There are less than two dozen men-only golf clubs in America and, interestingly, four of them exist on the outskirts of the Windy City: Black Sheep (in Sugar Grove), Butler National (at Oak Brook), Bob O'Link (at Highland Park) and here at Old Elm, also in Highland Park.
A joint design effort by Donald Ross and Harry Colt, the course was constructed by Ross from plans drawn up by Colt. It extends in the modern era to a modest 6,440 yards so it’s acquired little in terms of length down the years.
In 2010, the club commissioned J. Drew Rogers to restore Old Elm, which initially centred on a tree clearance programme to widen playing corridors and open up sight lines. Fairways were subsequently widened and greens returned to their original sizes.
“To this day, the greens at Old Elm are the original push-up style surfaces that Ross built in 1913”, comments J. Drew Rogers. “Their evolution, however, rendered them smaller, more circular in shape and with less distinctive relationships to the bunkers and surrounding landforms. We worked to recapture the original oblong shapes and recovered dozens of strategic cupping areas that had otherwise been negated.”
Several cross-bunkers were also recovered during the restoration, and in 2013 the club extended focus to include fairway and greenside bunkering.
“While Ross obediently followed most of Colt’s plans (exceptions being a few of the greens), some of the planned bunkering and features were apparently missed or disregarded by Ross. This, along with past bunker renovations, rendered the bunkers something much different than what Colt drew and described… Ultimately, the bunker work was finished, along with a number of tee additions and the incorporation of short grass extensions around a number of the green surfaces.”
“Old Elm is as classic and authentic as you will find anywhere today - and getting better each and every day. Today, the unpublished back tees stretch out to nearly 6,900 yards.”
Adam Lawrence, editor of Golf Course Architecture, visited Old Elm during the restoration and commented as follows: “The results are dramatic, with the bunkers now more closely resembling something that Mr Colt himself might have done. I can honestly say that I have NEVER seen a course like Old Elm in the US, and in a description that I gave to several people at the recent ASGCA meeting, I referred to the club as the American equivalent of Swinley Forest or Morfontaine”
Old Elm is one of the best courses in the Chicago area, and features some fun scoring as well as extremely penalizing greens. A par 73 layout with four par 3s and five par 5s, all of which can be reached reasonably in two except the 16th (But still reachable for the extremely long hitter). The course starts with a short, straight par 5 that requires a precise drive in order to avoid the bunkers that lie on the left and right side of the fairway. The green is huge with a slight back to front slope, most putts appear fairly straight but slight breaks that can be hard to read will throw almost any putt offline.
Some of the notable holes include the par 4 2nd, a relatively short hole with an elevated green with no bunkers around that still penalizes a miss in any direction and makes for an almost impossible up and down from any spot. The main feature of the green is the severe back to front slope that makes any downhill putt a delicate one. The par 5 4th is another special hole with the drive being a straight forward tee shot to a wide fairway where positioning is key. If a player wants to go for the green in two, the left side of the fairway gives the best angle, but being in any spot on the fairway does give the player the opportunity to go for the green. Bunkers that run along the right side of the fairway are mostly in play for players who decide to go for the green in three, but can still come into play for anyone. Ending up in one of these bunkers makes the approach shot to the green difficult as balls tend to fall off the right side of the green. The green is a large, slightly two-tiered green with mostly a right to left slope.
The par 4 8th is regarded by many as the most difficult hole on the course as it is an elevated green with a ginormous bunker in front that makes it almost impossible to put it on the green, and the right side of the green has a large false front that can throw the ball down a hill that makes for a tight chip. The green has a ton of break and many putts outside of 15 feet will force the player to play a line far outside of the hole.
The par 4 9th is the shortest par 4 on the course and many players can opt to for the green if they choose, the line to the green requires the player to carry a tall tree that lines the left side of the fairway and can obscure the view of the green. The line for someone who decides not to attack the green is to the right and a bunker that is about 240 yards off the tee comes into play, but is not too penalizing. No matter what decision someone makes, they will most likely find themselves with a wedge at most into the green. The green is protected by a bunker in front and a slope off the back that can lead to a tough downhill chip.
My favorite hole on the back-nine is the par 4 15th, another relatively short par 4, though not reachable in one for anybody futures strategic bunkering up the fairway and the green is surrounded by bunkers on all sides except the back. The holes is not very difficult but you will often find yourself in a bunker, whether off the tee or on the approach and it requires an intelligent strategy if a player wants to make birdie.
Overall, Old Elm is an extremely fun course that has the opportunity for players to go low if they maneuver the greens well and keep the ball below the hole. There is no water on the course other than a small pond that comes into play if a player goes way right off the second tee. The greens are kept running brutally fast and have lots of break as well as small breaks that are hard to read, but can heavily impact a putt.