BLOOMINGTON — For almost 10 years, an enjoyable round at Prairie Vista Golf Course has ended with a sense of disappointment.
Golfers went right past the tee for the challenging par-4 18th hole to finish their day. Instead, they were forced to hit from the middle of the fairway and play the hole as a 150-yard par-3.
"Everyone wants it a par-4, and we literally hear about it every day," said Jason Wingate, the City of Bloomington's director of golf and a PGA Class A professional. "As a staff we can't go out in public without being asked what the status of Prairie Vista hole 18 is."
Come Memorial Day, those questions will not be asked anymore.
The Bloomington City Council approved a $73,400 project to replace the current net used along Hamilton Road to protect homeowners adjacent to the hole's left side from spray balls going onto their property.
The new net will be twice as high (60 feet from 30 feet) and five times as long (500 from 100) as the one that has been used since 2009. NETServices out of Washington state won the bid for the project.
Wingate said the contract is being finalized with the company. The project should take two to three weeks to install, according to Wingate, with a target date to reopen the hole as a par-4 around the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Brian Barnes and John Upton, both of Bloomington, finished their round at the course last week. After walking off the 18th green, the Prairie Vista regulars expressed their mood about the finishing hole.
"We prefer to play it as a par-4," said Barnes.
Upton agreed, but chimed in, "That being said, it's not real easy."
True. But that's what always made the 18th hole more dramatic and enjoyable to conclude a round since 1991 when Prairie Vista opened.
Go right and you're in the lake. Head left and there's out of bounds. While only a modest 342 yards from the regular tee, the tee shot needs to be precise or a big number is possible.
"It's not a driver hole, but it's still a hole that always get your attention," said Wingate. "You can still have a good round going, but you always know you have this tee shot. Golfers enjoy that. I think, arguably, it's one of the best finishing holes in Central Illinois.
"People are just excited to get back there and play it again. They've been very patient."
It's not just the locals who want the bite put back into No. 18, either. Prairie Vista clubhouse assistant Devin Irish said he has his speech ready when out-of-towners from Chicago conclude their day.
"We have 3-4 groups come down and each group when they're done will be, 'So what's the deal...'" said Irish. "They say that's a shame. It's a great finishing hole."
The problem with No. 18 arose when the hole was redesigned after the widening of Hamilton Road in 2007. After the change, three homeowners contended errant balls from the hole were causing a safety concern, as well as damage to their homes, and went to court.
Prairie Vista basically has operated as a par-3 since 2008 except for the Illinois High School Association's Class 1A State Tournament, the State Farm Youth Classic and Bloomington-Normal Golf Association city tournaments.
"We have observed over thousands of shots hit (when used as a par-4) and we have not observed any golf balls leaving the property with what we have now," said Wingate. "By taking the net and doubling the height and going five times the width, we feel even more confident."
There also is a net by the tee, which will remain, that helps detour golfers from going left. Fast-growing hybrid poplar trees were planted in 2009, in front of the current net near a fence on Hamilton Road, to provide another barrier. Some of those trees are at least 50-foot tall, said Wingate, with the majority 40-foot plus.
Aesthetically, the new net might not be particularly pleasing to look at, especially from the clubhouse view.
"I would be lying if I did not say I have concerns, but the tradeoff of having the hole reopened will far outweigh some of those negatives we're looking at," said Wingate. "Most people's eyes are on that water, anyway."
In a way, Barnes and Upton believe the hole won't be quite as tricky as a par-4 for average golfers.
"You understand this (contoured) green was not decided as a par-4 to accept an 8-iron or less in," said Barnes. "When I play from the temporary par-3, most of us hit 6-irons, maybe a 9-wood. You have to play short and bump and run it in or you're going to run it off. You're not coming in with that elavated of a shot."
A public hearing was held at The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course, another city-owned course, during the winter to gauge interest in whether to put up a bigger net to restore the 18th hole's former glory days.
Wingate, who said about 60 people attended, believed one response summed up why going back to being the course's signature hole was needed.
"The person said it's like reading a good book that has a bad ending," said Wingate. "You enjoyed the entire book, but the ending was subpar and you kind of leave with a bad taste in your mouth."