Fyre Lake Golf Course looks to the future

Sometimes the best ideas take a while to come to fruition. Worse yet, sometimes those “can’t-miss” plans sink faster than a chunked ProV in a greenside pond. Fyre Lake Golf Course in Sherrard, Ill. (20 minutes outside Moline in the Quad Cities), is a very good idea that has flared and flickered and nearly gone out a few times. Ground was actually broken for the Nicklaus Design course on the shores of the namesake man-made lake way back in the late-mid 2000s. Ownership woes and a historic national economic collapse delayed opening. Then yet more mismanagement threatened its survival until it was purchased in 2015 by Larry Whitty and Mike Thoms. In July, 2020 – during yet another national economic crisis – Fyre Lake was sold to PGA Certified Director of Golf Mark Krizic, who will also lease 144 acres of adjacent land from Whitty and Thoms and establish a year-round Callaway Training Center.  

“The bones of the facility are fantastic. When I first went there, I thought that this could be a top-10 Illinois course,” says Krizic.

These all seem like big plans for the unique layout, which rises and falls along the shores and inlets of Fyre Lake. Local players in the golf-rich Quad Cities tend to view the 6,505-yard course as a bit of an enigma: it’s a bit out of the way, and conditions and green fees have fluctuated over the years. Length is not the primary defense; the members’ tees are just 5,945 yards. Rather, uneven lies, tucked greens guarded by the lake, deceiving yardages, and ever-present prevailing winds conspire to make Fyre Lake play at least 500 yards longer that it says on the scorecard. In other words, it’s a challenge and a thrill, and locals really hope the course’s newest incarnation under Krizic’s ownership will finally establish it as one of the area’s—maybe even the state’s—best public courses.

“I wish the new guy all the best,” said one Quad Cities golfer whom I spoke to at a recent visit to TPC Deere Run. “It’s a great design. But you never know what you’re going to get out there.” Krizic has a lot of plans to address that uncertainty. “I have a pretty good track record of addressing issues like that,” he says.

Playing Fyre Lake Golf Course

As noted already, Fyre Lake Golf Course should not be underrated due to its length. The par-70 design forces precision from tee to green, and plenty of power is also required on several holes. The 436-yard 1st is one of the prettiest opening holes in the state, with the back tees set basically off the edge of the practice putting green next to the clubhouse. A good drive here still leaves a mid- to long-iron to a narrow green that falls off dead right or rises to a rough-covered mound on the left.

Fyre Lake Hole 1 offers one of the prettiest opening drives in the state.

The 521-yard 2nd is the only par 5 on the front. It plays from a tee sitting below the level of the fairway all the way uphill to a green perched on a hillside high above. It feels more like a 700-yard par 5 every time I play it.

The 424-yard 3rd tumbles back downhill toward the lake, with no level spot on the fairway until it ends short of the thick rough on the lakeshore. Your approach here has to find a rock-walled green with no bailout right and H2O left.

There’s no bail-out on the approach to the 3rd green at Fyre Lake.

As pretty as the front nine holes are, the real fun starts after the turn. There is one memorable hole after another. The 190-yard 12th is a pulse-racing par 3 from the tips – actually a totally different hole from the back tees compared to all the other tees. From there, it’s a 180-yard carry between trees and over a deep ravine. From the more forward tees, there’s progressively less and less carry required. Really a nice design for players of all skill levels.

The back tees of the par-3 12th demand everything you’ve got.
The middle tees on the 12th hole are much less intimidating, but still no cake-walk.

The 401-yard 13th plays way downhill to a semi-blind landing area, and then further downhill to an island green that you just might see in your dreams or your nightmares, depending on how well you hit your approach. One of Fyre Lake’s few design drawbacks is here. The back tees for the 386-yard 14th are located on the same island. So if the group in front of you is pokey—like maybe they’re playing the tips when they shouldn’t be and are hitting ball after ball to try to get back over 230 yards of water to the 14th fairway—you will have a lot of time to ponder the tricky approach.

Waiting to hit your approach on 13 until the group on the back tees of 14 finally clear the water is…frustrating.

A second design flaw is on the 372-yard 15th. From the back tees, there’s only a sliver of fairway to aim at, paralleling the reedy shore of the lake. The problem is a large tree that stands between the members’ tees and the water, which nearly blocks the fairway from view from the tips. If you’ve got a reliable power fade with your driver that you feel comfortable aiming out over the water, you’re fine. Otherwise, chances are you’ll find rough, reeds, or water. Or, like one hapless golf writer, the tree AND the water, with a nearly perfect yet utterly disastrous drive. 

View from the tips on Hole 15 at Fyre Lake. Do you see any fairway up there?
Even if you find the fairway on 15, the green is as unforgiving as any on the entire course.

What’s the skinny on Fyre Lake Golf Course?

Fyre Lake Golf Course is all the challenge and fun (and perhaps frustration) you can handle. Many casual golfers might be surprised to find that a course doesn’t need to have four par 5s to demand length and control on basically every hole. If you’re struggling with your driver, Fyre Lake will burn you. There are plenty of forced carries, both from the tee and on approaches, and several greens that leave basically no room for error on any side.

There are precious few places to miss the green on Fyre Lake’s 8th Hole.

The putting surfaces themselves are full of movement, and many of them have multiple tiers. A curious – and particularly vexing – aspect of the current course set-up is the total lack of collars around the greens. You read that right: no fringe, no “first cut,” no “frog hair.” What this means is there is no buffer between the putting surface and 3”-4” rough. So if you ball rolls to the edge of the green, you have no way to take your putter back without hitting said rough. It’s sort of like putting on a mini-golf hole when your ball is up against the boards. If this sounds like an exaggeration, see the photo below. That was my ball and, shortly thereafter, my three-putt.

Pretty hard to take a decent backswing on putts like this.

According to Krizic, though, this is a hallmark of a lot of Nicklaus designs. “He doesn’t like collars. I like this aspect of the design, actually. It makes the greens really pop visually. But yes, sometimes it makes putting hard.” So I’ve learned my lesson for next time: don’t hit it near the edges of the greens!

In short, Fyre Lake Golf Course is a very good idea that has persevered through bad timing, bad times, and bad business. But it’s a great layout, with a seasoned, dedicated new owner. Golfers who haven’t visited it yet owe themselves a round.

For those who have played and wonder about the future of this unique course, Mark Krizic says this: “The vision for the course is always the same. Make sure the greens are consistent, maintain the golf course. But you have to put money into the golf course to make it happen. We’ll improve customer service, including pyramids of balls on the range, names on golf carts, starters and rangers. Our very first aspect will be the golf course, but that professionalism will be there, along with an actual pro shop. And a Callaway Performance Center is on the table. We’re going to start reaching these goals in 2021.”  

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