Monday, July 19, 2010


Directly in between Chicago and Milwaukee in Northern Lake County, IL lay one of the most interesting and scenic golf courses that I have ever played on. This is a golf course that has gotten better with time as the fairways and greens have matured into firm yet receptive conditions across the course. This is a golf course that manages to put a premium on accuracy off the tees despite offering ample landing areas and tee placements to accommodate high and low handicappers alike. This is a golf course that was the first of only two courses in Illinois to achieve Audubon Signature certification marking it as a shining example of maintaining a first class golf experience while minimizing the damaging impacts on the local environment. A haven for golfers and wildlife alike, this is Thunderhawk Golf Club.

Surely, you haven't heard of Beach Park, IL, so give yourself ample time to get to Thunderhawk from wherever it is you are coming. Sitting on the cusp of the Illinois/Wisconsin border, and a good 15-20 minutes from I-90/94, I have seen many a playing partner take their first swing of the day on the first tee box due to a longer than expected commute. Do not, under any circumstances, let that keep you from seeking out this course and giving it a go.

If you have read my past golf course reviews, you will know this about me, I love a good value, and I really love courses that offer a wide variety of holes with risk/reward options. Thunderhawk Golf Club has both of these in spades. In the recent past, Thunderhawk, for me, was a once-per-year kind of course both due to the fact that it was so far away from my home in downtown Chicago, and because the rates were nearly prohibitive at almost $100 for prime time weekend rounds. Though they can not move the course location, I recently moved much closer to this course, eliminating the travel factor. What the course did accomplish was something that many, many other courses need to do as well, they lowered their rates! I don't know how many half empty Saturday tee sheets a course has to see before realizing that by lowering their rates they will attract more golfers, but Thunderhawk got the message. Not only do they offer compelling twilight rates of $55 after 1:00 and $47 after 3:00 on weekends, but their standard rate of $85 from open through 1:00 on weekends is worth the cost - and they let you replay for $25 more! If you can play during the week, it gets even better with an early bird special of $39 from open through 8:00 am. That is quite possibly the best value in all of Chicagoland.

The clubhouse fits the landscape like a glove, and the staff, though often confused by their own multi-tiered pricing structure, is always friendly and accommodating. Though the snack bar is out of the way from the turn, and offers nothing compelling beyond a hot dog or turkey sandwich, the restaurant is very nice, and regularly hosts medium-sized weddings on it's beautiful brick patio overlooking the stunning 18th green. They offer a nice selection of apparel in the pro shop, and the restrooms are clean and spacious. The driving range is nowhere close to the 1st tee, so if you are walking (and, really, you should be walking), give yourself a good 10 minutes to get over to the starter, and more if you want to take a few practice putts (also highly recommended as these greens can run pretty quick and are laden with undulation). My commentary below is from the Brass tees, so adjust accordingly should you decide on the tips or the two shorter options.

The first hole is a very well designed first hole. Nothing too fancy or tough on this straight and short par 4, allowing for a variety of club choices off the tee (I almost always opt for the 3-wood unless the wind is really howling in either direction). Don't take this hole too much for granted, however, as you will not find your ball in the tall stuff well left, and you have OB all the way up the right side. The green is large, and offers one of the flatter putts you will face today.

As you stand on the 2nd tee, the first of many risk/reward decisions come into play. If you can't hit the driver more than 245 yards, or want to hit a shorter club on this par 5, knocking one straight up the left fairway is a safe and more than acceptable decision. If you, however, have notions of eagle right off the bat, it is a shorter carry than it appears over the wetlands, and left of the imposing tree protecting the right side. About 210 yards is enough to sneak over that right side. Accomplish that or better and you will be staring straight at a wide open green and ample fairway in front of you making both a big swing or layup viable and comfortable options. Beware, this green can be tricky, and you don't want to be chipping back from behind the green, so if you do miss, short and right is usually best.

The third hole is a bear of a par 3. On a busy day, this is normally a bottleneck on the course even with the mandatory drop rule that is well-signed on the tee. Generally you will be facing a tee shot of about 190 yards with almost all of that being carry over wetlands. The green is a big saddle with a low are in the middle between two shelves left and right. Par is a good score on this hole, and don't be too hard on a bogey either.

On the fourth hole, an average length par 4, everything on the tee tells you to hit it into the big open right side of the fairway, and there is nothing wrong with that play. Don't be too aggressive nor too far right, however, or your ball will have surprisingly disappeared into the ubiquitous wetland weeds, and you will be hitting your 3rd shot from 180 yards. My suggestion, if you can carry your driver 225 or so is to hit your tee shot directly over the right side of the big fairway bunker in the middle of the fairway. Clear it, and you will be hitting a short and trusty club into another well protected green. In 14 rounds here, I have played this hole to an average of 4.14 strokes, and never taken worse than a bogey, so I practice what I preach.

I am not the best spokesperson for the 5th hole which is an otherwise straightforward and slightly shorter than average par 4 with a wide fairway. For whatever reason I am forever hitting pull hooks into the forest guarding the entire left side of this hole, and from a drop there have little chance of doing better than double bogey. For most of you, anything from long iron through driver relatively straight should put you in position for an easy approach shot to a rather huge green. The putts can be tricky depending on pin position, but I would think this isn't one of the most challenging holes out here.

Turn the corner through the woods and feast your eyes on one seriously cool par 3. This really big peanut shaped green offers the course loads of options for how to punish the golfers on any given day, but at most you will face about a 160 yard shot - over a small pot bunker to the tiny portion of the green, of course. On front pin placements, short and right is a very acceptable miss as it could leave you with an uphill putt or chip from a closely mown area. The key to hitting it close here is being aware of a ridge running from the front to back of this green that will funnel your ball to the pin as long as you catch the correct side of it. For the tricky left pin, aim just right of the right edge of the bunker fronting the green then let the green funnel the ball down for a good look at birdie.

Remember that risk/reward comment? You've got a whole bunch of options on the next two holes, beginning with the super-fun Par 5 7th hole. This very reachable par 5 offers a huge landing area to the right off the tee for those so inclined, but better be short right or your ball will roll right through the fairway and into the woods making your conservative play quite penal. With the prevailing SW winds, I much prefer to take the drive right over the bunkers bordering the left side of the dogleg. It's a 225 yard carry that plays shorter than it looks, and if you carry the ridge just beyond the bunker complex, you could be coming into this par 5 with a scoring iron in your hands. This green can be tricky with a back pin, but front pins are pretty straightforward.

On to number 8, a drivable par 4 that offers another risk/reward decision. Again, with the prevailing winds, I actually think what looks like the risky shot is actually the safe play, and that is a drive over the small lake directly at the green. Often, the pin is around 270 yards from the tee, and the carry over the lake is a hair over 200 yards. You can definitely bail out to the right with the routing of the fairway, but if you do, I recommend you leave the driver in the bag as there are bunkers very well placed to catch any errant shots. If you do find yourself in one of these fairway bunkers, you might as well kiss any chance at par goodbye, and you have likely made a cautious decision that cost you 2-3 strokes.

After a couple of great scoring chances, Thunderhawk slaps back hard on the long par 4 ninth hole. If you've got the shot, a hard, long, controlled draw that wraps right around the 150 barber pole is the best drive. For the other 99% of you, hit this drive as far as you can, or play it as a par 5. Wetlands guard the right side making a ballooning fade sure death. The left side is guarded by tall weeds followed by woods making a shorter shot left of the barber pole a nearly impossible approach shot, most of the time requiring a short chip into the fairway beyond the dogleg left. The approach shot is significantly up hill with woods bordering both sides of the fairway, and the large green well protected short and right by a handful of deep bunkers carved into a steep slope. Bogey is a good score here, and pars are great. If you are able to manage a birdie, you have taken a good amount of bite out of this course.

Make the turn to number 10 and take a breath. This is a pretty simple driving hole as any shot over 210 yards in the fairway will trundle down the hill and add 20-30 yards to your drive. 200 yards or so will even carry the bunker on the left. Don't knock it too far left, however, or you'll be hitting three from the tee. Back pin positions on this green can be a challenge as it slopes pretty severely from back to front and has a ridge separating the left and right halves, but relatively speaking, this is one of the easier holes on the course.

Take a good look from the par 5 eleventh tee, and hopefully you've read this review before playing it. Don't be afraid of those bunkers on the left side of the fairway as the entire landing area right of the bunkers slopes hard left to right ad well struck shots will easily run all the way down to the weeds on the right side of the hole. It's another 210 or so yard carry over the far right of the fairway bunkers and will leave you with a flatter lie and a fairly easy approach to any pin on the right 2/3 of the green. Even with an inaccessible left pin, this is still the best play as the green will always be in view. The green is pretty flat as these greens go, so once on, a two-putt is common.

The short par 4 twelfth offers options off the tee once again, but I like to think that a hybrid or fairway wood is the correct option. A pull hook off this tee is certain death, and the further right you hit it, the quicker you bring the short but thick line of trees into play. It is a short hole, so after a decent drive, you should be holding a comfortable iron or wedge in your hands. That is a good thing because this is a very long and contoured green making putting here a challenge once on the green.

Onto the long par 3 thirteenth hole, one which seems to give everybody fits. I'm not exactly sure why it plays so difficult, even at 200+ yards. Perhaps it is the narrowness of the peanut shaped green guarded on both sides by bunkers. If you miss right or left, you will be short sided regardless of where the pin is located. The best miss is simply short, and, of course, hitting the green is always the best option. This is another hole where par is a very good score.

Now onto the very short par 4 fourteenth hole that is not much of a challenge if you play it correctly. A solid 200 yard shot straight up the fairway will put you in great position to hit a very short club into this elevated green. What challenge this hole presents is in the contouring of the green along with the severe drop off fronting the green making short or heavily spinning shots roll down to that fun little tight lie straight up the slope. Just keep you head on the shots here, and you should score well.

The par 3 fifteenth is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Go ahead and take one extra club here no matter how you feel. I am pretty sure I've never seen anyone hit it past the pin off this tee despite its relatively short yardage. Everything rolls off the front and right into another fun collection area, so be long, be long, be long! Interesting note here...this hole features one of the most ridiculous forward tees I've ever seen. From this tee box, you really could putt the ball onto the green, and a bump and run is probably the most appropriate play. Pretty silly tee box for any ladies with even a reasonable amount of game. You'll see it, and I think, agree with me on this one.

I have mixed feelings about the par 5 sixteenth hole. It is a beautiful hole, but visually confusing, and the final approach can be intimidating and confounding. Furthermore, nearby lives a  very vocal rooster who apparently wants you to know the sun is up all day long. If you are a big hitter (and I do mean BIG), and can lace a draw that carries a good 265+ yards in the air, then you can wrap it around the big trees on the left side and reach the second fairway over a ball-eating creek. The much more prudent play is a driver directly up the right fairway that rolls out right in front of you. This is not a hole reachable in two shots for the vast majority of players, so stay patient, and stay left as the lake on the right side is waiting to receive any shots fading even a bit too much. This green is well protected short left, short right, and short straight by bunkers and that stinking lake again. If you've got a great lie after your drive, a fairway wood about 40 yards left of the green is not the worst play as you could get past all the bunkers on the left side, and open up a great pitch and run angle to the green. This hole is hard, plain and simple, and requires both good decision making and well struck shots. Don't forget to enjoy the view.

The par 3 seventeenth can be a lot of fun, as long as you keep your tee shot left. Usually a short or mid iron off the tee, there seems to be a tendency to leak shots just a bit right and the lake will collect each and every one of those shots. Get onto the correct portion of this "L" shaped green and you could grab yourself another birdie here.


Finally, one of my favorite finishing holes anywhere, the par 5 eighteenth hole at Thunderhawk. This drive calls for a draw, but unless you already drove it onto the second fairway on 16, don't bother risking a wild shot. Yes, I've seen people try for this green in two shots, but generally the longer you drive, the shorter you iron that you will be laying up with. See, the second shot is all downhill all the way to about 50 yards short of the green where a rocky creek bed runs across the front of the green complex separating it from the end of the fairway, and providing one final challenge to your round. The front of the green is significantly downhill from the back, so make your club choice count on the approach so you have a decent chance at making your putt. If you pull it off you could walk off with a birdie, and par is there for you if you keep your attention through this hole.

So, in summary, I strongly recommend playing Thunderhawk at least once, and I'll bet you will find yourself wanting to come back again and again. If you do play it, or have played it, let me know if you agree, I'd be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

Fairways and Greens!

1 comment:

Paul Seifert said...

Great review! I am a huge fan of ThunderHawk and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. courses, in general.

T'Hawk has a lot of the same look and feel as University Ridge (also RTJJ, same era), which if you haven't played it yet make sure to get out there in Madison next season (they closed early this year to redo all of the greens, practice facilities, etc.).


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