Central Ohio is known for its wealth of private golf clubs. Scioto, Muirfield Village, The Golf Club are just a few and all are considered special by most discerning critics. However, not so well known are the area's public-access courses which make it a fine, unsung golf trip option.
Cumberland Trail, Longaberger Golf Club, Cooks Creek, EagleSticks, and Tartan East are some ready examples. And, with a little luck and connections, you may be able to get on the Scarlet Course at The Ohio State University. (You have to say The before Ohio State if you want a return trip.)
A sample itinerary which joins three good to great courses close to one another and the Port Columbus International Airport (CMH) includes Cumberland Trail, Longaberger Golf Club and Scarlet Course at The OSU.
They are as different in terms of aesthetics and playability as Columbus is from the Canadian Rockies, each offering different terrains and philosophies of the individual course architects.
Plunked down in the middle of a housing development, Cumberland Trail - a scenic, 30-minute drive from the airport - does not impress at first blush.
The front nine is a challenging links-style setup, with some holes winding through the well-appointed community. But once at the par-3 11th hole, players enter a different world, a seemingly different course.
The green on No. 11 is surrounded by trees. It is the springboard for a more aesthetic, but no less challenging, adventure. By the time the par-5 16th comes - with a two-chimney farmhouse from a bygone era serving as the backdrop to its green - the course's charms have long since manifested.
Immaculate, lightning fast greens are the course's best feature. However, another of is head pro Mike Pickett. Pickett is a player, having been a teammate at nearby Kent State with British Open champion Ben Curtis when he was a freshman and Curtis a senior. And the inspired Cumberland design really crystallizes when Pickett is pounding the ball down the fairways and throwing darts at pins.
Aside from affordability - green fees are as low as $32 on the Internet - Cumberland Trail offers playability at all levels, with the par-72 course playing to 4,925 yards from the red tees and 7,205 from the black.
Located 25 minutes from Cumberland Trail is Longaberger Golf Club, a regular member of GOLF Magazine's biennial "Top 100 Courses You Can Play." It is widely considered the top public course in Ohio, and for good reason.
From owner Tami Longaberger, whose late father found this gorgeous piece of golfing real estate about 55 minutes from the airport to longtime head pro Danny Ackerman, the red-carpet treatment is there from start to finish.
Originally intended to be the predominant playground for the husbands of Longaberger's sales associates - selling the company's signature baskets and home decor items - the course has become a magnet for golf aficionados.
Ackerman, who came to Longaberger after spending more than a dozen years in North Carolina, mostly at Pinehurst Resort, says the course compares well to the courses at the iconic Pinehurst.
It's not difficult to see why.
Longaberger's varying elevations and spectacular vistas are as big a treat as the course itself. Designed by well-respected Arthur Hills, it starts with the uphill par-4 opening hole, which is easily reachable in regulation, but a slick, sloping green inflicts three-putts and bogeys with regularity.
The course winds up and down hills and valleys and around the doglegs - a dozen of them. Ackerman, who played at West Virginia University and once won the national father-son championship with his college basketball coach dad, said that Hills moved very little dirt to fulfill Dave Longaberger's dream.
Sadly, the man who built his father's tiny craft shop into a company with over 2,000 employees and 45,000 sales associates did not get to see it turn into a golfing reality. The elder Longaberger died of cancer a few months before the course opened on St. Patrick's Day in 1999.
Not that Dave Longaberger would have played his course, having long since given up the game after tossing his clubs into a pond after one particularly distressing round. But the sheer beauty of the course, carved out of six family farms, might have drawn him back.
As breathtaking as the vistas - including a 135-foot drop from the back tees to the fairway on the par-5 fourth hole - its the challenge that brings true golfers back time after time.
"I've been here seven times," said a gentleman from Toledo in the lobby of a nearby hotel owned by The Longaberger Company. "I've played the Plantation Course in Kapalua and this is better."
For its quality, Longaberger is a bargain. Peak rate is $99, with the price going down in both the fall and early spring. And the play-all-day rate - $150 plus lunch - is the real value, meaning you can really get your money's worth if you play 36 during summer.
Longaberger's greens aren't as quick as Cumberland Trail's - probably rolling around 10 on the Stimp-meter, said Ackerman - but they give a truer roll. And with more undulation on the Longaberger greens, 10 is plenty of speed, be assured.
Not far from the airport - less than 20 minutes - lays the Scarlet Course, an Alister Mackenzie creation. Ohio State's most famous golf son, Jack Nicklaus, reconfigured the course two years ago and returned the bunkers to Mackenzie's original design.
Fans and students of Mackenzie's most famous masterpiece, Augusta National, will quickly identify the legendary Scottish designer's touch, particularly on the undulating greens.
But the Nicklaus vision is also apparent, especially the many bunkers that permeate the landscape. The combination has turned the Scarlet into an exceptionally demanding test of golf, perhaps as stern as Nicklaus' most notable creation, Muirfield Village.
From the back tees, this course is a (Golden) bear, at a hearty 7,400 yards and a par of 71.
It is so challenging, in fact, that a Nationwide Tour event played there last year produced the second-highest aggregate score for the 2008 season. Ask Fred Couples, who didn't even turn in a scorecard when The Ohio State Golf Club (which also has a Gray course) held U.S. Open qualifying in 2008. "And he played pretty well," said General Manager Marc Lucas.
If Cumberland Trail is a good buy, and Longaberger is like a day in paradise, the Scarlet is just tough, true golf. No frills, just pure respect for the two legends who turned it into one of the country's top college facilities.
With Nicklaus' help, it has stood the test of time, perhaps even more than Augusta itself.
The only drawback is accessibility. It is a semi-private club, for Ohio State students, faculty, staff and members of various alumni associations and their guests. But it is well worth the time to figure out a way how to get on, even to pay a guest fee (as much as $70 and as little as $25 for a twilight rate, plus cart).