Monday, June 14, 2010

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Cog Hill Golf & Country Club #4 - "Dubsdread"

Frequently, when you meet a golfer from Chicago, the conversation will begin with a pitiful whine about the weather, and how much better life would be if he or she could just live somewhere that golf is played year round in warm idyllic conditions. In fact, I promise you that if an when you meet me, I will do the very same thing. Chicago is a tough climate to endure for the avid golfer. While we might sneak out for a round or two on unseasonably mild days during the winter months, generally speaking we Chicagoans must hop on an airplane to play meaningful golf from late November until early March, and many of us simply take the clubs out of the car and try to rediscover our swings at around the first thaw.

So, why don't we all just gather our things and move down south? OK, so, lots of Chicagoans actually do just that. There must be something keeping the rest of us here, though, right?

Something that we are blessed with here in the upper Midwest states is fertile land upon which to grow, without a doubt, the greatest grass on which to play golf. Yes, if you haven't played on true bentgrass fairways and greens, then you need to take a trip up here. To top that off, Chicago features within an hour's drive in every direction some of the greatest public golf courses in the country (and from what I've read and heard, quite a number of the private ones as well). Among my personal Top 5 are Pine Meadow, Thunderhawk, Cantigny, and Prairie Landing, but the crown jewel of public golf in Chicago has to be the famed fourth course at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club. Better known to the masses as "Dubsdread", Cog Hill #4 is the current home of the FedEx Cup's BMW Championship after having hosted the PGA Tour's Western Open from 1991-2006.

Unfortunately, "Dubs" is also quite expensive to play relative to the other great public courses in the area, so it limits my rounds on the course to once every 2-3 years. In my four complete rounds at "Dubs" I have grown to enjoy the course more and more as one is prone to do as they become more familiar with the course and it loses some of that intimidation factor. Just prior to writing this review I shot an 84 on "Dubs", my best round of my four on the course, and am currently an 8.4 handicap, so a very good score for me. This despite being marred by an awful start during which I went 7-over through the first four holes, including a par on the Par 3 2nd. With that said, don't you dare ever pay more than $100 to play any of Bolingbrook Golf Course, The Glen Club, or Ruffled Feathers if you can get on "Dubs" instead...it might just be better than all three of those courses combined!

The round I just finished there was also my first at "Dubs" since they closed for the entire 2008 season while "The Open Doctor" Rees Jones undertook a fairly massive renovation project that took a once outstanding course into the realm of unbeatable. Most of the renovation was to make the course more playable after the frequent heavy rains that befall it during the summer months. All 18 greens were rebuilt over a new Sub-Air System which actually sucks the moisture from right underneath the green complex. It appeared to my group that this was working under the bunkers as well.

Three weeks prior to the round I completed, we tried to play, but only finished 7 holes before a long and torrential Memorial Day downpour halted us at the halfway house. Following a 90+ minute delay, most everyone packed it in, collected their rain checks and went home, but my buddy and I tried to wait it out. Though we attempted unsuccessfully to play the eighth hole before another wave of rain drenched us, we got right up to the green and realized that despite taking on about two inches of rain in 90 minutes, there wasn't even the smallest of puddles on either the green or the 4 million bunkers that front the eighth hole...that is unprecedented drainage for the Chicago area, or perhaps anywhere.

Aside from the greens, Mr. Jones also added and/or deepened many of the fairway bunkers that give pause to anyone used to cutting off some of the corners out there. Being the absolute worst part of my game, the fairway bunkering was terrifying, apparently enough to keep me out of them on all but the first hole which I double bogeyed. On the 7th hole which had been arguably the easiest hole on the course, Rees went and dug a small lake on the inside of the dog leg right that now makes cutting the corner a tremendous risk.

The renovation also included the addition of several sets of tees, which along with a "Combo" course that uses different tees on different holes, allows for a much better dispersion of golfers to play a course fair to their ability. The course rating/slope for men stretches from 70.2/130 on the forward tees to a killer 77.8/151 from the tips and for women from 72.8/135 on the forward tees to an unbelievable 80.2/150 from the Blue tees with two unrated tees behind it (my foursome played these blue tees at 73.9/138 for us).

The greens fees for Cog Hill #4 are a flat $155 no matter the time of day or the season. This fee includes your 18 hole round, complementary range balls at a very nice facility just adjacent to the #4 course, and a golf cart with Laser Link distance finder. I stuck to my practice of walking when allowed as did Brad, but the other two took the cart (though with the Laser Link oddly absent).

I have now played this course four times (plus the additional 7 holes on Memorial Day) and have never played it without having to stop for at least a few minutes to let some heavy rain/thunder/lightning pass through. Coincidence? Probably, but I can't help feeling a bit cursed. Alas, this past round was delayed by 45 minutes due to T-Storms, but we got underway in dry, but humid weather only to be delayed for another 45 minutes again after hitting our drives on 16. Disappointingly, Cog Hill has chosen not to install a lightning alarm system on their courses suggesting that all players may play at their own risk. Of course, some players being less sensible than others, this policy creates some odd and uncomfortable moments as groups change position as some take shelter and others play on. Not a big deal, but worth noting.

For the following course review, please note that I am describing how the course exists now, and will not take the words to describe every little change Rees Jones made during the renovation. If you've played this course before the renovation, suffice it to say, it got even better, and if you've never played it before, it won't matter to you what changes were made. If you are really interested in the depth of the changes, click this link to view it in full.Also, any yardage and par references are from the Blue tees.

The first hole, while not the most challenging on the course, is also not one that eases you into your round. A long dog leg left, this 425 yard hole hardly even dares you to try to cut the corner as a plethora of deep fairway bunkers and trees block that path sufficiently well for the vast majority of us mortals. Following a safe drive in the fairway, you will probably be faced with a long iron or hybrid into a very well protected green which will slope from back to front and left to right on most pin placements. Bear in mind, however, that on almost every hole at "Dubs" different pins will create very different slopes, and there are very few places on the course where you can "bail out" long, short, left, or right...best to hit the green as often as you can. As bad as the bunkers appear, they are almost always better than missing the green into the lush rough growing along the steep sides of the green complexes. You will almost never get a greenside chip from either short grass or a flat lie, and the first is no exception.

The second hole can be played from an alternate hole I have never experienced, so if you have that chance, you're on your own, though I would encourage you to come back and tell us about it. As you consider your club selection on the 182 yard Par 3 2nd hole, be aware that going long is just as bad as short, so choose your weapon wisely, aim for the center of the green and put a good smooth stroke on it. The only exception might be a back right pin placement where long won't kill you.

For whatever reason, the Par 4 3rd, at a very manageable 407 yards is a nightmare for me. I've missed right, I've missed left, and I've 3-putted this green multiple times. There really isn't that much to this hole. Sure, there are small water hazards off the right and left sides of the "landing area", but they are small. The green can play difficult, but it isn't the worst complex on the course, so don't follow my lead...try to get yourself a par here while you still have some confidence (assuming you brought any of that to the course with you).

Side by side back and forth holes are not my thing, but Cog Hill handles them with grace. The fourth is a Par 4 of "only" 397 yards. Better to miss left back into the 3rd fairway than right into another small water hazard that simply eats golf balls. Even if you find your ball near said water hazard, you will be lucky to have a window through which to chip you approach through a stand a big old willow and oak trees. This is one of those greens that can present nightmares depending on the pin position, and another one where bailing out long is bad news.

Turning onto the fifth hole, hopefully you have maintained some sense of yourself, and haven't let the course get into your head. This uphill 479 yard hole may or may not be a Par 5. It is listed as 4/5 on the card, but gives no indication of how that applies to different tees, gender, etc. Just to forewarn, I played it in four shots for a par/birdie which included a well struck driver followed by a well struck 3-wood, a chip from just in front of the green and a putt. We called it a par 5, though I guess what the par is doesn't matter much when compiling your score. I do wish they would better clarify what the intent of the course is here.





The sixth hole is the longest, and arguably the most difficult Par 3 on the course (though I would give all four of them plenty of respect). If Cog Hill doesn't allow you one thing, it's a break on a Par 3. All four of them are over 180 to the center of the green, and all four have some very penal areas into which you can deposit any number of less than perfect shots. On the 194 yard sixth hole, best to take the extra club and hit the middle of the green. This green is enormous and has all kinds of tiers, but best to be on and bogey at worst. I hit my 3-Hybrid the last two times I played it and was on the back portion of the green.

The seventh, even with the added water hazard is still a little bit of a breather, though much less than in the past. At 385 yards, my advice is to forget about clearing the hazard, and just aim down the left side with your drive. This is a very challenging green with four "arms" to it. Even a middle pin isn't a piece of cake as it will challenge your green reading skills to their fullest.

If you hadn't already done so on four or seven, go ahead and leave the driver in the bag on the 341 yard eighth hole. Staying in the fairway is important here as you are going to have a blind shot over an army of bunkers fronting the green. This isn't the deepest green on the course, and there is more trouble behind, so getting a ball to stick on the green is important to avoid making this hole more difficult than it needs to be.

Put on your marching shoes on number nine. At 586 yards, this is the longest hole on the course, and provides you a very narrow fairway upon which to focus with large trees on both sides of the hole. Don't try to do too much here, though...you are not getting home in two, seriously. Hit the clubs that get you to a good manageable mid to short iron for your third shot, and make it count. This is a big green, but one of the flatter ones on the course. get your par, you can do it!

Number ten is a good birdie opportunity if you can keep anything from a long iron up to a driver right of the trees without getting into one of the many bunkers lining the right side of the fairway. At 353 yards, you don't need more than 200 yards to get into a good approach position to this green.

Leave on the left side of the tenth green and head across the street to tee off on the reachable 547 yard Par 5 11th hole. Despite OB up the right side, that is where you'll hit the ideal tee shot to have a chance to cut off the dog leg left and go for the green in two. If you simply don't want to risk it, birdie is still very achievable after hitting a drive up the left. A solid layup will leave you with a short pitch shot to one of the bigger and flatter greens on the course.

I believe that the 194 yard Par 3 12th is where "Dubs" really begins taking on mythic status. This big downhill shot for an incredibly picturesque tee box at the height of the property makes you feel like you can't miss this shot. Ah, but you certainly can. Settle down and pay attention because those bunkers down there are very deep, and going long of the green will get you absolutely nothing good. Enjoy the hole, but don't pay it too much respect...it's still a downhill Par 3.

The thirteenth hole begins a stretch of holes lasting back to the clubhouse where slicers must beware. The rest of the way into the house, the right side is bad news, and the 383 yard 13th is no exception. The length won't kill you here, so hit a manageable club off the tee. Once you begin planning your approach, try to make a miss be long rather than short. Thought they have cleared away the tall fescue and weeds which once guarded the front, it is still a steep face of rough with a creek down in the ravine.

Climb your way up to the barn which stands guard over the 14th tee. This 184 yard Par 3 can cause some major fits of anguish even with shots finding the green, much less those finding one of the many greenside bunkers ringing this hole. It seems as though all shots on the green funnel to the back middle, so hope for a favorable pin, or putting could be an adventure.

At only 482 yards, the Par 5 15th hole is a great opportunity to get some strokes back...unless you are like me and choose to ignore the few gifts this course offers. A healthy shot in the fairway should set you up for a good attempt at reaching in two, but I witnessed several golfers try it on this hole with nary a one finding success as we waited out the rain next to the 15th green. Most of the trouble here is along the right side, so whether going for the green or laying up, stay to the left for the best outcome. Another big green with less contouring than most of the Cog Hill greens.

After some discussion on the matter, our group seemed to agree that the Par 4 16th, a dog leg left measuring 381 yards, might just be the most memorable and beautiful holes on this course which would put it pretty high up there on most "best holes in America" list. The tee sits up high over the fairway with a forest of trees blocking the view of the last 100 or so yards of fairway and the green. Once down in the fairway, you are shooting to a very elevated green guarded by deep bunkers front right and left, while shots hit long and left will careen down a steep hill leaving a ridiculously difficult recovery attempt. The green along with the rest of the hole slopes from left to right, but is surprisingly flat on the back portion. Simply a great hole that will challenge the best of golfers, but rewards good shots in kind.

The seventeenth suffers somewhat due to the fact that it is wedged between the 16th and 18th in terms of beauty, challenge, and memorability, but I would advise you to not take it too lightly. At 399 yards, this Par 4 features a slight dog leg to the right, with an open entry to the green on the front left side. If you are going to miss right off the tee, it better be WAY right as balls finding the 16th fairway you just finished will have a much better chance of finding the green than anything remotely close to the trees that separate the two holes. The 17th green is another enormous one, with subtle breaks throughout. This hole plays a lot harder than it looks.

The eighteenth tee will likely have you feeling a combination of relief and remorse. You probably have shot several strokes more than you normally do, but have that nagging feeling of desire to simply head back over to #1 and start again. This extremely difficult finishing hole still has plans for you, however, so snap out of it! This 431 yard monster of a Par 4, snakes around some maintenance buildings on the right side, with bunkers and willow trees standing guard there as well. The green sits perilously close to a large lake that you will immediately recognize from seeing it so often on television. What better way to finish your round than striping a long iron or hybrid through an opening to the green mere feet from a watery grave? If you, like me, can walk away with part here, enjoy the smile because you deserve it.

Cog Hill #4 is an absolute masterpiece and should be on everyone's must play list. This is a course worth traveling to play. I guarantee that if you have the means or the method to scratch up the $155 to play the course, by all means, take your shot. The conditioning of the course is as good as anywhere you've ever played, the service, while not uber-friendly, is acceptable, the practice areas are outstanding, and the course is challenging, long, and imminently fair for what it is. Try not to come with lofty expectations, but more to enjoy the experience...heck, maybe that approach will even help you play a great round! "Dubsdread" is definitely back at the top of my list of Chicago's public courses, and I'm guessing it'll top your list as well.

Finally, a moment of marketing for Cog Hill and the Jemsek family. This renovation was clearly done with a U.S. Open in mind, and in no way did it fail to meet those goals. I have played on Bethpage Black, and as great as it is, "Dubsdread" is every bit its equal...maybe better. Cog Hill is ready for a major championship, can easily accommodate the crowds, and will provide the pros every bit of challenge they need to face in an Open. I know those spots book up fast, but the USGA was onto something when they brought the Open to a public facility. There is something very special about the fact that anyone with the means necessary can head to Bethpage for a round on an Open course, and "Dubs" would be just the same. So, despite their stature, let's put Shinnecock, Pinehurst, and Oakmont on the shelf for a rotation, and bring the Championship to Cog Hill! 

For some great 360 degree photos of Cog Hill #4, check out LookAroundGolf.com.

Fairways and Greens!

2 comments:

Love Goddess said...

Great Post Very Informative.
I've been to Cog Hill once and it was amazing.

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Management said...

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