Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Chicago Golf Club

As my regular readers will remember, my last trip to Chicago was less than satisfactory when I played Medinah. I had a much better trip this year.

So, I'm checking into my hotel and my cheerful mid-western bellman asks me as he carries my clubs into the room, "So where are you playing?"

Me: "Chicago Golf," I said, expecting him to be impressed.

Bellman: "Where is that?"

Me: "Wheaton."

Bellman: "Never heard of that one, is it new?"

I just let it drop. Clearly he was not into golf. Chicago Golf (ranked #31 in the world) is not a new golf course. In fact, quite the opposite. Chicago Golf was one of the five founding member clubs that formed the U.S.G.A. The Chicago Golf Club is credited with having the first 18 hole course in America - although it is not the current course. The original course of the Chicago Golf Club was located nearby in Belmont. The Chicago Golf Club was founded in 1892 by our friend Charles Blair Macdonald. Before he moved to New York and helped organize the Links Club and The National Golf Links of America, Macdonald lived in Chicago. Although Macdonald was born in Canada, he grew up in Chicago and was a successful businessman and a member of the Chicago Board of Trade.

As it turns out, Chicago Golf Club is a club of many firsts - not only did it establish the first 18 hole course in the U.S., it was the first to adopt out-of-bounds as a rule in the United States, and it was the first club that organized a "caddy-shack" for its caddies to stay in. At the time Chicago built its first 18 hole course, many clubs in the U.S. were still experimenting with courses of various length - some built six hole courses, others nine, and still others 12 hole courses.

C.B. Macdonald designed the original golf course here in Wheaton in 1895. Macdonald was a famous slicer of the ball so he built the course to favor a slice. The course sits on roughly 200 acres on a rectangular piece of property. As you can see from the original course layout pictured below, the holes essentially are routed in two loops that run clockwise around the property. There is an old, unused polo field in the middle that now serves as a very large driving range.

Consistent with Macdonald's design philosophy, the course doesn't have many trees. Macdonald didn't think trees made a good hazard. He was heavily influenced by his love of the game as it was played in Scotland and preferred firm and fast conditions without trees. The primary defense of the golf course is the wind, which can blow quite strong here without any trees protecting it. It is a different sensation you get standing on the first tee at Chicago Golf Club. It doesn't really look like most other American courses, most of which are tree-lined (unless they are links-style and near the water). Chicago is a links-style golf course, but it was not built on classic links-style land. Thus, it is a bit of an enigma in the world of golf. The picture below was taken from the 4th fairway and shows how a typical vista looks at Chicago Golf with the wide-open look.

Wide-open layout at Chicago Golf

The golf course was redesigned in 1923 by Macdonald's protege Seth Raynor. The course has a definite Raynor feel to it, especially the horse-shoe greens that wrap around many of the greens. Their combined designed has many of the signature holes they have become famous for designing including a Road Hole, Redan Hole, Biarritz Hole, Punchbowl Hole and two Cape Holes.

Chicago Golf Club offers a difficult start. The first four holes contain the one, three and five handicap holes. Typical of some of the mounding and hills present throughout the course, see the mounds off the 2nd fairway below ("Road" Hole).

Mounds off second fairway

The third hole is a "Biarritz" hole and plays over 220 yards to a green with a false front and swale in front. It's a very good and demanding golf hole. Notice the classical bunkering around this hole.

3rd hole "Biarritz" from the tee

The fourth hole is one of the two "Cape" holes, the other being the 14th. This hole has a high elevated green with a green that is difficult to hold as it has a false front that feeds balls back onto the fairway.

4th hole green and fairway bunker

The 7th Redan hole is a very good rendition of a Redan hole. Probably because Chicago Golf doesn't get as much play as other world-class courses with Redans like Shinnecock, National and North Berwick, it is often overlooked as a good Redan hole. Consistent with Chicago's big greens generally, it probably has the largest green of all the classic Redans.

A big Redan - 7th hole

I found the defining characteristics of Chicago Golf to be: a links-style feel due to the absence of trees, large greens and the distinctive horse-shoe bunkers. There are many "deceptions" present also, such as the false fronts on many greens and bunkers placed so that they look to be closer to the green than they really are. Several of the greens (the 14th and 18th in particular) were squared off; that is, they were designed so that the beginning of the green is cut at a 90 degree angle to the fairway. I've never seen this before on any greens.

Chicago Golf Club has a lot of good golf history. It has hosted four U.S. Amateur Championships, two Walker Cups and three U.S. Opens - 1897, 1900 and 1911. Bobby Jones holds the course record of 66, set in 1928 at the Walker Cup. Chicago Golf Club is not as well known as Macdonald's other masterpiece, The National Golf Links of America. This is because unlike The National, Chicago doesn't do outings, and it has a very small and private membership. It has the smallest membership I have heard of for a world-class course - only 125 members.

The general feel at Chicago Golf Club is intimate but not flashy. Like at Pine Valley, there are no frills. This is just about golf. The clubhouse is comfortable and not extravagant. It is all very understated.

The clubhouse at Chicago Golf

My favorite hole on the course was the "Punchbowl" twelfth hole. You hit a blind tee shot over a slight hill. Your second shot on this par four is to an elevated, well bunkered green. The green, like other Punchbowl holes, such as the 16th at The National, rises up on all sides and feeds into the middle of the hole. If you look closely at the picture you can see the many humps and bumps on this interesting green.

Punchbowl Green - 12th hole

The 14th hole, the second "Cape" hole, I also enjoyed quite a bit. It is one of the many greens that has a horse-shoe bunker. Other holes with horse-shoe bunkers are the 7th, 9th, 10th, 13th and 14th. Macdonald, a very successful businessman, built a "mansion" in Wheaton. It is visible on your left as you stand on the 14th tee here. It is a big white house with columns on the porch.

14th horse-shoe bunker

8th hole horse-shoe bunker

The Chicago Golf Club has one of the best caddy programs I have ever seen. Taking a caddie is pretty much mandatory. The polite young mid-western kids that serve as caddies wear distinctive red bibs with the Chicago Golf logo on them.

This is also the third time in as many months I have bumped into C.B. Macdonald in my travels. He looked down at me intently from his perch in the giant painting in the C.B. Macdonald room at The Links Club in New York. He gave me a suspicious glare in the library at The National Golf Links of America where his big portrait again looks down at you and a life-size statue looms in the back of the room. And finally, between the pro-shop and locker-room at Chicago Golf is another statue of Charlie, making his presence felt once more.

If you appreciate history and tradition in this great game, playing Chicago Golf is a real treat, although with only 125 members, getting onto this gem is about as difficult as any course in the world.

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