Golf Course Review: ThunderHawk (IL)

Just across the Wisconsin/Illinois border is a fantastic Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course that over the past two years has been rated as a top twelve municipal course in the country, ThunderHawk.
To those who know it, ThunderHawk is the best kept secret in the Milwaukee/Chicago area. The question is: How do golf enthusiasts in our area not know about it? Just an hour from Milwaukee, ThunderHawk is located in Beach Park, Illinois.
Now in its thirteenth year of golf, the course is run by the Lake Country Forest Preserve and has matured very nicely over the years. With a gorgeous clubhouse and accommodating staff, ThunderHawk is the perfect location to spend a Friday off of work, and is very reasonably priced. Our round today was $53, including cart, and greens fees get up to $85 for weekends in-season.

The feel of ThunderHawk is much like that of University Ridge (another Robert Trent Jones, Jr. course), with perfectly rolled fairways and an excellent blend of golf course and nature. Also like University Ridge, ThunderHawk features one of the best collections of par fives around.

The front nine begins with a blind tee shot straight away and over the crown of a very wide fairway. It’s bombs away on this 394-yard par four.

Hole 1: Par 4 (414/394/369/298)
The first of ThunderHawk’s awesome par fives is the 554-yard second hole. A huge oak tree stands directly between the tee boxes and the farther of the two fairways. The smartest play is a hybrid or long iron to the initial fairway left of the tees. ThunderHawk features huge, forgiving fairways, or else options to test the player’s metal. This tee shot is a terrific example of just that.
Hole 2: Par 5 (573/554/534/453)

The third is a 187-yard par three to a wide green. About 175 yards of this tee shot needs to be carried to avoid the wasteland that lies in between. The raised green will otherwise deflect anything short and right back in to the fescue.

Hole 3: Par 3 (212/187/153/95)

Following the long par three third hole is a very tough par four fourth. Sand litters the driving area, and the tee shot is uphill to a very small green amidst a tight squeeze of trees.

Hole 4: Par 4 (446/424/394/309)
The fifth is another tough par four. With woods on both sides, any errant tee shot is good as gone. The approach is over a small creek, and is again heavily wooded.
Hole 5: Par 4 (416/391/379/326)
The greens at ThunderHawk are large and read fairly. The par threes are classic Trent Jones, Jr. holes – huge greens with a lot of break, and almost all feature water and significant carries. My favorite of the par threes here is the 168-yard sixth hole. With water short and left, the massive green is slightly risen above a bevy of sand traps. This is a gorgeous par three, especially when seen from the putting surface.
Hole 6: Par 3 (178/168/138/90)
Following this excellent par three is the second of ThunderHawk’s wonderful par fives. With a fairway sloping heavily from right to left, this hole seems to have sand everywhere. At 501 yards from the brass tee boxes, this is a reachable par five in two, but the best bet is to avoid the beach and target shots one by one.
Hole 7: Par 5 (522/501/470/422)
Hole 7: Par 5 (522/501/470/422)

The eighth is a very interesting par four. Short and over water, the wind was directly in to the tee boxes on this hole. With 333 yards to the green, it was difficult to tell how far the carry is to fly the water hazard, but with the right side tight and full of sand, there were few other options! If you’re a big hitter, go for it. Otherwise, lay up right and hit a short wedge in.

With the wind heading out, this green is actually very reachable from the tee. We had a slight wind at our back the last time out (Monday, October 15, 2012), and my tee shot was pin high left of the greenside bunker.

Hole 8: Par 4 (338/333/302/254)

The ninth is the number one handicapped hole on the course, which I think should probably be numbered 1.5 along with the eighteenth. Both nines at ThunderHawk finish in similar fashion: Extraordinarily long, heavily wooded with sharp doglegs left. The ninth is the one hole at ThunderHawk where hitting less than driver can really hurt. I played a three-hybrid to the fairway, and found myself completely closed out from the dogleg by the trees. A par four over 450 yards, the ninth finishes strongly uphill, and is well guarded in front by greenside bunkers.

Hole 9: Par 4 (481/452/417/378)
Hole 9: Par 4 (481/452/417/378)
Hole 9: Par 4 (481/452/417/378)
The tenth is a welcoming site: Fairly straight and “only” 409 yards. With a slight skew left, the traps around the green here are deep and plentiful. In typical Trent Jones, Jr. style, they are primarily clover-leafed in style, and these juts can leave very uncomfortable sand shots.
Hole 10: Par 4 (429/409/362/299)
The eleventh at ThunderHawk is another beautiful par five. The driving area is downhill and runs slightly right. A massive tree blocks out the left side from a good approach in two, so if you find yourself there then just look for the approach fairway on the opposite side of the fescue.
Hole 11: Par 5 (517/512/503/444)
Hole 11: Par 5 (517/512/503/444)
Hole 11: Par 5 (517/512/503/444)
The twelfth is probably the most heavily wooded holes on the course. At just 363 yards, play whatever club you’re confident will go straight.
Hole 12: Par 4 (385/363/331/241)
Hole 12: Par 4 (385/363/331/241)
One of the most interesting par fours at ThunderHawk is the fourteenth. At 317 yards from the brass tee box, the green is absolutely unreachable and requires a short iron to set up the approach. Seven iron off the tee put me right at the 150 marker with a perfect shot at the highly elevated green. A huge marsh area lies between the two fairway areas, and from experience you can spend time in here and literally find dozens of Pro-V1’s in just minutes.
Hole 14: Par 4 (363/317/276/246)
Hole 14: Par 4 (363/317/276/246)
Maybe the most magnificent of the par fives at ThunderHawk is the sixteenth. At 568 yards, the tee shot has to be less than 3-wood. Draw a long iron right of the trees on the left side of the fairway to keep your second shot from having to go directly over water. Anything hit too long is destined to find the waste area, or water, that cuts in to the fairway. Hitting the second half of the fairway leaves a border of water on the entire right side of the hole, as well as in front of the green. This is a tremendous, tough par five hole.
Hole 16: Par 5 (578/568/558/401)
Hole 16: Par 5 (578/568/558/401)
Hole 16: Par 5 (578/568/558/401)
My other favorite of the par threes here is the seventeenth. The wind was blowing in and towards the pond, and mercilessly the pin location was all the way on top and on the right side of a green that was probably the largest green on the entire course. I had about a 75-foot putt for par, which obviously resulted in double-bogey.
Hole 17: Par 3 (182/154/130/106)
Hole 17: Par 3 (182/154/130/106)

Just as the front nine finishes with a huge challenge, so does the back. The left side of the fairway is covered with sand, while the right side is out of bounds. The fairway is quite wide for the drive, but the dogleg left tightens up significantly. A three-shot par five, the eighteenth finishes over a large rock pile and well above the level of the fairway. This is another great hole to play target golf on for any chance at birdie or par.

Hole 18: Par 5 (600/559/514/498)
Hole 18: Par 5 (600/559/514/498)
Hole 18: Par 5 (600/559/514/498)
Hole 18: Par 5 (600/559/514/498)
What else can I say about ThunderHawk? This course gives a first-class golf experience in one of the most secluded settings you will find anywhere. Wonderfully laid out and maintained, I certainly agree with those who call this track “The best kept secret in Midwest golf.”
Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Beach Park, IL
Yardage: Black-7,031, Brass-6,631, Silver-6,124, Auburn-5,046
Slope/Rating: Black-137/74.1, Brass-133/72.3, Silver-128/69.9, Auburn-123/69.5
Par: 72
Weekend Rates (riding): $85

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