I arrived at Butler National in Oak Brook, Illinois under blue skies on beautiful Wednesday morning. Tuesday had been a long exhausting day. I played thirty-six holes of golf as I continued down the final stretch of my one-year quest to play the Golf Digest 100 Greatest Courses in America. I played well on a wet but beautiful Shoreacres course that morning and not so well on the long and tough North Course at Olympia Fields that afternoon. It was a new day and a new opportunity.
The valet greeted me as I stopped my car in the circle in front of the entrance to the clubhouse. “Welcome to Butler National, I’m Joe,” he said. I replied, “Good morning Joe, it’s great to be here.” He told me that I could go inside to the locker room, he would take care of my car and my clubs. I walked into the locker room where Jack, who seemed to be there just to be of service, directed me to the locker room. Rafael, a medium height man in his fifties asked if I was a new member. I told him no. He said, “well you are today.” He then told me about all the amenities at the club. He said I should take advantage of the spa and the sauna either before or after my round. Unfortunately, I would not have time for either.
As I walked past the bar on my way to the pro shop to check in, the bartender asked if I would like coffee or juice. I was impressed with the service. I was at Butler National as an unaccompanied guest. Two weeks earlier I had sent a note to Joe Strahl, one of the PGA Professional at the club requesting permission to play the course. I’d met members for most of the 87 private courses in the Golf Digest 100 Greatest Courses. But I explained to Joe that I’d not been fortunate enough to meet a member from Butler National. I ask if they would allow me the privilege of playing the course unaccompanied. Within a couple of days, I received a response from Mike Mares, another PGA Professional at the club stating that they would be very happy to help me achieve my goal.
I walked into the pro shop and introduced myself to the tall slender guy behind the counter. He said, “Hi I’m Dan, welcome to Butler National. You are all set for your round, we will bill your home club directly.” I thanked him, and he directed me to where my caddie Matt was waiting with my clubs.
I walked out side and introduced myself to Matt, a young red headed kid who looked like he’d be just as comfortable fielding a ground ball between first and second base as he would making a loop with a golf bag hanging off this shoulder. I asked Matt if they’d told him that he would be carrying the golf bag for a guy on a quest to become the first person to play Golf Digest’s Greatest 100 Courses in America. He said they had and that he was excited to be a part of history. Matt and I walked past the putting area to the practice range. I hit balls to warm up and asked Matt where he was from. “I’m from Illinois but I attend college in California, sir,” he said. I smiled and said, “you don’t have to call me sir, just call me Jimmie.”
I laughed. “So where do you go to college?” I attend the University of Southern California.” Matt was studying finance. His dream was to get into investment banking and then private equity. I told him that I played L.A. Country Club and Cypress with Pat Haden, the former athletic director at USC. He was impressed. I think it raised my stature with him. I also told him that my wife was the Dean of the Goizueta School of Business at Emory University in Atlanta. After warming up, Matt and I headed to the first tee. I took a couple of golf balls out of my bag and put them in my black golf pants. With my blue shirt I noticed that my outfit was coordinated with my golf ball. I hoped it was a good sign that under the blue skies of Oak Brook, I was going to rediscover my swing and have a good day.
I chose to play from the member tees which measure 6718 yards with a rating of 74.2 and a slope of 146. The courses weren’t getting any easier. The first hole is par four that measures 360 yards. There is a ravine just off the front of the tee box which is elevated above a fairway that starts about 70 yards past the creek that runs through the ravine. There are two bunkers on the right at 250 yards out. I place a tee in the ground and sit my ball on it as I prepared to play the 87th course on my quest. I stood behind the ball and lined up my shot. I looked a Matt and said, “we’re gonna make history.”
I hit my drive straight down the middle of the fairway. It felt good to hit that first drive into the short grass.
I was left with 155 yards to a back right pin. The creek that ran through the ravine runs along the left side of the fairway before cutting across in front of the green. There is a bunker off the front left of the green. I started my approach shot at the flag but pulled the ball. The ball landed in the left bunker.
I left my first sand shot in the bunker. I hit the next one to six feet from the flag and made the putt to save bogey. I told Matt that I wasted a great drive. We moved on to the next hole.
The tee box for the par 534-yard par five second hole is only a few steps to the left of the first green. There is a creek that crosses in front of the tee box at 60 yards out. The narrow fairway with a 175 yard carry over rough off the tee bends slightly from right to left before turning back to the right toward the green. There are bunkers on the left and the right at 270 yards out just as the fairway makes that slight bend. I hit my drive to the right edge of the fairway, but the ball kicked right and nestled down into the second cut of rough as if it was preparing for a nice long nap.
I tried to dig deep into the rough with my three hybrid but caught the top of the ball. The rough grabbed the club head. I pull the ball. It flew in the left rough just 140 yards away. I probably would have hit it better and farther with a seven iron. I was left with 185 yards to the flag and tree trouble. There was a tree about 30 yards directly on line with the green and one about fifty yards out on the right which would cause trouble if my ball didn’t draw. It didn’t matter, I couldn’t get my club through the wet rough. The ball landed in the fairway 75 yards from the pin.
I hit my fourth shot over the green. The ball settled so deep into the rough behind the green that it was hard for me see it even as I stood over it. I hit a flop shot onto the green. The ball rolled just off the front edge of the green. I made the putt from off the green to save bogey.
The third hole is a 406-yard par four with a tree lined fairway that doglegs to the right at about 240 yards off the tee. Matt pointed to a tree on the left side of the fairway as my aiming point. I hit my drive right at the tree and watched as the ball faded, hit in the middle of the fairway and rolled to the right edge leaving 200 yards to the pin.
The trees off both side of the fairway form a narrow chute along the 30-yard-wide fairway on its way to a green with bunkers off the front left and right. There is also a bunker along the right side of the narrow green. I looked up to quickly while swinging my three hybrid and topped the ball. The ball rolled to 100 yards out.
I looked at Matt and said, “another good drive wasted.” As we approached the ball, Matt said, “looks like you will have 100 yard left to that back pin, you don’t want to be long.” I thought that was the perfect distance for a nice high sand wedge. I hit the ball eight feet right of the flag.
Matt gave me the line for my par putt, “it’s breaking a cup from right to left and it’s downhill, so it’ll be fast.” I missed the line by a ball. The ball slide along the edge of the cup and stopped about six inches past. I tapped in for my third bogey in a row.
We walked off the green to the fourth tee box which was just a few steps away. The par fourth hole measures 397 yards. The slightly uphill fairway is only 25 yards wide. It bends slightly from left to right as it approaches two long bunkers off its left side that start at 205 yards off the tee and continues until about 80 yards from the middle of the green. Matt advised that I aim at the office building in the distance. I hit my drive right down the middle of the fairway. The ball made it to the crest of the fairway, leaving 170 yards to an elevated green.
The pin was positioned at the front of the green in the narrow opening between the bunkers off the front left and the right side. I aimed along the inside edge of the left front bunker hoping to fade the ball. The ball faded but I started it much farther right than I wanted. The ball landed to the right of the right green side bunker in the deep rough.
Matt and I stood over the ball and consider my plight. I was left with a tough shot over the bunker to a pin with just 20 feet of room short of the hole and 20 feet long. I asked Matt what he thought about a flop shot. “That would be the perfect shot if you can pull it off,” he said. He handed the sixty-degree wedge to me and said, “hit it at tree about 20 feet to the right of the flag.” There was much more room to the right of the flag and the green sloped from there back toward the flag. I hit what I thought was the perfect flop shot on the exact line we wanted. Unfortunately, the ball didn’t roll down toward the hole. I was left with a twenty-foot putt for par.
Matt and I expected the putt to break about a foot to the right. It didn’t. I tapped in for my fourth bogey in a row.
The 174-yard fifth hole is the first par three on the course and is rated as the second easiest hole. The hole is all carry over a pond that goes up to the 45-yard-deep green that starts just five yards from the edge of the pond. The green is only 15 yards wide and with bunkers off both sides. The good new was that the pin was set at the back of the green.
I hit a five iron to the left of the flag. The ball landed past the flag and rolled into the fringe at the back of the green.
I two-putted from off the green for my first par of the round.
At 428 yards the par four sixth hole is the longest par four on the front nine. The tree line along the left side of the thirty-five-yard-wide fairway starts off very tight before it opens up a little at 300 hundred yards off the tee. The right side of the green is just the opposite. The tree line is initially pushed back off the fairway before it bends and encroaches the edge at about 230 yards off the tee. Matt told me there were out of bounds markers to the right of that tree line. I hit my first bad drive of the day. The ball landed in the right rough in the area where the tree line was pushed off the fairway.
The problem however was that the tree line bent back toward the fairway past that area. I hit my driver from the rough to get under the trees. The ball stayed low and traveled 160 yards across the fairway ending up in the second cut of rough on the left. I was left with 100 yards from a back left pin. There was a bunker 10 yards in front of me and two along the left side of the green.
The rough held the face of my sand wedge open. I was already aiming along the right side of the green expecting the rough to close the club face. The ball landed in the rough to the right of the green.
My chip landed on the green and rolled directly toward the hole. The ball hit the flag and kicked right. I made the putt to get back on the bogey train.
The par five seventh hole is the longest hole on the course at 580 yards. It is rated as the most difficult hole at Butler National. The snake like fairway bends with the contour of a creek that cuts through the course. The beginning of the fairway is 35 yards across, but as the fairway winds along the right edge of the creek, it narrows to about 15 yards across before passing a bunker on the left and sweeping right. The fairway bend farther to the right 160 yards later as it passes two more bunkers off its left side. I aimed my drive down the left side of the fairway expecting a fade. The ball stayed straight, hit in the left side of the fairway then kicked into the first cut of rough.
It was a short drive. The ball traveled less than 200 yards. I was still 400 yards out. Matt and I agreed that I should play the hole safe to avoid the creek off the right side of the fairway. I laid up to the middle of the fairway well short of the next bend leaving 225 yards to the pin.
Matt and I agreed again that I should play it safe and lay up to my favor short distance. I hit a 9 iron to 80 yards from the front middle pin.
My course management paid off. I hit my fourth shot to 25 feet left of the flag for a par opportunity on the longest hole on the course.
I hit a good putt. The ball held its line and looked like it would make it to the cup. It didn’t. It ran out of speed just short of the cup. I picked up for a bogey.
Matt and I walk across a short bridge over the creek that ran along the right side of the seventh hole. The creek bends across the front of the tee box on the 167 yards par three eighth hole and heads toward the green. It bends back to the right in front of the green leaving the straight run as a carry to the green. I caught the ball a little fat but hit it right at the flag. The ball landed just short of the green.
I putted from off the green to about three feet from the flag. I made the putt for only my second par of the round.
The front nine ends with the third most difficult hole on the course. The par four ninth hole measures 415 yards from the member tees. The tree lines encroach off both edges of the fairway and the last 130 yards of it make the previous narrow fairways look as wide as the Mississippi River. The lead up to the green is less than fifteen yards wide. It’s a “hit it straight or die” fairway. I didn’t hit it straight. My drive hit a tree. Matt and I looked for the ball for more than five minutes before we found it much closer to the tee box than we expected. The ball was nestled down in the rough.
I hit too far behind the ball as I tried to just chip out to the fairway. The ball got past the trees but didn’t make it to the fairway. I hit my third shot to the fairway.
My fourth shot landed in a bunker off the left front corner of the green. I hit my bunker shot to eight feet and made the putt to finish the front nine with my first double bogey of the round and a score of 44.
The back nine opens with a relatively short par four compared to the other holes. The tenth hole measures 376 yards. The hole has trees followed by water on the left. The tree line on the left side of the fairway is pushed back. I hit a high pop up into the trees on the left.
I pitched out to the fairway leaving 205 yards to the green. The creek that runs through the course, crosses in front of the tenth green before leaving the property. I hit my third shot fat, it stopped in the rough just short of the creek.
I hit my fourth shot over the green. I pitched back onto the green and one putted for a double bogey.
I was happy to see that the eleventh hole was a par three. I’d made par on both par threes on the front nine. Matt and I agreed that I was in desperate need of a par after two double bogeys in a row. The hole is usually the shortest par three on the course at 150 yards, but today the pin was on the back of the green, so it was playing 174 yards. There is a pond to the right of the green with just a small portion that sticks out into the line from the tee to the green. I needed only 125 yards to clear it so it, so I wasn’t worried about it. I was worried about the creeks that cuts through the course. It is just a few yards off the left side of the green. My tee shot landed in the rough between the left edge of the green and the creek.
I chipped on to five feet and made the putt for par keeping my streak on the par threes alive.
After the 11th hole it was back to the long par fours. The twelfth hole measure 444 yards. The fairway has two bunkers on the right starting at 180 yards off the tee and one on the left at about 290 yards out. I hit my drive into the middle of the first bunker on the right.
I chose to lay up with a seven iron because it should have easily cleared the lip of the bunker. But I caught the ball a little thin and it hit the lip and popped up to the right side of the fairway leaving 230 yards to the green.
I hit a three wood straight toward the middle of the green. The ball stopped a few yards short of the green.
I chipped on to 15 feet left of the flag. I expected the putt to roll down toward the cup, but it didn’t. I’d already made a double bogey on the tenth hole and didn’t need another. Matt and I took our time on the putt. We decided that it was a straight putt. I pulled the putt slightly to the left. The ball caught a piece of the left side of the cup and dropped in for the bogey.
The thirteenth hole is the final par three on the course. Like the eleventh hole, it was playing much longer than the 160 yards on the scorecard. The tee was set near the tips at 192 yards. The carry to the green is over rough but there is a pond about 10 yards off the left side of the green. The flag was set on the right side of the green so the bunker to the right was in play more than the water. I was going to need a good tee shot to make a par on the final par three. I didn’t get one. I topped the ball with my three hybrid. The ball landed in the rough 35 yards short of the green.
I pitched to just short of the green. The ball stopped dead.
I two-putt from there for a bogey. I walked off the green disappointed that I didn’t par the fourth of the par threes.
The fourteenth hole is a short par four by Butler National standards. It measures just 370 yards from the member tees. The narrow fairway is offset to the right of the tee box and is sandwiched between trees on the right and a pond on the left. With the offset, reaching the fairway requires cutting off at least 215 yards of the pond to avoid a really long approach shot. There are bunkers on the right side of the fairway at 210 yards out and on the left side at 270 yards out. Matt said,” see that tree on the right side of the fairway past the bunker, that’s your line.” I hit my ball directly on the line. It cleared the pond and almost plugged in the left side of the fairway. I got no roll and was left with 165 yards to the green.
The 165-yard path to the green required a 155-yard carry over the pond. I decided to not risk it. I laid up to the right, leaving 35 yards to the flag.
My lay up was a little to far to the right. I had a decision to make. The flag was a few paces behind a bunker on the right front corner of the green. Matt and I discussed pitching to the left of the flag and leaving a longer putt or going directly at the flag at the risk of landing in the bunker if I hit the ball short. I felt confident enough to go right at the flag. The ball landed six feet past the pin and rolled two feet farther.
I wish I had been as confident with my par putt as I was with my pitch shot. I was a little too timid. I left the putt just short of the cup and tapped in for a bogey.
The fifteenth hole is an intimidating 560-yard par five. The tee boxes and the green are directly in line, but the fairway makes a 90 degree turn to connect the two. I needed a 260-yard tee shot to get far enough down the 30-yard-wide fairway to get pass the trees on the right and have a straight second shot. I popped my drive straight up, so it didn’t travel any where close to 260 yards. It went just 160 yards and didn’t even make it to the fairway.
It only got worse from there. I sliced my second shot, hit my third shot to 165, left my forth shot short of the green, pitched over bunkers to 25 feet left of the pin with my fifth shot and made a bogey with my only got shot on the hole, a putt. Isn’t it strange how you can make that 25-foot putt when it’s for a bogey but never for a birdie!
As Matt and I walked to the sixteenth tee box I looked at my scorecard. If I could par the last three holes, I could still shoot an 85. I had not played well but I’d done a good job of avoiding double bogeys, I only had the two that came back to back on the 9th and 10th holes. I needed to bear down and finish strong. My body was starting to feel the effects of having played those 36 holes on the previous day.
The sixteenth hole is another short par four. It measures just 365 yards and has no tomfoolery. It is the second easiest par four on the course. The fairway runs almost straight from the tee box to the green. It curves around a bunker on the right at 230 yards out and one on the left at 290 yards out. I hit my drive to the middle of the 35-yard-wide fairway leaving 165 yards to a dead center pin on a green that is at a 45-degree angle to the right side of the fairway.
My approach shot needed to clear a bunker off the right side of the green. The green also has two bunkers along its left side. My fatigue was showing, I hit way behind the ball on my approach shot. The ball flew just 65 yards leaving 100 yards to the pin with the right bunker still in my line.
The good thing about leaving the ball exactly 100 yards from the pin is that is one of my favorite shots. I know how to hit a sand wedge 100 yards. My confidence in the shot overcame my fatigue. I hit the ball to 3 feet left of the flag.
It was an easy par putt to start the last three holes on the right foot.
It was back to the real par fours with the 420-yard par four seventeenth hole. It was also back to a little tomfoolery with the lay out of the hole. The less than 30-yard-wide fairway makes a slight dogleg left in between bunkers off to the left and right at 250 yards off the tee before bending slightly back to the right around a pond sixty yards later. The hole started off well with another drive down the middle of the fairway.
My second shot didn’t turn out so well. I shanked the ball. It hit a tree and dropped straight down behind the tree into the deep rough.
I pitched back out to the fairway leaving a 65-yard pitch for my fourth shot. I know how to hit that shot but didn’t do it. I pitched on line toward the flag but left the ball short of the green.
I two-putted from there for a double bogey. I could keep my score below 90, but my hopes of an 85 had been dashed.
The eighteenth hole is a beautiful but treacherous finishing hole. It is rated as the fourth most difficult hole on the course. It is a 444-yard par four with a narrow fairway that winds through water off the right and trees off the left for the first 260 yards and then water on the left and trees on the right for the last 185 yards. I hit my third fairway in a row off the tee leaving just 165 yards to the middle of the green.
Unfortunately, even though my ball was in the fairway, it was on the right side of the fairway. I had to fade the ball around a tree twenty yards in front of me. I said to Matt, “no problem, I got that shot.” That was right before I hit Illinois before hitting Titleist. The ball flew just 100 yards leaving 65 yards to the pin.
I then pushed my pitch shot into a bunker off the right side of the green.
My bunker shot rolled off the back of the green. I chipped back on and made the putt to end my round with a double bogey and 45 on the back for an 89 total score. It was a very disappoint finish to a mediocre round. The course played closer to 6800 yards than the just over 6700 yards on the scorecard. I thanked Matt and headed to the locker room to change my shoes.
When I got to the locker room, Rafael reminded me of the spa and said I should take advantage of being a member for the day. Unfortunately, I was on a tight schedule. I had a plane to catch. Bill had my car waiting with my clubs loaded as I walked out of the front door of the clubhouse. After two days and three courses in the Chicago area, it was time to head to New York for an early time at Garden City the next day.