Just across the Wisconsin/Illinois border in Waukegan is one of the best hidden gems I’ve come across in a while: Glen Flora Country Club.
A club whose roots date back to 1900, and its course to 1922 at the current location, Glen Flora is a lush, Golden Age parkland track with a flourishing membership and layout that’s quickly becoming one of the top private options in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago.
A par 70 on the scorecard, GFCC stretches to 6,602 yards with plenty of bite, and looks forward to hosting this month’s Chicago District Golf Association’s 102nd Amateur Championship.
Originally designed by Willie Marshall and Austie Claeyssens, Glen Flora features a flurry of Golden Age design elements that harken players to the styles of Langford/Moreau, Seth Raynor, Donald Ross and Tom Bendelow – slight nods to these stalwart architects’ best works of the era that evoke emotional response while retaining a uniqueness found seldomly these days.
Holes like the par three 11th, for example, are like nothing I’ve seen before: A mid-length shot over water where the pond should never, ever be in play but looks to the eye as though it almost fronts the green. Langford/Moreau would have been proud of this hole – its lowered target area is dimensionally shrouded by the high edges of the pond, hiding 50+ yards of lowered ground leading up to its elevated green complex.
An easy walk with rounds averaging 3-1/2 hours, Glen Flora is a golf club with terrific bones, and it was those bones that current owner Dean Chudy appreciated when he purchased it in 2015, rescuing it from a repurposing project that would have taken away its 100-plus years of golf heritage. There was work that needed to be done, though, and for that he turned to the caring hands of GFCC golf member and ascending course architect Samuel Beckman.
Beckman, who currently lives near Shoreacres Golf Club in neighboring Lake Bluff, owns and operates Emergency 9 Golf and has worked in close partnership with Chudy and GFCC Golf Course Superintendent Ross Page since 2019 on a “Historical renovation” of the course that’s aimed at updating its layout for modern play while improving drainage and sustainability, and promoting a more uniform identity.
Sam’s doing a fantastic job, in my opinion, pushing and pulling on green sites and bunker locations throughout the course to make it more enjoyable for high-handicappers and more strategic for competitive ones. Tipping out at just over 6,600 yards, it’s a comfortable trek but challenging test, as illustrated by its slope and rating of 136/71.7. While there are birdie opportunities along the way, there is also a litany of demanding approach shots into creative green complexes, forcing players to hit skilled iron shots and then think their way through imaginative putts.
One of the keys to Beckman’s renovation work is a reimagining of its sand traps. Previously featuring high flashed edges and deep bottoms, they retained rain water during storms and would frequently wash out. With Beckman and Page’s work focusing on ~ 10 bunkers per year, it’s interesting to see the dichotomy currently in place – for example on the par four 13th that’s currently being worked on. Its gloriously updated green complex is now flanked by deep, sod-faced traps front-right and left, while the cross bunker in the driving area has yet to be started on.
Shown here is its green area. The deep front-right bunker has actually been halved from its original dimensions, but dug deeper to make recovery shots from the right side more intimidating.
The cross “pimple bunker,” on the other hand, will be repositioned further down the fairway, better protecting the hole against long hitters. The large willow tree beyond it, too, will be removed, as will the hidden bunker beyond that currently catches wayward tee shots on the neighboring 12th and over-penalizes shorter hitters on an already difficult uphill tee shot.
Another great example of Beckman’s strategic redesigning is on its 585-yard par five fifth, which many members consider to be the club’s signature hole.
Fairway traps were previously located within range for short drivers, but were easily flown by longer ones. By removing nonessential trees and relocating bunkers, the hole is no longer bomb and gouge but requires strategic aim. Top players can now aim for a speed slot off the left-side trap around 275 yards, which will bound long drives forward and toward the center of the fairway.
A large oak tree was left on the right side of the fairway, which if driven into the sand trap on that side requires players to choose which side of the tree to play around. While it may sound penal, the amount of limbing that’s been done and overall tree removal to the right side of it leaves almost a fairway’s worth of land to play to on that side if chosen.
Staying on five, the green was previously fronted on the left with a Las Vegas-style fountain that never fit the course’s personality. Beckman removed and replaced it with a much more fitting, nine-step deep greenside bunker that, while penal, allows players to still score with a deft recovery.
As with any Golden Age course, Glen Flora was overpopulated with trees. Beckman, Page and Chudy have worked diligently to remove the ones unnecessary for play to open up site lines, allow for better air flow and turf growth and, of course, result in more playable angles.
They’re also adding trees back in – mostly higher-quality oak specimens to replace lower-grade crab apples, ash and other “garbage” trees that currently help define some of its fairways. Limbing across the course is already helping the grass breathe and grow in healthier, and is taking away impeded backswings from off the short grass.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I love about Glen Flora is the obvious influence its original architects had from other great designers of their time.
Beckman’s work, especially through green recoveries/expansions, is helping bring back the character of its complexes that to me feel a lot like some of Tom Bendelow or even Donald Ross’s best work. Rollicking curtains define many of their perimeters and offer future opportunities to add ramps, backstops and punch bowls that can again be utilized to influence short game creativity. A prime example of this is on the par three 2nd hole, which has most of the characteristics of a reverse redan but without the length.
Its elevated left side kicks tee shots onward, and the front-right bunkers – formerly one oversized trap that didn’t allow the green to drain, leading to ice dams – catch anything wayward.
The back bunker was also redesigned, having previously been flashed to near green height.
While the hole is currently too short to be a true reverse redan, future cart path re-routing should free up enough space to stretch the tee boxes an extra 20 yards or more.
Another template-like green at Glen Flora is the nearby par four 7th, the course’s number one handicapped hole. Teeing off over water to a right-to-left dogleg, this 441-yard beast has an incredibly special mini-biarritz quality with a deep swale that runs laterally through its center.
Future work on this section of the course includes a full renovation of its bunker infrastructure, which will include a shared sand complex between the 1st and 7th holes. In addition to obvious aesthetic enhancements, this change will also keep players from driving carts between the greens, marring the shared turf that’s in close proximity.
I really enjoyed Glen Flora’s shared areas. In addition to shortening green-to-tee walks, it promotes camaraderie and a shared golf experience among the club’s close membership without having “danger zones” where errant shots are potentially hazardous.
Another great example of this is the area near the back of the clubhouse. The facility’s back walls are almost entirely covered with windows, and a men’s lounge overlooks the 18th with spectacular views of the par three finish along with the 1st, 9th and 10th holes. I’m told the peanut gallery can get a little aggressive in this area, especially later in the day when wagers can be put on who hits and misses the oversized putting surface.
The property’s northeast corner, between the par four 14th and par five 15th, is another location where several holes have great intimacy. The only green on the course that runs away from the front, the 14th is not only a challenge to hit but to hold.
Beckman’s new bunkering near this green is another great sample of his recent work. The deep right-side trap is no treat to hit out of, and the one just short and left of the putting surface will result in a mid-range wedge from sand that can give many players fits.
Walking off the 14th green, the shared surface concept has been expanded by way of a fairway walk-up to the tees on the 540-yard long par five 15th.
Expanding the fairway’s width considerably by way of tree removal and new mowing patterns, the target from the tee on this hole is the large oak tree to the left side. This tree is actually located in the fairway, and has again been limbed up enough to allow for plenty of shots under and around its branches.
The green on fifteen is one that will be addressed soon, with work scheduled for the sand traps in both the approach area and green surrounds (both removals and relocations are still on the table), and a recovery of other zones on the outside of the green’s unique putting surface to include more of its contoured aprons.
The wind, heavily influenced by Lake Michigan just a mile and a half away, was howling for our back nine, and was directly at our backs on 18. Sam, an accomplished competitive player, placed his tee shot pin-high-left on his final swing from 183 yards… with a 9-iron. My own came up just short-left, but was still benefited by an at least 3-club sustained breeze.
Just finding this massive putting surface results in anything but an easy par, especially given the middle-left hole location cut that morning. Everything left of the pin runs hard that way, leaving a long uphill recovery putt for anything that barely missed.
Eighteen is one of a group of great par threes. In addition to the reverse redan-like 2nd, all-world 11th and exciting finishing 18th, the 6th is an absolute beast.
Beckman’s recent work on this hole has made it a wonderful, long one-shotter that is probably the hardest par three at Glen Flora. Tipping out at 217 yards, its plateau green is bordered to the left by a pond with a river bisecting the lead-up area. A strong false front and severe inner contours make the green an adventure once hit, while a deep greenside bunker to the right catches shots pushed away from the water (I won’t mention this sand trap’s recently given moniker).
A steep-faced flash bunker to the front-left was recently removed, which is helping the green drain better while providing more emphasis to the elevated green’s false front and run-offs.
Numerous trees were removed from this area, especially behind the green complex, and is already helping the overall health of the turf while presenting great views over the tumultuous par four 7th. In one of the most exposed areas of the property, wind is now a massive factor for club selection on the lengthy 6th.
Probably my favorite hole at Glen Flora, though, is the dogleg right par four 16th. The sharp dogleg suggests a high fade, leading to an elbow that opens to views of one of my favorite green complexes on the entire course. While it hasn’t been worked on yet, future work will expand the putting surface further back and left, allowing for additional pin locations on that side.
While the green is canted severely from left to right, right-side hole locations can actually be attacked straight-on – something Beckman notes most members don’t realize. Regardless, hitting to this putting surface’s front-left entry point and seeing the ball trickle down across its surface is quite satisfying and tough to forego.
Sam and I both hit dreaded straight balls into the trees left of the fairway on this tee shot, and neither of us found the green in regulation, but we both had very cool adventures on it either way.
Sam’s approach shot found the rough ten yards behind the green, and mine stayed somehow up on the high left collar. After Sam holed out from 30 yards [tremendously downhill] for birdie, I putted mine literally back up the fairway and watched as it picked up speed, tumbling down the front section of the green and almost off the right side entirely. I had about a 30-footer coming back uphill and found nothing but the center of the cup. I’ll take it.
To call Glen Flora a hidden gem is an understatement, and the ongoing work being performed by Beckman and Page is doing so much more than just beautifying and updating an underknown course.
The topography at Glen Flora is very impressive, its routing was well thought out and I believe the updates being carried out will put it on par with just about any club found on the Greater Chicago area’s north side.
To me, golf course architecture is about the blending of thoughtfulness and pragmatism, and the renovation being carried out at Glen Flora is a phenomenal study in the way a thoughtful architect can take something that’s already good and make it truly great – without breaking the bank. With Beckman’s intimate knowledge of the course and membership, and Page and his crew’s ability to perform all the work in-house, they’re accomplishing a major facelift efficiently and cost-effectively.
You, too, can follow along with Beckman and Emergency 9 Golf’s exciting renovation at Glen Flora on Instagram, and if you have the opportunity to then make sure you check it out for yourself.
On their ongoing work at Glen Flora, Beckman says:
“I am really proud of the work. The relationship Ross, Dean and I have is special… And that extends to the relationship between myself, Ross’s crew, and the entire staff. And now that the members are really getting to see major changes, they are extremely supportive.”
– Samuel Beckman, Emergency 9 Golf
I’m supportive, too, and excited to revisit the club in future years to watch how the project plays out. I have no doubt that under Beckman’s ongoing architectural leadership Glen Flora will continue to flourish for many years to come.