Olympia Fields Country Club (North Course), IL, USA 

Twelfth hole, 390/375 yards; A placement hole in every sense of the word, the twelfth ducks back into the forested portion of the property. Opposed to the eleventh (a hole of similar length) which features six bunkers in the landing zone, the primary challenge here is staying between the hardwoods. After playing the previous five holes on what was open farmland, the twelfth engenders isolated beauty –- but demands accuracy. Beware: this silent assassin played as the fourth hardest hole during the 2015 Amateur as the fairway proved problematic to find, even with shorter clubs off the tee.

The golfer hasn’t seen Butterfield Creek since the easy drive across it on the seventh tee and he delights in its return. Indeed, the meandering creek plays a role in four of the last seven holes.

The golfer hasn’t seen Butterfield Creek since his easy drive across it on the seventh tee and  delights in its return. Indeed, the meandering creek plays a role in four of the last seven holes.

 

The eight distinctive arched steel bridges that dot the North Course rival the 110,000 square foot (!) clubhouse for artistry. This one spans the creek 70 yards from the green and …

 

…. completing a picture of quiet solitude.

…. completes a picture of quiet solitude.

Thirteenth hole, 170/150 yards; Perfectly situated to the right of a forty foot bluff, this little uphiller has many fans. The deepest greenside bunker punctuates the ground front left and countless taxing hole locations exist on one of the course’s best putting surfaces. It has only two level areas. One is left, close to the bluff’s edge and the other is low front right, guarded by two shrewdly placed bunkers. As a former caddie at Olympia Fields, historian Sven Nilsen came to have a greater appreciation for Park’s greens. All but three of them (the third, sixth and eighteenth) are original to his day. Nilsen states,  ‘As a whole, the greens on the North course present a wonderful array of internal features.  There are ridges bisecting right and left sides (the 5th), precipitous slopes from back to front calling for the deftest touch (the 3rd, 10th, 12th and 14th), deceptive contours that appear to make the ball break uphill (the 4th), a green at the end of an uphill approach that runs away (the 17th) and bowl like collection areas that allow for shots away from the flag to feed to the hole (the 11th and 13th).  Add in the larger greens on the course which offer very subtle features (the 7th, 8th and 15th), and one green that seems to combine all of the features noted above (the 18th), and you’re left with a wonderfully diverse mixture of little puzzles to be solved during your round.’

A view from the tee of the uphill, picturesque thirteenth.

 

Park’s ability to create interesting and varied putting surfaces is substantially underappreciated.

 

This 6’2″gentleman gives a sense of the left front bunker’s depth.

 

As seen from behind, the red stake is an ominous warning to those who wander left off the tee.

Fourteenth hole, 450/420 yards; Superlatives rain down on this hole, which is the author’s favorite in golf-drenched Illinois, if not the entire Midwest. Few people spoke about the importance of routing holes thirty years ago but today we enjoy a better appreciation of what it means for a hole to be laid out to take maximum advantage of natural features. The ability to route eighteen consecutive holes and not have a dullard in the bunch distinguishes Park from most of his contemporaries. Given the splendors here: high ground for a tee, a low river valley where Butterfield Creek crosses twice in the configuration of a reverse ‘C’, and a high wall on the other edge for a green; one might think that anyone would ‘find’ this hole. Remember, that this was heavily forested in Park’s time and the author doubts that more than a dozen, or maybe, fifteen architects have proven capable of building a hole of such grandeur. This tour de force shows that Park belongs amongst the elite architects.

One of the lasting pleasures of being a member must surely be enjoying the expression of awe on a guest’s face when he stands on the fourteenth tee for the first time.

 

While Green Keepers may disagree, a creek is one of the most wonderful features to bless a parkland course. Here, Butterfield Creek parallels the fairway for 150 yards along the right.

While Green Keepers may disagree, a creek is one of the most wonderful features to bless a parkland course. Here, Butterfield Creek parallels the fairway for 150 yards along the right.

 

The green is ninety yards back from the steep river valley wall. A modern architect might have stuck it dead on top for drama. Such a do-or-die approach would overwhelm the average player. As Park has it, the hole is much longer, and indeed grander. Recovery shots around his green complex are some of the most ticklish on the course. In autumn the hole can’t be placed in the middle of the green, so pronounced is its back to front slope.

The green is ninety yards back from the steep valley wall. A modern architect might have stuck it dead on top for drama but such a do-or-die approach would overwhelm the average player. As Park has it, the hole is much longer and, indeed, grander. Recovery shots around his green complex are some of the most ticklish on the course. In autumn the hole can’t be placed in the middle of the green, so pronounced is its back to front slope.

 

This view looking back down the fourteenth captures the flight 39 steps used to plummet the golfer into the river valley after his tee shot.

This view looking back down the fourteenth captures the 39 step flight of stairs used to plummet the golfer into the river valley after his tee shot.

Fifteenth hole, 575/550 yards; Variety is the lynchpin of great design. One-shotters that requires a ‘wood’ and true three-shotters liven the mix at any course – the North Course enjoys both. Played along a bluff over Butterfield Creek, this hole would be more dramatic if the bluff’s presence was visually more acute. Regardless, this low profile, stately hole bends right and requires three well placed shots.

The Park bunker in the foreground was restored in 2013 by Mungeam. The hole is full of challenge without resorting to anything forced or contrived.

The Park bunker in the foreground was restored in 2013 by Mungeam. The hole is full of challenge without resorting to anything forced or contrived.

Sixteenth hole, 215/175 yards; While the next-door thirteenth plays uphill, this one plunges to the lower land and gauging distance correctly is a daunting task. Coming up right or short is unwise. This hole is a particular favorite of many Chicagoans, who are accustomed to flat, prairie golf.

Locating a green site in the elbow of the creek would have come easy to Park. Building up the green pad was a wise pre-caution against future flooding.

 

This view from behind conveys the hole’s downhill nature.

This view from behind conveys the hole’s rugged, downhill nature.

Seventeenth hole, 455/375 yards; Park placed only two green sites immediately adjacent to the creek, knowing that it was prone to the occasional flood. Both were par 3s.  One was his defunct short sixth and the other the hole we just discussed. More often he used the creek in the fairway to threaten tee balls or to create tension about how to lay up should one miss a fairway. In olden days the creek crossed the fairway twice but for water management reasons, the club altered it and now it rubs along the right side of the fairway for seventy yards in the hitting area. Mungeam added the left hand bunker which works in concert with the creek to addle long hitters.

 

The best holes at Olympia Fields feature either topography or the creek. The very best holes feature such as here. The bunker in the hillside is thirty yards short of the green and is another fine example of the club restoring a Park bunker that is 1) well off the putting surface and 2) directly in the line of play.

The best holes at Olympia Fields feature either topography or the creek. The very best, like this one, feature both. The bunker in the hillside is thirty yards short of the green and is another fine example of the club restoring a Park bunker that is well off the putting surface but directly in the line of play.

It’s worth noting how effortlessly the club has picked up over 900 yards since Park’s day and many of the green to tee walks are actually shorter. Such is the advantage of beginning with a spacious property. However, the sixth represents an evolutionary misstep where a new intermediate par 3 was built in lieu of Park’s little downhill pitch. In a vacuum, the new hole is plenty fine but the lengthy 180 yard walk back to the next tee is unacceptable on a Golden Age course. A restoration of Park’s hole would be most welcome and further highlight the diversity found across his best creations.

If this is your weak link, then you have something special.

If this is your weak link, then you have something special.

Speaking of special, the Number I Course (the South Course) was enhanced by Steve Smyers in 2007/8. Some argue that it’s the equal of the North Course. All agree that the cute little two shotters found at the sixth and eleventh are among the best holes on the property. While the ninth was borrowed from William Watson’s Number II Course, the course shows a much higher degree of design sophistication than Bendelow’s earlier works around the turn of the century.  People who play it gain a fresh appreciation for ‘The Johnny Appleseed of American Golf.’ Having two courses of such quality made Olympia Fields a dream host for the 2015 U.S. Amateur.

In comparing the two, Sven Nilsen remarks,

Although there’s only a small difference in difficulty in the two courses from the proper tees, the North course does place a premium on accuracy off of the tee that you don’t find on the South.  It starts at the 1st, where you’re asked to thread the bunkers with your drive, continues at holes like the 2nd, 9th and 11th, holes that beg you to challenge fairway hazards to create ideal angles into the green, and becomes critically important at the 5th, 12th and 15th, where giving a fairway bunker too much respect can lead to a punch out from the tree line.  There are holes that ask for a draw, holes that work best with a gentle fade, and even others where being in a bunker may be a better result than getting blocked out on the opposite side of the fairway.  A good caddie knows the importance of focusing on the positive, and the best caddies at Olympia Fields never tire of saying “the [pick a] side is just fine.”  Believe them when they say it.
Tom Benedelow's infamously well placed sixth green on the South Course features a twenty foot drop left - and a thirty foot drop right!

Tom Benedelow’s infamously well placed sixth green on the South Course features severe drops – twenty feet left – and thirty feet right!

As demonstrated by the 2015 U.S. Amateur, you can have a course that tests the best and yet is fun for regular play. Recent tweaks include the removal of non-specimen trees, the contraction of a water hazard, the creation of a sub-6,000 yard set of tees, and repositioning of bunkers that had walled off the fronts of greens. These changes are all part of finding a much needed equilibrium and shout a message that the golf world needs to take to heart.

Olympia Fields with a history unlike any other is again living up to its lofty name.

The Olympia Fields train station is a scant hundred yards from the first tee, leaving members in downtown Chicago free to do their best Bernard Darwin imitation.

The Olympia Fields train station is a scant hundred yards from the first tee, allowing members in downtown Chicago free to do their best Bernard Darwin imitation.

The End