Monday, July 06, 2009

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Spirit Hollow Golf Course

In this first of what I intend to be a rolling series of course reviews, I would like to share with you one of my favorite "hidden" golf courses, Spirit Hollow.

Spirit Hollow Golf Course is a public daily fee course in Burlington, IA. Burlington is about an hour's drive south of the Quad Cities, and almost equidistant from both Chicago, Des Moines, and St. Louis...not exactly on most people's "beaten track".

Burlington is not so quaint that there is nothing to do, however. They have a multitude of dining options, including some very nice upscale fare at restaurants like The Drake and Martini's. They have a Resort Hotel/Water Park/Casino/Bowling Alley/Arcade known as Fun City, and even feature a minor league baseball team, the Burlington Bees.

Spirit Hollow is a short drive south of the city proper along Hwy. 61. The upscale 18 hole track plays mostly through a small river valley which contributes to its picturesque holes and significant elevation changes. The course conditioning is top notch with bent grass tees, fairways, and greens. The greens are firm and fast with very deceptive breaks...more on that later.

The clubhouse features a friendly and professional staff. On the evening before my most recent rounds there this past week, I went out to get in some practice. When I arrived, they had just sent off their last tee time of the day, so technically the range was closed. With nothing more out of my mouth then "oh, that's too bad", he told me I could go out and hit whatever balls were left on the range and use the chipping area and putting green as long as I wanted to...for no charge! I hadn't even indicated I was going to play a round there yet. That is rare customer service!

One of my only complaints is that the course requires you to take a cart. With that said, the cart is fully furnished with GPS, course routing, playing tips, 4 cup holders, and even a holder for things like cell phones and keys. Also, this is a course that I would not call walker friendly with some sizable gaps between holes, and the aforementioned significant topography. I would have preferred to walk, but it would have been a workout.

Spirit Hollow offers four distinct tees from which to play the course, and they differ enough that anyone can have a challenging and fair experience. From the back Gold tees, the course stretches out to 7,301 yards with a daunting 74.8 rating and slope of 134. I noticed that on almost every hole they have tucked away special tee boxes that would surely allow this course to stretch out even further...probably past 7,500 yards. I acknowledged my 9+ handicap, and chose to play the Black tees at 6,580/71.4/124. I have played harder courses, but those Gold tees were a bit much for a casual round on my own. The forward White tees play to 6,010/69.0/117, and the Ladies' Rust tees at 5,053/70.3/116. The ample fairways and landing areas constrain a higher slope and rating from all but the back tees, but beware, there are plenty of opportunities for lost balls and wasted shots on this course.

The first hole is outstanding! No need for the Driver right from the start as this 391 Par 4 plunges over 100 feet into the river valley as it doglegs left. A fairway wood or even a hybrid or long iron will leave you a mid to short iron off a downhill lie to a good sized green protected by a bunker on the right. Don't get over-excited and try too much here...take your 2-putt par and move on.

Number two is a reachable Par 5 playing at 507 yards...but you best have a controlled draw off the elevated tee if you want a shot at glory. Most of us will just hit it to the right rough, layup with a medium to long iron, and take a wedge into the green. I will guarantee nobody a 2-putt par here as you better start paying attention to the prevailing landscape as you read the greens. The greens may have breaks that appear to impossibly break uphill. The lie of the land might have more sway over putts here than anywhere I have ever played outside of Kapalua in Hawaii!

The Par 3 141 yard 3rd hole is a beauty. Pick your club to hit the distance, then put it away and take one extra. Do not miss this green short! You will be faced with a severely uphill lie in some nasty rough at best...a water ball at worst. Another hole where putting will be at a premium and Par is a good score.

The fourth hole is a 532 yard Par 5 reachable only by the biggest of hitters. This hole takes you back out of the valley and plays more uphill than it appears while facing the prevailing wind. Keep it left and swing smooth and getting home in three should be a walk in the park. Miss right, and this hole opens up some large numbers. Beware the front pin placement as the green has a crazy slope on the right front edge.

Number five is one of the easiest holes on the course...aside from its exposure to the wind perhaps. At 384 yards, the Par 4 plays pretty much straightaway and is protected by a small handful of bunkers to collect poor drives. Keep it out of the sand, and you should have a relatively easy approach shot to a green that behaves like it appears. If you are going to make a birdie, this might be a good place for it.

The Par 4 6th is not as difficult as it looks. This hole's 408 yards can play significantly shorter if you hit the right shots. Though you don't want to go too far left, an easy draw off the tee should bring you close enough to hit a short iron on your approach, perhaps taking the pond on the front and left side of the green out of play. Hit too far left, however, and assuming you can find your ball, you may be facing a difficult side hill lie above your feet from deep rough over the water to a tucked pin...good luck.

Number 7 looks like, and should be your second good birdie opportunity. This Par 3 measures 136 yards on the card, but can vary by 10-15 yards shorter or longer depending on the whim of the greens keeper that day. It also plays about a club longer than the yardage because it is much more uphill than it appears. Take a smooth confident swing with one extra club, get on the correct tier, and make your birdie putt.

The Par 4 390 yard 8th is another hole that looks more difficult than it is. The big gorge you need to carry off the tee is really not in play with any decently struck drive. Before you tee off, check out the back deck of the house to the right...incredible, this is Iowa? Once you cross into the fairway, the approach shot is very straightforward. Rule of thumb should be center-left on the drive, then center-right on the approach. Do this, and you will make a happy par.

The tee on number nine is the beginning of the most beautiful stretch of holes on the course. Get ready to enjoy the ride, but don't forget to pay attention to what you are doing. The Par 4 9th measures only 365 yards, so just swing a comfortable club off the tee...a hybrid worked perfectly for me. Once you get your ball comfortably in the fairway, you will be looking almost straight downhill maybe 80 feet to a long narrow green with a stream running along the left side. If you miss on this shot, miss to the right as there is a landing area in front of the green and everything funnels the ball to the left towards that stream. Par is a good score, though I made a sweet birdie by holing a 28 foot putt. I would love to hear if anyone has ever tried hitting driver straight at the green from the tee. It appears as though a 290-310 yard drive could get home directly over the lake and trees in front of the tee box.

Grab a quick bite and a beverage, then stop a moment and admire the view up the 10th hole from behind the gold tees. Now, back to the game, the 502 yard Par 5 10th is definitely reachable in two, but don't get crazy and pull one left. Hit one in the stream, and you will have no shot at the green and will be lucky to make bogey. I made birdie here with a well-struck drive to the right side of the fairway, a 2-hybrid just short of the green, an average chip, and another great putt from about 18 feet.

The 338 Par 4 11th is not my favorite hole out here, but it sneaks up on you just the same. You need to hit a short-ish club into the fairway laying short of the stream that twice meanders across your line. Do that well, and keep it left to get the best approach angle on a very difficult green guarded by a false front and a very deep and well-placed bunker. Play your first putt too aggressively, and you may be looking at a big score here as well. Still, you should make par.

On 12, you will face a very innocent looking Par 3 measuring 186 yards. Listen to the course advice here and do not miss left. It looks like that is exactly where you want to miss it, but if you do, even a putt from the fringe might roll off the other side of the green. Hit the green near the pin, and you might make birdie, but if you miss, short and right isn't bad.

Round the corner to the Par 4 13th, and catch your breath again. This hole is simply stunning from the tee, and at 418 yards, plays tough, but not as tough as the course would lead you to believe. Hit a solid drive to the left side of the fairway, not too far left, though, we don't want any severe side hill lies on the approach. From the left side of the fairway the green is easy enough to hit with a middle iron, but miss right off the tee, and the HUGE trees will surely have you chasing bogey. Should your fortune bring you this situation, heed my advice, take your medicine and chip back to the left side...nothing is getting over or through those trees. Once on the green, just remember that everything will be fast towards the clubhouse even if that looks uphill to you.

Number 14 just keeps the scenery coming. At 393 yards, this Par 4 plays shorter than its big brother the 13th, but you would do well to have a controlled draw in your bag to stay on the left side of the fairway. I find that approaching the green from the right makes this hole slightly more difficult than 13. On the green, remember what you learned on the 13th and ignore the read, but heed the big hill to the left.

Ah, finally a sweetheart of a hole. Assuming you don't have the inability to hit over any body of water, this short Par 3 is a birdie opportunity for sure. At 145 yards, and with a big green backed by bunkers, a well struck short iron, or even wedge is all that it takes to get one close enough to give it a run. Just remember that the green is very fast towards the lake, and you will be fine.

Could the 378 yard Par 4 16th be yet another birdie? Maybe, but surely a par at least, right? This hole is not terribly difficult if you can do a couple of things. First, play your drive down the left side. I mean really left...the only shot from the tee that is too far left is in the weeds left of the cart path. Once your ball rolls from the left side of the fairway all the way down the hill and across to the right side, you will be staring straight uphill to the average sized and contoured green. Take one, maybe even two extra clubs for this shot, and strike it well or it may roll backwards for a while. Once you are on, make your birdie or lag it close enough to tap in for par, you will need all the shots you can get for the finish.

The 17th is a big 445 Par 4 on the edge of the course, unprotected from the wind. The only hazard to worry about from the tee are the woods on the right side, but you need to hit everything you have here, or treat it as a Par 5. Get a great drive close enough for a mid to long iron in, and you might survive with a par, but don't lose your approach shot left as there are three bunkers waiting to grab your ball if you are lucky. Go right of those bunkers, and you may be gone. Once on the green, remember that the ball will break down to the woods hard.

Gosh, are we done already? Not yet...the Par 5 is an outstanding risk/reward hole, and easy on the eyes to boot. Measuring 521 yards, the elevated tee makes it play no more than 500. Hit a well struck driver right of the large tree straightaway, and you will be hunting an eagle on the last. Miss left of that tree and all is not lost, just stay left of the stream that bisects the fairway and you will have a very manageable approach shot to an well contoured green that acts more like a backstop the closer you get along the left fairway. Despite the fair chance at eagle and birdie, be happy with your par, and head up to the clubhouse for an after round beverage.

Spirit Hollow has reasonable rates for anyone used to playing upscale public courses, though the lack of resident and twilight rates make it pretty expensive for the folks in Burlington. It remains a must play in my mind if you are "in the area", and by that I mean anywhere from Peoria to the Quad Cities to Iowa City. Despite its beauty, for $60, it would be tough for me to suggest that anyone travel more than 60-90 minutes to play here though, so maybe I should just suggest you find a reason to visit the area, and definitely play the course along your way. Look into touring the Great River Road from Dubuque all the way down to Keokuk, you won't be disappointed.

Fairways and Greens!

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1 comment:

brandonboyle2011 said...

I happened to see earlier in the post you mentioned number 9 and going for the green in one. I used to work maintenance out at Spirit Hollow and at least 2, maybe 3 times a week if not more (weather permitting) a few of us guys would golf after work. When we got to number nine we always would play 2 balls, a safe shot and a, "go-big or go-home" ball for the green. Multiple times myself or other people we golfed with would reach the green. If i remember correctly from the black tees it measures 285 to the front of the approach, not taking into consideration the elevation change of 25-40 feet down hill it's not as hard of a shot as it seems. The only key is hitting it just right of the big tree that stares you in the eye. If you can do that you should safely land in the approach and with that much downhill grade your ball will roll considerably and most of the time reach the green, but be careful because the real danger on that hole isn't brought out to display until you hit the green with multiple different breaks and various pin placements it makes for a very difficult green.


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