CHAMPAIGN — When Mike Small’s Illinois men’s golfers need to work on their game, they can zip to the Lauritsen/Wohlers Outdoor Golf Practice Facility and Demirjian Golf Practice Facility on St. Mary’s Road. It’s an ideal setup for the most successful program on campus.
“We needed a place to train and practice,” Small said. “That’s why we built what we did.”
But when the team wants to play a round, there is no official home course.
Fortunately, going back to Small’s playing days in the late 1980s, the local courses have always welcomed the Illini. With open arms.
Champaign Country Club, Lincolnshire Fields, Urbana Country Club and the UI Orange and Blue Courses in Savoy make room for a Big Ten power.
“All the courses in town are very helpful and very receptive,” Small said. “It’s a college town. Everything revolves around the university.”
On Jan. 6, the Illini lost an option when Urbana’s Stone Creek Golf Club announced its closing. The final day for the course is Jan. 31.
“I liked it,” Small said. “They’ve been good to us over the years.”
Small is in the middle of a busy month that includes playing, teaching and fundraising. He took time earlier this week to reflect on the demise of Stone Creek.
“I was sad. I was disappointed,” Small said. “Any time you see golf courses close, being a golfer, you don’t want to see that. Obviously, it was a business decision.”
Small’s team last played a competitive match at Stone Creek in April 2018, hosting Bradley.
His first season at Illinois, way back in 2001, Stone Creek hosted the Big Ten championships won by Northwestern. Illinois finished a distant 10th. Not the course’s fault.
Small and his team practiced at Stone Creek often over the years. With its pristine conditions and challenging layout, the course served the program well.
“We used it as one of our opportunities in town to play golf,” Small said. “The staff out there was always receptive and always helpful.”
Stone Creek had a driving range the Illini frequented until building their own. That cut into the need to drive to southeast Urbana.
“But the golf course was still good,” Small said.
Small will have to alter his recruiting pitch.
“We used to say there were six golf courses in town we could play,” Small said. “Now, we can only say five, which is not as good.”
Bottom line, Small will miss it.
“It’s one less option to play,” he said. “It was probably the longest golf course in town. Our guys need some length. As a golfer and coach, I’m just saddened it had to close.”
The loss of Stone Creek won’t affect the Illini too adversely like it might have in the past. The Big Ten selects neutral courses for its championship. And Illinois hosts its annual tournament at Olympia Fields in the south suburbs of Chicago.
“In order to attract the best teams in the country,” Small said, “a lot of college tournaments are going to these top, top courses.”
Small’s best score a Stone Creek: 64.
“Some of our guys shot 63 out there,” Small said. “It was generally an easier course for our guys to score on because it was kept pretty soft and the greens were so receptive. They weren’t very firm greens.”
And the course didn’t punish players quite as much for wayward shots.
Small would have played there more often, but said, “I live on the west side of town, so I kind of get spoiled.”
That 10-minute drive from Champaign to Urbana can be brutal. Don’t want to get caught in the Rush Minute.
So Small stayed closer to home for most of his practice rounds.
While he hates to see Stone Creek, or any other course, close, Small isn’t worried about the future of his sport.
“I think golf’s in a good spot,” Small said. “I just think golf was overbuilt in the ’90s. If people wanted to sell houses, they built a golf course. That’s what Stone Creek did, too.
“A lot of people around the whole country, that was their mindset: ‘If we can give people golf course lots, the houses will sell.’ They didn’t really build golf courses to fit the demand for the number of rounds of golf you play. They built it to help the property values, and there were too many courses built.”
Now comes the logical retraction in a community of 130,000.
“Six golf courses is quite a bit,” Small said.
There was a time when a seventh was a possibility. Illinois considered building a course near campus. Just like others have across the Big Ten.
“We decided against that a few years ago, just from the standpoint of we want to be good neighbors,” Small said. “To build another golf course would have for sure put a golf course out of business five years ago. We don’t want to do that. We want to coexist with people in town.”