I felt a touch of nervous excitement as I stood on the 1st tee at Cog Hill #4, the fearsome “Dubsdread” course that has hosted 20 PGA tour events since 1991. It’s been many years since I last visited, but “Dubs” was an annual stop before the notoriety, and the subsequent increase in greens fees, exceeded my golf budget. But the $100 twilight rate that the Jemsek family offered for 2014 convinced me that it was time to make a return. My first swing produced a weak drive down the right side of the dogleg left par 4, but a solidly struck 4 wood, a chip to 10 feet and a barely missed par putt and the subsequent tap in bogey had me off to a decent start. But after one hole, it was apparent that this was not the same course that I had filed in my memory.
Architect Rees Jones, the acclaimed “Open Doctor”, began work in 2007 to create a course that would be worthy of someday hosting the U.S. Championship, and the unapologetic bully of Windy City public layouts was pumped full of steroids and heavily armed in the completed redesign. Although the prime parkland style course routing was basically untouched, an additional 400 yards was added and Dubs now plays to a staggering 7,554 yards and a 77.8 stroke / 151 slope rating from the tips, but my foursome of 12 to 25 handicaps scooted up 3 tees and 1,100 yards to the 6,400 yard White tees, and it was still all that we could handle. Bethpage Black, another public access facility in New York (and Rees Jones restoration) that hosted the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens, has a sign on the first tee that states “The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers”, and a similar sign would be totally appropriate at Cog Hill #4, too.
The course was always defined by the 120 (give or take a few) bunkers that were scattered across the layout, and Rees Jones actually reduced this number to just under 100, but what remained are cavernous, sand filled craters that are as intimidating as any I’ve ever encountered. The landing areas off the tee are for the most part generous, with the claustrophobic par five 9th the most notable exception, and I successfully navigated around the 43 nasty fairway traps, but it’s near the greens that Dubs has been amped up to the next level. All 18 putting surfaces were rebuilt with the state-of-the-art Sub-Air drainage system, and as the old greens were among the easiest to putt on the PGA tour, the redesigned greens have the severe slopes and contours to test the pros, and to create a potential nightmarish adventure for the average golfer.
The majority of the greens have been raised, and the 55 bunkers carved out of the side hills below will often require extremely steep trajectories and some uncomfortable positioning, and at one point I feared for the stability of one of my playing partners artificial hip on a particularly daunting stance on the par five 15th hole. The fingers of thick rough that are cut between the traps and surround the plateaued putting surfaces are particularly penal, and getting consistently close to the hole on chip shots and approaches requires a skill level that most players can only dream about.
After the promising start, my round quickly unraveled on the 2nd hole, as a pulled 5 wood landed under a tree and led to a triple bogey on arguably the easiest par three on the course, but the next hole was a perfect example of the type of disasters that can happen here. I hit a decent drive just off the right side of the fairway on the 389 yard hole, but I still had a 180 yard uphill approach to a pin tucked behind two deep bunkers on the narrow upper left section of the green. The intent was to hit to the open area to the right, chip on and one putt for a par; the result was a well struck 4 wood that was not quite far enough right and dribbled into the base of the monstrous trap. The 3rd shot stayed in the hazard, 4th shot sailed over the green and 20 yards down the hill in the thick grass, 5 is short and 6 is finally on, but it catches the slope past the hole and slowly, tortuously rolls 25 feet away from the cup. Three putts later and I was writing a 9 on the scorecard.
I did recover nicely and played the final 6 holes in one over bogey, including a par on the short par five 5th hole (the only green I hit in regulation), and makeable par putts on the beautiful par three 6th (one of my favorite holes here), and the lengthy 9th (613 yards from the tips, 550 from the White tees) left a glimmer of hope that I could still reach my goal of breaking 100. But 3 putt triple bogeys (ouch!) on both back side par fives and the last two holes effectively torpedoed the round, as the greens were a riddle that I never solved. Nonetheless, I still had some memorable moments over the last nine holes. Three of my best shots of the day came on the 13th hole, one of the most difficult at CH4, as a perfect drive, an approach over the creek/ravine to the front edge of the green, and a long chip shot to within a foot of the back pin left a tap in par, but I did one better on the dogleg left 16th, as I split the fairway from the elevated tee, carried a 5 iron over the trap and flushed a punch and run 9 iron from just off the right edge for a birdie and a major rush of adrenaline.
The #4 course is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014, and I always thought I had a chance at a solid round on the original Dick Wilson/Joe Lee collaboration, but that dream has all but been extinguished in the withering challenge that Rees Jones created. Several tour players had critical comments for the renovation, with Steve Stricker, Phil Mickelson and others suggesting that for the average golfer, the course is “very difficult”, “unenjoyable” and “unplayable”, and as the quintessential average golfer, I would tend to agree with these assessments. But on a positive note, I amazingly played the round with the same ball, as water is prominently featured only at the dogleg on the par four 7th (a new addition with the renovation) and tight to the green on the dramatic finishing hole.
The course was, for the most part, in the type of condition that one would expect for $155 (cart and range balls included), as the fairways were plush and the rebuilt greens rolled smooth and true, but a weeks’ worth of heavy downpours were not kind to the bunkers, which were compacted and even harder to escape than usual. The course drained well and I saw no signs of standing water during our late afternoon round, but the Superintendent had imposed a “cart path only” restriction for the day, and truth be told I was relieved that my tee shots landed near the path on the 17th & 18th holes to save me from trudging across more fairways on a humid Sunday afternoon at this mega layout.
The friendly gentleman working the cash register said that 90% of the golfers who play at Dubs rave about the course, so my opinion falls firmly in the minority of his sample, but besides the severity of the new green complexes, I just did not find them all that visually appealing to my eye. But I give the Jemsek family a ton of credit for taking a chance to bring the course to the next level, and I truly hope that the PGA tour and the USGA come calling in the future as I live 2 miles away and would love to see a U.S. Open at a great public facility like Cog Hill.
I recently talked to a 16 handicap golfer who had just completed a round in one of the local amateur tournaments, and he shot an 88 and had his first hole-in-one on the 2nd hole at Dubsdread. The ear to ear smile on his face was priceless, and it’s the allure of an unforgettable round like that on a special course like this that will likely bring me back someday. But for the most part, I’ll leave Dubs to the pros and low handicappers for whom it was designed, and I’ll be perfectly happy playing the three other really good courses at Cog Hill that are much better suited to my 20 handicap skill level.
12294 Archer Avenue
Lemont, IL 866-264-4455
6 tees, 7,554 / 5,441 yds, par 72
77.8/151 – 70.2/130 rating / slope (men)
80.2/150 – 72.8/135 (women)
M-SU $155, $100 after 4 pm
Juniors (Under 18) – $100, $80 after 4 pm
All Rates include carts and range access
10 minute tee time intervals