Monday, October 05, 2009

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Bowes Creek Country Club

One of my desires in life is to play some of the most famous courses in the world. I have played several, but unfortunately, a great many of them are private, and not available to someone of my limited means and connections. Admittedly, I have not put forth much of an effort to see exactly how difficult it is to get onto some of these courses, e.g. Shinnecock, Pine Valley, Sand Hills, etc. In fact, I am going to put a little research into it, and write a future article on the subject. In the meantime, my private course experience had to be relegated to Stonehenge Golf Club and a round at Mission Viejo Country Club thanks to a generous business acquaintance back in February 2003.

Last Friday, September 25th, I added one more to my "bucket" by taking advantage of a late season offer to play the newly opened Bowes Creek Country Club in Elgin, IL. In fact, I and my playing partners were some of the first few to play the course as it was opening day. I may not play here often, but not because of the quality of the course, but rather because it is so far from my current home in Chicago.

Bowes Creek is approaching the struggling golf market with a new approach, and I must say it is refreshing. They will be offering individual memberships for those who want the privileges of membership, and live near enough to play this course all the time. For those not in that class, Bowes Creek will be offering a program that they call "Member For a Day". As a Member of the Day, you will pay a flat rate for unlimited golf, a cart w/GPS, and practice facility. At a projected maximum of $95 for a weekend day, this is not a bad deal. They will even be offering Twilight and Late Night rates, and believe it or not...forecaddies! While this is certainly not in the class of the courses I mentioned above, it is a challenging and aesthetically pleasing golf experience with two distinct nines, and plenty of course for even highly accomplished players.

As we pulled up after an easy but long drive from downtown Chicago, we realized just how new the place was. The driveway looked as though it had just been poured and painted the day before, and the Pro Shop was still gilded with traces of sawdust. The large and airy pub across from the Pro Shop was still not complete, but by appearances will be a nice place to sit and enjoy a burger with a pint while watching fellow golfers struggle up the 18th hole.

The staff was in a bit of disarray learning the new systems, and even the course rules. I went expecting an advertised promotional rate of $70, but was charged $89, and later realized that my partner was only charged $80...go figure. We also were told by the Pro Shop that walking was not an option on this "carts-only" course (ludicrous), but were told by the starter, and perhaps the Head Pro that it was 100% OK that we walk, which we did, of course. It was their first day, so a little chaos in the Pro Shop can be forgiven assuming they will pull it together before the members start arriving.

The driving range is nice with several targets at good distances. They even have some lounge chairs out there, I guess so one can just relax and watch others hack up a perfectly nice spread of turf?

On the way to the first tee we noticed what appeared to be a chipping green nearing completion, so passed by and utilized the small-ish putting green overlooking the first and tenth tees. It could be larger with a few more targets, but it is sufficient, I suppose.

The first hole is a short Par 4 with some water on the left to catch only the most wayward of hooks. I hit a 3-wood adequately off the tee and ended up only 120 yards from the green in the left center of the fairway...I would guess that would be a good option for most. The greens, being brand new, were very firm, and very fast with a good deal of break in most of them. The first hole was no exception.

The second hole is another Par 4, but much more challenging. Wetlands run all the way up the right side of the fairway, and will catch anything sliced even just a bit, while well placed bunkers await strong drives that wander too far left. The green is elevated from the fairway and well protected with some of the wild bunkers you will see often around the course. Being new, there is a lot of sand in those bunkers, so don't be afraid to take a big swing in them.

The third hole is a straightforward, medium length Par 3 with lots of water lurking on the left. The green is HUGE, and we had a right pin placement, so it took the water mostly out of play, but it didn't make the hole easy, as the green broke a bunch right around the pin. I left my drive short of the green and gave a stroke to the course (one of many to come), while my buddy took an unfortunate triple bogey after missing the green into the rough on the right.

The fourth is another short Par 4, this time with a lake creating a decision off the tee. You can cut off a lot of the water if you hit your driver well, and can hold off a hook, but the smarter play is probably a fairway wood, or even a hybrid aimed between the first and second fairway bunkers on the right. I don't remember this green being overly challenging, but it was fast.

The fifth hole is nasty. From the Blue tees, the hole measures 215 yards, and we played it directly into a strong wind. Both my partners hit Driver off this tee, and both got onto the front right of the green. Despite leaving a terrific 3-wood with a draw about 30 feet short of the back left tucked pin, I was closest to the hole. Had any of us missed left, there are some deep bunkers to make things even tougher, then some more of those lovely wetlands to steal a stroke from you. The back pin was over a steep ridge, so the first two missed their putts off the green. You'd think I would learn, but still hit mine well past the hole onto the fringe. Note, just get it over the ridge, and let gravity do the rest.

The sixth hole is a reachable Par 5, but again makes you think. Play to the narrow right side of the fairway for a good look at the green, and some are to leave a less than perfect shot safe as a stream bisects the fairway diagonally ending just to the left of the green with layup fairway on the right side of it. Play safer off the tee to the left side of the fairway, and getting home in two becomes much more of a chore. Lots of ways to lose a stroke here, but played well can give you a birdie.

The seventh hole is another challenging hole. With more wetlands along the right, this long Par 4 calls for a well struck fade off the tee, then an excellent approach to an elevated green. You can lose some strokes here if you try to do too much, so play the hole as it should be played, and bogey isn't the worst thing that could happen.

Number eight is the hardest rated hole on the course according to the me, it is not. What it does have is length, and though it can be reached, it isn't necessary to do anything heroic to make a birdie. The fairway is wide and receptive, and even the second shot provides little to fear. Make a solid approach shot, and all should be well.

The ninth is another decision hole. A short Par 4, you would be well advised to approach this one from the left side of the fairway, and hit anything from long iron to driver off the tee to get to your most comfortable distance. The green is very challenging. Shots missed left will careen down into a low under some trees leaving a very difficult up-and-down, while shots missed right will end up in another tough bunker, potentially bringing double into play. Good hole that will drive you nuts.

The tenth hole is really strange, and probably the consensus least favorite hole on the course. At 490 yards, this short Par 5 is protected by a large tree growing right where you want to hit your drive. The fairway winds around the right side of that tree, then left again around a patch of wetland swamp waiting for your approach shot. Past that wetland is a lot of fairway collection area, but beware, the green is very long and even more narrow, so when approached from the side will be a nightmare. I think I understand what they are trying to do with this hole, but I am not a fan, and my double bogey didn't help any.

The 11th hole begins a stretch of holes that feels completely different from the front nine, and plays much more like another Rick Jacobson course I have reviewed before, Spirit Hollow in Burlington, IA. The 11th is yet another short Par 4 which calls for another aggressive fade around a stand of trees protecting the right side, and preventing shots directly at the green. No big deal if you want to hit a fairway wood or hybrid and lay back a bit, but get far enough that those trees don't block a shot at a right pin. This green is one of the easier to putt out here.

The twelfth hole is just begging you to give it everything you've got. Don't get lulled into playing conservative here, as aiming well left of the green over the large pond still demands almost the same distance off the tee. Go ahead and blast a driver right at the stand of trees across the fairway, or even right at the pin for the biggest hitters, and you may end up putting for eagle. Beware on the green, approach shots and chips alike will run right off the back if struck too hard, or land too far back of center.

The thirteenth hole is quite something to look at. From the elevated tees, it looks like you can hit it anywhere and be OK, but there is plenty of trouble lurking on this innocent looking hole. Those fairway bunkers on the right will easily collect poorly struck drives, and make you pay - they are deep and rugged. The green is guarded on the right side by more rugged bunkers, and is shaped such that a few pin placements can be tucked right behind them. Hit the fairway, but keep it left of center if you can.

The fourteenth hole feels like something in the Carolina sand hills. A relatively short Par 3, rugged bunkering and a right to left green orientation call for a draw if you've got one, though a well-struck shot right at the pin should do just fine. Be careful not to short-side yourself on the left , though one of my partners made a sweet up and down for par from down there.

The fifteenth hole is very similar to the 13th, but longer, and not quite as challenging. The fairway is ample, and the green quite approachable making this, in my opinion, one of the more forgiving on the course. With that said, a fade/slice off the tee will leave you a long approach shot over more green side bunkers to a fast green, so perhaps a few more times here might convince me of its teeth.

The sixteenth is another great-looking hole, and is going to make many of those future members pull their hair out. Measuring a humble 187 yards from the Blue tees, it feels much longer as your drive must carry a wetland marsh almost all the way to the green. The green itself is quite wide, so missing right or left is not as bad as short. Take an extra club, and do your best to ignore the hazard. The green is another quick one, though there are some flat spots on this one to allow the members some solace once in a while. Let me also add kudos for the way the cart path has been removed from the aesthetic of this hole. By winding it into the woods on the left, they have made a much longer walk to the green for those walking, but ensure that shots will not go careening off a path into a hazard here.
The seventeenth hole is another gem. One more taste of a short Par 4, this one again presents a forgiving fairway with an elevated green well-protected by rugged bunkers. We played it with the pin tucked back right, and simply couldn't hold the green. Shots past the pin or long of the green will be coming back downhill, so approach with care.
Finally, the eighteenth hole is a great finishing hole. With the most elevated tee box on the course, the hole is picturesque to say the least. Grab your driver and take aim at the gaping bunker in the middle of the probably can't reach it, and even if you hit the distance, you never hit right where you aim, right? The approach shot difficulty depends somewhat on pin placement here, but it is another elevated and fast green so holding a shot presents a challenge on last time. Like almost every hole out here, the putting is fast and breaking, so hold that attention until the ball drops.
The verdict? If you live within an hour, and can get a nice day, try to get out to Bowes Creek for a round this fall. I am a big fan of their Member for a Day concept as it allows those without the means or interest in an annual membership to play a country club style course, and provides the course with a means to augment the income they will get from a limited number of members. Though it isn't in the class of elite private courses like Medinah, Shoreacres, and Olympia Fields, this course is easily as good as the top public courses like Thunderhawk and Stonewall Orchard, though I would put it a notch below Pine Meadow, Cantigny, and Cog Hill #4. The housing development is a bit unnerving with very large houses covered in siding, but alas, that is one of the evils of golf these days. If you have the means to afford membership here, and don't mind an inflated handicap, you may want to look into it, but for me, I will enjoy the Member for a Day program, and hope that there are others of you who can get out to enjoy it as well.
For those other private courses in the Chicagoland area, pay attention. As your memberships dwindle, consider this...there are lots of us who would be more than willing to pay a fair price to play your course, if just given the opportunity. Creativity may be the key to your survival.
Fairways and Greens!

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