What would make someone drive so far north of Chicago that they can smell the dairy air of Wisconsin? Stonewall Orchard Golf Club, host of Illinois PGA Championships and US Open Qualifiers, that’s what. Let me take you inside one of Illinois golf’s best kept secrets.
Amenities & Customer Service
When you pull up to Stonewall Orchard, you’re greeted at the bag drop and your clubs go straight on to a cart. While that may not sound like much if you’re a private club golfer, it’s not the norm for muni golf, and it’s a nice start to the day.
Customer service throughout Stonewall Orchard is very good. The beverage cart moves throughout the course quickly (you can expect at least 4 visits), and the staff in the pro shop is very helpful. I only encountered a marshal on one of my two trips to Stonewall Orchard, and he was very outgoing in making sure that we were having a good time.
The pro shop itself has a very ordinary amount of gear: a rack of putters, a couple drivers, some shoes, and lots of embroidered shirts and jackets. The carts are a little bare bones, no GPS or other gadgets, but since everyone and his dog has their own laser these days, I’m not sure that matters a lot.
The practice facilities at Stonewall Orchard are decidedly above average. The grass range can accommodate at least a dozen golfers and the putting green is among the biggest I’ve seen: it has 10 different holes that are well spaced. Importantly, the range is a stone’s throw from the first tee so you can warm up right until your number is called.
It rained both times that I went to Stonewall Orchard, but this only magnified the quality of the course conditions. Despite the added moisture, the greens ran true and with decent pace (when they’re dry, I expect they’re deviously quick). The bunkers had plenty of sand in them and the fairways and tee boxes were in great shape.
Stonewall Orchard has a clever plan to improve course conditions: they offer a free round to the golfer who their “secret observer” catches being a good citizen (fixing ball marks, repairing divots, etc). Based on what I saw, the plan is working, and it’s something I’d like to see other courses try.
Beauty & Scenery
Stonewall Orchard takes advantage of its location far from the city. There are no homes on the course and very few buildings are even visible. When you play, you get a very pleasant feeling of being isolated from the rest of the world.
The beauty of Stonewall Orchard is not dramatic, but rather a slow and steady procession of 65,000 trees, rolling hills, water, and interesting wildlife.
(Please excuse the crummy weather in the pictures, it’s my fault. Bringing a camera to the course guarantees rain.)
Course Design & Layout
Stonewall Orchard offers a really nice variety of holes with almost no repetition. The Par 3’s require anything from a hybrid or fairway wood to an 8 or 9 iron. There are a couple short Par 4’s (the 4th is particularly excellent) and a couple that require two man-sized shots. The most variety is seen on the Par 5’s, each of which requires 3 good (or 2 great) shots.
One overarching trend is that the Back 9 curves a lot more than the front. Most of the tee shots on the Front 9 are relatively straight, whereas the Back 9 features tee shots into fairways that are running right to left or left to right.
By and large, Stonewall Orchard puts the course right in front of you and simply asks you to hit the right shot. As someone playing the course for the first time, I love that “local knowledge” is not required. The lone exception is the second shot on the 18th, which is blind and leaves no real chance to hit an informed lay-up.
Another feature of the course that I really liked was how each hole balanced out its difficulty. Short holes were paired with small, well-protected, undulating greens. The long holes were short on bunkers and the greens were more welcoming. While lots of golfers may not consciously notice this kind of thing, it comes across in their enjoyment: no one walks off a hole feeling like they never had a shot at par.
There are 4 sets of tees at Stonewall Orchard: 5,375 yards, 6,032 yards, 6,506 yards, and 7,124 yards. The scorecard recommends that only players with handicaps of 7 or less play the back tees, and I strongly agree. There are a lot of forced carries, and, especially when it’s wet, the course gets long in a hurry if you don’t drive it well.
Though the gold tees (6,506 yards) are recommended for handicaps of 8-16, I’m sure they are the most popular. This is unfortunate because it’s really too much course for anyone who doesn’t routinely drive it in the neighborhood of 250 yards (I know handicap doesn’t equate directly to driving distance, but it’s a decent measure).
In sum, there are tee boxes that are appropriate for everyone at Stonewall Orchard, but I think the fact that the white tees are “only” 6,000 yards probably keeps them from getting the use they deserve.
The green fees page at Stonewall Orchard is only slightly shorter than War and Peace, but here’s the general idea: golf is somewhere between $70 and $77. The cart fee is $14, $18 on the weekend. Twilight is the best deal at $41 ($55 with cart) unless you qualify for the Senior Rate of $53 with a cart (Mon-Thu before 11AM). Range balls are extra, but they’re reasonably priced at $4 to $7.
Given the quality of the course, I think the fees are reasonable. It’s not a great value, but it’s a course I’d have no problem paying for once or twice a year.
For Chicagoans bored with the same local courses, take the drive to Stonewall Orchard. The inconvenience of the location is balanced by how isolated and beautiful the course is. If you’re not from the area, and find yourself in town, you should definitely consider passing on the big names and trekking out to Grayslake for this hidden gem.