A Buckeye Bonanza

By: Steve Habel

The central region of Ohio in and around the booming metropolis that is Columbus and its suburbs is known around the world for its fine private golf courses, its famous golfers and benchmark golf course architects.

But a recent trip to Columbus and points east and southeast illustrated in vivid detail that the quality of golf in this region is not limited to just the well-heeled or those with access to country clubs.

Yes, the world recognizes that this region is the home for clubs like Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield Village, Pete Dye's The Golf Club and Donald Ross's Scioto Country Club - the place where the Golden Bear learned the game as a boy. Here, too, is where golfers such as Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and John Cook have donned the scarlet and gray to play for Ohio State University.

Last year, Golf Magazine (through its www.golf.com) and the National Golf Foundation ranked the Columbus area as the second best golf city in the nation, behind only Austin, Texas. The rankings were determined by each city's weather, affordability of green fees, quality of courses, accessibility, numbers of courses designed by esteemed architects, availability and crowdedness. According to the study, Columbus and its metropolitan statistical area sports 66 public courses with a median green fee of $34 per round.

During a three-day blitz of the region in mid-September (a time when the leaves are starting to turn and football rather than golf is in the air), we put three area public tracks to the test. If the other 63 public courses in Central Ohio are as good as the trio we played, it's easy to see why the city got such a high ranking.

Longaberger Proves its Mettle & Shows its Appeal

Our first stop was a 36-hole excursion to Nashport and Longaberger Golf Club, an Arthur Hills-designed gem in rolling hills and forests. Back in the late 1990s, Hills was asked by Dave Longaberger, the founder of Longaberger Company, to build a course that would keep men occupied while their wives spent time at his basket and home products headquarters just up the road. Hills walked the land and decided immediately on a hilltop spot for the course's iconic clubhouse, and went backwards from there, designing the finishing hole first to play to the top of that hill.

The layout meanders over a setting of rolling hills with lots of elevation changes, giving the course a beautiful look and feel. Five sets of tees allow players of all skill levels the opportunity to conquer and succeed on the track. Once you've tried it, you're going to want to return again and again, and we did by playing the course twice in the same day.

Longaberger begins with a 411-yard, dogleg-right par-4 at which requires a drive that carries over four deep bunkers at the bend to find the fairway, which is elevated and narrow in the landing area. It's a tough start, especially as the hole concludes at a long and narrow green that rolls hard to the right and from back to front. After taking your lumps on the 474-yard, par-4 second, the third hole is a dogleg-left, 388-yard tester that is also slightly uphill and asks for a right-to-left shot to a fairway that slopes to the left toward a grove of trees.

Once the swing is in a groove, the real fun begins at No. 4, a par-5 that stretches 563 yards from the tips and has a 150-foot elevation drop from tee to green. "You'll be hitting downhill to a generous fairway with dramatic views all around," Danny Ackerman, Longaberger's director of golf, said of the hole. "It's one of the highest points in the area."

If you dare, try to get home in two to a peninsula green with a lake in front. "Some hitters can get there in two shots because of the elevation change," Ackerman added. "But the average player needs three shots and has to lay up short of a lake." The large green is elongated with several contours, so accuracy on the approach shot is important.

Strategy is also the key at the eighth, a par-4 measuring 444 yards. The fairway is bifurcated by oak trees down the center, giving players a left or right option. The hole is further defined by a large slope on the right that brings the trees into play if you don't get your tee shot past them. "Going left shortens the hole, but you have to carry some natural areas," advises Ackerman. "The right side is safer but it plays longer. There will be no forced carries on the right."

The green has fingers of land that extend into a pond. Seventy percent of the green is surrounded by water, a fact that makes this hole as deadly as it is picturesque.

No. 9 also offers a handful of tests even though - at 187 yards - it's the shortest of the track's par-3s. Its dangers are bunkers fore and aft and a greenside waterfall feeding a pond in front. "You'll need to carry over water," Ackerman said. "It plays from left to right. It reminds a lot of golfers of Amen Corner at Augusta." Choosing the correct club is important here because the wind is a factor. When the hole is cut in the front-left corner - as it was when he played - all the trouble comes into play.

We had our most success of the day at the 10th, a 537-yard par-5 that played shorter than its length. If you take the chance of banging your tee shot hard down the right side and manage to avoid some overhanging limbs, birdie or even eagle is a possibility here.

One of the more picturesque holes on the course is the 11th, a short par-4 dogleg-right that plays at 364 yards. A stream running down the right side of the fairway can come into play off the tee, and curves back in front of the green, requiring a forced carry on your second shot. "Eleven is one of our easier holes," said Ackerman. "It's a great chance to make a birdie if you do what you're supposed to do. Hit a 3-wood off the tee and then an iron - from a 7-iron to a wedge - into the green." The green sits back, running into a hillside, making for a photo-perfect finish.

The real test at Longaberger begins with the 480-yard, par-4 13th, a hole that requires two great shots into the prevailing wind to reach the putting surface in regulation. On the 15th, a long par-4, playing at 457 yards, you'll be contending with a slight dogleg-left. The fairway slopes on the left-hand side to create a beautiful setting. After your tee shot, which should be played down the right center, your approach requires a carry over a ravine in front of the green. "The green has an extreme slope from right to left," Ackerman said. "Par is a very good score here."

You can get a shot back at the 527-yard, par-5 16th if you can deal with the wind and a huge lake that runs along the right side of the hole from tee to green. And you'll need that shot when you reach Longaberger's finale, a long par-4 measuring 466 yards that will leave you with a lot to talk about when you get to the clubhouse. It's a dogleg-left with bunkers in play on the fairway off the tee.

"You need a long second shot into a difficult green that runs from left to right with bunkers on the right," Ackerman said. "Most people think this hole should be a par-5 because you need two really great shots to get your ball onto the green."

Longaberger Golf Club plays 7,234 windswept yards to a par of 72, a rating of 75.2 and a slope of 138. It's a tough but satisfying place, and is a must-play for any visiting golfer. Second shots on the course prove to be as challenging as any golfer will find. There is no signature hole here as the club's staff considers Longaberger to have "18 golf holes that would be signature holes elsewhere."

Longaberger has been rated as the No. 4 public course in the country by Golf World, and is ranked in the top 100 courses by both Golf Magazine and Golf Digest. This is truly a championship course and could be one of the best tended layouts you'll ever play. For additional details, visit http://www.longabergergolfclub.com/page/671-28782.htm.

Another Look at Hills's Work at Tartan East

Built in 1992, the golf course at the former Winding Hollow Country Club in New Albany reopened in June of this year as the daily-fee Tartan East Golf Club with Tartan Golf and Management Co. LLC as the operator.

A private country club owned by its members, Winding Hollow closed earlier in 2008 when financial problems sent it into receivership. The club was purchased in May by the New Albany Co. and Georgetown Co., which then turned to Tartan Golf and Management to reopen and manage the course and clubhouse. It's being operated as a public course, with greens fees of $60 on weekdays and $75 weekends.

The course is just down the road from Dye's famed The Golf Club. Tartan also owns and operates the private Tartan Fields Golf Club in Dublin as well as the public Golf Club of Dublin and the new Corazon Club and Spa, also in Dublin. Tartan manages five other golf clubs in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Tartan Golf president Steve Renaker thinks the challenging course design, fashioned by Arthur Hills, will offer a fresh test for golfers who couldn't get on the course when it was private.

Tartan East still has a secluded, private club feel - maybe it's because the heavily-wooded layout that has no parallel holes, or homes anywhere near the property to distract from a round. Tartan East really is a back-to-nature journey with deer and other wild creatures often making visits. There really is no hint of civilization when you're playing Tartan East, quite remarkable considering its proximity to the population center of central Ohio.

In true Hills style, he makes a primarily flat piece of land feel like there are significant elevation changes by using mounding to create rolling fairways throughout the 200-acre property. Something else that's pure Hills is the demand, not so much for distance, as for shot-making. From the back tees, the par-4s range from 365 yards to 445. You're likely to use four different clubs on the par-3s no matter which of the five tees you choose, and the par-5s all play more than 500 yards from the tips, with most of ending at smaller-than-average greens.

The design of the course takes advantage of the variety of winds that sweep through the area, combining with the rolling terrain to give you different shot options every time you play.

After a pair of stout par-4s at the start, Tartan East really throws you a curve, with a pair of par-3s sandwiched around the longest par-5 on the course. The first par-3 (the 170-yard third) is extremely wooded. The other (190-yard fifth) requires a carry over water to a sloping green. In fact, the stretch of the fourth, fifth and sixth holes is a bear (one animal you won't see on the grounds), nearly two-thirds of a mile of challenging golf. And the contrast between the brutish sixth and the relatively short, but extremely picturesque par-4 No. 7 will not go unnoticed.

The short par-4 ninth (365 yards) tempts you to use driver off the tee, but don't do it - anything less than perfect will send you into the trees and in a spot for a big score.

Three of the four hardest holes on the back nine come right after the turn, but it's the last three holes that just might make or break a round. The meaty par-4 16th is followed by the longest par-3 at Tartan East, the nearly 200-yard 17th, much of it over marshland. The fairly short par-5 18th is a great risk-reward finisher that wraps around a pond that runs the length of the hole on the right-hand side, all of it in front of the fairly large audience viewing the conclusion of your round from a spacious clubhouse that features floor-to-ceiling windows above the home hole.

Shotmaking is at a premium at Tartan East, as the myriad trees that hug the course's fairways almost seem to reach out and grab any ball headed their way. "The variety of winds that sweep over the terrain demand different shot selections every time you play," said Brian Bonfini, Tartan East's general manager. Tartan East has also been "opened up" by trimming back many of the higher trees to let more sunlight through the wooded canopies, and then by removing much of the ground cover to allow for playing out of the woods, Carolina-style.

All in all, Tartan East - which plays at 6,870 yards and a par of 72 with a rating of 73.7 and slope of 138 - provides an enjoyable round of golf. For more information or a tee time, visit http://www.tartaneast.com/home/index.php.

EagleSticks is a Rollercoaster Good Time

The third stop on our Central Ohio tour sent us to Zanesville, about 60 miles east of Columbus, and to EagleSticks, a rollercoaster of a little golf course. It plays just 6,508 yards from the tips, but par-70 EagleSticks has plenty of teeth in the form of severe elevation changes, three-tiered putting surfaces and tight confines mandated by the property's limited acreage.

Designed by Ohio native Michael Hurdzan, the track takes advantage of its rolling 123 acres. EagleSticks is severe at times, and contains scads of elevated tee shots and some player-friendly downhill holes balanced by raised greens and tilting fairways that yield awkward stances in landing zones.

EagleSticks features more than 130 bunkers and hard, quick greens that might keep you up at night. The course boasts some unique holes, including the third, a downhill, reachable par-5 with a pretty tee shot. This tee towers over the fairway, which is wide and easy to hit. The target is so wide that you don't even notice out-of-bounds stakes along the left. But a drive in the fairway doesn't guarantee a chance to go for the green in two. The fairway slopes left to right, and rolls down toward the hole in waves. You're likely to have a sidehill, downhill or uphill lie - or some combination of the three - en route to the putting surface.

The main defense at No. 4 is actually getting to it. If walking, you'll feel like you're climbing the Eiffel Tower because of the trudge up to the tee. The drive here is fairly simple on the short par-4 - 363 yards from the back tees - but your approach is severely uphill and blind.

You can catch your breath at the fifth hole, a downhill 151-yard pa-3, but then you're back on up the stairs, lumbering up to the par-4, 342-yard sixth. No. 7 is another short two-shotter, just 338 yards from the tips, and it's downhill. But the design of this hole is classic Hurdzan, who is probably best known for two things - melding the local environment into a golf course and determining shots for you. On No. 7, there are boulders, slopes and bunkers right of the fairway to prevent challenges from that side.

There are bunkers left of the fairway, too, apparently to protect the trailer park that sits just left of the trees. At the 100-yard mark, the fairway narrows. Hurdzan wants you to lay back with your tee shot, and no sane golfer would try anything else.

The ninth is a brutal 453-yard par-4, with a blind, uphill approach that has to find a small green tucked between bunkers right and out-of-bounds stakes left. This hole plays at least 50 yards longer than its yardage, and you have to find a way to tickle the green with a long iron or fairway wood. The 10th is the hardest on the course for anybody with a fear of water. It's requires a downhill drive of 190 yards to carry the hazard. The three-tired green sits in a sinister bowl of grassy mounds, but you have to avoid the left side as bunkers are there along with high natural grasses - yet another Hurdzan trademark.

The 11th is the longest hole on the course, playing 591 yards from the back tees. The drive must be hit slightly to the left to find a fairway that is fairly wide but then tightens dramatically. The approach plays uphill, and most golfers can't reach the green in two. The lay-up is tricky, though, because more of Hurdzan's high mounds - these are up to 20-feet high - protect the right side of the fairway while a creek and trees are on the left. The green is also small, so if you miss the green you'll have to scramble for a par.

The second-hardest hole on the course is the 479-yard par-4 13th. A perfect drive is needed in the middle of the fairway for a chance to reach the green in regulation. If you miss your tee shot right, the approach is blind. The 13th green is large but invisible, and features a particularly brutal shelf on the back-right portion.

"Holes 8 through 13 become the gauntlet, and are the real teeth of the course," EagleSticks assistant professional Ryan Ford said. "The shorter yardage can be misleading to a lot of people."

Hurdzan gives you the chance to get a few shots back at the 346-yard par-4 15th and the 151-yard par-3 17th, but each requires precise shots to greens that seem to repel incoming attempts.

The course finishes with another long par-5, the 541-yard 18th. But this is another downhill tee shot to a fairway that slopes uphill to a blind green. The hole is almost a carbon copy of the ninth, except that this time the scorecard says it's a three-shotter and about 80 yards longer.

EagleSticks - built for the McClelland family on their childhood homestead and former horse farm - has become one of Zanesville's major tourist attractions. The owners of the course even left the resting places of Dad's favorite hunting dog Boots and trophy trotters OK Mac, OK Dick and the Little Champ untouched. The gravesites are near the course's expansive practice area.

EagleSticks makes you think on every shot. With things so tight - each hole is virtually on top of the next - anything off-line is in danger of resulting in a huge score. The track was recognized by Golf Digest as one of the Top 100 Public Courses in the nation when it first opened in 1991, and it is still a fine course.

For additional information, visit http://eaglesticks.com.

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and Cybergolf's Southwest Correspondent. Since 1990, he has traveled around the globe covering news, business and sports assignments for various news bureaus, newspapers, magazines and websites. He also contributes to Business District magazine in Austin as managing editor and is the Texas football beat writer and a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated, the Austin-based magazine for University of Texas sports. Habel writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.

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