Winter arrives early and lingers late in northern Michigan, squeezing the golf season on both ends. So a couple of times a year, roofing contractor Don Thompson would pull out his clubs and flee his Traverse City home for a few days in Myrtle Beach, Charleston or Florida.
Indiana? It was just part of the drive until one mild March day when Thompson and his buddies got the itch en route. They stopped at the Legends of Indiana Golf Course in Franklin, 30 minutes south of Indianapolis, for a quick fix. They found a long-term solution.
Come a couple weeks later in the spring or a couple weeks earlier in the fall. Come to Indiana, rather than drive right through it. That’s how Thompson happened to be at Covered Bridge Golf Club, just off Interstate 65 in Sellersburg, on a fine spring day when he popped up his tee shot on the second hole.
Thompson looked up and saw a Toyota Land Cruiser had pulled up on the cart path alongside the tee. The driver’s side window eased down. A hand emerged. It beckoned him.
“Let me tell you something,” offered the driver, 1979 Masters and 1984 U.S. Open champion Fuzzy Zoeller, Covered Bridge’s owner and clown prince. “If you’d hit it a little farther off the tee, you’d have a lot shorter second shot.”
“You so and so,” rejoined Thompson, who is as quick with a barb as Zoeller. “I drove through a blizzard to get down here.” Zoeller laughed. He apologized. He laughed some more. Then he bought lunch.
A friendship was forged, but Thompson no longer visits Covered Bridge. Fuzzy remains close to Thompson’s heart, but Indy is closer to home.
“Saves me another hour,” said Thompson, a roofing contractor. “I started coming down to Indianapolis for three- and four-day weekends. I take foursomes and eightsomes, guys, couples, or just my wife Marge. I’ve played all over the country, and these courses are great.”
Which courses? For starters, The Fort, in Indianapolis; Prairie View, in Carmel; and Trophy Club, in Lebanon. Add in Brickyard Crossing, Purgatory, Heartland Crossing Golf Links and a range of others, and you have a group of first-class daily fee facilities. Indianapolis underwent a public golf construction boom during the 1990s and the landscape is crowded with upscale courses competing for customers.
The winner is the golfer. Indianapolis is becoming a golf destination for the Midwest’s northern tier of states, particularly during the shoulder seasons. While it may be better known as home to Reggie Miller, who launches 3-point daggers for the Indiana Pacers, and Peyton Manning, who pitches touchdown passes for the Colts, it has some golf history, too.
Carmel, just north of town, is where John Daly first barged into the public consciousness by winning the 1991 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate. He did it at Crooked Stick Golf Club, where golf course architect Pete Dye resides with his wife and design partner, Alice, in a home along the 18th fairway.
Dye, once a local insurance man, is an avid golfer and the 1958 Indiana Amateur champion. He took an interest in golf course architecture, then took a trip to the British Isles. After seeing St. Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Prestwick, Royal Dornoch and others, Dye was so inspired that he returned home and went around town knocking on doors until he raised enough money to buy a Carmel cornfield. Then he set about designing Crooked Stick, and built his business into a worldwide empire.
Hollis Stacy won the U.S. Women’s Open Championship at the Country Club of Indianapolis in 1978. Lauri Merten took the trophy when the championship returned to visit Crooked Stick in 1993, and the Senior PGA Tour played first at Broadmoor Country Club, a comely Donald Ross design, then at Brickyard Crossing, from 1988 through 2000.
Crooked Stick, Country Club of Indianapolis, and Broadmoor are private clubs, but there is plenty of high-quality daily-fee golf to be had.
“With all respect to Crooked Stick and the rest, there’s nothing like this in Indiana,” Dye said of The Fort, his complete 1995-96 reconstruction of the old Army course at Fort Benjamin Harrison. “To be a public golf course doesn’t mean it can’t be as good as there is.”
The Fort is that. The old course was a good one on a great piece of land. The new one is as good as the ground, a peaceful refuge of rolling pastures and thickly wooded swales and ridges. It was named one of GOLF Magazine’s “Top 10 You Can Play” in 1997.
The Fort is a walk in the woods, an intriguing blend of long and short, demanding and playable holes characteristic of Dye in recent years. Five par-four holes measure between 471 and 482 yards from the back tees. Four others range from 311 to 381 yards.
The Fort is a peaceful place, but the wayward will encounter enough woods, water and sand to inflict anguish in full measure. One thing no one will encounter is claustrophobia.
The average golf course is built on 150 acres. The Fort occupies 229 acres, a feature common to its most distinctive Indiana brethren. Prairie View is built on 206 acres, Purgatory on 218, Trophy Club on 247, and Bear Slide has the same, big-course feel. They are roomy, broad-shouldered courses where a player can breathe deeply and play undistracted.
Elegant might be the term that best describes Prairie View Golf Club. It is a graceful sweep of green that plays over rolling meadows and in and out of tall oaks and sycamores. Five holes hug the gentle arc of the White River, while others play along and across Vestil Creek and the course’s five lakes and ponds.
But a visitor needn’t reach the first tee to sense something special. Signs along Longest Drive, the winding way that leads to the 19th-century style clubhouse read “Speed Limit 18 1/2.”
It is an invitation to slow down, to enjoy. It’s where Michael Jordan got away to play during the NBA’s 1998 Eastern Conference Finals between the Pacers and the Chicago Bulls.
Prairie View was fashioned by golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr., who crafted a memorable experience all the way from the 1.5-acre practice tee to the home hole, a 547-yard par five that bends through stately sycamores to a green perched above a flowing creek.
Northwest of Indianapolis just off Interstate 65, Trophy Club occupies an open site with wide vistas. Large tees, wide fairways, expansive greens, big bunkers, and big sky abound, and its roomy feel reminds golf course architect Tim Liddy of a book he once read: The Solace of Open Spaces.
“I think the beauty of golf is just that,” says Liddy, a long-time Pete Dye lieutenant who is making a name in his own right. “This course fits that better than anything I’ve been involved with.”
Trophy Club’s chief feature is a ridge that bisects the property. Liddy made that ridge Trophy Club’s spine. He studied how Donald Ross used a similar feature at Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Florida. Then he built six or seven holes over and along that spine.
Trophy Club’s wide fairways forgive slightly misdirected tee shots, but its slippery, rolling greens demand precise approach shots and deft putting.
Purgatory Golf Club and Heartland Crossing Golf Links are similar to Trophy Club in that they are brawny, big-sky sites on open ground, but their differences are more numerous than their similarities. They are distinctive in their look, feel, and challenge.
Purgatory, 45 minutes north of downtown Indianapolis, tumbles and winds 7,754 yards. Owners Mike and Tenna Merchant have researched it: they don’t know of a longer par-72 non-mountain course in the world.
Glutton for punishment? Play it back, from the weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth tees. Looking for a diversion that’s challenging but fun? Pick something comfortable. Purgatory has six sets of tees, including the most forward, which measure a cozy 4,652 yards.
Purgatory is built on rolling farmland, but artful earthwork has rendered nearly every hole a world unto itself. Its most striking features are its mounding and bunkering, and the combinations in which they are presented. There are 133 bunkers (and 600 rakes), so be prepared to spend some time in them.
Purgatory Golf Club
The Trophy Club
Particularly stunning is the par-three 17th, “Hell’s Half Acre.” The hilltop green appears to float in a sea of surrounding bunkers.
Bunkers make an even more emphatic statement at Heartland Crossing Golf Links, site of the 2002 Indiana Open. From the road, Heartland Crossing looks like a good place to grow corn: wide vistas, few trees and gently folded ground. From the tee or fairway, the impression is much different.
Wind and sand are the primary defenses. Bunkers are the signature of golf course architect Steve Smyers, and the ones at Heartland are not just in play, they dictate play. Smyers built bunkers that are numerous, large and deep, with distinctive noses. They are what bunkers used to be: a half-stroke penalty, and sometimes more.
Holes 15 and 17, straightforward par fours of 400 and 440 yards, are representative, with their hilltop greens guarded by moats of sand.
At $39 weekdays (and $13 for cart), Bear Slide Golf Club won’t break you, but it did its developer. Former Indianapolis insurance executive James Culley’s dream was to build an exclusive, private club, but he poured so much into his project that he had to sell the course. The buyer, Heritage Golf Management, Inc., wound up in bankruptcy court in 1998, but new owners came to the rescue in 1999 and committed the investment that made Bear Slide everything Culley originally hoped.
Bear Slide’s appointments — handsome stone walls, winding bridges and miles of fences — are enough to set it apart, but the golf course is even better. The front nine is in the style of a links, with extensive mounding. The inward holes emphasize accuracy, as they wind around woods and water with some dramatic elevation changes. The variety keeps things interesting throughout.
There is a nice blend of distinctive holes throughout. The 10th is a 446-yard brute that requires a strong drive and a precise approach. The 11th is a bit of a breather, a 344-yard dogleg hole that can be birdied with an well-placed tee shot and an accurate short iron.
Brickyard Crossing, a short drive from the airport on Indianapolis’s near west side, offers similar variety in an unforgettable setting.
At $90, it is Indiana’s priciest public course. It also is one of its most unique. Dye tore up the old 27-hole Speedway Golf Course, home to the PGA Tour’s “500 Festival Open” during the 1960s, and reconfigured it into a championship 18. The Brickyard distinction that none can match is four holes inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 2.5-mile oval that is home to the Indy Racing League’s Indianapolis 500, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 and Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix.
Brickyard Crossing features Dye’s rumpled greens and one of the most daunting collections of par threes anywhere. Dye loves to make a hole look more intimidating than it plays. These look tough, and play that way.
Three other courses that offer premium playing conditions at lesser prices are Plum Creek, Ironwood and Hanging Tree, all in Hamilton County.
Plum Creek is just up the road from Prairie View, and is very manageable at 6,766 yards from the back tees. It incorporates sporty par fives, but it’s the par threes that grab your attention. They are a handful, all measuring between 198 and 222 yards.
Just north, in Fishers, Ironwood Golf Club is a 27-hole facility whose prime appeal might be its routing. Stand on the tees, and the hole ahead reveals itself to the eyes, suggesting a line of play.
But visitors should be wary, particularly on the Lakes Nine, where water is in play on every hole, a design that is particularly penal for first-time guests.
The massive oak and hangman’s noose that once dominated the 17th tee at Hanging Tree Golf Club are gone now, victims of age and weather, but the course remains playable, sporty, fun and offers a variety of discounted green fees.
Hanging Tree’s most memorable stretch consists of holes 14 through 18, all of which are different and appealing. The most demanding test might be No. 12, a 392-yard par four on which the tee shot and the approach must negotiate a meandering creek. There’s a lot to like, including the weekday fee, $33, which includes cart.
“We get guys from Chicago who can’t believe how cheap it is to play this golf course,” said head pro Mike O’Toole.
That’s a reaction heard across central Indiana. Good golf. Cheap. That’s why people are driving from all over to sample the best of golf in the Hoosier State.
One of the most common places golfers are coming from? You guessed it, Traverse City. “Oh yeah,” said Thompson. “I know of at least ten groups of guys who used to go to Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. I’ve got them switched over to Indianapolis.”