Located just 45 miles west of Chicago, outside of Aurora, is a little slice of Heaven developed by attorney and real estate developer, Vince Solano, Jr.
One of four men’s only clubs in the state of Illinois (which makes up about a fifth to sixth of the total in the US), Solano developed Black Sheep to provide its membership a true home-away-from-home, with a comfortable but well-appointed, functional open clubhouse with a locker room, pro shop and a great room / bar area. It has everything it needs, and little it doesn’t.
There is no pool. No tennis courts. No dining room. No dress code.
There are no menus and no kitchen. The dining options are burger or chicken sandwich from the grill out back, or their famous peanut butter and jalapeno sandwich (there may have been a few pre-made options in the refrigerator that I missed).
There is no waitstaff. In fact, there are very few employees, in general, although those who are there including PGA Head Golf Professional Kevin Healy are tremendously helpful and accommodating, and will help throughout the clubhouse.
All of this adds up to an intimate experience with low overhead. That means members get an elite, top-100 club with the lowest dues of any private course in the Chicago area (just over $7k/year, although initiation is ~ $35k), no food and beverage minimums, and no reliance on outside cash flow. With no need to host outside events on Mondays, for example, the course is open to membership seven days a week.
Black Sheep has 27 holes of fantastic David Esler designed golf that ebbs and inhales across a vast 285 acres of Illinois prairie land.
The holes Esler laid out will test every club in the bag, and will reward players who can pull off drawn and cut shot shapes while allowing for straight and steady play down its forgiving fairways.
In fact, it played host this day to our 2019 Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup match.
The first and tenth holes tee off adjacent to the clubhouse, but while the first hole heads west, the tenth leads players downhill and to the north.
One of my favorite holes on the course is the lightning bolt shaped par five 11th. The fairway runs out from the tee, and helped turbo-charge my 275-ish yard drive well over 300.
Any 200-yard shot at the green in two, though, will need to carry a ton of greenside bunkers and would be ill-advised, at best. There is a ton of room short and left of the green for laying up and leaves a great angle in.
The course uses elevation well, especially on the par threes. My favorite is the short 25th, measuring just 135 yards to a postage stamp sized green that slopes hard from back to front.
Proximity on the tee shot is the whole game here. Anything outside 15 feet will leave a challenging two-putt, and anything short will likely be marooned well below the putting surface.
One of my favorite holes on the course is the par five second. Tipping out at 535 yards, this is a great three-shot hole that will penalize players for getting overly aggressive.
The third is a beautiful downhill par three with a bevy of teeing options. The tee box nearest the second hole green is the highest, and forces players to take on more of the sand traps front-right of the green.
The next set of tees offers a straight-on approach with a clear lane to the green, and slightly less elevation.
The fifth continues my favorite stretch of holes at Black Sheep Golf Club, a drivable par four that is risk/reward at its very best.
Under 300 yards to the green, the putting surface is partially hidden by a volcano bunker front-left, and is one of the most heavily sloped greens on the course.
Any attempt at hitting this green better be straight. Errant shots left will likely disappear in the fescue, and anything short-right will be swallowed up by the pond.
Esler designed great width in to the longer holes, generating a lot of options for how they can be played. This is the case on the par five sixth, the longest hole on the course tipping out at a beefy 618 yards.
By the green on six is where I noticed something little but interesting at Black Sheep: A new way of hiding trash cans. Rather than having the standard garbage cans near tee boxes, their refuse bins are buried in the ground with a pop-up button to step on that opens the lid.
Another Chicago-area course with a creative way of hiding otherwise unsightly on-course amenities is the Greg Martin designed Rich Harvest Farms. RHF buries their rakes near sand traps with a button that pops them up when needed… For whatever reason, I always enjoy seeing creative new ways of doing the mundane.
Because there are 27 holes, there is no true starting or finishing hole at Black Sheep. Instead there are three, and all three nines end with strong uphill layouts returning to the perched clubhouse.
A view of the ninth:
The eighteenth is my favorite of the finishing holes at Black Sheep. Climbing sharply uphill, the green is perched before the clubhouse and provides no visual of the ball landing. The approach has to carry the greenside bunkers and mounded front edge, so spin control is important.
The 27th is intimidating off the tee, with fescue that looks to encroach on the driving area from all directions. The fairways are wide, though, at Black Sheep, and the uphill approach shot is to the bottom section of the otherwise shared 2-acre practice putting green.
The thirteenth is the longest par three on the course at Black Sheep, tipping out at 241 yards.
Maybe my favorite green complex on a course with tremendous greens is the putting surface on the par four 23rd. A double-ripple effect divides the green, twice, running from front-left to back-right, and the day’s pin location was just paces from the right edge.
I am a big fan of Black Sheep Golf Club. Solano and his team developed a spectacular golf experience for golfers, and did it in a way that is world-class good at an affordable annual price point.
As for the Writer’s Cup, Team Wisconsin managed a fourth consecutive win, retaining the Reid Hanley Trophy to be fought for once again at 2020’s tournament scheduled to be held at the redesigned Club at Lac La Belle.
Location: Sugar Grove, IL
Yardage: Holes 1-18: Black-7111, Grey-6732, White-6463; Holes 1-9, 19-27: Black-6930, 6659, 6382; Holes 10-27: Black-7107, Grey-6729, White-6519
Slope/Rating: Holes 1-18: Black-74.7/137, Grey-72.7/133, White-71.5/130; Holes 1-9, 19-27: Black-73.5/134, Grey-72.1/132, White-70.8/129; Holes 10-27: Black-74.6/135, Grey-72.6/132, White-71.7/130