Nickol Knoll's sweet history: Walter Payton's former training ground

  • Nickol Knoll Golf Club, which opened in 1995, dedicated this spot on the third hole to former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. During Payton's playing days he would spend his off-season training in this area, running up a steep vertical hill that stretched 50-60 yards.

      Nickol Knoll Golf Club, which opened in 1995, dedicated this spot on the third hole to former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. During Payton's playing days he would spend his off-season training in this area, running up a steep vertical hill that stretched 50-60 yards. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

  • Ava Chareas, 9, of Arlington Heights tees off on the third hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club.

      Ava Chareas, 9, of Arlington Heights tees off on the third hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

  • Grant Swaim, 10, of Arlington Heights tees off on the sixth hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club in Arlington Heights. The straightaway par-3 features a large green as well as bunkers on both sides.

      Grant Swaim, 10, of Arlington Heights tees off on the sixth hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club in Arlington Heights. The straightaway par-3 features a large green as well as bunkers on both sides. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

  • Crosby Ugent, 9, tees off on the ninth hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club in Arlington Heights. The hole plays 138 yards from the back tees and features an undulating, challenging green complex.

      Crosby Ugent, 9, tees off on the ninth hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club in Arlington Heights. The hole plays 138 yards from the back tees and features an undulating, challenging green complex. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

  • This article is one of the featured pieces of art on a wall inside Nickol Knoll Golf Club's clubhouse that honors former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. The Hall of Famer used to train on a hill where the third hole currently sits.

      This article is one of the featured pieces of art on a wall inside Nickol Knoll Golf Club's clubhouse that honors former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. The Hall of Famer used to train on a hill where the third hole currently sits. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

  • Memorabilia of Bears legend Walter Payton is displayed at Nickol Knoll Golf Club, where the late running back once trained.

      Memorabilia of Bears legend Walter Payton is displayed at Nickol Knoll Golf Club, where the late running back once trained. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

  • Nickol Knoll Golf Club has plaques in the clubhouse to celebrate hole-in-1s. Last year, brothers Connor and Jack Freudenberger accomplished the feat just eight days apart.

      Nickol Knoll Golf Club has plaques in the clubhouse to celebrate hole-in-1s. Last year, brothers Connor and Jack Freudenberger accomplished the feat just eight days apart. John Dietz | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/26/2022 5:42 PM

The Chicago area is blessed to have quite a few golf courses steeped in tradition: Chicago Golf Club, Downers Grove Golf Club, Old Elm Golf Club, Butler National, Medinah Country Club, Shoreacres, Skokie Country Club.

Just to name a few.

 

There's one in Arlington Heights, however, that has some awfully sweet history of its own. Nickol Knoll Golf Club -- a charming nine-hole, par-3 track that opened in 1995 -- is the site of where former Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton trained during the off-season.

This photograph of Walter Payton shows the former Chicago Bears running back attacking 'Payton's Hill' during his playing days.
  This photograph of Walter Payton shows the former Chicago Bears running back attacking 'Payton's Hill' during his playing days. - John Dietz | Staff Photographer

Longtime fans know the story well: Payton, who lived nearby, found a nearly vertical hill that was 50-60 yards in length. Day after day he would return, running that hill until he was utterly exhausted.

"I work myself out to the extent where, when I'm through, I can't walk," Payton said in one interview. "If you had to give it a name or a description, it'd probably be either a 'Goal Setter' or a 'Will Maker'. ...

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"It humbles you to the extent that the next time you go there, you've got to beat it. If you did five the first time, you go back and your goal is to do six or seven -- to keep going. To always beat it."

The hill isn't as steep as it used to be, but you can still get an idea of what "Sweetness" went through when arriving at the third hole. Behind the tee boxes sits a giant "34" and a Bears helmet. Mounted on a rock outside the clubhouse is a plaque detailing Payton's many accomplishments.

Inside, there are two walls dedicated to Payton. Included are a pair of photographs that truly show how steep the hill was as he sprints up it.

Bryan Cox, the general manager of golf operations at Arlington Heights Park District, is hoping to add a statue of Payton and a No. 34 flag to fly under the American Flag.

"A lot of people don't know that (the third hole) has any association with Walter Payton until they get here," Cox said. "Even me, being originally from Champaign and a huge Bears fan, I had no idea."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
A look at the third hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club in Arlington Heights. This is where former Bears running back Walter Payton used to train during the off-season to get in shape. "I work myself out to the extent where, when I'm through, I can't walk," Payton said in one interview.
  A look at the third hole at Nickol Knoll Golf Club in Arlington Heights. This is where former Bears running back Walter Payton used to train during the off-season to get in shape. "I work myself out to the extent where, when I'm through, I can't walk," Payton said in one interview. - John Dietz | Staff Photographer

Payton amassed 16,726 rushing yards over his career, second-most all-time behind Emmitt Smith's 18,355, and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. Payton died Nov. 1, 1999, at age 45 after battling bile duct cancer.

The third hole is a great test and can be played from 126, 136, 146 or 155 yards. The back tee box sits just in front of the tribute to Payton and provides a gorgeous view of the area.

"Payton's Hill" is the highlight of Nickol Knoll, but there are plenty of other reasons to check out the course. It features a wide variety of holes, monstrous greens (great for kids and beginners), impressive elevation changes, plenty of bunkers and a large lake that comes into play on Nos. 2 and 3. Watch out on Nos. 7 and 9, too, as the greens can be quite tricky.

"The property is on one of the highest points in Arlington Heights," Cox said. "On a sunny, clear day you can see downtown Chicago on the seventh hole, which is so cool.

"Yes, it's a par-3, nine-hole course, but it really challenges you because there's water, there's undulation in the greens, the holes are all different.

"So it really is an enjoyable course for anybody to play."

Parents with aspiring golfers should check out the park district's junior camp as well. Kids play the course on Thursdays while supervised by instructors.

"It's a great opportunity for them to begin learning the game," Cox said.

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