Canal Shores Golf Course Review

Located steps away from the Purple Line of Chicago’s “El Train” transit sits Canal Shores Golf Course. The property’s address is listed in Evanston, IL — which would make sense, being a few blocks away from Northwestern University’s Ryan Field — but the course layout also intersects neighboring Wilmette on either side of the Chicago River. The par-60 routing is quaint, a mere 3612 yard from the back tees, but placing judgement on the course on those superficial elements alone would be a mistake.

Canal Shores Golf Course is a true celebration of the game in its purest form, offering you everything you need without anything you don’t. It is also one of the most unique golf courses I’ve ever played.

Canal Shores Golf Course offers 5- and 10-hole playing options in addition to the standard 18.

Canal Shores Golf Course offers 5- and 10-hole playing options in addition to the standard 18.

Community Golf at its Finest

You will cross six city streets while playing a full round at Canal Shores: Central, Isabella, Maple, Linden, and Colfax. There will be times when you have to wait at a four-way stop or hustle through an intersection to avoid oncoming traffic. You are literally playing golf in a neighborhood park, which sounds like any public golf course anywhere. However, that analogy takes on a different meaning here.

There were times during my round when I felt as if I was playing the game in someone’s back yard. Other times I imagined I was in a courtyard of a Marriott hotel complex, especially in the shadows cast by some of the largest homes I’ve ever seen. It was as if I had successfully snuck on to private property, often times waiting for a neighbor walking their dog to cross through the fairway.

At the risk of sounding redundant, the uniqueness of this course cannot be overstated. You are immediately hit with the notion that your first loop at Canal Shores will always be memorable during the walk from the second green to the third tee box. This requires the use of a street crosswalk after passing the entrance to the Central Street El train station on your right. In fact, a group of golfers — bags in tow — were seen entering the doors to the station after their round.

Canal Shores has a unique connection to its community, and vise versa.

Canal Shores has a unique connection to its community, and vise versa.

As featured in the third issue of The Golfer’s Journal, this connection to the community has become vital to the course’s longevity. When recently faced with a very real possibility of closing, Canal Shores’ status as a non-profit allowed multiple fundraisers to which locals could contribute to keep the course alive. A link on their website still allows for donations, insinuating this is a fight that ebbs and flows with every passing year.

Artwork along the El train railway parallel to the third hole.

Artwork along the El train railway parallel to the third hole.

People continue to play, however. My afternoon round included multiple interactions with the community, whether it be the family of four on the practice putting green or a high-schooler receiving an impromptu bunker lesson from a staff member on the course’s eight hole. A fivesome of younger players teed off behind me, all wearing t-shirts and cargo shorts, undoubtedly using mixed bags of hand-me-down clubs or rentals from the pro shop. Laughter filled the air as friends heckled each other after a bad shot, instilling a comfort level often missed on more expensive courses.

On many occasions throughout the round families were seen playing in the grass, enjoying the humid summer day as one would expect. I got the sense that this was the norm for the property, and that everyone appreciated it and understood the benefits of collective play in this neighborhood park. We all kept to ourselves, me with my golf clubs and they with their families. After all, I was in their town, not the other way around.

Short but Tricky

Twelve of the holes are par-3’s, while five of the six remaining par-4’s can be reachable off the tee. On paper the course looks simple; however, the small green complexes and strategically placed bunkering make Canal Shores anything but a pushover.

The greens rolled true and fast despite the awful Chicago weather so far this season. With the exception of the severely sloping green on Nook — the 129 yard par-3 eighth hole — every putt yielded a fair opportunity to make birdie or save par. The amount of care and attention required to make each putting surface as well-manicured as they were must have been extraordinary.

A highlight of the course layout is its bunkering, which is both punitive and aesthetically appealing. Natural overgrowth along the perimeter of each bunker is tastefully maintained, offering a fun challenge for players of any skill level while adding to the course’s overall mystique. It was as if the bunkers emerged from the earth generations ago and a city was developed around them. GM and course superintendent Tony Frandria and his team should be proud.

Details matter on any golf course layout, and it’s the little things that make Canal Shores so appealing to so many. The inspiration to the legendary golf movie Caddyshack — multiple Murray brothers worked at the course growing up — you can imagine summer after summer of stories and tall tales shared at the Snack Shack first seen beside the green at the fourth hole. A sign encourages golfers to place their orders now and pick them up as you return from the ninth tee, probably prepared on the small Weber charcoal grill beside the hut. A smattering of golfers were backed up at this popular bottleneck as the shop’s attendant encouraged them to pick up the pace.

By the 14th hole, after the twosome in front of me drove off back to the clubhouse, another single walker caught up with me on the tee. Following a firm handshake and the usual introductions, Dave, an Evanston resident for 42 years, offered me a cigar and multiple historical tidbits on the course. I politely declined the former while eagerly accepted the latter.

At the end of my round, which was accomplished in a leisurely three hours, I commented to my new playing partner how excited I was to experience the course for the first time. Having received an invitation from Skylar Street, the course Operations Manager, during a chance meeting a month prior, I knew a return visit to the pro shop to purchase a few items was in order. The counter attendant, Allie, was more than accommodating while another staffer, Charlie, shared a few more anecdotes with me before my departure.

Canal Shores Golf Course is an example of how the love of the game can take on multiple forms. Some prefer resort-style layouts with oceanic views or heavily wooded ravines, while others who may be learning the game require something more appropriate. Then there are the purists who believe a golf course should look a certain way, or offer certain amenities, or require memberships. I contend there is another group of golfers who play the game any chance they can get and in multiple flavors. Any golf course that can accommodate those players — the vast majority of us, if we are honest with ourselves — is truly a special place.

This is that place. It is the epitome of Chicago golf in every sense of the phrase, touching on our memories of growing up with the game like a nostalgic train ride back to childhood. You will not find many ways to spend a weekend afternoon more enjoyable than a walk around Canal Shores Golf Course.

I cannot wait to go back.

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