- 6,732 yards, 137 slope – Holes 1-18
- 6,659 yards, 136 slope – Holes 1-9, 19-27
- 6,729 yards, 137 slope – Holes 10-27
In Sugar Grove, IL, about an hour outside Chicago, Black Sheep Golf Club is 27 holes designed by David Esler. On mild rolling terra firma, there’s a rugged naturalism here amongst the prairie links that captures much of the soul of adventure that draws a lot of us to this game. This starts with the drive to the course, where the clubhouse can be seen sitting above a sea of fields on all sides, for miles. Starting out as a dot in the distance, it grows in the background until you’re upon it; a simple structure housing a bar, grill, pro shop and locker room. And a book that you must sign in to. No kitchen, no ball room, no pool. No frills. Just the essentials for comraderie and some very good golf.
The course spoke to me. I played terribly and uncharacteristically, I don’t remember many of the holes. They all flow together for me. Yet I enjoyed myself immensely. My caddie and I spent the round talking about the course, other courses, golf, and life in general. It was hot, so we had the place to ourselves more or less. What stuck out to me, however, was the land, the off fairway areas, the green complexes and the various means and methods the course could be attacked. Rich with character and a refreshing salt of the earth aura, forging its own path.
The golf here demanded improvisation. The wind coming through, jagged bunkers proud of their character free of the grooming encountered elsewhere, native vegetation grabbing at your ball as it sees fit – growing in any direction it sees fit – mountainous greens daring you to take them on. The driving range swing will only take you so far here. The course demands the battle. I may have not shown up with my best game but I enjoyed every minute in the arena, knowing it would all make me stronger, wiser for the next go round.
The First is a 405 yard par 4 (from the Gray tees). Relatively straight, it plays anything but based on tee placement and the fairway widening and constricting in different areas as you advance to the green. The right side looks safe, but makes for a less desirable approach. Those that dare on the left side, and pull it off, get a much better look at the green on approach and avoid having to deal with the bunkers and off fairway on the right side. The fairway leads slightly downhill to the green, then runs off the back. A nice opener, just in the middle of gentleman’s handshake and punch in the gut. It’s more sobering, letting you know early on you’ll have to earn it today.
The Second is a 497 yard par 5. And we’re now in the deep end. A forced carry off the tee, the hole keeping cascading and climbing to the right. Bunkers cluster in groups on the way up to the green on the right side, while the fairway weaves between them. There are several paths to the green but generally, left gets you a clearer line in while right brings the bunkers into play and the approach as blind. The green opens up on the left and slopes from right to left, which is back to front when you really think about it. No rest for the weary.
The Third is a 204 yard par 3. Now at a corner of the property. A drop shot par 3 at a fairly long distance. In fact, I can’t remember a longer drop shot par 3 than this. Lots of room short to miss while bunkers are off to the sides. A nice opening sequence, giving you a little bit of everything.
The Fourth is a 399 yard par 4. A forced carry tee shot to a wide fairway that tilts right to left. Flirting with the bunkers on the right off the tee gets you a better line into the green, which is set off to the left, while the left side starts to fall off pretty good if you get too far over. A wide fairway leads to the green, so use all the green space as you wish.
The Fifth is a 305 yard par 4. A really cool short par 4, the tee is set on the right side and the fairway runs at a perpendicular angle to it. Bunkers run down both sides while water is along the right. The tee shot is demanding and rewards those shots taking on the right side and successfully negotiating the bunkrs and water. The reward is a nice short approach with a great line into the green. Those that favor the left side have a blind approach over a bunker, with the green running away from them. Black Sheep wants you to gamble, wants you to live dangerously and rewards those who make it to the other side.
The Sixth is a 583 yard par 5 and is the number 1 handicap hole. Now the tee sits on the left side of the hole and is a forced carry over water, with bunkers scattered on the left side. Placement of the tee and fairway again creates interesting angles off the tee and hitting the fairway is vital since off fairway gets very interesting. Make no mistake, it gives you a chance of recovery but the degree of difficulty varies and there’s no sense testing fate. It was at this hole I realized that Black Sheep is an interesting test of the driver, where control over its flight is infinitely more important than how far you can make it go. Alas, most of my troubles were due to bad drives, my driver clearly broken from surly baggage handlers. After the tee shot, the fairway bends slightly right to a wide green, feeding from the right. While the tee shot beckons you to the right, the approach is more ideal to the left, making you use the enitrety of the hole. A great par 5.
The Seventh is a 369 yard par 4. A forced carry off the tee with bunkers splattered across the horizon, the right side looks like a safe haven. The further you right you are, however, the more you bring a larger bunker complex into play next to the green. There is a center line bunker on the left side that just happens to be on the line of charm. Either ending up short of it, or taking it on and carrying it, leaves you with the best line to the green. The hole is an S shape with the green at the top right, so negotiating the bunkers and lines off the tee present as an array of puzzles and decisions, all to a green that presents similar questions.
The Eighth is a 150 yard par 3. A green amidst the high grass, the horizon before you as far as the eye can see. There’s a lot more room short right than it appears while bunkers are on the far right side. I hit a great shot here, which drew off the tee . . . and kept drawing right into the high grass on the left. Walking into it looking for my ball, it is here I am certain I got poison ivy, which tormented my left arm for a few weeks. I’d do it over again, the things we do for lost balls. I ended up finding it, so all is well.
The Ninth is a 419 yard par 4. Leading up to the clubhouse, the tee shot is a forced carry to a wide fairway with bunkers beset on both sides and a lot of room to the right after the bunkers on that side. The left side is ideal but most will end up right, which brings the massive greenside bunkers into play. Such was my fate, which I masterfully carried with my wedge before promptly three putting. Bunkers surround the green, voraciously, which makes that uphill approach even more testing.
The front nine loops around the lower side of the property, has fantastic variety in all respects and great par 4’s and 5’s. The par 3’s were fine but did not match the level of the other holes. I would rank them 2, 5, 7, 6, 9, 1, 4, 3, 8.
The clubhouse serves as the halfway house as well. After a brief visit, we continue on to the second nine.
The second nine starts with the 401 yard par 4 Tenth. The front nine felt like an outer loop of the property while the second felt like an inner loop. Out we go, the fairway a bit narrower than we’re used to, bunkers on the right. More severe bunkers are greenside along the right, with a smaller entrypoint in the center. The second nine making its point early on.
The Eleventh is a 530 yard par 5 and is the number one handicap hole for this set of nine holes. A double dog leg with a rather large and deep bunker complex off to the left of the fairway all in play from the tee. The fairway runs above and to the right of these bunkers, then narrows and turns left after them, then straightens out to the green. The fairway tightens, with bunkers on both sides of the smaller green but the entrypoint is inviting. Challenging, fraught with options and paths, spots that must be avoided and a green that’s indifferent to the trevails encountered to reach it, this was my favorite hole here.
The Twelfth is a 393 yard par 4. A forced carry off the tee, the left side looks good but like we have seen, you’ll pay a price for it. An approach from the left means all the bunkers on that side must be carried to the green above, which is blind, and there is no room left of it to miss. There’s always the bunkers on the right, which is where I decided to go. It’s a great line into the green from there, but a tough shot out of the bunker or off fairway. Those that can carry the bunkers on the right should do so to get that angle for their approach. Yet another great hole and the opening sequence on the second nine grabs your full attention.
The Thirteenth is a 193 yard par 3. The green is slightly below the tee, with a short grass area before it and off to the right. It can be used to roll shots onto the green, yet will repel shots that don’t have enough zest. Bunkers are below and to the left of the green and the entire holes tilts in that direction. A couple bunkers are off to the right for good measure. A great par 3 I could play over and over, this set of nine holes is now cooking with gas.
The Fourteenth is a 415 yard par 4. Off the tee, there’s plenty of room off to the right but as we know that means a tougher approach. You’ll have to carry the fairway and greenside bunkers on that side. There’s a fall off into bunkers below on the left, but getting your tee shot near them means a much clearer approach into the green. I’ll take the right side and tougher approach, or try to carry the bunker on that side. There’s a run off the green on the far side so take that into consideration.
The Fifteenth is a 390 yard par 4. One of the things this course does well is there are no standard dog legs; if the hole turns, it can turn back the other direction, the green is set back to create another turn, or the tee is placed so there are other lines to the green. Here, a dog leg right is made a lot more interesting by placing the green out on the left, giving it the feel of a double dog leg. The green is uphill and there are bunkers below it on the left. Those bunkers must be contended with unless you can carry all of the fairway bunkers on the right from the tee. By all means, stay on the fairway whatever it is you do, as the off fairway areas are no where you want to be.
The Sixteenth is a 156 yard par 3. The inner loop of the second nine takes us near the clubhouse while the par 3 goes back out. The green is wide and inviting. But off to the right, hiding, is water, short of the bunkers on that side. The bunkers on the left are in plain sight but yes, make sure your shot gets to the green above all else.
The Seventeenth is a 426 yard par 4. Turning right of the tee with bunkers on both sides, the landing area shrinks the closer you get to the green. The fairway then ends at a creek with the green a short approach on the other side. Bunkers are left of the green but otherwise the green is clear. Like many holes here, the tee shot dictates all so put yourself in good position.
The Eighteenth is a 497 yard par 5. The long and winding road, that leads to the clubhouse door, will never disappear, I’ve seen that road before. Before us, with the clubhouse in the distance, the fairway indeed long and winding, climbing to the green. The centerline bunker must be dealt with off the tee, along with the decisions whether to go left of it, right of it, or over. The second shot more confounding as the fairway narrows and bunkers multiply. The general question is whether to hold up short of the trouble around the green and settle for a longer approach or dive right into it, pulling it off meaning a nice short wedge to the pin. The right side gets you lined up with the entrypoint while those going up the left will need to carry the greenside bunkers. A great finishing hole, surely where a number of matches have been decided.
This was the end for me, as other engagements needed attending to. The third nine awaits next time and oh there will be a next time, where I go to battle with the course once again, enjoying every minute of it.
I liked the second nine more than the first, mainly because the par 3’s were much better and perhaps the inner loop took advantage of the numerous abrupt hills and ridges that sit within the interior of the course. I would rank them 11, 12, 13, 18, 10, 14, 15, 17, 16.
Generally, Black Sheep is impressive for how it carves its own character and identity. While not an easy course, the challenge is versatile and anchored to strategy. There’s flexibility, which is necessary when the wind becomes a factor. There’s a lot of diversity, from the greens to tee shots, so you are rarely hitting the same shots or making the same decisions. Most importantly, there’s a ruggedness that prevails here. Many courses try to capture it just with their bunkering, yet the rest of the course is groomed immaculately. Here, there’s a freedom from uniformity of appearance that I wish I encountered more often. And one of the highest compliments I can give a course, the greens rolled true and were at speeds that make sense. A terrific example that modern courses can yield brilliance from architects not named Doak, Coore, Hanse or Kidd.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Photos are above. A great place to hang out and consistent with the character of the course.
Practice area: A nice grass range and putting green. I believe a short game area will be installed shortly.