Tuesday, September 08, 2009


How often can you say that you have golfed in the shadow of a prison? Not just any old jail, mind you, but one serious, don't-ever-want-to-end-up-here maximum security prison? In fact, the very prison where the notorious serial child-killer John Wayne Gacy met his maker?

OK, so maybe there are more than one out there, but I bet the answer would be "rarely, at best." If you like solid golf courses with excellent conditioning at a GREAT value, then I would strongly suggest you give it a try at Prairie Bluff Golf Course. Nestled in a corner of Lockport, IL, and surrounded closely by neighboring Joliet (thus, the prison), Romeoville, and Plainfield, Prairie Bluff may not look like much, but it offers the aforementioned qualities, and does have a few surprises in store for the average golfer.

If there were ever a review you should take at my word, this might be it. I have played Prairie Bluff at least 65 times since discovering it myself back in 2000. It certainly isn't the greatest
course I have played, and not even the greatest course within 5 miles, but I guess every golfer has a course where the price doesn't cause financial pain, yet the golf experience is generally enjoyable...this happens to be mine.

Topping out at $43 for non-residents on weekends, this is easily among the best values in Chicagoland. The price is fair, and believe me when I tell you that the conditions are excellent. The greens run as smooth as most courses in the area charging double the greens fees, and the fairways are generally pristine, though can get pretty soggy in the early season. As you can imagine, it isn't the most challenging course around, but played from the back tees, it offers plenty of course for most golfers, and anyone with a double-digit handicap should strongly consider the Blue tees. It can get very windy out here as there are a complete absence of buildings, trees, and yes, even houses to get in the way of that Illinois prairie wind, so the course can, and often does play much longer than the yardage on the card would indicate.

A couple of caveats, to be fair. This course (probably due to the value) is quite popular and gets a lot of play. This is one of the reasons the excellent conditioning is so impressive, but alas, the course can play slow...VERY slow. One of the issues at play is the routing. They start you off with a medium Par 4, followed by a short Par 4 and then a Par 3. For whatever reason, this causes a logjam with even a handful of groups headed out. Another issue is the number of "recreational" golfers out there to ride a cart, hack at the ball, and rap with their buddies. While not overly challenging for those who can hit the ball relatively straight, this course will KILL the crooked shooter. Late in the year especially, the no-mow surrounding most holes can grow thick
and deep (this was productive farmland at one time). Most balls finding the really deep stuff are D.O.A., and even the primary rough can result in an embarrassing hack back to the fairway. After a slow start, don't fret too quickly, the course often loosens up after the 4th hole, but not always, so relax, and enjoy the slower pace if you can.

Also, don't even think of asking the rangers for help with the pace...help will not come. I once spotted a leisurely 5-some a couple holes ahead of my group slowing the entire course. Upon mentioning it to the ranger, who spent a lot of time "patrolling" the course, he responded with a meek "what am I supposed to do about it?" WHAT?! Apparently this crew doesn't attend the obligatory starter/ranger asshole classes given for free to any interested party. I think their true purpose is to search for lost Pinnacles and Top-Flites to sell out of the jar in the clubhouse.

So, what about the course? I guess if I've gotten you to read this far, I owe you some idea of what you will be seeing out there, and maybe I can save you a ball, or better yet, get you a birdie! I will give yardage from the Gold (back) tees as that is where I most often play, but the
advice will not be too different for any tee. Also, I will attempt here, for the first time ever, to personally name each of the holes, so please forgive if some come off rather lame...ONWARD!

#1 - Don't Worry, Nobody Is Watching - Par 4, 413 yards
I've seen the small pond framing the tee boxes come into play far too often on this hole...IT IS NOT IN PLAY! Trust me, the hundred other golfers all standing way too close to the teeing area here as if it will make their round of 102 happen sooner, will never remember you or your shot off the first tee, so relax, and hit it forward in almost any direction. Hitting it too hard too far right can be bad as there is another lake over there, but unless you are lefty, a slice off this tee will be weak enough to finish short of that lake. Hit one extra club into the green to avoid the bunker guarding the front right and you will have a relatively easy-breaking putt. The bunker doesn't look like much, but it often steals at least a stroke, and often two from the unfortunate
golfer not yet ready to swing one through the sand. To be safe, play the entire hole up the left side and you should be just fine.

#2 - Easy Does It - Par 4, 369 yards
Of course you can carry the bankers on the left, right? Well, probably not, and even if you do, what have you gained? Carry them and you are faced with an uphill shot with about a half-
wedge over the green-side bunker to a shallow green running away from you. Do yourself a favor and hit one straight up the fairway, and for many, the driver is not the best club here. A well-struck long iron or hybrid should be enough to get inside 150 yards to the green, and an approach from the right side of the fairway will get you the best angle to the deep side of the green. The green itself can be a little tricky with a front pin, but middle or back is pretty straightforward.

#3 - Underestimated - Par 3, 183 yards
The pin placement is everything on this hole, as it is for most Par 3s. A front right pin offers a direct look at the flag, but also offers the most treacherous putting and the narrowest portion of the green to hit. A middle or back pin brings the
bunkers into play, but could offer an easier putt, assuming you stay left off the tee. The front and left bunkers aren't the toughest in the world, but will cost you a stroke more often than not. The worst place to miss might be right due to the severe undulation on the right side of the green, and lucky you, the prevailing wind wants all shots to go right. This should be a par opportunity, but don't be surprised if this hole bites you.

#4 - Pardon The Interruption - Par 5, 544 yards
This is one of the few holes where the tees you play makes a significant difference. From the Blue tees, the fairway bunkers are more in play off the tee, but the hole is reachable in two strokes, while playing from the Gold tees provides a slightly easier tee shot, but brings other things into play later. Layup shots on this hole are aggravated by a river of medium depth rough bisecting the fairway at a great layup distance and lie. The main fairway runs downhill right into this rough area causing many layup attempts to miss the fairway and land in this rough. Even if you do keep your layup short of this rough, you will have a downhill approach shot waiting for you into a large undulating green sloping primarily from back to front. If you can't get home, it
still might be a good idea to hit as much club as you can on your second shot in order to fly over this rough area and into the secondary fairway which runs all the way up to the green. Oh, and try to avoid those last two bunkers on the left side of the second fairway, unless you like 50-70 yard bunker shots that is.

#5 - Right Leaning - Par 4, 401 yards
Another innocent looking hole, that will yield par if you let it. Here, you are standing on an elevated tee box staring at a wide fairway with a slight dogleg to the left. The dogleg is protected by a triad of bunkers that you are sure you can carry. Remember, these objects appear closer than they really are. I've seen these bunkers carried from the tee, even done it myself once or twice, but it isn't worth the risk. Play straight up the fairway and you will have a direct line into a relatively flat green with a mid to short iron, possibly even a wedge. Caution, do not hit a hard hook at any point on this hole...at best you will not find your ball in the tall and thick weeds, at worst, you will be OB and smacked with an unnecessary 2-stroke penalty.

#6 - The Valley Of Death - Par 3, 161 yards
This hole is arguably the easiest hole on the course, and should offer plenty of pars with loads of birdie opportunities. The green offers some subtle breaks that will protect against too many birdies, but this hole only has one real defense, coming into play on any shot hit short and
left. Even a well-struck shot hit pin high can end up in the Valley of Death if played to far left of the hole. This area is a closely mown collection trough that runs up the left side of the green and offers a decision along with a darn tough shot. If the pin is in the front, hit the Texas Wedge and get on the green anywhere near the hole. If the pin is middle or back, you can always putt, but if you have confidence in your chipping game, there is usually plenty of green to run one up to the hole. If you do end up here, don't get too cute and bring double into play, take your medicine.

#7 - Marathon - Par 4, 448 yards
I've heard it elsewhere, but this is one of those holes that should be a Par 4.5. There isn't a whole lot to tell you here, but hit it long and straight. Played most often into the prevailing wind, most will be hitting a fairway wood or hybrid into this green, even with the best of tee shots. Understanding that you are likely to end up short, try to make sure your approach blast misses to the right side, leaving you a straightforward pitch or chip to a green that slopes more than you might think from right to left. Misses to the left of the green are going to leave a challenging shot, especially if the pin is placed anywhere on the left half of the green. Make you putt for par, and you have accomplished something to be proud of. If you take a bogey, don't fret, I would bet it is
the best score most have gotten on this hole.

#8 - Sneaky Dangers - Par 5, 514 yards
Like all the Par 5s on this course, the Gold tees make a big difference. A bold shot from the Blue tees might be able to cut the corner of this dogleg right, depending on the wind direction. From the Gold tees, you can cut a little bit off, but it is a 293 yard carry over that second fairway bunker, so probably better to just hit up the right center of the fairway. Shots that do find the fairway could offer a good look at the green in two strokes...especially as the second shot often turns with the prevailing wind. Caution, there is a small stream that runs up the right side of the rough, and while small, it will suck up an errant shot or two. About 75 yards short of the green, this stream heads underground for another 40 yards emptying into a larger lake waiting for any bold shots that miss right of the green. This lake is not visible from the fairway, so be aware that missing the green even a little right could spell disaster. The green itself is slightly elevated and is surrounded by rough, so it is tough to run a shot up the fairway onto the green. Once on the green, you will be faced with another undulating green that will make one-putts difficult. Like most of the holes here, if you just take it easy, this one should yield par or bogey at worst.

#9 - Loch Port - Par 4, 392 yards
This is one of the few holes where you need to be careful about hitting your drive too far. If you never hit it left, aim at the scoreboard in the distance and rip a driver up the right side as there is plenty of fairway to hit. If you have a tendency to hit hard hooks with your driver, best to leave it in the bag as there is a large lake on the left side 267 yards from the Gold tees and only 247 from the Blue tees. This lake comes into play all the way up the hole, so you would do well to hit a controlled fade into this green. The green slopes hard from back to front and left to right save for a small flatter area in the far back of the green. Two-putts are the norm.

The halfway house offers decent food, but not great food. Sometimes on summer weekends, they will be grilling outdoors on the patio which upgrades the dogs, burgers, and chicken sandwiches if you prefer.

#10 - The Sandless Bunker - Par 4, 387
A generous start to the back nine here with the easiest Par 4 on the course. Blast your drive almost anywhere for a straight shot into the green. A miss right could get you in some trouble with a few small pine trees blocking your look at the green from a severe side-hill lie while a miss left will almost certainly leave you in a small low patch of grass that once was a fairly penal fairway bunker. I'm not sure why they removed the bunker as it was the only thing that really protected this hole off the tee, but take advantage, and if you are going to miss the generous fairway, miss left. The green is quite large, and breaks predictably, so if your distance control with the approach is good, you might have an easy putt for birdie. If you don't hit the green near the pin, a 3-putt will be possible.

#11 - Jail! - Par 4, 426 yards
From this tee box, you will be looking directly at "Stateville" Prison. Best to play the tee shot straightaway...just pick some feature from the prison, and hit straight at it. Missing right on this dogleg left makes for a long hole, but missing left can be very bad. There lies perhaps the most "in-play" water hazard on the course, a small pond extending from 229-281 yards from the Gold tees, and will catch even more from the Blue. If the wind is howling behind you, and you can really drive it, you can fly the pond, but again, it is probably not worth the risk. The approach shot from the middle of the fairway is fairly uneventful, though the green does fall off from the middle down to the left side. A right pin placement means you will have to carry the greenside bunker, but the green in large enough to do so safely.

#12 - Pushover? - Par 5, 524 yards
Though the OB right can come into play here, especially from the Blue tees, don't be afraid to play up the right side of the fairway with your drive...and hit it hard. From the right side, the green is accessible in two shots, and a low runner can roll up onto the right side of the green. From the left side of the fairway, you might be able to get home, but it will require a blind shot through a "goalpost" in the trees blocking your view. The layup shot is a piece of cake, but the green is well protected by a gaping green side bunker fronting from the middle to the left side. The green itself is a shallow one on the left, but deep on the right. Putts will break toward the open portion of the green, but do so with some consistency, so the putts aren't as challenging as they might appear. A good par hole.

#13 - Easy As Pie - Par 3, 146 yards
Though I've seen loads of shots come up short of this green, it is a deep one, so take the higher club, and hit it solid. The green is well-protected from poorly struck and errant shots, especially left of the green where a steep hill drops balls into scrub rough leaving a very difficult shot back to the green. The green itself breaks a lot with two ridges crossing through the middle breaking putts to back left, back right, or down front. Don't make this hole harder than it is.

#14 - Tree Monster - Par 4, 378 yards
Though the cards still say 378 from the tips here, I just played off the brand spanking new back tees that has stretched this already difficult hole out to about 400 yards. Every shot you play on this hole is intimidating. First, you must fire your drive at a fairway that doglegs from right to left, and appears extremely narrow due to a HUGE tree on the left edge of the fairway. Drives that stray too far right will find water, or can easily get O.B., so don't fall for that temptation. You also can't go around the tree left as there is a lake extending almost all the way to the green. Go in that lake, and you will be dropping in rough about 165 yards from the green with a third shot that is all carry over that same lake to a shallow green with bunkers to the right. The best thing to do is to ignore the tree and hit a straight shot just to the right of it...trust me, there is more fairway there than it appears. Another option, if you can hit it very high, is to go right over the top of that tree. If you can pull off that shot, you will be very close to the green and have a good look at the pin. Finally, and this might seem crazy, but you can also aim well left of the lake and play up the 15th fairway. This is not the easiest approach to the green, but does take both O.B. and the tree out of play (just make sure you have GPS or a laser range finder if you choose this route). The green is back to front with front pin placements, but breaks much more in the middle or back. Personally, I think this is hands down the most difficult hole on the course.

#15 - You'll Never Make It - Par 5, 573 yards
The longest hole on the course, and one that most often plays into a stiff wind, will challenge your long game every time. Blast a driver to the wide fairway, then hit everything you've got just to get to a good layup distance. If the wind is helping rather than into you, be careful to avoid the right side fairway bunkers with your second shot...you want no part of them. Once you have reached a good short iron or wedge distance, make sure to check the pin placement, you want to be on the correct tier with your putt, especially if the pin is in the back. The green features a large ridge through the mid-back that will speed up any putt coming from front to back. This is a decent par hole, but birdies are rare.

#16 - Stamina - Par 4, 438 yards
So, how windy is it? Do you have enough left for yet another long Par 4 into the breeze, this time up a large hill? Give it a go, and don't be overly afraid of hitting your drive up the left side of the fairway as it will offer the best approach angle to the green. Any approaches from the right will have to carry a small but deep bunker fronting the green, and the course seems to enjoy tucking the pin just behind said bunker. In any case, your approach will likely be with a mid-long iron, so strike it well. The green is large and mostly flat, so the putting will be the least of your worries if you can hit this green in regulation. Once you hole out, don't drop your guard, this one finishes tough.

#17 - Subtlety - Par 3, 182 yards
They saved the hardest Par 3 for last, and for your sake, you got lucky with a SW wind. This hole is protected by a lake that runs up the entire left side of the hole with a gradually longer carry the further left you go. You may remember this lake as the one who stole your ball off the tee on #11, right? This green features large contours that will put a premium on distance control, though with a front pin, you can actually hit one a little short of the green and it may run right down to the hole. A back left pin is treacherous as even a well-struck shot that carries left may find a small bunker or deep rough. Oh, and while missing right isn't dead, too far right will be. Watch that wind, because a sliced shot may just reach another small lake that shouldn't even be in play.

#18 - A Watery Grave - Par 4, 414 yards
Yes, the lake is very much in play off the tee. If you hit it anywhere right of the barber pole with any kind of fading movement to it, even an adequately struck ball is going to be wet...trust me, stay left of the 150 pole, and if you can, hit a draw. You are probably a little fatigued after the last four holes, so don't let that swing get lazy, because your second shot is no piece of cake either. That lake stays in play until you are on the green here, so play to the left whenever possible, and hope for a middle pin placement. Do not fire at a short right pin as the putt will not be too bad from the middle to there. You might also be careful firing at a back left pin, as a bunker front and left is waiting. Don't forget, the 18th counts the same as the 1st, so stay focused until you sink that putt!

I hope this helps, and you are able to score well on your first or next visit to Prairie Bluff. Unless you live far north of the city of Chicago, please make a visit and let me know what you think...your wallet, and perhaps your scorecard might just thank me.

Fairways and Greens!

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