Tuesday, September 08, 2009


About 42 miles west of downtown Chicago sits the city of Aurora, IL. Despite being the 2nd largest city in the State of Illinois, it is generally regarded as a suburb in the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Area. Home of the famous Paramount Theater, Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar of Wayne's World fame, as well as of the greatest meteorologist ever, WGN's own Tom Skilling, you might not think of Aurora as a golf destination, but you would be wrong. Two nearby private courses, Stonebridge Country Club and the Jerry Rich creation Rich Harvest Farms have hosted LPGA events recently, and the city itself maintains an excellent municipal track that will always be absent from any Top 100 lists. That municipal course is Orchard Valley, and it is where I call my golf home (well, for handicap purposes anyway).

The Orchard Valley Golf Course clubhouse is well designed and more than adequate to support a medium sized pro shop as well as a pleasant bar, and nicer dining facility complete with outdoor seating overlooking the eighteenth green. The course itself, while relatively short (only 6,745 yards from the tips), plays much harder as evidenced by its 72.4 rating and 134 slope. The reason for the short length and challenging slope is the fact that water comes into play on 11 holes, you can hit it out of bounds on 10 holes, and almost every hole features hazards that will cost you at least a stroke should you get careless with your swing.

What makes Orchard Valley golf special is the combination of conditioning, value, and risk/reward opportunities everywhere. I've made four eagles in my life, and I am surprised to say none have been here. If you are ever going to play a course where you have a better than average chance for exciting eagle and birdie opportunities, this is the place! The fairways are most often firm enough to allow some roll on your shots, but soft enough to make hitting off them a dream. The greens are most often smooth and fast, but never unfair.

I do have a complaint that I mentioned in my post from earlier this year about golf carts. There are way too many opportunities on this course where paved cart paths can play a devastating role in your round. On no fewer than 10 holes you can hit a marginally bad shot that will bound off a cart path and out of bounds where no cart path would result in a bad lie at worst. This course is a VERY easy walk, and with the exception of the 15th where they removed a foot-bridge whilst adding more cart paths a couple years ago, there is little need for carts to speed things up. Certainly just a gravel or grass cart path would be sufficient in a number of these areas.

With all that said, let me give you the hole-by-hole breakdown, complete with the official hole names. Though the Black "tips" are a good challenge for single handicap golfers, my breakdown assumes the Blue tees which offer plenty of course for most golfers, and great scoring chances for the low-handicapper.

#1 - Options Galore - Par 4. This might be my favorite opening hole anywhere, save for

perhaps the 1st at Pacific Dunes. You can literally hit any club in the bag off the tee and make par, but if you want to have fun here, think bigger! At 300 yards, but often playing up to 20
yards shorter, this hole offers a rare shot at going 2-under right off the bat. If you are up for it,
pull out the big stick and fire directly over the bunkers on the right side of the fairway - clear them and you may be putting for eagle. This is not without risk, of course. Land in those bunkers, and you will be faced with a difficult 60-70 yard blast with more bunkers protecting the left side of the green. Miss long and left, and you may be dropping and hitting your 3rd over those green side bunkers with a grove of trees between you and the hole. Take all the risk out and hit a medium iron to a hybrid left of the fairway bunkers, and par is very achievable with birdie still in play.

#2 - All Or Nothing At All - Par 3. Remember, my breakdown is from the Blue tees, the Black tees here are simply nasty; take a peek before you cross the bridge to hit your tee shot. The shot from the Blue tees is no picnic either. Only 150-170 yards, I have recently heard it muttered that this is the hardest short hole in Chicago. Whether you agree or not, pay attention and hit it long and left or you will be hitting your third from a "rugged" drop area about 65 yards from the green. Par here is a good score.

#3 - Eye Of The Needle - Par 4. Oh, another nice short Par 4! Well, at 350 yards, you are right about the short part, but the nice part would be misleading. Pull one left and the best result you can hope for is a punch shot through some huge oak trees, but it is likely you will need to hit another off the tee because OB runs up the entire left side with that clever cart path "helping" the ball find that 2-stroke hazard. Hit it right on the other hand, and the wind will help your ball find the long bunker that runs up the entire right side, if it doesn't hit hard and bound into the water, that is. Should you pull off the tee shot and find the fairway, you should have a manageable shot to a heavily contoured green with the bunker and more water waiting to gobble up any shots missing short and right.

If you survived the last two holes, you are in good shape, but don't put it into cruise control, you still need to hit good shots. Stay in the game and you could be looking at birdies on the next five holes.

#4 - As Much As You Can Chew - Par 5. At 513 yards, this hole is very reachable, but it all depends on how much you are willing to gamble off the tee. If you tend to miss right, I suggest just playing this as a three shot hole, and hitting it further left than you might think off the tee. The second shot should be played up the left side as the mounds along the left edge of the fairway should kick any shots right toward the green. Shots missed right will land in a large bunker guarding the green. The green is two-tiered, and if the tee is on the upper-tier, birdie becomes tremendously challenging.

#5 - The Big Apple - Par 4. This is the first hole's evil twin. Another hole measuring about 300 yards, and often 10-15 yards shorter, this is the definition of risk/reward. Hit it 232 yards straight over the right bunkers, and you might have another look at eagle, or miss a little right and short for a short pitch from the upper fairway to set up a birdie putt. Lose it moderately left or right, however, and you will likely be getting bogey at best, and possibly a BIG number. I always hit driver, by the way.

#6 - Waste Not, Want Not - Par 3. The shortest hole on the course at 143 yards, this little Par 3 should be a cupcake. You shouldn't be hitting much more than a 7-iron with the prevailing wind behind you, so just take a smooth swing at the middle of the green. If you miss a little left, you will end up in either a large waste bunker or one of two deep pot bunkers green side. From these hazards, par is a great score. The green breaks hard toward the back left, so take the time to read your putt well.

#7 - Over The Hill - Par 4. At 385 yards and often into a stiff wind, this isn't the easiest tee shot to hit long, and the hole may require a longer iron than you have hit all day, but the fairway is wider than it looks, and in fact hitting it over the large mound on the right will kick it into a landing area behind that is not visible from the tee. You don't want to miss this green as there is a large depression on the right and mounded rough on the left. The green slopes from left to right, and can be quick.

#8 - Devil's Triangle - Par 5. Remember, you came here to have fun, so swing hard and hope you hit it off this tee. Your goal off the tee should be to land just short of the second bunker on the left side of the fairway. At 483 yards, a good drive there should leave you a shot at the green which is well protected with a cruel sand bunker pocked with tall grassy mounds. The left side of the green opens up and is fronted by a landing area, so even if laying up, try to stay left, hitting either short of or over the final left side fairway bunker. If you are lucky enough to get a pin on the lower (left) tier, go for it, but if it is on the upper (right) tier, take a par with pride.

#9 - Sherman's March - Par 4. There is not much too worry about on this hole except that it is 458 yards (sometimes longer) and plays into a prevailing hook wind. Both sides of the fairway are bordered with big mounds that will kick errant shots back down to the fairway, unless you hit the top of the left mounds, that is. This is the most noticeable place where the course added a long cart path along the top of the mounds. Hit that path with an errant hook and you are not only out of bounds, but risk hitting cars on Orchard Rd. traveling 45 mph. This was an incredibly dumb place to add a trampoline to hard hook shots with the prevailing wind helping, simply stupid. Back to the hole, you will have a long second shot into a very large green bisected by a ridge that moves shots one way or the other. Leading up to the green, the fairway has a series of mounds that can kick your approach shot anywhere, and often stops it in a tough spot. Par is a great score here, and bogey is perfectly acceptable.

#10 - Doggone Dogleg - Par 4. At 358 yards, the smart play is either a long iron or hybrid up the fairway on the left leaving a short shot into a severely two-tiered green. The riskier play is to shoot a 3-wood or driver between the bunkers to the right of the fairway and get to a short wedge approach perhaps allowing control to hit the right tier. The riskiest, and most fun play is to literally cut over the houses and OB on the right where a well struck drive (especially with the wind helping) can get onto the green, or leave a short chip, making eagle a possibility yet again. Once on the green, the challenge really starts, and landing on the correct tier WILL save you at least one stroke.

#11 - High Low - Par 5. A very short, 475 yard par 5, this one has birdie written all over it. Often, this hole is actually shorter than the Par 4 9th, and both play into the same wind. The ample fairway allows a drive to be hit almost anywhere. If you have no fear of hooking it, play a strong drive down the left side where a ball carried over the hill can leave you with less than 200 yards to the green. A well-struck drive down the right side is fine as well, but leaves you a slightly more difficult angle if going for the green in two. If laying up, the fairway splits about 110 yards from the hole, the right side playing lower and leaving you a blind shot over a ridge to the green, and the left playing level with the green and wide open. The green isn't overly challenging, so take the good score...you'll need it!

#12 - Beauty And The Beast - Par 3. A pretty looking hole that will range from 145-155 yards, and varied angles over the large lake to a two-tiered green. Even though it is safer to miss right, it still leaves you a shot from a deep bunker or deep rough with water lurking just across the green. The best miss is actually short and a little right, but why miss at all. You should have a confident club in your hand, so swing smooth, take the par and don't make this harder than it really is.

#13 - Just A Hard Hole - Par 4. This might be the most fitting title of any hole on the course. This hole plays all of 445 yards, often into the prevailing west wind. The first problem is that a marsh sits right in the middle of the hole about 256 yards away. Big hitters need to leave driver in the bag or may be rewarded with a penalty stroke for even a well-struck shot. Don't be too weak on the drive either as there is a ridge you need to run past to roll down to the end of the fairway, where you can hit a mid-long iron in. If your drive finished short of that ridge, you will be looking at a 220-230 yard shot from a downhill lie over water to a green protected on the right by deep rough and lakeside bunkers...oh, and OB left! Remember, this is a Par 4. If you do go into the lake, don't get too bent out of shape, there is a drop area on the other side about 125 yards from the green. Once on the large green, putting is mostly simple unless you get a back left pin placement where you'll have to deal with a large ridge making putts extremely difficult. Like #9, par is a great score here.

#14 - Sentry - Par 4. This hole isn't a breather, but it is the simplest hole left on the course, so pay attention. Carry the lake with your drive to the right side for the best approach angle, but don't get carried away, that OB can sneak up on you. The left part of the fairway isn't too bad, but you'll be hitting a blind approach shot to the well-bunkered green. Miss the fairway left, and you are likely in jail or lost. The approach seems to play a club longer than you'd think, so don't under club. The green has some breaks in it, but is relatively easy to read, so take the par.

#15 - The Brass Ring - Par 4. I really have very little good advice for you on this short, but challenging Par 4. I love the risk/reward aspect of carrying the large lake right at the pin, but you'd better be sure you can carry 240+ yards, or you'll be hitting your third shot from the same place having to try again, or take the "safer" route. The safe route begins with any shot from 155-270 yards up the left side. Land safely, and you have a mid-short iron to a very shallow and contoured green over three large and contoured bunkers. Go long and you will either lose your ball or will have a downhill pitch from deep rough to a green running away from you. If your drive does carry the lake, you will have a less than 100 yard pitch or chip shot that appears easier than it is. Putting can be a big challenge depending on pin placement. A fun hole to be sure, but don't take it lightly.

#16 - Snakebit - Par 5. Like so many holes at Orchard Valley, this one can be had, but it can also eat you for lunch. At 499 with the prevailing wind often helping, you can get two controlled shots home, but don't try to take off too much on the drive. Due to the snaking shape and the long bunker lining the right side of this dogleg, it is a longer carry than it appears. Aim just right of the far left bunker from the tee and hit a powerful fade for the best results. The green is the craziest on the course with a large ridge running horizontally across the middle of the green forcing you to stay on the correct side or face a breaking uphill then downhill putt. This one is easy to 3-putt, so get on as quickly as you can, and don't mess around with that right side!

#17 - Home Stretch - Par 3. This hole looks really difficult, but it is really just difficult. If the pin is on the right, just ignore it. The green is 185 yards away and everything slopes from the left side towards the lake. The carry also gets longer with each small amount of fade or push you give the drive, so stay left, but stay short too. Long left leaves you in some kind of trouble with a shot that can't stop running right towards that lake. One putts are tough, so lag it close and take the par if you can get it.

#18 - Left Is Right - Par 4. If you are still in the game, congratulations! You are far from done, however. There is a sign on the 18th tee suggesting to golfer that to avoid accidents, aim well left on this hole. They aren't kidding! Everything conspires against you on this hole to pull your ball into the lake on the right, or worse, OB! At 398 yards, there is plenty of room to run a solid drive well left of the waters edge. Do that and you will have a mid to short iron into the green. Just hope for the front left pin placement where this hole kind of lays down a little bit and nicely says goodbye. Back right is killer with any club in your hand, bringing all kinds of trouble (including that water again) back into play. Par here is a good score, birdie is great, and bogey is common.

So, how did you play, check the card. You likely feel like you left some shots out there, and maybe scored surprisingly worse than you thought. I hope you had fun on most of the holes, and noticed the condition of the course because I'll bet you will be back!

If you have played, or do end up playing it, let me know what you think. How did you play? How did you score? Was it a good value, or overrated? The only thing I don't want to know is if you rode in a cart...save that for someone else.

For some great 360 photos of Orchard Valley, check out LookAroundGolf.com here.

Fairways and Greens!

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