Here are 5 golf courses worth the drive from the Rockford area
Rockford has long been known as a golf mecca.
Golf Digest once named Rockford the 12th-best golf city in the nation, and No. 1 among mid-sized cities. In 2008, the magazine named Aldeen one of the 50 best courses in the nation to play for under $50 and the next year named Aldeen the best municipal golf course in the state.
With four municipal courses in Rockford, plus three Winnebago County Forest Preserve courses, golfers have two choices to play unlimited golf at a variety of courses at economical rates. So why should a golfer leave the county to play somewhere else when some of the best golf values in the nation are right here in town?
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Because there are so many other good courses around, including nearby PrairieView in Byron, Timber Pointe in Poplar Grove and Swanhills in Belvidere.
And if you crave variety, here are five courses within 30 to 60 minutes of downtown Rockford that are definitely worth the drive to play:
This may be the most unique course in the area, full of ups and downs and sharp turns. And it’s not either/or: most holes are either uphill or downhill and also feature a dogleg to the left or right. On the entire front nine, the flag is invisible off the tee except on the two par 3s. The course is also widely spread out; Nos. 11 and 12, separated by a line of trees, are the only two adjacent fairways on the course, which has a distinct resort feel to it.
“When they designed it, part of the back nine was a Christmas tree farm,” long-time course pro Jason Hill said. “The lake is man-made. They had to find a place with enough undulation and run-off to fill it. We took advantage of that with the golf course.”
Because there are so many hills and doglegs, the course plays longer than its listed distance of 6,520 yards (blue tees), 6,120 (white), 5,498 (gold) and 5,100 (red). It also requires smart shots more than long shots.
“For somebody who doesn’t have course knowledge, if you don’t play the appropriate tees it’s extremely hard,” Hill said. “If you play the right tees, it’s still difficult, but it’s fair.”
Because it’s so far from a major population center, fittingly residing a mile south of Peace & Quiet Road, Lake Carroll might be the least-known of Rockford’s golf gems. No local course has more doglegs. Or more hills. And few have bigger greens. When I recently played the course for the first time in 20 years, I almost had as many zero putts (a hole-in-one on the 181-yard No. 8) as one-putts (two).
Swanhills, Macktown and Ingersoll are the courses most area golfers flock to when they want to shoot a good score. Wolf Hollow fits in that group, too. Yet it’s also in its own class: a fun course that doesn’t beat you up with its most memorable holes.
“What makes a golf course fun? I haven’t got a clue, other than I wouldn’t mind going back and playing it again and again and again,” said Freeport’s Steve Young, who has played 903 courses in his life and helps rate the nation’s top 100 courses for Golf Digest.
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Young likes playing Wolf Hollow.
“It’s not the greatest golf course, but I have never been bored with going back and playing it,” he said. “If you are swinging well, you are going to score well. I don’t know what makes it fun, but it just is fun.”
Part of the fun is the course is always in good condition. It’s not particularly long (6,408 yards from the tips, 6,096 from the whites, 5,787 from the yellows and 4,898 from the reds). “It also has a lot of different types of holes,” Wolf Hollow pro Doral Reining said. “Wide-open holes, tight holes with trees, a lot of elevation changes.”
Wolf Hollow’s hardest hole is No. 7: a 392-yard par-4 that is wide open off the tee but uphill into a tight chute of trees for the last 200 yards. That is also one of its most fun holes. But No. 1 for fun is No. 16, a 313-yard par-4 over a slanting gorge that produces more birdies and more double bogeys and worse than perhaps any other local hole. Five-time Men’s City champion Lloyd McWilliams used to always tell his golfers to lay up with an iron and then hit another short iron into the green when he was an assistant coach for Christian Life. But he said his kids never listened and always tried to drive the green — and that he would have done the same thing.
“I’ve messed it up so many times. It's a 260-yard, par-4; how are you going to lay up? You have to go for it. I really like that hole,” Christian Life golfer Daniel Schroeder told the Register Star 15 years ago.
This Marengo course is like Lake Carroll in that it heavily features doglegs. But it’s unlike any other local course in the fact that, well, its unlike itself. The back nine, built in 1963, features wood and steep hills. Think Silver Ridge. But the front nine, which opened in 1990, is relatively flat with a lot of sand and some water. Think a less watery Aldeen.
“That’s the most interesting part of our golf course. It never gets old,” Bob Witek, who has owned or co-owned the course for all 60 years, said of the drastically different nines.
But what makes the course special isn’t the difference in the style of the nines as much as it is the quality of both styles.
“We knew what we wanted to achieve and we did it,” Witek said. “We have a fair amount of water and an awful lot of doglegs, which I think are the most interesting holes. Almost every hole has a bend in it and you have to put the ball in a certain area. We pride ourselves in the fact that you can use most every club in your bad when you play our place, rather than just bang it down the fairway.”
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While Marengo Ridge is a contrast of two nines, Silver Ridge mixes it up almost every hole. From downhill par 3s (No. 2), to short, tight par-5s (No. 3), to par 4s that demand either a fade (No. 7), a sharp draw (No. 16) or an arrow-straight tee shot (Nos. 5 and 6), this course threatens you with woods — not trees, but real forest-like woods) — on almost every shot.
It also has the best hole in the area — although not everybody uses it. The back tee on No. 11 has its own sign: Heavenly 11. A winding cart path off to the left takes you to a bluff 60 feet above the hole. Only half the green is visible beyond the trees 180 yards away. But since it is so far downhill, the hole is easier than it looks. When I take my friends to Silver Ridge, I demand we play the tips on No. 11, because if you haven’t played Heavenly 11 you haven’t played the real Silver Ridge.
The oldest course in northwest Illinois opened with six holes in 1893. In 1913, Harry Collis was hired to expand it from 9 holes to 18. Arnold Palmer played in an exhibition here in 1963. And after over a century as a private course, the club went public in 2017.
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This is a traditional country club-style layout, short (6,365 yards from the tips) but tightly tree-lined. It is mostly flat, but has a few huge hills, starting with a steep uphill climb all 354 yards on the first hole. Two of the best holes are two of the shortest ones: a 110-yard par-3 over a gorge and a 282-yard par-4 with a sharp dogleg tot he left and water that hugs the green so tight you can almost putt into the pond.
“It’s a phenomenal course and a fair test of golf,” Keith Jungen, who has won six Stephenson Cup titles at the course, said when it first went public in 2017.
Matt Trowbridge is a Rockford Register Star sports reporter. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @MattTrowbridge. Sign up for the Rockford High School newsletter at rrstar.com. Matt has covered sports for the Register Star for more than 30 years after previously working for papers in North Dakota, Delaware, Vermont and Iowa City. He grew up on a farm in northwest Minnesota with six brothers and a sister. His four daughters all graduated from Rockford Public Schools.