PANA, Ill. – With the PGA Tour John Deere Classic returning to TPC Deere Run, the golf spotlight shines once again on Illinois. And although outstanding and affordable golf can be found throughout this topographically and climatologically diverse state, true golf resorts can be somewhat harder to locate. This is especially true of central Illinois, where relatively flat farmland is the norm.
A welcome exception to this rule is Oak Terrace Resort and Spa in Pana, about 30 minutes south of Springfield. Offering nearly every imaginable amenity, from fishing and boat rentals to a lakeside spa to 18 holes of golf, Oak Terrace deserves a vote for 'Most Unexpected' golf resort in the state.
At just 6,375 yards from the tips, the homey Oak Terrace Golf Course is not long, but it offers plenty of shot-making bang for a reasonable amount of buck. For just $38 weekdays and $46 weekends (cart included), golfers are challenged with a quirky yet enjoyable home-spun design. The layout, devised by resort owners Don and Mike Beyers, can be arguably too cutesy in spots, especially for resort guests who are forced to pull a variety of atypical clubs on short, tight, hazard-ridden tee shots. But at these prices, one can afford to play a couple of practice rounds.
Oak Terrace Golf Course has a bit of a split-personality, with the opening nine consisting mostly of flat holes guarded mainly by long, wispy rough. The back nine narrows considerably as it turns into the woods, and golfers are advised to buckle in for a ride up and down steep hills through chutes of dense hardwood.
The first thing one notices on the front nine is that there is no need to hit your driver on any hole until the 455-yard, par-5 ninth, even from the tips. This also holds for the 412-yard, par-4 second and the 537-yard par-5 third, where OB looms just off the fairway on both sides. At the third hole especially, all that is required is a long iron or fairway wood out to the sharp left-to-right dogleg. After a simple lay-up and wedge, this supposedly 1-stroke handicap hole will yield to an easy par.
By the time you arrive at Oak Terrace Golf Course's ninth hole, and you've all but forgotten you even have a driver in your bag, you are faced with a tough tee shot over a pond, to a left-to-right bending fairway with OB (driving range) right and a pinball machine of small trees to the left. The drive is made all the more nerve-wracking by the kitten-sized bullfrogs thundering in the pond all around the tee box, and five-pound bass splashing and spawning in the shallows. (They should really consider a golf-and-fishing scramble where players compete for low scores and the most bass.)
The back nine is an entirely different beast, where the stretch of holes from the 12th to the 16th have been dubbed 'The Shotmaker's Mile.' It is here that first-time visitors might begin to get frustrated by the extent of local knowledge required to pull the right clubs and take the right lines off the tees. In this respect, the Oak Terrace course is hardly typical of resort-style designs, where the necessity of local knowledge is generally kept to a minimum.
Oak Terrace Golf Course's 340-yard 12th is the first example of the quirkiness of the design. Although the view from the tee through overhanging branches down over a pond to the gently rising fairway is gorgeous, and the distance to clear the pond is well-marked on the tee box, you really have very little feel for what club to hit here – other than being pretty certain that driver is way too much. Thick woods line the right side, and grass and trees line the left, and deep fairway bunkers pinch the fairway about 100 yards out from the green. So you're left with a shot that must carry 210 yards, but not more than 230.
The 377-yard 13th hole is even more vexing, as there is a hidden OB left (where empty home lots are staked out for sale), and the right side is completely dead. Again, a shot of 220 yards is required here, hit with a slight fade to avoid trees that pinch off the front of the tee box.
The 490-yard, par-5 14th continues the string of contorting tee shots. There is a 75-foot drop from tips to fairway, which turns 90 degrees to the left at the landing area. A well-struck 240-yard 5-wood and a 180-yard lay-up left me within a sand wedge of the steeply elevated, sharply two-tiered green. My wedge hit the side of that three-foot tier and rolled back down to the front fringe, where the back-right pin was a difficult 3-putt away.
And if the previous three holes struck you as they did me – a bit overly penal and under-length – Oak Terrace Golf Course's 267-yard, par-4 15th will look like a circus hole. This is especially true from the back tees, which sit atop a levee in Beyers Lake and require a big fade of a tee shot through the branches of an overhanging oak and across an inlet to a green guarded front and right by water. One might argue that a stupid golf writer shouldn't go for the green here, and that my criticism is thus ill-founded; however, given that the cape-style, ribbon-thin fairway borders the far left edge of the lake and is itself lined on the far side with impenetrable woods, a lay-up is no sure thing either.
Because most golfers are left with almost no option here other than sheer luck (I hit a half-dozen clubs, trying a half-dozen strategies, and even well-struck shots came up short and wet or bounced long and lost), I would suggest that this hole could be made much more fun and fair by bringing the tee boxes down to the far end of the water from the green and turning it into a challenging, long par 3 that would require more skill than luck. If nothing else, the woods left of the fairway should be marked with red stakes if the hole stays a par 4, so as to allow for more painless passage to the home stretch.
Amenities at Oak Terrace Resort
The resort's LakeView Spa opened in 2005, and boasts 9,000 square feet with full-view windows overlooking the Beyers Lake. Featuring Kohler fixtures and design, the spa offers a full compliment of treatments, including a beauty salon.
Beyers Lake is a 66-acre fisherman's dream, if the size of the lunker smallmouth bass in the course ponds are any indication. Boat rentals are available at the resort.
Mulligan's Restaurant serves up home-style entrees ($11-$22) in a woodsy atmosphere, with windows looking out onto the course and the rolling landscape. The per-glass wine list is a bit weak, but there are some good bottles available at reasonable prices.
Lodging at Oak Terrace Resort
Oak Terrace Resort offers a number of accommodation options. The Inn at Oak Terrace consists of 37 guest rooms overlooking the golf course and Beyers Lake. The Fairway Townhomes are two-bedroom, two-bath units with kitchens that also overlook the course and are perfect for extended golf outings. Finally, the Lakeside Villas feature two-bedroom, two-bath units, screened-in porch with jacuzzi overlooking the lake, fireplace, flat screen HDTVs, and kitchen area.
In short, the amenities and lodging facilities you'll find at Oak Terrace Resort the best central Illinois has to offer, not only because they are unique in the area, but because they would also be considered excellent anywhere else.