12/15/16

Pure championship golf: Olympia Fields

An in-depth profile of the Willie Park Jr. designed North Course at Olympia Fields C.C.

by

The pride and joy of Chicago’s south suburbs, Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course arguably stands as the area’s premier championship golf course (Butler & Medinah also have claims). Olympia North is consistently ranked within the top 100 golf courses in the United States, claiming that place thanks to legendary Scottish architect Willie Park Jr. Over the years, the course has been lengthened, but nearly all of Park’s 1919 design and strategy remains intact as evidenced by the architect’s original course map.

Willie Park's original course map - Credit: Olympia Fields C.C.

The history

Olympia Fields is located in the small town of Olympia Fields, IL in one of Chicago’s two golf meccas, with neighbors like H.J. Tweedie’s Flossmoor C.C. and Donald Ross’s Ravisloe C.C. and Calumet C.C. The plans for Olympia were large when the club was founded in 1915 with a remarkable 674 acres of land with the dream of becoming the world’s premier and largest golf club. The course map indicates that the North Course was one of four courses at the South Side retreat, and one that Park personally referred to as one of his very best.

The first course was completed by Tom Bendelow in 1916, the second by William Watson in 1918 and the third a collaboration of Watson and Bendelow which opened in 1920. For the fourth course, the membership wanted to make a splash, eventually landing on the world renowned Willie Park Jr. to create a championship test on the beautiful property. While 72 holes of golf were unheard of at the time, the most remarkable aspect of Olympia Fields plans was the clubhouse. The club didn’t skimp, spending a princely sum of $1.3 million on the project. Its 80 foot tall clocktower remains the most recognizable feature of the entire facility.

The iconic clubhouse clock tower - Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

The Great Depression took a toll on the illustrious club and in the ’40s membership was forced to sell off a portion of the land, resulting in the closing of the second and third courses and leaving just the original Bendelow design (South Course) and Willie Park design (North Course).

Olympia Fields history is rooted in championship golf. The prestigious North Course has served as host to two U.S. Opens (1928 & 2003), two PGA Championships (1925 & 1961), a U.S. Amateur (2015), U.S. Senior Open (1997), five Western Opens and is set to host the 2017 Women’s PGA Championship.

While the North is one of the country’s finest championship tests, the South is hardly a slouch, consistently ranking as one of Chicago’s best. The two courses offer a nice contrast for membership, with the North providing a stern championship test and the South more grounded in playability and fun. Overall, Olympia Fields offers the best 36 hole private golf facility in the Midwest.

The North course

Regular visitors to Olympia Fields recognize that the property stands out to as one of the finest sites in Chicagoland. Its rolling hills and meandering creeks are rare for the flat swamp city. An invite to play either course at Olympia makes for a nice day; playing both, a spectacular day.

I recently played the North Course twice in one day with a buddy who is also a Web.com Tour player. It’s one of the few courses that gives me a moment of pause before heading to the back tee box. The first round we played back and I experienced first hand the difference between a good amateur player and a Web.com Tour player as my buddy breezed to a carefree 69 and I got my ass kicked to the tune of a 78. The second go-around, we chose to play up a tee box and the course was much gentler with me. This is what great architecture does – separate the wheat from the chaffe, while remaining playable for the everyday player.

HOLE #1 – 626/550 yards (tournament/championship) – par 5

Get ‘em early. The first hole at Olympia is the best birdie opportunity on the front nine, demanding a quick. The tee shot is guarded by deep fairway bunkers on both the right and left sides of the fairway. While college kids were getting home in two from 626 yards during the U.S. Am, that’s not in a most players’ bags which leaves a layup to get into wedge position. Look to avoid the fairway bunker on the left and find the fairway to approach the slightly uphill green that’s guarded by bunkers in front and left.

HOLE #2 – 467/440 yards – par 4

The second is where players get their first test with the long par-4 that doglegs to the right. The inside of the dogleg is protected by bunkering and from the back tee the carry is 280 yards. Willie Park demands the long hitter to challenge the bunker, if they bail left they will run out of fairway and find the rough or trees. A good drive will yield a mid-iron approach into a green that’s fronted by bunkers and has noticeable back-to-front pitch.

HOLE #3 – 461/439 yards – par 4

The 3rd is simply one of the best par-4s in all of golf. Here, players get an early look at the more dramatic section of the property. The tee shot is blind and runs downhill to a wide open area short of Butterfield Creek. OB down the left side creates the tendency to bail right. The right rough yields a very difficult angle and uphill approach shot to the elevated green, so finding the fairway is key. The hilltop green has bunkers on the right side and is volcano-like where a miss short, left, long or right is repelled into trouble.

HOLE #4 – 400/378 yards – par 4

After a couple of brutes, Willie Park changes pace with a pair of mid-length par-4s, each still very challenging. The 4th tee is set low on the property and requires a very precise tee shot. A sweeping draw is not the shot shape for this hole, as the out of bounds looms left and there are abundant trees right. Park artfully used the fairway undulation to challenge the player. Very rarely do you find a level lie. Longer players are typically greeted with a wedge shot from an upslope to a small green complex – not an easy shot. The green has plenty of back-to-front slope and being above the flag can leave a delicate putt.

HOLE #5 – 417/401 yards – par 4

After the 4th, players take the long walk back to the 5th tee and another tight chute out of which to to drive. Laying back on this hole is the smart play as the driving area is very narrow with bunkers pinching in at 260 yards. This leaves a mid-iron approach to one of Willie Park’s signature tabletop greens. Park uses a fronting bunker in the middle of the fairway to deceive players. While it looks like the bunker is pushed up to the green, there is actually 10 yards of space between it and the putting surface.

HOLE #6 – 187/179 yards – par 3

The green on the par-3 6th has been moved back into the clearing from its original position on the creek. It’s wide open and beautiful hole, but the green is larger than most and has two distinct tiers in back and front. The hole plays about a club downhill so with a good mid-iron a birdie can be had. An interesting quirk – players hit their tee shots to the 7th fairway while on the way down to the 6th green.

Hole 7 – 452/425 yards – par 4

The course returns to Park’s steady diet of tough four pars at the 7th, which demands a quality tee shot as bunkers pinch in on both the right and left side, narrowing the fairway to 20 yards across. From there, an uphill mid-iron approach is left to a relatively flat green except for the front section, which has back-to-front slope.

HOLE #8 – 280/206 yards – par 3

The 8th and one of the hardest par-3s to be found anywhere. Stretching to a lengthy 280 yards from the back tee box, the 8th requires a precise 3W or driver for most. If you play up, there are tees at 255 yards and 230 yards as well. The green is fronted by bunkers on both the right and left as well as one in the middle of the fairway run up area. This bunker is deceiving from the tee, but there is significant room over it to allow for a ball to run onto the green and hold. The green itself is large and has significant back-to-front slope, making the hole extra treacherous.

HOLE #9 – 472/460 yards – par 4

The front nine comes to a close with another tough par-4. The most difficult aspect of this hole is the tee shot. Players are forced to make a decision because of the treacherous fairway bunkers on the left and right. Try to thread the needle with a driver or lay back with a 3W or hybrid/long-iron. The landing area is 25 yards and a good drive can lead to a mid-iron approach as opposed to the long-iron left by laying back. The wise play is to lay back, leaving a long iron approach to a tough green complex. Bunkers sit on the left side and front right of the green that slopes severely from back to front and right to left.

HOLE #10 – 444/429 yards – par 4

The turn yields a gettable stretch of holes from the 10th-13th, which are in no way easy but are scorable for those who are on their games. The 10th tee shot is tight and favors a draw. The wise play is 270 yards off the tee, leaving a short to mid-iron. The key is to avoid the fairway bunkering for a clean approach to the green that has healthy back-to-front slope – keeping it below the hole is recommended.

HOLE #11 – 396/380 yards – par 4

The 11th is short by Olympia standards, and is a hole where everyone can cut the driver loose, especially those who like to move the ball right to left. A good drive will yield a wedge to a difficult green that is slightly elevated. The green has considerable front-to-back slope, and the left side falls off hard to the left. A pin in the middle of the green is tough as a shot that is slightly long or left will funnel all the way off the left side of the green.

HOLE #12 – 389/389 yards – par 4

The 12th is one of the most natural and beautiful holes on the property. While only 389 yards, Park forces players to lay up towards the fairway bunker with a 225 yard shot, leaving another mid-iron into the green. The creek bisects the fairway making it tough to hit a driver or longer club and shorten the hole. The green slopes significantly from back to front.

HOLE #13 – 168/168 yards – par 3

The scorable stretch of the back nine ends with the short to mid-iron par-3 13th. The seemingly benign one-shotter features a green that sweeps from left-to-right and has tricky internal contour, making long putts difficult. Recent clearing around the tee has improved the look and feel of this hole.

The well guarded 13th green

HOLE #14 – 450/438 yards – par 4

The 14th signals the start to the challenging close at Olympia. It is a picturesque par-4 from the elevated tee box that plays down into a valley. The longest hitters may need to pull 3W to avoid the creek that cuts back and forth across the fairway, but for most, the call is driver. The creek also runs down the right and trees protect the left. A good drive will yield a mid-iron approach to an elevated green. The green heavily sloped, and missing long is death.

HOLE #15 – 576/559 yards – par 5

The 15th is no lay-down par-5, and in particular, the tee shot is very challenging. Willie Park requires players to hit the ball down the left side of the fairway which is guarded by fairway bunkering to avoid being blocked out on the second shot.

Unless, of course, you are Tiger Woods…

Longer hitters can reach the 15th in two. For most, the second shot is a layup to leave a wedge approach to a large green which slopes from back-to-front with the right corner falling off.

HOLE #16 – 215/196 yards – par 3

The beautifully set 16th is a drop-shot par-3. It plays a half-club to full club downhill and is a tough target to hit. The green slopes severely from back-to-front, making a long miss not ideal, while the creek guards the front. Judging distance on this hole is critical.

HOLE #17 – 455/413 yards – par 4 

The long par-4 17th is a beauty. Players tee it up from just in front of the entry road and the fairway is guarded by bunkers down the left side and a creek to the right. The approach shot is tough – uphill to a green that has deep bunkers on the right and left side. The green itself is very flat but in no way easy as over time the land has settled and has subtle breaks that are tricky to read.

HOLE #18 – 498/445 yards – par 4

The closer is a dandy. The tee shot calls for a draw and the bunkers on the right side come into play. A poor drive will most likely force a layup and a tough up and down due to the heavily sloped green. Willie Park Jr. makes one final demand on players whose cards are still intact at this late stage.

From an architectural standpoint, the North Course shows the brilliance of Willie Park Jr. In particular, his ability to use the land. A lasting memory is how Park utilized the most dramatic pieces of the property, to create two of the best par-4s in America (3 & 14) as well as the unforgettable closing stretch of 16-18 (unfortunately, the USGA changed the routing for the’03 Open flipping making 2-9 11-18 & 11-18 2-9).

Olympia Fields Country Club’s North Course is a course you play knowing that if you don’t bring your A-game it’s going to beat you up. It tests all aspects of your game, especially off the tee, with almost every driving area pinched by deep bunkers. It’s pure championship golf, where the bigger the miss, the bigger the penalty. As the 1928 map shows, the property had abundant trees to begin with, and still does today, presenting a tree management challenge.

In most cases, you walk off the 18th and the scores tell the story of who played the best. While the North Course is extremely difficult, not once do you feel that it is at all unfair.

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