Skokie Country Club

Only Gene Sarazen has conquered Chicago's century-old jewel

By: Joseph Mark Passov

Appeared in April 1998 LINKS

With one swing, a 4-wood from 220 yards on Augusta National’s 15th hole in the final round of the 1935 Masters, Gene Sarazen erased a three-shot deficit and created Masters history. From then, Sarazen, the Masters and Augusta National were indelibly linked forever.

Amazingly, 13 years before, they were saying exactly the same thing about Sarazen, the U.S. Open and Skokie Country Club.

The fifth oldest golf club in Chicago, Skokie celebrated its 25th anniversary by hosting the 1922 U.S. Open. The Skokie course was considered one of the nation’s best tests, yet was already on its third rendering. Founding member George Leslie laid out a crude but challenging nine-holer for the club in 1898 but by 1904, Tom Bendelow, the most prolific architect of the era, was summoned to create an 18-hole track.

Bendelow’s creation was exceedingly long for its time at 6,125 yards, playing to an unusual par of 75 1⁄2. The front nine had a conventional par of 36; the back nine had two par 5 1/2s, two par 4 1/2s and a par 31⁄2 of 245 yards.

But the biggest dissatisfaction with the layout was the walking distance between many greens and tees, so the club hired Donald Ross in 1915. As with Bendelow’s product, it embraced a prairie-style design, with only a smattering of trees on the course’s interior. Instead, chief hazards consisted of tangled rough, strong breezes off nearby Lake Michigan and magnificently crafted Ross bunkers and greens.

Ross’ new creation measured 6,340 yards, with par slashed to 70. Following a 1938 redesign and tweaks over the years, only six Ross holes remain—Nos. 1, 2, 8, 9, 10, 18—while No. 7 retains an original Ross green. Still, Skokie can still be termed a “Ross course” because even in subsequent redesigns, Ross-flavored shot values were infused on the balance of the holes.

If the 410-yard 10th—complete with his signature “forebunkers” placed 20 to 30 yards short of the green—is the most untouched Ross hole, the par-4 8th is the best, although he had help. Stretching 430 yards today (435 for the ’22 Open), the 8th climbs uphill, past a trio of bunkers that were extensively remodeled by Rees Jones in the early 1980s, before finishing wih a fiendishly crowned Ross green that sits 25 feet above fairway level.

In the mid 1930s, efforts were undertaken to acquire land in the neighborhood of a new lagoon that had been created by the Civil Conservation Corps. Midwestern architects William Langford and Theodore Moreau were retained to “rearrange Skokie Country Club,” an obvious understatement since they created nine new holes, ultimately turning Skokie from what had been merely a classic course into truly a great one and bestowing the club with its signature hole, the 12th, one of the finest par 3s in the nation.

Langford originally designed it to play a gargantuan 240 yards; today it measures 221 yards. This handsome brute demands a forced carry over water to an elevated platform green which falls off sharply no matter where you miss it. Long and left might find you a huge, steep-lipped bunker, but long and right means more water.

Getting back to our story of the ’22 Open, Sarazen started the final round four shots back of Bobby Jones and Wild Bill Melhorn. Playing ahead of the leaders, Sarazen came to the short par-5 18th needing birdie to shoot 68. After a good drive, he faced a second shot of 250 yards into the wind from 250 yards. At the urging of his caddie, Anthony Dominico, Sarazen chose a driver and hit a shot every bit the equal of his Augusta 4-wood. He hit a low liner that finished 15 feet from the hole and made birdie—and the win.

In July 1997 a 95-year-old Sarazen returned to Skokie to help commemorate the club’s centennial. Aided by a cane, he confidently walked onto the 18th green and pointed to the spot his ball had come to rest 75 years earlier. He spoke lucidly and stayed a good while.


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