Downers Grove Golf Club provides history with enjoyable challenge

When you get the green light to begin a series on nine-hole golf courses in the Chicagoland area there's only one place to start: Downers Grove Golf Club.

The reason is simple: This is the site of the first 18-hole course in the United States. It began as a nine-holer in 1892 after Charles Blair MacDonald talked 30 of his Chicago Golf Club members into ponying up $10 each.

The course became America's first course west of the Allegheny Mountain Range. The group was so smitten with the game that they made history by adding nine holes the next year.

It remained Chicago Golf Club at its original location, from 1892 through the 1894 season.

In 1894 members built a new Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton on 200 acres, and the site in Downers Grove went back to nine holes.

Almost 130 years later residents can tee it up on one of the toughest nine-hole tracks in the state. Five holes - Nos. 2, 4, 7, 8 and 9 - are almost identical to their original designs. No. 7 remains exactly as it was in 1892 and is considered by many to be the signature hole.

"It's amazing how many people come out here for the first time and are like, 'I didn't know about this. How did I not know about this?'" said Ken McCormick, who has been general manager since 2019 and graduated from Lincoln-Way High School in 2003.

The founding members would no doubt be proud of the challenge the course presents to all golfers as well as the immaculate shape in which it is maintained. Playing 3,280 yards from the blue tees Downers Grove checks in with a 72.4 rating and 133 slope.

"When you think of a nine-hole municipal course you think of it as an executive (shorter) property," McCormick said. "That's not what we are. Our nine competes with nine holes of any 18-hole course out there.

"We do have those who come here just for the history and are really, really good golfers. We have scratch to 'plus' handicaps who play here. But then we also have a lot of beginners.

"It's a great mix of people."

The Downers Grove Park District purchased the course in 1968 and renovated it in the early 1990s. Two of the biggest changes included:

• Turning back-to-back par 3s into what is now the par-5 third hole.

• Changing the sixth hole from a dogleg right over water to a drivable dogleg left par 4.

McCormick lauded the park district for pouring money into the facility and allowing for longer tee-time intervals to maximize everyone's experience.

As for playing the course there is no easing into your round. The first two holes are long, challenging par 4s with trouble everywhere.

"The course kind of bites you right away," McCormick said. "If you can get through No. 1 and No. 2 - for most people - you have a chance to score pretty well."

Be careful on the par-five third (especially from the blue tees), play smart on No. 5, don't go above the hole on the seventh green and enjoy the gorgeous view on the tee box of the par-3 eighth.

Then go get a birdie on nine, grab a post-round beverage and soak up the history by checking out various articles and posters in the clubhouse.

For first-timers it'll be a day to remember. And one you'll likely repeat again and again.

Family fun

McCormick began a family golf special in 2019 to help grow the game and build long-term loyalty to the course. After 6 p.m. up to three kids (17 and younger) play free with a paying adult ($15 to walk). Kids who play at least four holes receive a free fountain drink.

"There's not a better time to play than twilight golf," McCormick said. "The sun's going down and usually the wind's calmed down. And you have (the same) type of golfer out there, who might have a junior or family member who understands that someone might be trying to teach someone the game. ...

"We're enticing golfers to come out, get an affordable rate for (beginners) and steer them toward a time that's most beneficial for them to learn."

  Avery Presern, who goes to Downers Grove North High School, hits her second shot on the par-4 second hole at Downers Grove Golf Club. A creek runs down the right side and cuts across the fairway about 230 yards away from the white tee box. John Dietz/
  Ben Johnson of Downers Grove tees off on the fifth hole at Downers Grove Golf Club. This hole changed from a dogleg right to a dogleg left during a renovation in the early 1990s. John Dietz/
  One of the prettiest views at Downers Grove Golf Club is on the eighth tee box. John Dietz/

Downers Grove Golf Club

Opened: 1892; Par: 36

Red tees: 2,417 yards; Gold: 2,782; White: 3,041; Blue: 3,280

<b>Course tour</b>No. 1, par 4: 336/387/398/414. There's no easing into this course, with the long, tree-lined opening hole ranking as the No. 1 handicap.

No. 2, par 4: 331/373/394/416. A meandering creek will snare wayward drives down the right side and also limits most drives as it cuts across the fairway. Golfers need about 230 yards to carry it from the white tees and 250 from the blues.

No. 3, par 5: 346/397/425/467. Don't be fooled by the distances - this is a daunting par 5, especially from the back tees. Golfers must fly a large wetlands to a relatively narrow landing area and also avoid trees on the left. The rest of the hole is extremely uphill.

No. 4, par 4: 252/309/344/375. This hole bottlenecks at the green so leaving a 125-yard shot from the middle of the fairway is ideal. "No. 4 from the blue tees is a beautiful tee shot, but it's a blind shot to the landing area," said general manager Ken McCormick. "That's probably my favorite hole."

No. 5, par 4: 262/274/312/331. A fun dogleg left that mid-handicappers might navigate better if they tee off with 3-wood or hybrid. Long hitters can drive the green.

No. 6, par 3: 113/133/165/183. This treacherous par 3 has water on the right and woods on the left.

No. 7, par 4: 307/339/370/420. Tight hole features trees down the entire left side. There are no bunkers guarding the green, but stay below the hole on approach or chip shots because downhill putts may role 10 or 15 feet past the cup. Golf historians consider this to be the signature hole because it has never been touched.

No. 8, par 3: 150/171/184/192. Hopefully the tee box is up high when you play because this is a fun, downhill par 3 from there. Enjoy the view and take a confident swing.

No. 9, par 5: 350/399/449/482. Uphill finishing hole can help ease pain of a rough round with a birdie or even an eagle for big hitters. Not much in the way of trouble, but the green is tricky.

Weekday fees: $25 ($21 for residents); Replay: $15

Weekend fees: $27 ($23 for residents)

Twilight: $18 (times vary)

Family golf special: Parents or guardians pay $15 and up to three children 17 and younger are free. Good from 6 p.m. to close. (Family members can be parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.)

Carts: $11

Also: Kids programs begin as early as age 3. Junior league available for kids 12 to 17.

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