The story of the retrovation of Skokie Country Club, and the father of golf course restoration
As the old saying goes, too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. Typically, in design, the committee approach confirms the truth therein, with results that are watered down or lacking in continuity. As courses have evolved over the years, many have fallen into a state in which their original strengths are lost. There are exceptions, however, including Skokie. The key ingredient that has allowed the course to pass from the stewardship of one architect to another, each building upon the work of his predecessors, is simple—respect.
The original course at Skokie Country Club was a 9-hole affair created by the members at the turn of the century, just as the golf bug was biting up and down Chicago’s North Shore. It did not take long before players were clamoring for an upgrade, and like so many others at the time, the club’s leadership turned to Tom Bendelow for assistance. By 1904, the Scotsman had earned himself a reputation for the sheer volume of courses he laid out. Dubbed “18 stakes on a Sunday afternoon”, his approach was designed to meet an insatiable demand as he toured the country for the Spalding Company promoting the game and helping communities to construct their playing fields.
Bendelow did not always jump off and right back on the train though. In some instances like Apawamis, Quogue Field Club, Medinah and Olympia Fields, he gave more attention to detail. His work may have been simple by the higher standards of later periods, but that does not mean his courses were unsound. At Skokie, he laid the foundation for future greatness.
By the time Donald Ross arrived on the Midwest scene, he had already made his mark out East. His summers were spent primarily in Massachusetts, and his winters in North Carolina. His work at Essex County Club and the Pinehurst resort, among a steadily expanding portfolio of courses, hinted at a practitioner who was relentlessly refining his craft. From the routing, to the strategic placement of hazards, to greens that expertly combined boldness and subtlety, Ross produced solid courses that allowed his to claim his place among the most sought after architects of the dawning Golden Age.
In 1914, Ross was brought in at Skokie to rework the course, adding next-level sophistication to Bendelow’s first pass. The current 8th hole was retained, but the other 17 were significantly altered. The changes did not reflect a lack of respect for his predecessor, but rather an expression of the evolution of the art form coupled with greater time on site to refine the details. This next iteration proved itself worthy of member praise, as well as a nod from the USGA, which staged the U.S. Open, won in thrilling fashion by Gene Sarazen on the final hole.
Ron Prichard came of age as a golf course architect during the era of heroic modernization, championed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Although he worked as an associate of Joe Finger, Desmond Muirhead and Robert Von Hagge, he didn’t find his niche until his first solo job opportunity at Texarkana Country Club materialized. “I was uninspired by the courses of the ‘70s and ‘80s,” recalled Prichard. “Great old courses were often simple, but they had something about them that was inspiring.”
Prichard was a throwback long before he found himself at a drafting table. “I was always interested in history, of our country, of architecture…everything,” he explained. “I was very aware of the genius of people like Beethoven and Van Gogh who preceded us.”
The job at Texarkana arrived at a time when Prichard was immersed in study of the great courses of the Golden Age. In the form of a Langford & Moreau design that had lost its character, he found an opportunity to employ both his newfound knowledge, and his passion. “I was given plans of the course and they were fascinating,” he recounted. “I decided that the best I could do is try and put back what Langford & Moreau did.” With that insight, the practice of golf course restoration was born.
For various reasons, most courses cannot be truly restored. Such was the case at Skokie, where Prichard was brought in in 1999 to reconnect the course to its classic roots. An unfortunate Rees Jones bunker project in the mid-’80s included “eyebrow” flashing that was uncharacteristic of either Ross’s or Langford’s style. Bunkers were strategically repositioned to be perpendicular to the lines of play, with grass-faced construction that is both beautiful and intimidating. Tree removal and fairway expansion helped return the original scale, and the outstanding greens were brought back out to the pad edges, highlighting their variety of cant and contour.
Unlike Jones, Prichard was not seeking to leave his imprint with the retrovation. For him, it was an honest expression of his deep respect for the design geniuses who were there before him.
Skokie’s clubhouse sits on the high point of the property. With the exception of the 1st, 8th, 10th and 18th holes, there is little movement to the land. A lack of elevation change does not mean that Skokie lacks beauty or its fair share of strategic challenges as the holes wind through the oak meadows.
Skokie embodies the axiom that great greens anchor great courses. “The blend of two different Golden Age architects, and the bold features that protrude from the landscape really make Skokie standout from Chicago’s North Shore neighbors,” gushed architect and longtime Prichard associate Tyler Rae. “The putting surfaces found at the 1st, 4th, 6th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 16th, 17th and 18th holes are VERY special. There is just so much internal contour and fascination within the perched fill-pads. For an early Ross and late Langford & Moreau, it has incredible quality and craftsmanship throughout the property.”
Even before the retrovation, the course was consistently immaculate in its presentation. That devotion to providing stellar playing surfaces is core to the success of Superintendent Don Cross, who is Chicagoland’s longest tenured greenkeeper. In addition to producing mint conditions, Cross also has a strong track record of mentoring high-performing assistants, including Scott Vincent who worked at Skokie before landing the head job at Onwentsia Club. Vincent, whose talents extend to photography, generously provided the images for the tour that follows.
Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions
The round at Skokie begins with a tee shot from a high point below the clubhouse to a fairway that runs between the 10th and 18th. Players get their Ross introduction with cross-bunkers and a bold push-up green on the 1st. The 2nd is the first of Skokie’s stout set of one-shotters, playing slightly down to a green set at grade.
The next stretch, which begins with a brilliant Langford five-par, and ends with another from Ross, proves that golf over flat ground can be wildly interesting. The highlight of the 3rd comes on the second shot when players must contend with a sharply raised set of diagonal bunkers that test the mettle and confound the eyes. The 4th is a short par-4 with danger on both sides from the tee to the elevated green. A beautifully sited green awaits on the 5th, and tree removal has brought the wind very much back into play in judging direction and distance. On the dogleg left 6th, players encounter perhaps the most intriguing green on the course with internal contours and a steep fallaway in back. Having skillfully navigated those four gems from Langford & Moreau, the switchback 7th is a birdie opportunity. Hazards and a subtly challenging green make double a real possibility as well.
Bendelow’s only remaining hole is an uphill, straightaway par-4. The simplicity of the 8th should not be mistaken for ease. A strong drive is necessary to get into a reasonable range to hold the crowned green on approach. The outward half concludes with the picturesque par-3 9th. A severely canted green is set between a pond and the clubhouse. Tee shots above the hole are a cardinal sin here. The back nine begins with another prototypical Ross two-shotter. Like the 1st, approach play is examined closely by a bold green.
On the 11th, players are up against Langford again, and they better be ready to golf their ball. Placement of both the tee shot and second are critical on this tough par-5. The one-shot 12th is a brute, especially from the back tee. Over water, exposed to the wind, to a trademark Langford green. Long club in hand, those who bail out short left are forgiven. The final three-shotter is gentle by Skokie’s standards as it swings right to left to a green set at grade next to a pond. After a rinsed approach or three putt, one is reminded to beware of the understated holes.
The 14th is a strong par-4 which heads through old growth oaks to another imposing Ross green. The 15th is a perfect complement—a strategic shorty that can be tackled with almost any club in the bag that players believe will gain them the advantage of an ideal angle and distance for approach.
Skokie’s closing stretch is as solid as any course in Chicago, or beyond. Langford throws in a final long par-3, with an open-fronted green that will accept a ground approach. The dogleg left 17th has a deceptively difficult green. The round concludes with the uphill 18th. In Sarazen’s day, a four on the card was a birdie. It’s a par now, but finishing in that manner is no less satisfying.
A visit to Skokie is a tour through architectural history. “Ron did a masterful job at keeping the Langford & Moreau scale and style and placement of hazards from their bold work found at Lawsonia Links, Spring Valley, Kankakee Elks, West Bend CC, etc., while trying to keep the early Ross 1915-era rugged style of grass-faced bunkers and fill pads,” concluded Rae. “The blending of the two architects’ styles, and having it permeate seamlessly from the first tee to the final green, has created a very unique golf experience.” Thanks to Prichard’s respect for the past, and the dedication of Don Cross, assistant Jacob Miskiewicz, and a membership with a high golf IQ, the design genius of Bendelow, Langford & Moreau will be available for decades to come.
Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf