement of bunkers, and green complexes – that I had to strategically navigate every hole in a new way. I played shots high in the air and on the ground; I played some holes aggressively, and some conservatively; and I hit every single club in my bag, maybe twice! Kudos to the architects for realizing the importance of wind, and not designing holes repetitively back-and-forth in the same directions.
Harborside’s Starboard course was an absolutely delight, far exceeding expectations based on what I had read previously and seen in satellite images. The value was very good for the price, and it is the type of course I would spend a lot of time at practicing and playing if I lived in the area.