ZION, Ill. -- Way up north from the city, just miles from the Wisconsin border, is a golf course that treasures the traditions of Scotland's linksland.
Tall fescue grasses line the fairways. You can play bump-and-run on nearly every hole. The wind blows (in fact, sometimes it howls). And each hole has its own name, just like the courses in the British Isles.
Certainly, it's not a true links course. There are trees (albeit a few) and there's no ocean, but Shepherd's Crook Golf Course pays homage to those gems across the Atlantic. If you consider only the course itself, it's a notable and satisfying round of golf.
But there is no driving range, the clubhouse pro shop is cramped, the carts are gas powered and create the sound of a lawnmower's growl, and the scorecard tells you very little about the course or how the holes are laid out. If none of that bothers you, then you will love Shepherd's Crook.
Don't take this the wrong way; the course truly is a delight.
It's playable and challenging at the same time, starting with the short par-4 first hole with an approach to a sloped green and ending with the gorgeous 18th hole, a devilish par 5 with a double-dogleg and a green with two false fronts snuggled into the hill behind the clubhouse.
The conditions are quite good. Great surfaces on the greens, although they can be a bit like the amusement park Six Flags Great America (located just down the highway a few miles in Gurnee) dipping, climbing and tumbling like the most treacherous of rides.
Still, you believe this course could be better than good; it could be great if a few things mentioned earlier were different.
But again, don't take this the wrong way. The course trumps most of what could be labeled negatives.
Take it from Peter, a single player on vacation nearby. The kids were still sleeping before a day at Six Flags and he decided to get out for 18 before heading to the park. It was his first time at Shepherd's Crook.
"I'm enjoying it. For the price, it's tremendous," he said. "I'm not a good player and as long as I stay out of that tall grass, I can do okay here."
The course is key at Shepherd's Crook
The course is everything here. Since there are few amenities like what you might find at some higher-end public courses, this Zion Park District layout must rely on what's out there tee to green.
The first few holes are designed in the links tradition. Barren. No trees. But the fescue borders the fairways and gives it a minimalist beauty.
Then you get to no. 5. Gorgeous. A wide fairway leads to a downhill approach into a cathedral of hardwoods. Yes, the trees do make an appearance, and it is a strikingly attractive one.
No. 12 is a short par 4 that, by the numbers, might be reachable by the big guns, but if truly considered for a moment is not worth the risk. The green appears to be protected by bunkers sculpted by Homeland Security. This is a smartly designed hole.
The finish is memorable. No. 17 is an uphill par 4 that twists slightly left to a green tucked into those same hardwoods that tower over the fifth green. Then comes the dessert, the 18th hole. Like creme brulee it's probably not going to be good for you, but it's oh-so worth it. From the tee box, nestled in a strand of trees, to the tumbling fairway, to the small, plateau green, the 18th hole, depending how you play it, can be so sweet and fulfilling, or like a good meal's calorie-packed piece de resistance, could also leave you moaning, "I really didn't need that."
Shepherd's Crook: A no-frills facility
No driving range. There is a putting green, but it on the tiny side. The clubhouse is small, although there is a bar and a few tables. The pro shop is in a closet. Quite miniature. There's barely room for a foursome to stand inside it.
But the thing is, you don't go to Shepherd's Crook for the overall facility. You go to play golf. If you want the frills, go somewhere else. This is truly a change-your-shoes-in-the-parking-lot kind of place.
For $35 you can get out and play a nice round of golf on a stylishly designed course. You can get a good hotdog at the turn and get around at a nice pace. There are course tournaments and events, and Shepherd Crook's hosts outings and small banquets.
Shepherd's Crook Golf Course: The verdict
Shepherd's Crook works. Simple as that. Sometimes you just want to play some golf. You don't need someone cleaning your clubs at the end of the round, you don't need a souped-up GPS system on the cart, and you don't need 20 kinds of golf shoes for sale in the pro shop.
Tee it up. Avoid the fescue. And enjoy the essence of the game on a course that delivers pure golf. Nothing more; nothing less.