What’s wrong with this sentence?
There is a beautiful golf resort high in the hills of Illinois.
Actually, nothing. Even more confounding, this strikingly hilly Midwestern landscape occupies the boundary between Illinois and . . . Iowa.
And it proves just how wrong my Long Island high school buddy was when he settled with his family in the Chicago suburbs and lamented about Illinois, “Snow, snow everywhere, but not a slope to sled.”
But across the state from Chicago, 20 miles shy of the Mississippi River, in the town of Galena is Eagle Ridge Resort, a splendid vacation complex of rolling hills, sparkling blue lakes and three of the most spectacular golf courses in the country.
Galena itself may strike a distant chord in readers’ minds: It is the birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant (and three other Civil War generals for that matter). Galena’s Main Street, though, is right out of central casting for a California gold-rush town. A gradually bending thoroughfare, it is banked by three-story brick Victorian storefronts on each side. Perhaps a century ago, kerchiefed rustlers bolted out from swinging slatted doors, six-guns ablazing.
But these days you’ll want to bring plenty of ammo with you to the golf course, as Eagle Ridge’s three courses occupy hillsides of rugged beauty which are only occasionally interrupted by fairways and greens. Heidi would have trouble walking these courses.
The most recent addition to the resort, whose other two courses were constructed in 1977 and 1984, is the “General,” now entering its 19th year. This course throws more looks at you than a Meryl Streep film festival. Vertiginous tee boxes, rolling fairways, horseshoe-shaped ponds and sweeping panoramic vistas of the farm country below are but a few of the memorable images to take away upon completing these 18 holes.
You certainly won’t be bringing many balls back, however. Fortunately, local rules soften the impact of this topographic reality and keep scores from mushrooming. Any lost ball is to be dropped to the nearest point of relief with a one-stroke penalty. To do otherwise would be to invite a traffic jam of golf carts on almost every hole. As a result, Eagle Ridge remains challenging for the scratch golfer, but not unreasonably demanding for the weekender.
The opening holes throw quite a scare into you, with the first hole establishing the course’s tempo. Naturally the clubhouse occupies the high point on the property, so your tee shot plays down a steep hill. The fairway is narrow, but concave enough to provide comfort to slightly errant shots.
The second and third holes spiral downward, with the par 3 3rd featuring a pond to the right and behind the green. This same pond curls around in front of the landing area on the par 4 4th, which is open enough to invite the driver out for the first time. Better reach the green on approach here, however, because the tilted fairway will shove anything short of the elevated putting surface into the left rough.
Your reaction at the No. 2 handicap 5th hole may well be, “Another hole, another intimidating tee shot.” This is a 437-yard bender to the left, where if you try to cut the corner your shot might rattle among the limestone ledges. If you play it safe out to the right, you risk dropping off the plateau fairway and down a slope. Hit a nice drive and your worries are hardly behind you. A majestic hickory on the left side of the fairway must be reasoned with to gain the green.
Though this is a hilly course, there are a surprising number of opportunities to hit the driver. A good example is No. 8, a dogleg to the right where you must keep your ball to the left. The rough to the right is steeply embanked toward the thick forest. You need good distance off the tee, because this is a twisting uphill hole which ends with an elevated green encircled by a limestone escarpment.
The 9th hole calls for a big drive over a ravenous ravine. Then comes the hard part. The green is raised and fronted by two deep bunkers. Fall short and a little right and you’ll be swallowed by swirling fescue gunk. Left isn’t any safer. A stand of trees up near the green leaves no alternative but to battle your way straight to the green in two shots from 410 yards out.
The back nine will play about three pounds heavier than the front if you treat yourself to a BBQ pork sandwich at the turn. Let down your guard at the par 4 10th and you may fall prey to the hidden ball trick. Your tee shot must carry a pond to an elevated fairway. But even after clearing the water, high fescue grasses will wipe the smile (if not the barbecue sauce) off your face if your well-struck tee shot settles just a little left of the fairway.
Though there are many contenders, perhaps the loveliest hole is the 442-yard dogleg left par 4 13th. You have been playing at the tops of the hills for the past several holes, but now out toward the ridges. On this beautiful long hole you at last get a true sense of where you are. After hitting your second shot, the view of the green is framed left and right by the tree-lined fairway. But then the trees relent and give way to a top-of-the-world view lying behind the green, which enables you to gaze as far as your eyesight allows. Its aesthetic credentials aside, this is the No. 1 handicap hole and for good reason. Anything short of a 250-yard drive requires a blind second shot, never a fun thing when you have to judge the curvature of a dogleg.
Although this is somewhat hardscrabble terrain, the course conditions couldn’t be better. If you are accustomed to taking a big divot, you will not need to adjust your game as these bent grass fairways are very soft. The greens are immaculate and testy, owing to their undulant character. The tee stations, of which there are at least four for each hole, reflect scrupulous maintenance.
One tee box which deserves special mention sits atop the par 4 14th, where even the most Valley-Girl phobic will be hard-pressed not to gush, “Oh my Gawd!” when stepping out on to this pinnacle. You can carry on a conversation with occupants of one of the resort’s hot-air balloon tours from up there. The hole itself is short and straight, but the cart path looks like Lombard Street. It goes through four hairpin turns before reaching the fairway, 180 feet down from the back tees.
After several holes along the base of the hills, the 17th brings you back to the top of the ridge. The vistas are reminiscent of those Romantic illustrations of Daniel Boone looking outward over the Cumberland Gap. Though his view was no doubt sublime, could it really compare with the lovely, groomed fairway below? We’ll leave that a rhetorical question, but if you push your tee shot to the right, an awkward stance and shelves of shale before you might leave you longing for some of our blandest views on Long Island!
The 18th hole is a rousing finale. Your tee shot must stay straight through a corridor of trees to simply get a whiff of the uphill fairway 250 yards out. Then, quite a surprise. When the fairway levels off, just as you surmise your second shot might be treated to a level lie . . . links land! Further complicating matters is a two-tiered fairway, separated by a ribbon of rough extending 120 yards. A solitary trap guards a very shallow green, so what begins with a bazooka blast ends with a delicate dart throw.
One thing missing from this review is mention of the quality of the sand traps. Would love to comment, but can’t. Stayed out of them all day!
Back to the room and should you be staying as I was at the Longhollow Point lodge, a relaxing whirlpool bath awaits. My room overlooked beautiful pastures and fields slanting toward each other at all angles. Only the absence of a castle in the distance and a lyre player in the foreground set this bucolic scene apart from a Peter Cross painting.
The guestroom itself is an unconventional geometric wonder. Ten-foot ceilings and 18 walls . . . in the bathroom alone! The whirlpool bath is large enough to float in and the kitchen had all the conveniences of an upscale second home. Oddly though, there were no in-room hair dryers.
Televisions and fireplaces were present in both rooms, with comfy seating for six in the living room. Each room also had access to a small outdoor balcony.
The bedroom had a high, slanting ceiling and varnished knotty pine furniture. The only papering on the walls traced the ascending pitch of the ceiling and offered a depiction of charming rural hillside homes.
The summertime Midwestern sun still hung high in the sky and this was an invitation for a desultory drive through the hill country. No need for maps, there really is no “there” there. Just a collection of lovely roads rising over hill crests, past dairy and corn farms. Eventually you’ll hit a state or county road. Then you can decide on a direction.
Should you pass through Cuba City, Wis., you’ll be sure to notice a curiosity. Independence Day was several weeks prior, but American flags stood in the center of a good 75% of the lawns here. Do they residents feel they reside in an unfortunately-named town?
Eventually, if you set your inner compass facing west you’ll encounter the Mississippi River, just one-fifth of its way into creation but already as wide as the Hudson at Cold Spring. Bridge crossings of the river are scarce, so hitch a ride on a ferry boat. With its limited capacity, the one I found felt more like Tom and Huck’s raft. It connected Cassville, Wis. With a dirt parking lot in Iowa that had no corresponding dots on the map, but two freight trains clacking past one another.
The terrain in Iowa turned out to be a revelation. The bluffs along the Mississippi produced vivid scenery. Picture Napa Valley with tidy rows of corn and you’ve got some of the most beautiful farm land in America.
Travel south a bit to Dubuque, which upon seeing you may wish to nuke, but should probably just rebuke. Here you can cross the Mississippi by bridge and Galena is just 20 minutes away. Or if you’re a movie pilgrim you can detour 25 miles to the west, where the Field of Dreams film site has not yet faded into the cornfields.
You’ll probably have missed dinner back at the resort, but room service will keep its extensive menu warm for you. Hard to judge the kitchen on one dish, but since they got seafood risotto right in middle America, chances are good that the rest of the recipes kept pace.
The following day I played the original course at the resort, the North. It started out somewhat conventionally with expansive landing areas off the fairway and to the sides of the greens. Traffic intersections were within view of the second and third holes. After going to war with the General the previous day, this created a false sense of security, which I would later rue.
At the 5th hole, the course’s character had changed without a wake-up call. No longer were missed shots given the benefit of the doubt. The fairway was very difficult to hold on the middle shot of this par 5. Trees were interspersed just off the fairway’s edge on both sides, which resulted in a newly challenging brand of approach shot required to reach the elevated green. Miss a little to the right and the cart path, sinisterly close to the green, might superball your lofted shot into the neighboring fescue.
Unlike links courses, the fairway undulations at Eagle Ridge are rarely an ally. They seem to be under strict orders to bound your ball to most inhospitable areas of the hole you’re playing. An aerial attack is necessary to succeed here.
I got a good dose of this reality at the 7th, a stunning downhill par 4 overlooking Lake Galena. My short drive was escorted to the lowest point of the fairway on the inside of the dogleg, leaving a blind second shot down the hill. I hit three shots from there, first left, then right, then down the center. I found none of them.
Be careful not to let the scenery at the thrilling par 3 8th become a distraction. Now you are high above Lake Galena, a tiny cove of which creeps in just short of the green. The parachute tee shot is just 165 yards, so club selection can be tricky. Pull it or leave it short and you’re in the water, to the right you will probably find sand.
After trudging up the 31 steps to the tee box at the par 4 9th, experience and instinct will have you expecting to be looking downward at the landing area. Guess again. Eagle Ridge’s version of the Green Monster stares you right in the face. A broad, long, steep slope carries you upward so that all you can see is the sky as you ride to your second shot. A comforting reminder of the glorious infinity of golf hole designs.
No. 10 is short and trappy. Keep your drive to the right and you’ll have to hit over just two sand terraces to a sunken green. Stay left and the number is five on this downhill dogleg left of only 329 yards from the back tees. It’s a bit of a goofy hole, but a distinctive and fair one.
The 11th hole allows your driver to make its first appearance in quite a while. This par 5, with an elevated tee box that plays off a spectacular ledge, will inject some serious hang time into your drive.
For sheer intimidation, nothing matches the drive called for on the long uphill par 4 14th. The tee area is quite open, but 200 yards out is a stream that must be carried, with clumps of trees pinching in from both sides. With red stakes right and white stakes left this is a high-stakes drive.
The par 5 15th of 566 yards signals caution every yard of the way. A blind tee shot to a sharp dogleg left with nothing framing the right side becomes a blinding one in the late afternoon sun as well. The hole is swervy and all downhill. Franz Klammer would have fun carving his way down this fairway, which abruptly drops off into a stream 80 yards from the hole. Be extra cautious if you are laying up though; the last 20 yards in front of the hazard angle straight down toward the water. The pitch down to the green is from quite a height and must deal with a large bunker spanning the back of the putting surface. The green is one of the hardest sloping on the course, leaving the knees wobbly on two-footers. An epic golf hole.
I didn’t have time to play the other 18-hole layout, the South course, but was assured by those who know it that it is the equal of the other two. Instead I took my last day to visit another area of interest in the region, Madison, Wisconsin. A university town posited on an isthmus between two large lakes, this is the state capital, but also one of the great towns in America. A liberal bastion, from all indications it’s a “do as I do, not as I say” type of place, as the limos are kept safely at bay. In any event, it claims to have more restaurants per capita than anywhere in America, and a stroll through the statehouse area provides easy confirmation.
The next time you contemplate the great “flyover” on your way cross-country, you might want to reconsider any easy prejudices about the Midwest . . . This land is our land.