The toughest golf course in Indiana? Who’s to say? Ask the Sunday golfer, and he’ll tell you it’s the one where he couldn’t break a hundred. Or, if he has an overblown sense of himself, he’ll probably say it’s the one where he recorded his best score.
But the United States Golf Association thinks there’s a better way. It has come up with a system for rating the difficulty of golf courses along with a slope from high to low, a method that eliminates such personal opinions.
Well–maybe not entirely. Says John Dunham, golf professional at Highland Golf and Country Club in Indianapolis, “The human factor has to be taken into account. The same team can’t rate all 350 golf courses in the state.”
What Dunham refers to are the 10 four-man teams that “slope-rate” Indiana’s golf courses. Typically, team members are high handicappers as well as low, and they’re never members of the course that’s being evaluated. If club members disagree with a rating, however, they can appeal it. And they do.
Slope raters have to attend seminars, to learn what the USGA expects. Their work is strictly voluntary; their reward is a chance to play golf courses they usually don’t get to play. In so far as is possible, the subjectivity has been taken out of the ratings.
“Nothing’s perfect,” accepts Jack Leer, developer of Wolf Run Golf Club near Zionsville and an experienced slope rater, “but the USGA spent a long time coming up with a fair system.” What the slope rating does, as Leer explains it, is establish a baseline for adjusting a player’s handicap in accordance with the difficulty of the course where he is playing.
A player’s handicap is figured on the course rating, which is basically what a par player would score. Then it’s adjusted by the slope rating, which takes into account distance, green size and speed, fairway grasses, number of sand traps, woods, water hazards, terrain, prevailing winds and other factors that determine whether a golf course is a true test of skill or a mere piece of cake.
Three Indiana golf courses tie for toughest with slope ratings of 144 from the championship tees: Crooked Stick Golf Club, a private club in Carmel; Hulman Links, a public course in Terre Haute; and Sycamore Hills Golf Club, which is the centerpiece of a residential development in Fort Wayne.
Pete Dye-designed Crooked Stick, the venue for the 73rd PGA Championship this August, “is tough because it’s long,” says Jim Ferriell, Crooked Stick’s head professional for the past 14 years. “It’s difficult, but it’s not tricky.” He describes it as a links-type course, not affected much by trees, with large, unmaintained areas resembling heather.
Ferrell continues: “It’s a very demanding layout. You can’t miss shots and score well.” With six sets of tees, however, “you can bite off anything you want,” he points out. Crooked Stick plays anywhere from 7,516 yards long from the back tees down to 5,207 for the ladies, which makes it a good course for members as well as a challenge to the big hitters.
The big hitters also can test their mettle on Hulman Links, a 7,225-yard-long golf layout built on 230 acres of rolling hills donated to the city of Terre Haute and funded by the Anton Hulman family. Designed by David Gill and opened in the spring of 1978, Hulman Links has more than 130 sand traps as well as narrow, tree- or water-lined fairways that require shot placement. “You have to become familiar with it before you can beat it,” says Paula Peo, wife of Hulman Links head pro Jim Peo and a 10 handicapper in her own right.
“But,” she adds, “it’s enjoyable if you’ll just think bogey.” The par-four 18th hole, a dogleg over water and considered one of the finest finishing holes in golf, can be a monster if you try to get it home in two, but a bogey’s attainable, if you can make yourself play it safe. Hulman Links hosted the Indiana Open-PGA Tournament in 1983 and again in 1986.
The last in this triumvirate of winners is Indiana’s only Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and GolfDigest’s number-two pick among the best new private courses in the country. It’s built “on a great piece of land,” club pro-Bob Kruse calls it, that Northill Corp. and Jim Kelley, owner of Kelley Chevrolet in Fort Wayne, developed on the sylvan estate of Walter Probst, former chairman of Essex Group Inc. Its rolling terrain, natural ponds, woods and a river made it an ideal spot for golf course construction. “What Nicklaus did was adapt it without disturbing the environment,” says Kruse.
“Different from most new golf courses today,” Kruse points out, “Sycamore Hills already looks like it’s been here at least 50 years.” On its signature hole, number 15, the player has to fight the Aboite River four times. Besides, the 15th hole plays north to south, right into the teeth of the wind. Even so, with four sets of tees, Sycamore Hills is as much a members’ golf course as it is a test of strength. This summer, it will host the Indiana Amateur tournament.
Edged out of first place with a slope rating of 143, probably because at 6,735 it’s shorter than the leaders, is WolfRun Golf Club near Zionsville. Wolf Run, which opened in 1988, is Indiana’s first men-only golf club, similar in that regard to Pine Valley in New Jersey and the Augusta National GolfClub. And it’s not for the faint-hearted. The first indications are signs near the entrance warning that wolves, the four-legged kind, may be running loose.
About Wolf Run, says Greg Bishop, head pro at Otter Creek Golf Course in Columbus, “It’s too tough, but I like it.” Touring pro and Masters Golf Tournament winner Nick Faldo claims that 12 through 15 is the hardest string of holes he’s ever played.
As does Sycamore Hills, Wolf Run looks aged and mature. Dentist-turned-designer Leer, with the assistance of architect Steve Smyers of Lakeland, Fla., carved the route out of a rolling tract of virgin land forested with walnut trees, shagbark hickories, sycamores, and maples. Eagle Creek courses through the property, coming into play on seven holes, but what makes the layout so tough are tight landing areas, undulating fairways where you never get a level lie and saucer-size greens that demand pinpoint accuracy. It’s also well-trapped. Leer isn’t much of a statistician, but he reckons there are well over 100.
Now comes Golf Club of Indiana at third place with a rating of 140. The developer, owner, and head pro Mickey Powell has been everything in golf from a bag rat to president of the PGA of America. During college, he ran a gang-mower at the Country Club of Indianapolis, where he later worked as an assistant pro before becoming the start-up pro at Otter Creek in 1964. He plotted the Lebanon course in 1974 in conjunction with a Chicago-based golf course designer, Charles Maddox.
Powell can rattle off all the stats: “Golf Club of Indiana plays 7,222 yards long from the back tees, there’s water on 15 holes, there are nine lakes, a creek that comes into play on 10 holes and 72 sand bunkers, a large number for a Midwestern golf course.” Add to that the large, undulating greens. “Putting here is extremely difficult,” says Powell.
The golf course at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis slips in next at fourth place with a 138. It was designed by the venerable Indianapolis golf course architect, Bill Diddel. Diddel lived to be over 100 and made it into The Guinness Book of World Records for having shot his age more than 500 times. He also won the Indiana Amateur tournament five years in a row, and during his long lifetime, developed many Indiana golf courses.
Fort Harrison’s head pro, Phil Titus, a former pro at Honeywell Golf Club in Wabash, believes it’s the layout’s hilly, tree-lined fairways and sloping greens that make it difficult. And it’s long, 6,935 from the back tees. But playing 5,212 yards from the front tees, it’s a course woman can enjoy as well. In the two and a half years that Titus has been associated with the club, the best round he remembers is an even 70.
Fifth, with a slope rating of 137, is Otter Creek, year in and year out on Golf Digest’s list of the top 25 public courses in the country. A gift from Cummins Engine Co. Inc. to the city of Columbus, Otter Creek is the only course in Indiana designed by the dean of golf course architects, Robert Trent Jones. There actually is an Otter Creek, too, which creates natural water hazards. More than 2,000 Indiana hardwoods and 90 sand bunkers also add interest.
“We’re always in excellent condition,” says Greg Bishop, who’s been on staff at Otter Creek since 1982. “It’s a truly great golf course that anyone can play. It’s laid out with the prevailing winds in mind, and when the wind’s out of the north, it can add three or four strokes to your score.” For years, Otter Creek has hosted the Indiana Amateur, which will yield this July to the USGA Amateur Public Links Championship.
Tied for sixth place at 136 are the Club of Prestwick in Plainfield and Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton. Prestwick, which was routed by Robert Simmons, opened for play in 1975. It was planned as the centerpiece of a housing development, a concept that works if it’s done right. The trick is to sell the golf course before the real estate.
“Prestwick is very difficult,” maintains Paul Kemps, the club’s professional for nine years. “You have out-of-bounds, woods or water on every hole. “It is very picturesque, and always in excellent condition.”
Until seven years ago when a group of investors bought out Bethlehem Steel Co.’s interest in Sand Creek and made it a private club, the Ken Killian- and Dick Nugent-designed course in Chesterton was the best-kept secret in Indiana, says its pro, Jim Ravensburger. Previously, it was open only to Bethlehem’s top managers and executives.
Factors that make Sand Creek so testy, says Ransburger, are bent-grass fairways that eliminate roll, wind off Lake Michigan that can add four or five strokes to your game, above-average-size greens that see lots of three-putting, and long rough that’s hard to hit out of. “It’s a golf course that penalizes a poor shot and rewards a good one,” he says. And, he adds, “It’s the most well-conditioned course in northern Indiana.”
Tying for seventh place at 135 are Christmas Lake Country Club in Santa Claus, Jeffersonville Elks Club and Speedway Golf Course in Indianapolis.
Christmas Lake, which was designed by Ed Ault and opened in 1967, is part of the Holiday World entertainment complex in Spencer County. What makes it tough, says club pro Troy Newport, are trees that come into play on every hole and its “exceptionally long par fours.” It stretches out to 7,383 yards from the championship tees. Another factor that makes it difficult is greens that demand to hit to a small target area.
Do members of a golf club ever appeal a rating? They do, sometimes more than once. Take the case of the Jeffersonville Elks Club. They believed their original slope rating was unrealistic and appealed it. Now, they think it is too high and have appealed again, says Jim Barber, the golf course’s superintendent and club professional. “The ladies got this started,” he says. “They thought 113 was too low. Now we’re hung with 135 until we get rerated.” Barber believes 126 would be realistic for the Jeffersonville course, which he describes as “rolling, tree-lined, very pretty, fairly tight, surrounded by housing, with a lot of out-of-bounds.”
Barber, a veteran of the professional tour, disdains bizarre and sadistic golf courses. “You can hang Pete Dye,” he says. “I like Donald Ross,” the famed Scot who designed, among more than 600 others, the hill course at French Lick and Broadmoor Country Club in Indianapolis. “I’ve played Dye, Nicklaus and Palmer courses, and Palmer’s are the most enjoyable. But,” Barber goes on, “if I had to hire a designer, I’d pick Tom Fazio.” It was a Fazio design, Shadow Creek Golf Club in Las Vegas, that edged out Sycamore Hills for the country’s best new private club.
The Speedway Golf Course consisted of nine holes inside the famous oval and nine holes outside until architect Diddel redesigned it in 1966 in anticipation of hosting the 500 Festival golf tournament, which was played in Indianapolis for eight years. “Speedway’s extremely long,” says its professional, Rollie Schroeder. “It’s a good driving course with narrow fairways and water hazards.”
Besides the 500 Festival tournament, Speedway also has hosted several Indiana Opens, a PGA Seniors tournament as well as the Ladies Professional Golf Association Championship.
Alone in eighth place is Lake James Golf Club in Angola, which opened in 1929 as a nine-hole course and was expanded to 18 in 1968. It gets its character from mature trees, roller coaster hills, four lakes, streams, and elevated tees and greens, says the club’s golf director, Jim Cassel. Playing 6,651 from the championship tees, it is not unusually long, but it is very demanding. “A long hitter could be in trouble all day long if he sprays the ball,” Cassel says. And the character changes a bit from the front nine with its small greens to the back nine, where greens measure as much as 20,000 square feet.
Ninth on the list with a slope rating of 133 is Stonehenge Golf Club, the venue for the 1991 Indiana Open. Stonehenge opened for play in 1989 and is the focal point of a residential development in Warsaw. Ron Garl, the designer of 11 of the top 50 courses in Florida, was the architect. “When I heard Garl was going to be involved, I tried to get in on the ground floor,” says club pro and northern Indiana native Dave Schumaker.
Stonehenge is a target golf course with landing areas instead of fairways. “It is Scottish in flavor,” says Schumaker, “with waste bunkers and ornamental grasses. It has a woolly look instead of being perfectly mowed.” Adding to the excitement of Stonehenge are several bodies of water as well as fast, tricky greens with stimpmeter readings of 10 to 12 as opposed to an average of 8 to 9. The trough-like stimpmeter is used along with an old-fashioned tape line to measure the speed at which a ball rolls on a green.
Another Killon and Nugent design are 20-year-old Oak Meadow Golf Club in Evansville, another Indiana golf course built on the former estate of an industrialist, in this case, Mead Johnson. It’s 10th on the list with a slope rating of 132. It’s hard to rack up a good score at Oak Meadow, says French Lick native and club pro-Greg Charnes, because it has par threes that can be stretched out and made brutally difficult. “It has a complete variety,” continues Charnes, short and long par fours, doglegs, rolling terrain and large, undulating greens that deceive and invite three-putting. At 6,829 from the back tees, it’s all anyone can handle; yet at 5,250 up front, it’s manageable.
But what is it that makes a golf course truly great? Is it the woods, the water, the prevailing winds? Sycamore Hill’s Kruse wraps it up quite simply. “A truly great golf course,” he says, “is one that you never get tired of playing.”