Wildflowers and native plants along Salt Creek, which winds throughout The Preserve at Oak Meadows in Addison, Ill. Photo by Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune
On a summer day in 2017, at a forward-thinking golf course in Chicago’s western suburbs, I closed my eyes and imagined it was 1941.
A young Ben Hogan takes a drag from a Chesterfield cigarette. The Hawk is stressed. He leads the Chicago Open with three holes to play but is engaged in what the Associated Press would call a “furious final-round battle.”
Elmhurst Country Club’s 16th hole is atypical for the Midwest, a par 3 with an island green.
Hogan misses his downhill target, but his ball lands dry, avoiding Salt Creek. He gets up and down for par. He wins for the fifth time on tour. Afterward, he poses for a picture, pointing to a leaderboard displaying his 10-under total. His arm blocks the name of the third-place finisher, Sam Snead.
“That may or may not be a coincidence,” jokes Ed Stevenson, who spearheaded the project to make the golf course viable again.
The outline of the island green remains viewable from an area near the 17th tee, but the hole itself has been replaced. It was deemed too gimmicky, and not in keeping with the theme of The Preserve at Oak Meadows, a DuPage County public course that opened Aug. 7 for its “preview” season.
“We would have had to raise that green 6 feet to keep it,” Stevenson says. “It would have looked like Abe Lincoln’s hat. We wanted something more enduring.”
Enduring means environmentally friendly. Sustainable.
What stands out about The Preserve at Oak Meadows, aside from its historical brush with greatness, is how government agencies worked with designers to build a golf course that doubles as a conservation project.
The result is a massive piece of land (288 acres, more than double most properties) in Addison that features woodlands, wetlands, native plants and flowers, river corridor, prairie, drought-tolerant fescue grass, and — oh, yeah — 18 well-designed holes.
“People connect with nature out here in many ways,” Stevenson says of the DuPage County forest preserve. “There’s kayaking, hiking and biking trails, camping.”
The course was built in the 1920s as Elmhurst Country Club, and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County took it over in 1985, invited the public, and called it Oak Meadows.
Locals dubbed it “Soaked Meadows.”
Significant rainfall left some greens and tee boxes under water, limiting revenue. The property also featured a nine-hole facility called Maple Meadows East.
“The stormwater had to go somewhere,” Stevenson says.
The $16.8 million project began in July 2015 after the district received a reported $2.6 million from the county stormwater management department and $2.25 million from the DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup.
Some of the original 27 holes remain, namely Nos. 1 and 18, so the course “feels like an old friend” to regulars, Stevenson says. But by slimming down to 18 holes, moving 700,000 cubic yards of dirt and shaping new wetlands, the property can store an additional 20 million gallons of water.
Some of the fairways are raggedy but expected to improve as growing season extends into September. The greens are in spectacular shape.
“Lightning-fast,” warned Greg Brend, the starter at the first tee. “The course is phenomenal. You will be on No. 4 and go, ‘Wow.’”
No. 4 is the first of the new holes, a drivable par 4 that requires a 242-yard direct shot from the blue tees. Two other cleverly laid out holes are Nos. 12 and 16, also short par 4s allowing for risk/reward options.
Green fees are roughly $60 during preview season and will range next year from $55 (walking, weekday) to $89 (riding, weekend).
A fire destroyed the Oak Meadows clubhouse in 2009, and officials expect to build a new one. On display will be that picture of Hogan, who triumphed at a property he would struggle to recognize.