Some of my friends who have gotten wind of my Top 100 quest seem to think that having seen so many great courses must make me numb to the idea of playing a new great course. To say this is to say that each and every course is a similar experience--and that couldn't be further from the truth. There's something unique about each and every Top 100 course I've played, and that is what makes the quest so fresh and interesting. There is nothing ho-hum about the "next course" on the list, and that's because there's no blueprint for a bucket list "check-off." To-date, the experiences have ranged from the following:
So, at Olympia Fields, the experience went like this. On July 17th, I received the following email from a friend of a friend:
"I've put together a trip to Chicago Sept 4 - 6, (Th - Sat) at Olympia Fields CC - site of the 2003 US Open and one of Top 100 courses in America (North course). We are playing the North course on the 4th, spending the night on site in the club's guest rooms, and playing the South course Friday morning. On the 6th we are playing at what is considered the best 9 hole course in the country - Dunes Club. It is privately owned by Mike Keiser who developed the Bandon Dunes resort. It has a variety of tees and can be played twice in a different form to have a full 18."
I was on my honeymoon at the time, but was quick to reply with a "heck yeah." Even though I had trips planed in August that would take my to Philadelphia and Boston, and this would be quite a whirlwind end to the summer, it was a golf weekend that I could drive to, which changed the rules completely. So, once I got the arrangements all confirmed, it was off to suburban Chicago on a rainy Thursday morning. When I arrived at Olympia Field and passed through the guard gate, our tee time that afternoon was definitely in question. It had been raining steadily for an hour or so, and the radar gave me to hope that it would clear for a while. With a weather delay in mind, I made my way to the Men's Grill, known as the 73rd Hole, to meet my group that I'd be with for the weekend. The club has ample snacks available in the Grill, including freshly popped popcorn...a nice touch. We had lunch and drinks and got to know each other while waiting for the rain to stop. From the atmosphere of the 73rd Hole and the company I was with, it was clear that this would be a fun weekend.
My "host" who put together this weekend had actually "won" our experience at Olympia Fields through a charity auction, so in this case, we had no true host at the club. After the rain stopped and the tee was clear, he made arrangements with the pro shop staff and starter for us to tee off around 2:00 that afternoon. We initially assumed we'd have a forecaddie with us, but being a Midwestern club with a strong Evans Scholars program, most of the kids were back in school, and getting a caddie on a Thursday afternoon in the fall is darned near impossible. More surprising was the fact, that after two hours or so of rain, they gave us carts and said "have fun." Of course, they know their course better than we did, and using carts after a couple hours of rain was no threat to the golf course, for it drained incredibly well.
Before I get to our trip around the North Course and the rest of our experience, a bit about Olympia Fields in general. The club was founded in 1915, and is a true country club in every sense of the word. It is comprised of a beautiful pool, tennis courts, and fitness center, ballrooms, meeting rooms, dining areas, and 24 guest rooms for overnight stays. Our group would be using two of these rooms for our stay at the club. There is no cooler experience than staying on site at a club. I had done it at Sand Hills, and now would experience Olympia Fields' version. Their rooms were a bit tired and dated, but they did provided everything we needed for a good night's rest between two days at the club.
#17, Par 4, 369 Yards
Safety first! Take whatever club off the tee that makes you confident that you'll put it in play. The creek lines the right side of the hole and can make for a disappointing finish to your round if you bring it into play. A fairway bunker sits on the safe side of the fairway to catch a ball that bails away from the water. Make sure to look back at the tee once you arrive at the green. It's a really cool view looking back at the clock tower.
#9, Par 4, 433 Yards
The 9th hole is a bear, and I can see why the USGA thought it was appropriate to finish the US Open here. The hole bends a bit to the right. Like many holes on the North Course, fairway bunkers are on either side of the landing area, and must be avoided. Seven bunkers are on this hole, with three of them surrounding either side of the green. Willie Park was careful to avoid bunkers fronting the green on nearly every hole, so the ground game and/or running approach shots onto the putting surface is possible here, and on most holes.
#7, Par 4, 400 Yards
The 7th hole is the first hole on the golf course with a bend to the slight, albeit a slight one. The bunkers that flank either side of the fairway are very much in play, and must be avoided. From there, it's a pretty straight-forward approach into a green with bunkers on either side.
#4, Par 4, 365 Yards
After playing the one-two punch of #2 and #3, the 4th hole is a bit of a breather, and it's the first of four or five holes at Olympia Fields where you can make some decent scores. It's a tight hole, but it doesn't require a driver off the tee. The trouble off of the tee is on the left side in the form of a fairway bunker. Avoid that, and it should be a wedge into a green with three bunkers guarding the front of the green on either side.
#3, Par 4, 409 Yards
The best hole at Olympia Fields comes early in the round. The 3rd hole is one of the better par 4's in golf, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the highlight of the course, with the 14th hole coming in second. This #1 handicap hole offers and blind tee shot, whose fairway runs out at about 175 yards or so from the tee. From there, it's a steep drop off to a different level of fairway below. There are no fairway bunkers on this hole, but it's important to get your line right...since we didn't have caddies or a member to point us in the right direction, it was guess-work for my group. Once you get to your second shot, it's a long approach to an uphill green with tiered bunkers fronting it. If you missed the fairway off the tee, there's a fair chance you'll be stymied by some trees that guard either side of the fairway and in front of Butterfield Creek which crosses the fairway about 75 yards in front of the green. From the rough, it may or may not be a smart play to even go for the green in two.
#2, Par 4, 430 Yards
After a 1st hole that I described as a chance to get off to a good start, Olympia Fields flexes its muscles for the first time on the 2nd hole. This one is 430 yards of golf hole with a dogleg right that has bunkers on the inside elbow of the dogleg. Therefore, to avoid having a very long approach into the hole, the player needs to take on the bunkers at the dogleg to get the shortest route into the hole. Take the safe line out to the left and you'll have to carry more sand on your long approach into the green.
#1, Par 5, 542 Yards
The opening hole at Olympia Fields is a long and straight par 5 with bunkers straddling either side of the hole in the driving area, the landing area for your second shot, and around the green. The approach into the green is a bit uphill, so bring enough club. If you can keep your ball on the straight-and-narrow, you can definitely start off strong, and possibly with a birdie. On the left side of the hole sits a rail line that brought spectators to the golf course for the US Open, and likely also members/guests to the club both in the past and to this day.
And, speaking of pro golf tournaments, Olympic Fields has hosted its fair share of them. Two US Opens, two PGA Championships, five Western Opens, and one US Senior Open has been contested on the North Course, with the 2015 US Amateur on the way in the club's centennial year. This is a championship club, and it's clear when you see all of the memorabilia on the walls. The most recent major championship was the 2003 US Open, won by Jim Furyk, and possibly as famous for the charge made by Tom Watson, with his late caddie Bruce Edwards who was near the end of his fight with ALS close-by.
So, to the North Course. What stands today is 7,273 yards of pure Chicago grit. It plays to a par of 70 (71 from the regular tees as #18 plays to a par 5 from there), and a course rating / slope of 75.9 / 147 from the championship tees. Four other tee boxes are in front of the big boy tees, which should be reserved for all Chicago's broadest of shoulders. My group played the "Member Regular" tees, which measured 6,605 yards with a rating of 73.2 and slope of 140. With a wet golf course in front of us, we thought that would be more than enough length for a par 70/71 track to keep us challenged. What we faced was a golf course that clearly is set to challenge the game's best. Butterfield Creek meanders its way around seven holes on the North Course. The bunker's were some of the best placed hazards I've seen, and I found them frequently. There was seemingly a bunker everywhere you would miss a shot. Miss the bunkers on a wayward shot, and the rough was no picnic either. It was very lush and healthy and was plenty to punish a poorly struck shot. Oh yeah, and there were were the ubiquitous tall and mature trees to punish a wayward shot too. In short, find the fairway at Olympia Fields. If you don't, your recovery skills will be put to the test, lest you face a long and penal day of golf.
It's worth noting that the championship routing of the course, which was used in the 2003 US Open mostly reverses the nines, leaving only the 1st and 10th places in their usual place. From the 1st hole, the championship routing goes to the 11th hole next, and stay on the usual inward nine for the duration of the first nine. To start the back nine, the players teed off on the usual #10, and then flipped back to the front side to play #2-#9 as #11-#18. I don't know exactly why they did this, but my guess is for spectator flow on the back nine. The east side of Butterfield creek is a jammed in area, and there are five holes in that area that are on the day-to-day back nine. By flipping the routing, the back nine avoided those holes which probably made it easier for spectators to follow the action coming home. Regardless, I'll be quoting the holes from the Regular Member Tees, as they play for the members:
So, back to the history of the club. The first President of Olympia Fields was Amos Alonzo Stagg, a legend of amateur althletics, who served on the US Olympic Committee, and was a pioneer of American football. To honor its late President, OFCC named its dining room the Stagg room. When I first heard the receptionist tell me to walk through the Stagg room to get to the Men's Grill, I confused, thinking they must call their Men's Grill the Stag Room (with one 'g'). However, when I saw the name on the wall and there were two g's, it all made sense. There were initially four golf courses at Olympia Fields, though only two stand today. The South Course came first--designed in 1915 by Tom Bendelow, and it is absolutely no slouch of a golf course. When US Amateurs are taken to major clubs, often times they need to search off-site for a second golf course good enough to co-host the 36-hole qualifying rounds. At Olympia Fields, the South Course is plenty good enough to co-host. The more famous North Course at OFCC was built in 1923, and designed by the world renowned golfer, turned designer, Willie Park Jr.
After the golf courses were built, the club needed a clubhouse worthy of its strong golf courses. What was built, in 1925, is one of the world's largest clubhouses, with an 80-foot clock tower. The clubhouse has been placed on the National Registry of Historic Places and is recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of Illinois' 150 Great Places.
When it was time to play, I made my way to the Men's Locker Room to change shoes. Little did I know that I was walking through what OFCC proclaims at the Nation's largest men's locker room...and I don't doubt it. It's huge! Some pro golf tournaments need to build temporary locker rooms to handle the large fields (Bethpage Black is one of them). As far as the locker room goes, Olympia Fields could probably handle three or more US Opens all at one time without requiring extra space.
#16, Par 3, 175 Yards
As the sun got lower in the sky, my camera clearly started to struggle. This one is a downhill par 3 with a difficult green. Looking back to the west, fighting the setting sun and long shadows around the green is part of the challenge on a late afternoon tee time. I guess after all the rain we got earlier in the day, I should have been thankful that the sun was an issue for us on this day.
#13, Par 3, 150 Yards
A short par three, especially for championship standards, as this one plays only 168 yards from the Tips. The whole has a somewhat wooded and secluded feel that is a bit unique for the cramped routing of the North Course. All the trouble is short of the green, so carry it to the center for the best chance to score.
#12, Par 4, 377 Yards
The next hole is a short and tight hole that crosses Butterfield creek twice. Driver should be avoided for most players as placement is the key to this hole. The bridges at Olympia Fields are all the same, and rather unique. There are ten of them that cross the creek in various locations across the North Course.
#11, Par 4, 375 Yards
The 11th is the second of back-to-back doglegs left. Again, keeping it between the fairway bunkers is important. I hit one of the left bunkers off the tee and had to hit a heroic shot to get near the green in two.
#10, Par 4, 417 Yards
After a quick trip to the halfway house, it was time to take on the back nine. The 10th is a long dogleg left with the usual fairway bunkers on either side of the landing area. In this case, only one bunker guards the inner elbow, while three bunkers protect the outside elbow, which is the side which presents a longer approach into the hole. Weird. Bunkers-a-plenty around the green, but all on the short side. If you can carry the ball to the center of the green or farther, there is no trouble to worry about.
#8, Par 3, 197 Yards
A very difficult par 3, and when we played it, the wind was blowing pretty hard, making a tough hole play tougher. It was all of a 5 wood for me at the time, and a wind blowing hard from left to right made it a tough shot for one who typically fades the ball. With that said, a miss on the right side of the green isn't all bad. In fact, it's the preferred bail-out area as far as I'm concerned. With a pin located back left, I had plenty of green to work with, and was able to get up and down for a par. I felt like I had stolen a shot on this one.
#6, Par 3, 164 Yards
The first par 3 on the North Course is somewhat awkward from a routing perspective in that the following hole's tee box is right next to the 6th hole's tee box and the holes run in the same direction. So, for a walker, you need to play the 6th, and then walk right back where you came from to play the 7th. I've heard that the members typically play both tee shots while they're in the teeing area, finish the 6th hole, and then walk to their ball on the 7th hole. Since we didn't have a member with this, I cannot confirm how common this is.
#5, Par 4, 347 Yards
Turning back the other way, the 5th hole is a short drive-and-pitch hole. It's very narrow off the tee, so hit driver at your own risk. Pull it off though, and you'll be left with a little pitch into a relatively approachable green and have a good shot at birdie.
My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
After the round, we headed back to our guest rooms to clean up for dinner. A great meal in the 73rd Hole made for a perfect finish to a great "day at the club." After dinner, we headed back to the rooms for some cocktails and then woke up bright and early to take on Olympia Fields complementary course, the South Course. As I said before, the South Course should not be treated as an afterthought. It's definitely worth playing and is quite a bit different from it's more lauded neighbor to the North. The holes have fewer obstructions in the fairway, and there seemed to be more elevation change on a more spacious piece of land. I scored four shots higher on the South than I did on the North so I wouldn't take it for granted.
After finishing our round, it was off to Lost Dunes, on the other side of Lake Michigan, for an afternoon round. Unfortunately, Mother Nature finally had her way with us, as storms hit us twice, with the second storm ending our day after 12 holes. Oh well, a near perfect day on the links was still plenty good.
My final say on Olympia Fields is that it's very good. I'm not going to consider it as good as some of the other classic courses I played in 2014 like Merion and Southern Hills, but it is a good championship test, and I would be perfectly fine playing the North and South Courses as Olympia Fields every day. The club itself had a bit of a working class feel to it. Just a bit tired and out-dated inside where an update couldn't hurt, but on the South Side of Chicago, it might be a bit out of place to have a lavish modern club. I liked the history and grit about Olympia Fields. A great experience overall, and one that I'd love to have again. Thanks for RH for the invitation, and I look forward to playing with you again sometime soon!
#18, Par 4, 485 Yards
One last hole to finish the North Course, and I can't say it was my favorite. The hole bends to the left and finishes with a weird pond short and to the right of the green. The hole plays as a par 5 from the Member Tees, and a par 4 from the others. With the number of holes routed cleverly over, adjacent, and around Butterfield Creek, I thought it was a bit out-of-character to have a man-made pond on the finishing hole. Just didn't get it. Even worse, the water level was awfully low when we were there, so it looked pretty lousy. I guess I just didn't think this hole really fit in with the rest of the course.
#15, Par 5, 550 Yards
A true three-shotter for most players I'd imagine. Dense woods and the creek line the right side of the hole on the drive. The hole bends softly to the right the entire way. As is the case with all the holes on the East side of the creek (4, 5, 12, 13, 14, and 15), this is a tight and demanding hole with trouble awaiting a poor shot. The holes on the West side of the creek are much more forgiving on average.
#14, Par 4, 420 Yards
There are a number of solid holes on each side, but for my money, each 9 has only one fantastic hole. On the front, it's the 3rd, and on the back, it's this one. In both cases, there are no fairway bunkers. Like on the 12th, you'll carry the creek twice on this hole. It's a tight driving area, and driver will be required for most amateurs to get home in two. For the pros, it's actually only 444 yards all the way back, so I'm sure many of them could get away with fairway woods or hybrids off the tee, and that's a shame, because the demands off the tee are part of what made it special for me. However, it's the second short that made the hole something to remember. The shot goes uphill and over the creek to an awesome looking green site. Unfortunately, my camera didn't do much of a job showing this shot as the lighting gave it fits.