After securing his advancement to the final qualifying stage for next month’s 117th U.S. Open golf championship at Erin Hills northwest of Milwaukee, Brad Gehl walked over to South Bend Country Club head professional Chad Crane and extended his hand in appreciation.
“I really enjoyed playing your course,” said the 26-year-old former Oklahoma State golfer from Indianapolis who is taking a break from PGA Tour Latinoamérica, a double-A development league for the big tour.
Crane nodded thanks and Gehl continued his salute to the 6,494-yard course designed and built by George O’Neil on the shores of South Chain Lake west of the city once known for its Studebaker cars, one of which was named Rockne for nearby Notre Dame’s most famous football coach.
“It kicked my (posterior deleted)!” Gehl exclaimed.
Crane and others in the vicinity tried not to laugh their own posteriors deleted off. They all could appreciate Gehl’s off-color compliment.
You see, South Bend C.C. is a little long in the tooth – it is celebrating its 100th year of play this season – but it still has plenty of bite, as the 51 amateur and professional golfers who paid $175 to the United States Golf Association for the privilege of 4½ hours of torture on a warm and sometimes blustery Monday.
Only one of them – 43-year-old Sean Rowen, a reinstated amateur from downstate Greenwood who had played the course in two previous Indiana Amateurs held there – managed to break par 71. Rowen, whose father Jim once won the Indiana Senior Amateur there, exceeded par by three strokes, four better than Gehl and recent Wayne State (Mich.) graduate Jordan Andrus, who survived a 4-for-2 playoff with mini-tour pros Jon Jozefowski and Carson Jacobs who also managed 1-over 72s.
Rowen, Gehl and Andrus move on to one of the 36-hole sectional qualifying tournaments scheduled for June 5 that will ultimately fill the 156-player field at Erin Hills, a links-like, public-fee course designed on 652 acres of rolling glacial land 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee by former partners Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry with input from Golf Digest Architecture Editor Ron Whitten.
With a par of 72 and length of 7,693 yards necessitated by the never-ending technological advances made in equipment and golf balls – there are tees that could stretch it well over 8,500 yards – Erin Hills is barely out of its first decade. Because of its location bordered by South Chain Lake west and south and railroads connecting South Bend, Ind., to Chicago to the north, South Bend C.C. has remained virtually unchanged as it now enters its 11th.
So it was with some self-contained satisfaction that members watched the professionals and amateurs with handicap indexes of 1.4 or less struggle to figure out the subtleties engrained into the course by O’Neil, whose design work can be found at Chicagoland courses such as Beverly, Barrington Hills, Crystal Lake, Glencoe and Green Acres.
O’Neil also was a notable tutor whose more-famous pupils included President Warren Harding, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and one Charles E. “Chick” Evans Jr., who became the first amateur to hold both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur titles in the same year (1916) when O’Neil was overseeing the horses and workers who were shaping fairways and greens at South Bend.
Evans would be an honorary member of the course, frequently disembarking the South Shore Line interurban near South Bend’s 13th tee to stay at the clubhouse and play the course when he wasn’t romancing the daughter of one of its first members. Evans later founded, with the help of the Western Golf Association, the Evans Scholars Foundation that awards college scholarships for deserving caddies.
Many notables have played at what used to be known as Chain-O’-Lakes. During its history South Bend C.C. has hosted the Western Open, the Western Amateur, the NCAA Men’s Championship and the Women’s Western Amateur, more than 30 U.S. Open local qualifiers and numbered among its players Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Sandy Tatum, Patty Berg, Pete and Alice Dye, Babe Zaharias, Babe Ruth, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Frank Stranahan, Curtis Strange, Jay Haas, Mike Eruzione, Lawrence Welk, Perry Como, John Wooden, Harry Connick Jr. and Arnold Palmer.
Palmer flew into town to play a June 1969 exhibition for the Junior League along with Como, club pro Gary Carle and then Notre Dame head football coach Ara Parseghian. More than 2,000 followed the foursome, and after two mighty blows put him just off the green at the par-5, 478-yard 18th, Palmer grabbed the microphone to thank the gallery and then proceeded to finish off his 4-under 67 with a chip-in eagle.
But then things always seemed to come easy for golf’s forever “King”; they didn’t for “Lord Byron” when the 1935 Western Open was played at Chain-O’-Lakes Nelson finished third six strokes behind winner Johnny Revolta, whose 290 total was 6-over. Nelson might have made the tournament his first professional win had he not played the par-4, 388-yard 16th hole, which has South Chain Lake down its right side, in 8-over-par.
Over the years, playing South Bend C.C. has been a grind, which may explain why it has remained one of the top courses in the state whenever rankings are released. It is currently No. 7 in the latest Golf Digest rankings behind Tom Fazio’s Victoria National in Newburgh (opened in 1998), Dye’s Crooked Stick in Carmel (1964), Dye’s course at the French Lick Resort (2009), Nicklaus’ Sycamore Hills in Fort Wayne (1989), Steve Smyers’ Wolf Run in Zionsville (1989) and the Donald Ross Course at French Lick Resort (1917).
“You have so many options – you can play aggressive or play conservative,” said Sean Rowen after his Monday round that included birdies at Nos. 1, 2, 5, 12, 15 and 16 against bogeys at Nos. 6, 7 and 13. “It’s an amazing course because it’s still befuddling guys, especially those who can hit it 330 yards off the tee. All you need to do is narrow the fairways, grow the rough and speed up the greens, and you can neutralize their length. You’ve got to hit it straight here and stay out of trouble.”
“It’s definitely a ball-striker’s course,” Andrus said.
“You definitely have to hit it into the right spots,” Jacobs added.
Getting to any of South Bend’s 18 greens is half the battle. That’s when the real work begins. For the most part, O’Neil’s greens slope from back to front. Monday, course superintendent Nick Nate and his crew also had them hard and rolling at 11.6 on the stimpmeter.
Staying below the hole is advisable but not always attainable at South Bend C.C. Golf balls, after all, have minds of their own. Get above the hole, and if your first putt doesn’t hold its line, your second putt coming back could be longer. And if your approach runs past the hole and through the green into the 2½ inches of rough, well, it truly becomes an adventure.
As evidence, we offer up one golfer, who will remain anonymous. He found himself chipping back to the pin at 18, which was perhaps 20 feet off the back. His chip plopped onto the green a third of the way to the hole, slowly rolled past the pin and kept rolling. About halfway down the hill, it looked like it might eventually stop, so the golfer grabbed his putter and started walking toward the ball, which soon gathered new momentum.
About halfway to his rolling ball, the golfer realized that he would have to return to his bag to get a wedge to play his next shot, and as he did, the ball finally rolled off the front of the green, about 100 feet from where it started, and nestled into the rough.
“I felt like I had my chances to shoot well,” Gehl concluded. “I felt like I was swimming upstream all day, so I just kept swimming.”
The life jackets have always been few at South Bend C.C.