It is 9:30 on a Saturday morning, and 29 degrees on the brown fairways of White Pines Golf Course in Bensenville.
Not a soul is on the course. Even the geese are hard to find.
But on the driving range ball after ball is going skyward.
Under roof, that is. The White Pines Golf Dome opened at 7 a.m., and a steady stream of customers has whirled through the revolving airlock door to rent one of 50 stations and fire away from either the ground floor or the upper deck.
Three pros are giving lessons. Most stations are being used by one or two people, either honing their game or just trying to smack one of the targets hung from the far wall, some 100 yards distant. Others are chipping to one of the close-in buckets, golf’s version of the old Grand Prize Game on Bozo’s Circus. Every so often, you hear a clunk, indicating a bucket hit. More often, there’s the “whap” of one of the distant targets having been found.
This goes on for well over 12 hours. It doesn’t begin to get quiet until after 9 p.m., and the doors don’t close until 11 p.m. on this night. The White Pines Golf Dome, 20 years in, is a big hit.
“It’s almost like the Cheers of golf,” said owner Mike Munro. “People come here to hit balls, and also to hang out.”
Frustration was the mother of Munro’s invention.
“One summer, somebody invited me to play Medinah,” Munro said. “I was a bank examiner at the Federal Reserve, looking out the window, looking at guys walk by with their coats over their shoulder. I’m stuck here. I wanted to play golf.”
A few months later, with the snow flying, a buddy called.
“Steve Hulka says, ‘I’m at a golf dome in Detroit.’ I said, ‘A what?’ He explained, and I drove there the next day to look at it,” Munro said.
Convinced this was his way to get into the golf business, Munro rounded up partners and persuaded the Bensenville Park District to rent White Pines’ driving range. It was an easy deal to seal, since the range was closed in the winter and Munro’s group would assume all the financial risk.
Early stumbles with construction were overcome by Munro’s tenacity and word of mouth.
Said Terry Russell, head professional at nearby Bryn Mawr Country Club, “This is a success for two reasons: Mike Munro is a nice guy, and he’s fair to the customers and the professionals.”
That combination has brought White Pines repeat business for years. Last Thursday, Elmhurst’s Jeff Millard worked on his game for about three hours. A plus-2 handicap, like everyone else under the 100-foot-high roof, Millard was searching for the secret.
“I hit my irons pretty high, so I can see the flight of the ball here,” said Millard, who said he comes in three or four times a week. “Links & Tees in Addison (about five miles away) is nice, but it doesn’t really compare to this.”
Only Green Garden Country Club’s dome in far south Frankfort, reopened a month ago after a blizzard deflated the dome last year, is nearly as busy. Green Garden’s new dome is 75 feet high, and, at 85 yards to the back wall, about 10 yards shorter than the White Pines dome.
Much of White Pines’ early competition is no longer around. A dome in the south Loop stood near rail lines until a winter storm tore it apart. Another, at the Salt Creek Golf Course in Wood Dale, became a TopGolf facility, with three tiers of heated bays and a computer-centric game format. The dome there is only a memory. (Golf Center Des Plaines has a similar three-tier heated outdoor range, albeit without the gadgetry.)
White Pines is the indoor version of Maniac Hill, with a steady stream of customers happily paying $24 an hour on weekends. Munro also donates time to charity groups, including the Maryville Academy for disadvantaged youth.
Other Chicago area domes include Ditka’s Sports Dome in Bolingbrook, the Buffalo Grove Golf and Sports Center, the Aurora Sports Dome, and the Bridgeview Sports Dome. At those domes, there’s as much emphasis on indoor softball, soccer and even Frisbee, as there is golf. Times to hit balls are limited. Aurora has only three four-hour slots for golf on weekdays, and nothing on weekends.
At White Pines, the only non-golf is occasional after-hours practice by football punters and kickers and the occasional midnight model airplane derby. The height of the dome lends itself to winter workouts for kickers as well as wedge shots.
Two of the three qualifiers for the Illinois Mid-Amateur, conducted by the CDGA, already have reached capacity. Only Pontiac Elks (April 30) has spots available, though players can get on waiting lists for the other sites (April 30 at Village Greens of Woodridge and May 1 at Balmoral Woods CC) … There’s also a waiting list for the Illinois Public Links, May 7-8 at Dunne National in Oak Forest, and the CDGA Public Links, May 17 at Plum Tree National in Harvard. Both are limited to 90 players.