Lightly bunkered and with only one water hazard in play, the course at Kankakee Elks Country Club is a mid-1920s William Langford and Theodore Moreau layout which was carved out of forested terrain on the banks of the Kankakee River.
Tom Doak commented as follows in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses: “A modest club in a blue-collar town, the Elks course is an audacious design, chock full of Langford’s bold greens and abrupt fairway hazards in spite of a fairly low-lying site. Unfortunately, as with many Langford designs, the wide scale of his fairways and features has been compromised by over-planting, so that key parts of the strategy are no longer available for play.”
Last week I flew in and out of Chicago to see a friend who is back in the states for the first time since the pandemic began. I had seven hours on the ground, so he picked me up at Midway and we drove to Kankakee Elks for what turned out to be a fantastic way to spend 4 hours and $35 (less if we had walked).
The course reminded me a lot of the motley crew of seniors who held court in the partially closed clubhouse. One might say the regulars sitting around the table watching the Golf Channel were past their prime, but these guys were full of vim and vigor, and I'd have paid the greens fees to hear the back and forth. Alas, we played instead, and it was a treat.
Let's get the complaints out of the way. There are far too many trees at Kankakee, and there are mowing lines that leave a lot to be desired.
The maintenance was heavenly given the greens fee, and though the putting surfaces were a bit slow, you'd have to play the course to truly understand why that's not much of a problem. The greens at Kankakee make potato chips look like pancakes. The movement on the outer edges of most putting surfaces looked like waves in profile, and you could view most in profile because of the dramatic Langford & Moreau signature slopes that carry errant balls ten to twelve feet below some green complexes.
Even though the outdated course length wouldn't make a bomber blush, those outsized green complexes still feel right at home. In fact, they remain a stout defense even when a low-mid handicapper has a short iron in his/her hands. Hit it on the wrong section of a green and you'll be hard pressed to two putt.
Kankakee Elks is a bargain, but more than that, it's a wonderful place to play golf and catch up with an old friend.
I strongly believe that the Elks is the best public course in Illinois. Its not in perfect condition, there are only six bunkers, and its in the middle of nowhere. But for only $30 you can enjoy one of the best nearly untouched designs in the midwest. The course was built by Langford and Moreau but financial troubles prevented sand from being placed in the bunkers.
The course has the best examples of variety in routing that I've seen. There are four par 3's ranging from a flip wedge to a wood to reach, two shotters ranging from 260 to 450 yards, and par fives that can be reached or play as true three shot holes. The green complexes are the coolest in Chicago, arguably as good as CGC. There are so many cool holes from the massively raised sixth green, the redan style seventh, and the dogleg eleventh to an insanely awesome green. But overall the best hole on the property is the fifteenth, a hole you'll never forget. Its the Langford Moreau template cape hole similar to the 4th at Culver. The hole plays 200+ yards straight uphill over a massive 30+ foot high hill. Its one of the coolest shots you'll ever hit and makes the drive down to St. Anne, IL extremely memorable.
Over the past few years I've heard of multiple people considering buying the course. The annual budget for maintenance is only $40k and if someone were to put in the money to restore the course by removing trees, widening greens and fairways, and adding bunkering, it could easily be a top 100 course.
A word for the wise, the Elks is seemingly open 12 months a year, and it's always 10 degrees warmer in St. Anne than Chicago. Its never packed and perfect for an early spring or late fall round.
Decided to stop by and play Kankakee earlier today on my way to Chicago. This is truly a throwback and a hidden gem. Green's were in great shape. Fescue fairways were pure as well. There are so many good holes here, but I'll say my favorite stretch was the closing holes from 15-18. #15 is a long uphill par 3 with a green that is atop a mound. #18 is a gentle dogleg left heading back to the lodge.
Couple other takeaways, the routing was fantastic and the subtle mounding and bunkering around the greens was perfect. There are several holes that have tree that are overgrown into the fariway and also a couple of holes that from the tee do not look like they were desgined to look due to tree growth. That would be the only negative that I could point out about the course. It does not need a massive tree removal as some of the trees actually are the courses defense. If you are in the area, this place is worth the stop, just for the opportunity to play a classic course designed by Langford if nothing else.