In the far northern suburbs of Chicago, a Seth Raynor masterpiece lies in the sleepy town of Lake Bluff, Illinois. No golf course is more near and dear to my heart than Shoreacres. My grandfather, an instrumental figure in my love of the game, was a long-time member and would take me out to play the course a few times every year during my childhood.
While my opinion may carry some bias, I have yet to play a golf course that is a more enjoyable experience than Shoreacres. Looking at a scorecard, the course won’t wow you with a lofty slope and course rating or lengthy yardage, but on the grounds you will experience a masterpiece of design where nothing feels out of place and every aspect of your golf game is challenged.
A little history on Shoreacres
Shoreacres opened 100 years ago in 1916, the latest club in the golf-centric North Shore of Chicago. Immediately after opening, Shoreacres stole the thunder from its nearby Lake Forest clubs, Onwentsia Club and Knollwood Club, as the best course in the area. Shoreacres was one of Seth Raynor’s first solo designs, and he couldn’t have asked for a better canvas to work off of than the site he was given at Shoreacres.
Unlike most sites in the typically flat Chicago area, Shoreacres borders Lake Michigan and as the acreage moves inland, great natural ravines cut through the property. A decision that many architects would struggle to make, Raynor chose to bypass the allure of the lakeside property and chose to route his course a few hundred yards inland and amongst the great sweeping ravines and meandering creek. It shocks many people that Raynor didn’t build any holes on the property that overlooks Lake Michigan, but the inland land is that good.
Raynor’s design was bold. In fact, the 11th hole lost the club a member because of its forced carry over a ravine. Legend has it that the influential member told Raynor he would quit the club if the hole was designed as planned with an approximately 150 yard carry. Raynor shrugged and did as his predecessor C.B. Macdonald would do. He built the hole as planned.
This wasn’t the case forever as over the years, as often is the case with country clubs, trees were planted and grew, greens shrunk, and soft and lush conditioning was pushed. Sadly, Shoreacres was a casualty. However, the club brought in Tom Doak in 1993 to consult and breathe a little life back into the masterpiece. Since 1994, subtle changes have been made but in recent years the activity has kicked up and brought Shoreacres back into the conversation of best golf courses in the Midwest, United States and World. Trees have been cut, new tee boxes have been added and original green sizes have been restored.
Today at Shoreacres you will find one of the best template golf experiences in the world. The course plays through wide corridors to large squared off greens, and the superb maintenance staff keeps the course playing as firm and fast as possible magnifying the importance of shot-making and strategy.
Back to the experience
Shoreacres is a shining example of understated excellence. Only a small sign welcomes you from Sheridan Road and you are treated to one of the best entrances in golf. The roadway in winds for about a mile until you reach the clubhouse giving you a preview of what’s to come with close-up looks at the 3rd, 2nd and 1st holes.
The beautiful clubhouse overlooks Lake Michigan and offers one of the best views in all of Chicago. This may sound weird, but the men’s locker room has one of the best showers in the world. If you ever get the chance to play Shoreacres bring a change of clothes, the showers are life-changing.
Now, onto the course and a look into the genius of Seth Raynor.
With the recommendations from Doak, Shoreacres now stretches 6,729 yards from the back (black) tees. From the black tees, the course plays to a par 70 while the middle tees (Raynor) plays to a par 71 at 6,305 yards. The discrepancy in par comes from the first hole which plays as a par 4 from the back tees and a par 5 from the middle tees. For the purpose of the hole-by-hole tour, we will use the black tee yardages and pars.
1st hole - par 4 - 480 yards
What used to be a generous start with a short par 5 has changed into a ball-busting long par 4 opener for those who play the black tees. Raynor gives you ample room with the wide first fairway. Long hitters do have to be wary of the beautiful cross-bunkers as they are reachable with the big dog. From there, a long-iron approach is left into a push-up green that is guarded by a bunker on the left, a false front and fall-offs on the right and back sides, making 4 a very good score.
2nd hole - par 4 - 358 yards
Next, it’s onto one of my favorite holes, Shoreacres’ rendition of the “cape,” the par 4 2nd. Options galore face players on the tee shot. A great drive can net an easy pitch into the short 2nd hole but trouble lurks down the left side with the creek that prominently runs through most of Shoreacres property. A ball that hits on the left side of the fairway has a good chance of finding a wet resting place. I typically play an iron towards the right center of the fairway leaving a wedge or short-iron into the green. Depending on the pin location, the creek can again test a player’s boldness as pins in the back and left sides of this green require a brave line to have a good look at birdie.
3rd hole - par 4 - 312 yards
Onto Shoreacres’ “leven” hole, an underrated template design that again presents players with a number of options and an excellent birdie opportunity. My strategy off the tee is often dictated by the pin location. If it is behind the mound that fronts the left side of the green, it's a long-iron tee shot. Anywhere else, the big dog gets to eat and I favor the right half of the fairway. The green has considerable back to front slope so on the approach it's imperative to control your spin and try to stay below the pin.
4th hole - par 4 - 393 yards
After the scorable third hole, players head to the picturesque 4th. Driver is the play off the tee and you do not want to miss right as the creek lingers to snatch up any wide miss, leading many players to favor the left side and leave a tougher angle for the wedge approach. The green is guarded by a left bunker and front bunker and heavy slope from back to front. The back left pin here is extremely tough to get to.
5th hole - par 4 - 491 yards
The 5th starts a stretch of very challenging holes and is one of the hardest on the golf course. An ideal drive is down the left hand side of the fairway which has a bit of a launch-pad for good drives, but Sheridan Road and out of bounds lingers there. A good drive rewards players with a long-iron/hybrid approach to a plateau green. A poor drive is forced to contend with the ravine that cuts through the hole, often forcing players to lay up short of it and leave a lengthy 3rd shot approach. The green has considerable slope and a false-front to navigate along with deep bunkering on the right hand side.
6th hole - par 3 - 214 yards
Onto the next famed template hole, the “biarritz,” a par 3 that turns back east into the prevailing wind. The monster green allows this hole to play anywhere from 170 yards to 230 yards. The signature of this green complex is the deep chasm that divides the front and back half. A mistruck shot to a back pin can leave a devilish putt through the chasm.
7th hole - par 4 - 487 yards
After a quick stop at the halfway house, the difficult stretch continues with the 7th hole which features a “double plateau” green. As with most double plateaus that Raynor, C.B. Macdonald and Charles Banks employed, the 7th is one of the longest par 4s on the golf course. The fairway is wide and an ideal tee shot will favor the right side leaving a long-iron into the 3-tiered green. A great shot that finds the correct plateau will leave an excellent birdie putt, but one that misses yields a challenging two putt.
8th hole - par 3 - 196 yards
Next up is the beautiful par 3 8th hole, Shoreacres’ “Eden” hole. This hole was inspired by the 11th at St. Andrews and makes for a difficult par. The green is shallow with severe slope from back to front. The green is guarded by deep bunkers, the “Strath” bunker on the right side and the “hill” bunker on the left along with the “eden” bunker in back.
9th hole - par 4 - 388 yards
After the brutal stretch of 5-8, players are given a quick breather on the short par 4 9th which features an extra-wide corridor as it shares a fairway with the neighboring 18th. While abundant room exists right, the wise drive favors the left side to leave a great angle for a wedge shot.
10th hole - par 4 - 467 yards
Players make the turn to the back 9 and are confronted by arguably the best rendition of St. Andrew’s famed “road hole.” In place of the hotel, Shoreacres’ version features a deep ravine and out of bounds along the right side. A daring drive down the right half of the fairway can shorten the hole a great deal but a smarter play is up the left side. A long-iron approach usually follows a tee shot into the spectacular green complex. The “road” bunker stands guard in the middle of the green forcing players to decide whether to play safe to the front right or r to challenge the bunker. As with most road holes, the nature of the green swings from right to left and any shots too long will find a treacherous back right bunker. A good place to miss here is actually left of the green.
11th hole - par 4 - 371 yards
After 10, players have reached the most dramatic part of the property as Raynor begins to weave around, in and out of the property’s natural ravines. The 11th is one of the most beautiful par 4s in the world. The shortish par 4 is guarded by a giant ravine that cuts in front of the fairway plateau, down the right side and back in front of the green. The ravine dictates a fairway wood or iron tee shot that favors the left center of the fairway. On the second shot, the ravine again comes into play as it fronts the green, while balls are playable from the ravine, it's not fun. The green is relatively flat but filled with subtle breaks that will make a player shake their head walking off the green.
12th hole - par 3 - 136 yards
Next up is Shoreacres’ most photographed hole, the par 3 12th, which is Raynor’s rendition of the “short” hole. The 12th measures 136 yards, but plays significantly shorter as you hit your shot down into the green. As with most short holes, the 12th green is large, severely undulated and heavily guarded by bunkers. A pinpoint wedge will set up a birdie opportunity while an average one makes for a tough two putt. What makes the downhill 12th sneaky hard is how tough it is to gauge the distance and wind.
13th hole - par 4 - 323 yards
On the 13th, players are faced with a rare blind tee shot from Seth Raynor as he gives players the thrill of hitting out of the ravine. Off the tee, you want to aim towards the very left side of the ravine and hit a 200-220 yard shot. This hole is a quasi-take on the “knoll” hole but doesn’t have a traditional blind approach. From a good tee shot, a player is confronted with another shot over a ravine that ranges between 120-140 yards in. Wedge play and distance control are tested by a severe false front that gobbles up any shot a little short and a deep back bunker that punishes a player who is a little bold. A missed fairway at the 13th leads to quite the challenge as flier lies are prevalent.
14th hole - par 3 - 216 yards
Following the 13th is the iconic “redan” 14th, a long par 3 that typically plays into the prevailing eastern wind. The 14th is one of the most beautiful redan holes as it features another ravine on the left side and a pronounced shoulder to play an approach shot off of. The green is slanted at a 45-degree angle and guarded by a deep bunker on the left side. The best way to get to a back pin is to use the slope on the right side which funnels balls toward the back and left.
15th hole - par 5 - 529 yards
At the 15th, the epic journey continues with one of the best-designed par 5s in the world. From the back tee, an ideal tee shot will move right to left, a ravine guards the left side so be sure not to overcook it! A strong drive will set up a chance to get home in two, but my favorite part of this hole is all of the options the unique cross-bunkering that splits the fairway presents on the second shot for those that have to layup. The left side presents an avenue safe from carrying the bunkers, while the right side requires more carry, but a downslope will funnel a ball close to the green. Speaking of the green, the large complex has a lot of back to front slope and makes for difficult and long two putts. The 15th is one of the few accurate representations of the “bottle” template that remain in America.
16th hole - par 4 - 463 yards
After the birdie/eagle opportunity that the 15th presents, Raynor slaps players with another long and challenging par 4. The challenge comes on the mid to long-iron second shot to a plateau from the ultra-wide 16th fairway. The green is small and shallow and a miss on either side will find a deep bunker. Par is a very good score here.
17th hole - par 4 - 347 yards
If your match is close heading into 17, you are in for a thrill as Shoreacres closes with a couple of tasty birdie opportunities. The shortish par 4 17th can be driven in the right conditions, but on a normal day requires a player to make a wise choice with club selection off the tee. Driver will get a player up into nomad’s land and depending on the pin position can leave some dicey half-wedge shots. I typically play 3W down the right center to set up a good lob-wedge into the green. The back left side of the green is guarded by an extremely deep bunker and a shot long and left can find the water. The green itself can be maddening as it is filled with subtle and tough to read slopes.
18th hole - par 4 - 558 yards
After 17, Shoreacres heads east towards the lake and often into the wind for the par 5 18th. This is a rendition of the “long” hole template and is signified by the treacherous fairway bunkers that cut into the driving area from the left side. A good drive in the right conditions and a player can get home in two with a 3W but must favor the left side as the right is guarded by a nasty bunker and hard sloping nob in the green. Layups should also favor the left side of the fairway to yield the best angle for approach. At the green, besides the front bunker, the back bunker is another to avoid as it is deep and will leave a devilish shot.
I am always sad when a round is finished at Shoreacres. It is a course that I never want to stop playing. Raynor was masterful here; he created a thrilling golf course that is as memorable as they come. I have played it a great number of times and have shot some of my best rounds ever, but when I didn’t have my A-game, Shoreacres kicked me in the nuts. I don’t like to get caught up in rankings, but Golf Digest says there are 98 better courses in the country. I find that interesting as I have played a lot of golf courses and haven’t found a better one yet.