Hills and thrills: Eagle Ridge provides surprises

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

GALENA, Ill. -- Having never visited this hamlet in the northwest corner of Illinois, I was surprised to learn that the locals sometimes like to spend their winter days skiing at Chestnut Mountain Resort, just south of town. Not cross-country skiing, mind you, but downhill.

My geographic ignorance of the region was such that I never imagined skiers schussing down slopes near the banks of the Mississippi River.

I also never imagined standing on a tee so high that I literally could see Iowa and Wisconsin before launching a tee ball and watching it plummet, plummet, plummet, 180 feet in all, down an elevator chute to the 14th fairway at The General, ranked No. 3 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Illinois.

I also was intrigued to learn this fact from Mark Luthman, executive vice president of Touchstone Golf, which manages the resort’s golf business: Nearly 90 percent of Eagle Ridge’s players come from Chicagoland, some 160 miles to the east. This speaks well of the savvy Second City golfers, who could just as easily stay at home and enjoy arguably the greatest collection of courses of any major American city.

But it does raise this question: People of Madison, Milwaukee, the Quad Cities, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines – what in the name of Roger Packard are you waiting for?

Over the course of two decades, Packard, the son of prolific Midwest course architect Larry Packard, designed all 63 holes at Eagle Ridge, including The General in the mid-1990s in conjunction with Andy North. Packard now works full time in China, but he said via email that he knew he had something special when he saw the “beautiful, rolling hills that (were) atypical of the Illinois flatland.”

There’s an odd dichotomy at work, depending on the direction from which guests arrive at the resort. Visitors coming from Chicago will turn off of U.S. 20 onto Eagle Ridge Drive and immediately pass The General and its handsome clubhouse, with a silo that provides a wonderful sense of place in this rural community. As first impressions go, that makes a pretty strong one.

Guests arriving from the north or west, however, likely will take a different turnoff and drive two miles along a winding farm road, which might cause first-timers, including me, to wonder if they made a wrong turn. But my apprehension turned to excitement when I finally drove past the North Course’s second hole, a double-dogleg par 5 (the Packards’ signature design trait). Over dinner later that evening in Dubuque, Iowa, I told a friend that the quality of the golf terrain was self-evident, even before I had put a peg in the ground.

A personal confession: Before I teed off at Eagle Ridge, I drove to Dyersville, 20 miles west of Dubuque, to take batting practice at the Field of Dreams. It is as it was in the 1989 movie – open to anyone who wants to take a few swings or field grounders.

(A Chicago family earlier this year bought the 193-acre farm and announced plans to build a 24-field baseball complex to host tournaments, which strikes me as an unlikelier vision than building one field and expecting the ghosts of Shoeless Joe and the 1919 Black Sox to emerge from the surrounding cornfield.)

Back at Eagle Ridge the next morning, The General looked as appealing as a hanging slider. That might sound odd to those who have played it, because The General has a take-no-prisoners reputation. Luthman, whose firm assumed management of the golf operations in June, has been softening the course by cutting back the native areas.

The course has a lovely opening stretch – a downhill par 4, a potentially reachable par 5 and a pretty little pond-side par 3 – that provides a pleasant welcome. But the forced carries and pinched-in landing areas on the heavily treed site do demand some precision.

By contrast, the resort’s South Course has more of a resort feel – no pushover, but typically with more room for misses.

The General takes its name from Galena’s most famous former resident, Ulysses S. Grant, who moved here shortly before the Civil War. He lived in Galena sporadically after the war – long enough, however, to spawn a cottage industry among locals who claim the war hero and former president as one of their own. Pointing into the library just off the front porch of Grant’s house, a volunteer tour guide told our group, “I like to say that this would be his man cave if he were alive today.”

There’s something charming about a grandmotherly Midwesterner using the term “man cave.”

The village of Galena, six miles from Eagle Ridge, is a thoroughly appealing collection of eclectic commerce. You can choose from 50,000 socks at For Bare Feet – the penguin design is inexplicably popular, though Chicago Bears and Cubs merchandise also sells well – to 468 hot sauces at Galena Canning Co. Those looking for more conventional fare might favor offerings such as the prime rib at Log Cabin Steakhouse, the award-winning Annabelle’s IPA at Galena Brewing Co. or the local wines at Massbach Ridge’s tasting room.

In Dubuque, 15 miles away, there’s waterfront gaming at two sizable casinos, though my tastes ran more toward the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. It has a little something for everyone, from the history of steamboats and Mark Twain’s riverboat days to the aquarium’s Wet Lab petting area and the irredeemably hideous alligator snapping turtle.

Before my visit, I had been told that for all of the praise heaped on The General, I might walk away from Eagle Ridge feeling the strongest affinity for the resort’s North Course. It was the first course I saw when I arrived at the resort, and the last I played, on the morning of my departure.

The North, the first course to open on property, in 1977, was instantly likable from its first tee, which sits about 200 yards from the lodge. It has a procession of holes that simply appeal to the eye. The seventh, with its distracting view of Lake Galena framing the approach, and the par-3 eighth, which plays downhill across a lake inlet, understandably steal much of the attention.

More impressive, however, are the seemingly straightforward holes that nevertheless make a strong impression, whether it be the lovely setting of the par-4 third, the terraced fairway of the par-5 15th or the approach on the doglegged 17th, where the roll of the land and the perched green seem so emblematic of the surrounding farmland.

Now those were precisely the images I imagined and hoped to find before visiting Galena.

• • •

If you go

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa (eagleridge.com; 800-892-2269)

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