Thursday, May 06, 2010

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Makray Memorial Golf Club

Lots of golf courses have stories behind them. Many stories are steeped in history with great figures in golf architecture at every turn of a sentence. Some are too crazy to be true, while others are so true, that it is what makes them crazy. Well, Makray Memorial Golf Club has some stories of its own, and though they may not fill the criteria I listed above, I find them, and the present day course, to be interesting and challenging.

Perhaps a very brief history lesson is in order after that intro. Paul Makray purchased the course that is now named for him back in 1962. What was once Hillcrest Country Club became Thunderbird Golf Course and opened to the public. The authenticity of this part of the history is dubious, but even the staff at Makray Memorial believes that Thunderbird was once Hillcrest, which is certainly possible as the current private Hillcrest Country Club in nearby Long Grove, IL did not open until 1968, and appears to have no relation to what might have been its predecessor in name only.

In any case, Makray ran the old Thunderbird course as a sporty, family friendly course with an emphasis on enjoyment if not on conditioning. I never took the opportunity to play Thunderbird prior to its rebirth, but from what I have read and heard, it was a pretty ragged course with an unimaginative design, and LONG rounds with only 7 minute tee time spacing. Perhaps a good place for beginners and beer swillers, but not necessarily for the discerning (read: snobby) golfer like me who likes a good lie in the fairway after a well-struck drive, and hates playing from water-furrowed sand traps. The condition of the course aside, it is reputed to have had a regular schedule of players and a top notch staff who kept them coming back - that along with the very affordable greens fees, that is.

When Paul Makray passed away in 1999, his family chose to honor him in one of the best ways I can imagine. They set about to gutting the course completely, redesigning the entire lay of the land, bringing in premier grasses and conditioning, and an unmistakably grand new clubhouse complete with excellent dining and even wedding facilities. The new course was renamed Makray Memorial in Paul's honor, and opened for public play on June 8th, 2004.

As I mentioned earlier, I had never played the old Thunderbird course, so can not make a true comparison between new and old, but now having played the new course many times, I can't imagine the improvement being anything but a complete metamorphosis and revival. Makray Memorial is in phenomenal condition, has (mostly) very interesting routing, is not short of challenge, and still offers affordable options (though I do have a bone to pick with one piece of their pricing that I will get to later).

One oddity to this course becomes clear very quickly...there are no fringes on the greens! The transition from grabby rough to smooth green is striking, and can wreak havoc on your short game. I often remind my buddies that there are a couple of ways to think about this, it could be that they grow the rough over what would be fringe, but it is just as likely that they cut the green to the edge of the rough. Either way, it will challenge your touch around the edges, and behooves you to aim for the middle of the greens.

The first five holes are an incredible test, and make it imperative to get a few swings in on the range prior to your round. The second hole is particularly tough as it calls for a slight draw around a grove of big mature trees on the left, but miss the draw long and straight, and you are blocked out again by a grove on the right. Once you do get your position, you still need to strike a crisp shot over a creek fronting the slightly elevated green with a good sized bunker protecting the front as well.

The long Par 4 5th is no picnic either, especially into the wind which often prevents your drive from catching the downhill in the fairway and robs you of up to 75 or 80 yards! Once you get yourself within striking distance, you need to take aim at a noticeably undulating green fronted by two very deep bunkers. Par is a good score here. Final tip for the tee - it is a blind tee shot with OB to the right, so if you tend to slice, just hit it out to the left edge of the fairway, but if right isn't your fear, aim right along the tree line for a major distance bonus.

The Par 5 6th hole is one of my least favorite on the course, completely because its routing feels forced by the houses along the right. With the tendency of the vast majority of golfers being to slice, yet calling for a draw off the tee, I feel like the OB comes into play far too quickly, and even juts out into a good line for the second shot. Once you get through here though, the front nine finishes strong with a great risk/reward hole on 8, and an incredibly difficult green complex on the homeward bound Par 4 9th. Miss the 9th green and saving Par becomes a faint hope.

Makray Memorial Golf Club, Barrington, Illinois

The back nine begins well with a straightforward Par 4, then a long and difficult Par 4, but hole number 12 becomes the story of this great new-ish course. The 12th hole originally played as a 360 or so yard Par 4 with OB all up the right side where houses lined the course. Well, at right about 210 or so yards from the tee lay a home where some cantankerous homeowner who apparently hates the game of golf, and was not consulted on the new layout which called for his backyard to be pelted with hundreds of balls on a daily basis, lives. He filed suit against Makray several years back (after he confiscated a couple of my own Titleists), forcing Makray to reduce the hole to a 150 yard Par 3 for several years.

A Par 3 might not have been such a big deal, but it did feel a bit rinky-dink as the course laid down an odd piece of artificial turf for the tee, and took a good year to get the course re-rated, making anyone's handicap there questionable. It appears that they are now on their way to solving the issue, however. They are building a new tee complex which will create another short Par 4 risk/reward hole. To make it a bit more risky, they are cutting the green by about 30% growing up the back side into rough. The work they have done so far looks really nice, and I am satisfied with this solution (though I am still tempted to blast a couple of low punch shots into that guy's house as I cruise by).

From this point, the course finished very strong, with a nice variety of holes culminating in a wonderful risk/reward Par 5 18th leading right back to the fantastic clubhouse. Unless the wind is howling in your face, which is more common than not, a well struck drive up the right side will offer you a very reachable green, but with a carry over lake, rough, a bunker, then the green. A very easy layup awaits to the left, so missing the "go for it" shot will have you kicking yourself.

Makray offers a walking rate of $49 Monday through Thursday and $74 Friday through Sunday which I believe is reasonable given the competition nearby and the quality of the course. Where I have issue (as I often do) is when the carts come into play. The cart rental fee is $18, so jacks up the cost for those wishing to ride (silly ninnies) to a hefty $67/$92! That is too much for this course, and many courses in my opinion. BUT...I don't walk, so why should I care about the cart fee? Well, Makray offers specials, you see, after certain times, as many wise courses do. The problem is that once the specials start, they automatically include the cart fee, so I suppose they look at it like they are giving you a discount plus $18, but not if you walk the course anyway! To make things just a touch worse, pull carts cost $8! Really? For a pull cart, really? Pull carts should be complementary for Pete's sake!

I understand that carts are a source of revenue for courses, but so are caddies, merchandise, food, and the greens fees. So, we play during their "special" rate of $59 including the cart we don't use beginning at 2:00 on weekends. Get this, from 12:30-1:50 on weekends, their special rate is $76 with the included cart, so during that time, I would actually have to pay $2 MORE to walk the course...ridiculous!

I don't know about you, but my group has played golf on some pretty deserted courses early this season than we typically do. When are these courses going to learn that it is the greens fees that keep golfers away? For the time being, I like it because the rounds have been pretty manageable from a time perspective, but I won't like it very much when the courses start cutting back on conditioning and service to keep their profits in order...and even less so when they start closing their doors.

So, all in all, I give Makray my Beaver tail slap of approval due to their course design and conditioning, their friendly service, and very good food. A notch down the tree just a bit for their wacky pricing structure, but high enough to stay comfortably in the rota of courses I play in Chicagoland. If you are in the area and haven't yet tried Makray, make a tee time, and bring your ball striking irons to hit as many greens as possible. If you are in town for a few days, it's not the first course I'd recommend, but if you did put it on your list, you won't likely be disappointed.

Fairways and Greens!

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