Eagle Ridge Golf Resort & Spa in Galena: Illinois' original golf resort is still the king

Now under new management, Eagle Ridge Golf Resort & Spa is a yearly destination for golfers throughout the Midwest. With four courses -- North, South, East and The General -- it has remained the king of public golf in Illinois.

GALENA, Ill. -- In the early to mid-1800s, Galena was arguably the most prosperous and important city in "the West" -- more so even than Chicago, about 170 miles to the east. Galena was a bustling riverboat and lead-mining city, with 14,000 inhabitants in the mid-1800s, and famous for its related, often scandalous, industries: alcohol (Red Stripe Beer actually originated in Galena), tobacco, "hospitality," and politics. President Ulysses S. Grant had a home here, and the DeSoto House Hotel, which was the largest hotel in "the West" when it opened in 1855, was the site of famous speeches by both Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

The surprisingly rich history of Galena is not the only thing that makes this northwestern-most corner of Illinois unique. The topography of this "driftless zone" is characterized by bluffs, hills, valleys and exposed rock outcroppings, due to the fact that it escaped glaciation during the last ice age. (The only other area in the state that was not scraped flat by ice is the very southern tip.) Given this landscape, the Galena area is the only place in Illinois where you'll find downhill ski slopes. It is also the location of the first, and largest, true golf resort in the state, Eagle Ridge Golf Resort & Spa.

Eagle Ridge Resort comprises more than 200 homes and villas, 80 hotel guest rooms, the 6,000-square-foot Stonedrift Spa and 63 holes of arguably the best public golf in Illinois, along with tennis, swimming, marina, fishing, several dining options and the aforementioned ski slopes. The sprawling grounds of Eagle Ridge, with all the hills and valleys and even a waterfall, feel more like northern Michigan than northern Illinois.

Golf at Eagle Ridge Resort

The three 18-hole courses and one nine-hole course at Eagle Ridge Resort all feature memorable elevation changes and challenging tee shots.

Eagle Ridge's North Course (opened in 1977, 6,875 yards, par 72) and South Course (opened in 1984, 6,762 yards, par 72) are solo Roger Packard designs, and the executive East Course (opened in 1991, 2,648 yards, par 34) took shape with input from Packard and resort golf staff.

The centerpiece course is The General (opened in 1997, 6,820 yards, par 72), and it's a Roger Packard–Andy North collaboration. The General is regularly found on national lists of top resort and public courses and is usually ranked as one of the top public golf courses in Illinois. The General is every bit as undulating as the North and the South but presents far fewer blind tee and approach shots than those older tracks, and therefore offers one visually impressive (and slightly intimidating) hole after another.

Eagle Ridge Resort, and Galena

Recent years had witnessed Eagle Ridge Resort slide a bit in national rankings, both for the golf courses and the resort itself. However, the resort changed management companies in June 2013 with the goal of upgrading the facilities and returning the golf courses to the standards of playability and conditioning that had garnered so many honors over the years.

According to Colin Sanderson, director of sales and marketing, a tremendous amount of money has already been invested in maintenance equipment and in "trying to get the courses back to how they were originally designed." Progressively encroaching native grass areas and scrub brush had narrowed fairways and restricted shot-making. Now those areas have been trimmed and thinned to reduce lost balls and length of rounds.

"We've also just finished a $4.5 million renovation of the hotel lobby and grounds and have been certified as a conference center," Sanderson said. The attention to detail in the renovation is apparent, right down to the beer list in the hotel pub, which includes the Leinenkugel Screaming Eagle -- a brown ale served only at Eagle Ridge.

About seven miles away in downtown Galena, visitors find block after block of charming, brick-fronted shops and restaurants, where gourmet foodstuffs, chocolates, chic home furnishings, local artwork and antiques are the main attractions. Foodies should visit The Galena Garlic Company for spices, salts, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar tastings, and Chocolat' for indulgences of the nearly sinful variety.

Fried Green Tomatoes is a favorite restaurant of both locals and tourists, especially their Tipsy Tuesdays, when all glasses of wine are just $2. Another excellent place for an inventive menu of locally sourced food is One Eleven Main. The Blaum Bros. Distilling Co., located on the outskirts of town on the way towards Eagle Ridge, offers tours and tastings as well.

History buffs will not only find President Grant's home but also a Civil War encampment, the oldest wood-structure home in Illinois and several historic mansions, all of which offer tours. The Galena River, once the lifeblood of the town, silted up in the early 1900s due to lead-mining activities and now is largely contained by a bulwark of levies and, on occasion, massive flood gates at the entrance to the historic downtown area. Yet clues to the town's rich, industrious and boisterous past are found on historical markers and signs throughout town.

Eagle Ridge Resort is a yearly destination for golfers throughout the Midwest -- I ran into a half-dozen groups who have been visiting every year for more than 20 years. And it is easy to see why: There is nothing else quite like it in Illinois or in the rest of the Midwest.

For more information, see eagleridge.com.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.
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Eagle Ridge Golf Resort & Spa in Galena: Illinois' original golf resort is still the king