Chicago Golf: Swing big on the best courses in the Windy City

Is it really a surprise that the "City of Big Shoulders" has big golf courses?

On a list of Chicago's best public courses on Foursquare, 14 of the top 20 measure at least 7,000 yards, with everyone's top-ranked track, No. 4 at Cog Hill, knocking in loud and proud at 7,554 yards.

Chicago's fixation with brawn is evident at Seven Bridges Golf Club in Woodridge, which advertises that its 7,111-yard course is "not for wimps." Incidentally, Seven Bridges is not for penny pinchers either as it charges $110 for a weekend round.

In the city of Oprah Winfrey, Mike Ditka, John Belushi and William "The Refrigerator" Perry, size clearly matters.

Where golf is concerned, it translates to muscular parkland tracks, built in the image of iconic public standbys Pine Meadow Golf Club (7,297 yards), which traces its roots to 1921, and Cog Hill, which opened the first of its four courses in 1927.

Both were eventually taken over by the godfather of Chicago public golf, Joe Jemsek. The son of Russian immigrants, Jemsek was determined to give public golfers access to courses as good as the city's blue-blooded privates. Before anyone had ever uttered the term "upscale public," Jemsek was providing it in the Windy City.

In 1964, when Jemsek opened No. 4 at Cog Hill, also known as Dubsbred, Chicago had a nationally ranked public course on par with the city's big, private championship venues such as Olympia Fields, Medinah and Butler National. Fifty years after the opening of Dubsdred, Chicago public golf is still ahead of the curve.

An example of the advanced state: A list of the nation's top 50 municipal tracks on Golfweek includes five from the Chicago area, more than any other city.

"There are so many very good, relatively inexpensive daily-fee courses available here," legendary Chicago amateur Joel Hirsch told Golfweek in 2012. "There are quality courses available for every pocketbook, not just for the well-to-do."

The Glen Club, ranked no. 2 among public golf courses in Illinois (Golf Magazine), is the priciest course in Chicago owing to its ritzy North Shore address, its designer (Tom Fazio) and its highfalutin mission to be "Chicago's premier golf address for strengthening corporate relationships."

But there are excellent Chicago golf courses that command less than half the price. Two of the best examples, Orchard Valley Golf Club and ThunderHawk Golf Club, rank no. 6 and 7 respectively among publics in Illinois, according to

Unpretentious Orchard Valley is defined by large waste areas and water hazards. ThunderHawk is a Robert Trent Jones-designed municipal gem with risk/reward at every turn. Similarly priced and ranked is another Robert Trent Jones design, Prairie Landing Golf Club, a links course with huge fairways and immaculate conditions.

Players can even find outstanding courses at less than a third of the greens fee at The Glen Club. The two best examples are Keith Foster designs. Shepherd's Crook Golf Course, a mile from the Wisconsin border, doesn't fit Chicago's big, parkland mold. It's a links course that measures 6,771 yards and reminds some of Irish classic Ballybunion. Highlands of Elgin is full of fun, strategic holes, including several on the back nine that play around a quarry.

While Highlands ranks no. 8 in the nation among municipal courses (Golfweek), another Elgin course ranks 12 slots lower. Bowes Creek Country Club, designed by native son Rick Jacobson, has a spectacular back nine, causing players to wonder if they are still in Illinois. Bowes Creek is the place to go for those looking to play more than 18 holes. For a daily fee of $95, golfers can play until the sun goes down.

In the same neighborhood, just to the north in Cary, Foxford Hills Golf Club and Chalet Hills Golf Club are a solid value duo located less than a mile apart.

There's little doubt about the most aesthetically pleasing course in Chicagoland. Cantigny Golf Course in Wheaton is on a lush parcel of land which includes 12 lakes and two creeks. After it opened in 1989, it was named the best new public course in the nation (Golf Digest).

"I don't think there's a place anywhere on the property where you could take a picture, and it wouldn't look like paradise," said Rory Spears, a longtime Chicago sports and golf reporter. "When it opened, you couldn't get a tee time. But you didn't have the public course selection that you have now."

While Cantigny sits on an idyllic piece of property, Harborside International Golf Center was built on a landfill. But the facility's Starboard Course and Port Course rank in the top 50 on Golfweek's national muni list thanks to its views of the Chicago skyline and unique setting near Lake Calumet.

To the southwest of Chicago, Ruffled Feathers Golf Club, a collaborative effort between Pete Dye and son P.B., is overshadowed by the facility literally across the street -- Cog Hill. For better value in the same neighborhood, check out Heritage Bluffs Golf Club, Big Run Golf Club or Mistwood Golf Course.

For those seeking a retro experience, the place to go is Ravisloe Country Club. After 107 years as one of Chicago's oldest private courses, Ravisloe went public in 2009, eight years after it was renovated to original designer Donald Ross's specifications, and now ranks sixth in the state among publics (Golfweek).

Also worthy of consideration are a pair of Arthur Hills designs -- Stonewall Orchard Golf Club and Bolingbrook Golf Club -- an upscale muni some consider excessively ostentatious with its 76,000-square-foot clubhouse but also with an undeniable wow factor as no expense was spared in building this man-made course.

If the creators of Bolingbrook were perhaps trying too hard, who could blame them? In an area that has it all, a course needs to go to extremes to set itself apart.

Kevin Dunleavy is a longtime resident of northern Virginia, a graduate of George Mason University, an award-winning reporter covering golf, colleges, and other sports for the Washington Examiner, and a single-digit handicap still seeking his elusive first hole-in-one. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KDunleavy.
Commented on

Obviously the author has not played Orchard Valley this's not even close to the Chicago area of the best example of great inexpensive is (and was) a nice track but their tees and greens are in terrible shape.

Starting the article out with Seven Bridges as the first mention? They don't even have a driving range to warm up on.....feel free to play that one cold at 7000 plus yards and pay a greens fee well more than double than anywhere else.   I wouldn't even put Seven Bridges in my top 25 muni's in Chicago area......and that's regardless of price.

Related Links

More from the author
3 Min Read
November 4, 2016
Ocean City has become a bona fide golf destination, with enough stellar public courses to fill even a weeklong trip. And one of them is Ocean Pines Golf & C.C.
4 Min Read
November 23, 2015
There are many stay-and-play options in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C region, but none can match the combination of upscale amenities at a reasonable price, the private-course conditions, the diversity of courses and the Interstate convenience of Turf Valley in Ellicott City, Md.
3 Min Read
June 9, 2015
Since it opened in 1995, family owned Wetlands Golf Club in Aberdeen, Md. has been favored by locals for its fast greens, interesting risk/reward layout, Scottish accents, cozy Cape Cod clubhouse and, most of all, its value.
4 Min Read
January 7, 2015
While golf should never be confused with war, Paul Azinger did learn a valuable lesson from the Navy SEALs for the 2008 Ryder Cup.
3 Min Read
December 5, 2014
As a public course under the new ownership of developer D.R. Horton, the fortunes of Cobblestone Park Golf Club have turned. The evidence is the elegant clubhouse -- in construction limbo for years -- which was finally completed in the fall of 2014.
5 Min Read
December 4, 2014
The seven counties of South Carolina known as the Olde English District is a paradise for golfers who like to play fast, pay less and take the road less traveled.
6 Min Read
November 6, 2023
We make golf gift shopping easier with this handy guide.
2 Min Read
November 20, 2023
Golf is a game of control and composure. Don't lose yours by tossing a club.
1 Min Read
October 31, 2023
If you want to hole more putts, you should take the advice of the world's greatest golfers.
8 Min Read
November 12, 2023
The rise of artists launching their own companies has changed the way golfers use wall art that impresses their co-workers on Zoom.
Now Reading
Chicago Golf: Swing big on the best courses in the Windy City