Aston Oaks Golf Club in North Bend is in a league of its own
NORTH BEND, Ohio -- Most golf courses have a history, some golf courses can claim a place in golf history but few courses can actually lay claim to a place in American history.
Aston Oaks Golf Club west of Cincinnati fits into the latter category. History, if not the course itself, should one day make this a Mecca for any Midwesterners looking for a challenging and scenic round over some historical ground.
The course is really all alone in a league of its own on a lot of fronts.
Sculpted through stands of great white oak and hickory and other native hardwoods, the course is laid out over and across a former presidential estate: the initial stake of President William Henry Harrison.
Aston Oaks still retains a few presidential views of the Ohio River valley and Kentucky flood plains in the distance, just the way it must have looked when Harrison, of the timeless slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," took on the eastern elite. Beyond the history, huge trees haunt many holes and lanes in and around the course.
Cart paths are fringed with catalpa trees that carry the name of another former owner of this land: John Aston Warder, who was an early American horticulturalist and founder of the Forest Society of America.
There are a few don't-miss-this features at the course, beyond stone walls that encircle par three greens, sweeping doglegs that are well-bunkered and rare hilltop and tee-box views of the wide Ohio River.
Since Ohio is, after all, the Buckeye State, all true Ohioans should appreciate the giant tree between the 10th tee and 11th green. It is the largest Buckeye in the state and a national champion. Bring your camera and get your picture taken here.
Other holes ooze history, as well they should, because this ground is so deeply linked to early pioneer American commerce. Once owned by Harrison, the main creek that winds near No. 13 and through No. 16 was the waterway that turned the first mill in Southern Ohio. The foundations of President Harrison's old mill can still be seen today, about 280 yards out on No. 16 above the creek on the left side of the fairway.
Harrison had ambitions beyond corn and wheat grinding that led him to run for the presidential office in 1840 when his party, the Whigs, had no candidate.
From one of the more bizarre political launching pads, Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, Harrison decided to whip his political opponents, the eastern elite, by embracing the country bumpkin image they created of him. This still/mill played a key role in the campaign as he was portrayed as having a jug over his shoulders and about half-drunk all the time.
The resulting "Log Cabin Campaign" against the Democratic incumbent Martin Van Buren became a spectacle of slogan and slander. Harrison blew him away and a rustic county courthouse clerk, who owned a still and a mill, was suddenly the Commander-in-Chief.
It was a short-lived glory. He died 32 days later after catching pneumonia at his own inauguration, and this land and the mill became part of his widow's estate.
Check out Aston Oaks Golf Club's 342-yard 12th hole -- a par 4 that looks toward Harrison's tomb, seen as a spire in the near distance. The history on this course doesn't end with the mill, however.
After the death of Harrison's widow, this land was purchased by a Dr. John Aston Warder, who needed a secluded estate so he could smuggle escaped slaves to freedom.
From the picturesque manor house, which can be seen along the road/cart path between the hilly No. 10 and picturesque No. 11 hole, Dr. Warder and his supporters surely watch across the Ohio River to Kentucky to spy on any would-be pursuers chasing the runaway slaves.
Warder was also the first person to propose planting a belt of trees on the great western plains to preserve topsoil. It is appropriate that his grounds would become a golf course, and one elegantly defined in bent grass, mounding and woods.
Designing Aston Oaks Golf Club
Like many other public courses, this one aspires to greatness. The course was designed by Jack Nicklaus Design Group. Its architect was Tom Pearson, today the owner and president of Pearson Golf Design.
"God did the good work," says owner and developer John M. Niehaus, whose vision has propelled the development. When Pearson came to the project, he worried about severe topography. "This usually dictates a difficult test of golf," he said. "I basically let the land show me what I could do with it and then fit in challenging, but fair golf holes. In doing this we end up with a beautiful golf course that looks like it has been there for several years and does not look like it was forced in with a lot of land cut scars."
Because many holes have tree-lined fairways, he did not need to introduce bunkers, though near the greens, bunkers can help define holes, he said. He remains pleased with the design: "I look forward to watching it mature into one of the great courses in the Cincinnati area."
Aston Oaks Golf Club's back nine
On the back nine, greens hold irons well and the fairway turf is like carpet. It has good vistas, as well.
While most holes duck in and out of the woods, No. 13 is a links-style hole, built above a bed of fly-ash from a nearby utility and is a poster child for adaptive reuse of wasted industrial land. While a power line cuts through the course, it only really intrudes on No. 8.
No. 3, at 439 yards from the gold tees, may be the best hole on the course. It has a double-wide fairway split with a bunker and waste pocket in the center of the fairway. An approach from the left side is mandatory for the big hitter.
Stratford Lane off Aston Oaks Drive is the old road on the property with must-see Catalpas lining both sides. Hills make for challenging lies on many holes, and it seems like miles of roadway between some greens and tees. The course is impossible to walk for anybody who does not have the stamina of Daniel Boone.
Even the cart path switchbacks through the power easement have appeal. While bounding up the hill, riders are treated to a majestic perspective unique to Midwestern valleys - even manmade ones for power towers.
The creek-bed at the 16th hole is the focus of all that is Aston Oaks Golf Club. It was where the mill was built and where wilderness ended and commerce began once upon a time. This corner of the course was once true frontier, and much of American political life today has its roots in these unforgiving meanders.
No. 16 is landing zone golf and going for the green in two is out-of-the-question as the creek and a stone wall conspire to prevent any roll-ons.
Course highlights are everywhere: En-route to No. 11, look at the old house and imagine furtive comings and goings as families ran north to freedom centuries ago. Look down a lane and picture Harrison in full general regalia headed out to one of 300 campaign stops.
The horticultural power of the place is obvious as one of the best collections of American forestry is here: first and most impressive is that Champion Buckeye and near it and the manor house is a Champion English Oak.
Here, too, is a Champion Bald Cypress. A nearby Gingko is being measured for national champion status as well. Clearly, Aston Oaks is a golf course to be appreciated and celebrated for the past as much as the present.
The course may be new but it feels like it is not. And the round itself -- the tangible history, the trees, the views and the adaptive re-use -- is a window into an American past.
July 1, 2002