Golf Club Review: Black Sheep Golf Club (IL)

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.

Black Sheep: One of the best logos in golf

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.

The golf course at Black Sheep is one of the best competition courses I’ve ever played.

In fact, it played host this day to our 2019 Illinois vs. Wisconsin Writer’s Cup match.

An early morning view of the remote Black Sheep Golf Club from high above the clubhouse
Aerial view of the par four tenth at Black Sheep Golf Club

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.

A look back at the clubhouse from beyond the tenth hole green site

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.

Tee shot on the long, three-shot par five 11th at Black Sheep

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.

A look at the fairway transition on the par five 11th, from around 260 yards out

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.

The short par three 25th hole, from 135 yards over fescue and sand

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 par five 2nd hole at Black Sheep
An intimidating expanse of sand to carry to get home on the par five 2nd

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.

Tee highest tee box on 3, fairly straight-on

The next set of tees offers a straight-on approach with a clear lane to the green, and slightly less elevation.

Different tee, different angle on 3

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.

Options galore! Line and club selection are key off the tee on 5

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.

Tee shot on the 600-plus yard par five 6th
The approach shot on the par five 6th

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 uphill close to the front/first nine at Black Sheep Golf Club

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.

Tee shot on the par five 18th at Black Sheep
Approach shot on 18
An aerial view of the 18th green from above the Black Sheep clubhouse

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.

Just a sliver of fairway shows through shrouded tees on the 27th

The thirteenth is the longest par three on the course at Black Sheep, tipping out at 241 yards.

The long par three 13th

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.

Team Wisconsin Writer’s Cup Co-Captain Gary D’Amato putting on the unique 23rd green

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.

Team Wisconsin, minus Brian Weis

Course Wrap-Up:
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
Par: 72

Back Sheep Golf Club Website

Golf Course Review: The Preserve at Oak Meadows (IL)

Each year golf writers from Wisconsin and Illinois emerge at the course of the hosts’ choosing for an epic 27-hole battle: The Writers’ Cup.

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Team Wisconsin (red) and Team Illinois (blue) before teeing off at The Preserve at Oak Meadows for the 2017 Writer’s Cup

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2017 Team Wisconsin

After sending our neighbors to the south home beaten from Sand Valley in 2016, Illinois welcomed us to their newly renovated gem in Addison, The Preserve at Oak Meadows.

Closed down for the 2016 season, The new Preserve course has been beautifully redesigned by Greg Martin as a single 18-hole championship course (pared down from 27 holes) that is now not only a more functional golf facility but also better serves its expanded role of providing water retention/flood control for the Wood Dale/Addison area.

As a golf course architect, Greg Martin is not yet a household name but I believe he will be. Martin, based out of Illinois, recently ended his two-year term as President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). He’s highly revered within the industry for his work ethic and talent; you’ll never talk to a golf course architect with anything bad to say about him and his work.

Martin’s most notable project to date is one that few will ever experience: Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois. The story goes that billionaire Jerry Rich wanted to be a member at Augusta National Golf Club – who wouldn’t? When he was turned down, he decided to build an Augusta-class course on his own property, leading to the development of Rich Harvest Farms.

This passion project at Rich Harvest Farms has done well enough to host the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Championships in 2017, the 2015 Western Amateur, the 2009 Solheim Cup and countless regional events.

Combined, that is probably as many players as the course sees on a seasonal basis. From what I’ve heard from media friends who’ve played it, the course sees a few foursomes a day while employing a massive staff to ensure perfect course conditions and customer service. It is the type of place where nothing is overlooked and the golf experience is second to none. I’ve heard they have 30 members (including Michael Jordan) and over one hundred employees.

It’s this attention to detail and professionalism that I’m sure won over DuPage Golf for the $17 million remodel project at The Preserve at Oak Meadows. Martin’s work impresses with well thought out teeing locations, terrific greens and strategic shot value.

I’ll claim it’s an effort to avoid spoiling all the surprises, but reality is that the downpour during much of our round was so torrential I didn’t even take my camera out. I hope to get back sometime to add in the first through third holes, though, to complete my course review.

We’ll start out with the short par four fourth, a terrific risk/reward layout: The 302 yards the scorecard shows from the blue tees is indicative of playing down the fairway, so it’s shorter and very reachable.

Anything aimed at the green will need to fly a whole lot of fescue, so while the reward is high, the risk can be substantial.

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Hole 4: Par 4 (352/337/302/273/255)

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Hole 4: Par 4 (352/337/302/273/255)

The fifth is a right-to-left par five playing uphill and to the right through a chute of trees. Just left of the right-side fairway bunkering is the perfect line off the tee.

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Hole 5: Par 5 (529/514/497/483/384)

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Hole 5: Par 5 (529/514/497/483/384)

The narrowest hole on the course, the sixth is perfectly straight, slightly downhill and well bunkered short-right of the putting surface.

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Golf Course Review: Medinah Country Club, Course No. 3 (IL)

Medinah CC No. 3 Course Rankings:
Golf Digest: #48 US, #3 Illinois
GolfWeek: #85 Classic
Golf.com: #44 US
Architect: Tom Bendelow; Rees Jones

This past May, I had the good fortune of being invited to the unveiling of Rees Jones’ newly renovated Course Two at Medinah Country Club. Since the course was not yet ready to be played, we were treated to a round on a championship course that I’ve dreamed of playing for years: Medinah No. 3.

Most recently the site of the 2012 Ryder Cup, No. 3 has played host to a plethora of golf championships, including that Ryder Cup, three Western Opens (now the BMW Championship), the 1988 US Senior Open, three US Opens (1949, 1975, 1990) and two PGA Championships (1999, 2006).

Currently ranked the 48th best golf course in the country (public or private), No. 3 has a heritage that is unmatched in the Midwest.

The course starts out with a relatively straight-forward par four. Tee it high and let it fly – anything that flies the hill should get a good roll forward down the hill, leaving a short iron or wedge in.

From the first green on, players are introduced to some terrific Tom Bendelow designed greens. The back-right pin location we had moved a ton.

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

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Hole 1: Par 4 (433/383/357/357)

The first in a fabulous set of par threes, the second hole plays entirely over water. While all the tee boxes are adjacent to the lake, the required carry and especially the angle in changes dramatically depending on tees.

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