Water is Lifeblood for Golf at Historic Cincinnati Course

By John Eckberg, Contributor

CINCINNATI, OH - He apparently showed up all hungry and probably a little ornery on this fall morning last year as California Golf Course awoke to another day of late-season golf.

The gray squirrel knew the aroma of opportunity when he smelled it. So when Ryan the cart guy, who would soon be leaving for college, left his breakfast sandwich unguarded, the animal made his move. Ryan was lining up the carts in front of the 1930s-era clubhouse when he saw his sandwich headed up a nearby tree.

It was being carried away by a larcenous young squirrel, who recognized that when need meets opportunity, good things can be one result - just as long as you're the one left holding the sandwich.

This golf course close to I-275 on the eastern edge of Cincinnati is also a great example of what happens when need meets opportunity. The track was created as a WPA project on unused land owned by the City of Cincinnati near the city's water treatment plant.

At the time, the city needed jobs for their unemployed men and the opportunity to string some golf holes around and over the water system reservoirs could not be passed up. It's a good thing, too. It has become a landmark course for the region.

The golf course opened in 1935 or 1936 - nobody knows for sure exactly when it opened and who designed it - and offers players a nice mix of wooded seclusion, hilly perspectives and stunning big water vistas.

Space is hard-hat tight on most of the course - that is, wear a hard-hat on some tee boxes to protect yourself from the wayward shots of the fore-some behind you.

Because this land near the Ohio River is hilly, some holes have punishing drop-offs behind the green, much like a mountain course in North Carolina. At the same time, tees, particularly the blue variety, can dramatically change the difficulty of some holes because they are elevated and force shots out across fingers of the lagoons.

Ultimately, it's not the land, the tees, the greens and fairways that makes this golf course so remarkable. No, it's the water reservoirs that cover some 45 acres of the course that have been a magnet for generations of golfers from Southwestern Ohio.

The reservoirs were built in 1907 because the city needed to end, once and for all, water-borne diseases that had long plagued the region. City Fathers did not do it on the cheap, either.

The casual observer hunting for a Titlest on, say, No. 6, might see the bricks in a herringbone pattern leading up to the shoreline walking path and think: how quaint to have a brick shore. Well, it's not brick just on the shore: it's brick all across the bottom of these two mitten-shaped lagoons.

And these aren't your garden-variety bricks, either. In fact, these bricks are not brick at all. They are granite. These lagoons had to be designed to hold water and hold it for centuries, not decades so only stone would do.

The cut stone rides atop a layer of asphalt, then a layer of burlap, then more asphalt, then at the bottom is sculpted clay. On top, in between the granite is grouting. It's an amazing bit of turn-of-the-century engineering that is likely to work for another century or two - just like this golf course.

The layout is a study of contrasts: broad on the front side and spandex-tight on the back.

"The front nine offers a lot of wide open shots and the golfer thinks okay, here we try to score as good as we can score," said Larry R. King, head golf professional. "But the back nine are the tightest driving nine holes of golf in the region - the hardest to hit fairways. It's just so tight.

"The average fairway in Cincinnati is 30 yards wide. No. 10 is 22 steps wide and No. 11 is 18 steps. It's the same thing with 15."

For years the course fought the sun and lost many a battle. Single sprinkler heads couldn't hit what needed to be hit and at times the bent grass suffered. The irony was that nearby were 330 million gallons of water that could not find its way to the fairways.

No more. A double row irrigation system was installed and completed in June. It is already paying dividends, King said.

"It's just going to get thicker and thicker out there,'' he said. "You're going to see plusher fairways. We are already reaping the benefits. Some tees and greens only had one head. If the sprinkler didn't get it, you might lose a tee or green.

"Now we have five or six heads on greens and tees and that double row up the fairway."

The course is great for wildlife, too. Any fish in the Ohio River also lives in these lagoons because this water is largely untreated and settling and fishing is strictly prohibited. Schools of gar, 20 or 30 fish sometimes rise to the surface, their long and bony snouts just breaking the surface.

You can see them from the tee at No. 6 or sometimes from No. 7 tee. Huge carp and catfish live here, too.

"I remember when they drained them one at a time a few years ago,'' said employee and course historian Lenny Byrd, "there were great big dump trucks down in the bottom and those trucks looked like little toys."

That squirrel is apparently still around somewhere and will probably be there for a while - as long as he can steer clear of falcons, hawks, owls, coyotes, Chow dogs and a host of other predators that hunt and haunt about 350 acres of course and preserve.

Ryan figured he might as well make a pet of the guy and began to feed him last fall. Ryan make a squeaky little noise through his front teeth each time he did it. Eventually, the squirrel would eat out of his hand. Ryan left and went back to school. The squirrel was on his own.

When the 2001 season kicked into gear, Ryan returned for his summer job and one day noticed a squirrel across the way. He looked familiar. Ryan made the squeaky noise and the squirrel's ears perked up and his head snapped around at the thought of a breakfast sandwich. He sprinted to Ryan's feet and looked up at him. Where ya been?

And need was ready to greet opportunity one more time.

John Eckberg, Contributor

John Eckberg has been a life-long bogey golfer, whose addiction to the sport began with nine-iron pitches to and from neighbor Frank Haines's back yard and on the golf courses in and around Akron, Ohio. His fondest golf memories date to his teenaged-years when he and his brother would annually sneak into PGA events at Firestone Country Club, then spend the day eluding marshals as part of the army that trailed Arnold Palmer.

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