Champions Golf Course: Just Remember These Two Things
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Before playing Champions Golf Course, you have to memorize this mantra: Fairways and greens, my friend, fairways and greens.
Say it in your sleep the night before your round. Say it while driving to the golf course. Write it in tiny letters on your ball so it's the last thing you see before you swing.
Champions is one of seven courses run by the City of Columbus' Parks and Recreation department, but it's not your ordinary municipal course. Champions is a tough, sometimes vicious, test of your golfing skills. It has more trees than an old-growth forest, more wind than a NASA testing tunnel, and greens that have the flexibility of petrified rock.
OK, maybe I'm exaggerating, but there's no exaggerating the challenges of this golf course. Many municipal courses are full of driver-and-wedge holes for good players, but you can't play many drivers at Champions and expect to score well. Champions wasn't always this tough. It was built in the 1920s as a private country club, then called Winding Hollow. It started as a nine-hole course, but in the 1940s the members decided to toughen things up a bit. They hired Robert Trent Jones to rework the first nine and add a second, and Jones created a course worthy of his reputation.
Jones never worried much about the high-handicapper. He figured that if you played his course, you had to put up with whatever he threw at you. He said his courses were "easy bogey, tough par," which for an average golfer means, "Oh, God, please let me save double-bogey!"
Jones designed Champions before 7,000-yard monstrosities became the norm in golf. Champions has a par of 70 and plays just 6,555 yards from the blues, but it's tough - a rating of 71.2 and a slope of 127. From the whites, the numbers are 69.6 and 123 for a layout of just 6,193 yards.
Instead of relying on length to make holes difficult, Jones used his own deft and clever mind. For example, the second hole is just 132 yards, which you'd think would be a birdie hole for good players and an easy par for everybody else. Think again. The green is razor-thin, and it sits between two bunkers buried in mounds. The only good place to miss on this hole is short, because the green slopes severely from back to front, and there's no room to run a pitch shot from the sides. You can make a putt from below the hole, but if you miss to either side of the green, you'll be scrambling like Seve to save your par.
That's the kind of course Champions is. Jones littered the landscaped with bunkers. He carved holes through the trees so that the wind funnels and swirls through them. He made the greens hard and firm. He made the fairways tight, and the proper landing areas even tighter. He even included a creek that winds through the course and pops up when you least expect it.
In short, the man known as "The Open Doctor" for his renovations of U.S. Open courses used his scalpel to create what Business First magazine called central Ohio's most challenging golf course.
Of course, it's not really the toughest public course in central Ohio, but it's on the short list, especially when you consider the cost ($29 on weekdays, $34 on the weekend).
The signature hole is the 13th, a 391-yard par four from the white tees. Again, the distance isn't intimidating, but that doesn't mean much when it's your turn to tee off. The tees are cut back into the woods, and you're trying to drive your ball through a tightly framed window of branches and leaves to a fairway sitting in the valley below.
When the leaves are full, you can't see the left side of the hole, but don't bail out to the right. Remember the creek that pops up when you can least afford it? Well, there it is.
Try to ignore the trees, don't pull your head up to peek at your shot, and hit the ball as straight as you can. Distance doesn't matter nearly as much as accuracy. Go right, and you're in the creek. Go left, and you're in thick rough or a bunker.
Even from the fairway, the second shot is dicey. You're in the valley now, and the green looms above you like Mount Rushmore (only there are no faces carved in the rough). The green is a fair size, but there's no good place to miss; the right side is particularly lethal because of pine trees and a steep bank. You'll need one more club than the yardage indicates to reach the green, so take two to make sure that you get there.
The hole that should be the signature hole is the 10th hole, a 204-yard par three that's a downhill delight. You're so far above the green that you feel like you're flying, and the group ahead of you will look like ants on the green.
Doubt is your enemy on this tee shot because you're guessing about what club to hit. In my case, I used a seven-wood, and the ball carried the 217 yards from the blue tees onto the green. That was 20 yards farther than normal.
There are only two par-fives on the course, and only one of those is reachable. The 515-yard seventh hole doglegs subtly to the left, and your tee shot has plenty of room to land in the fairway.
But there's little room for error; go right, and you're through the trees into the creek. Go left, and you're in another line of trees figuring the best angle to pitch back to the fairway.
If you hit the middle of the short grass, you'll be tempted to go for the green in two, but discretion is the better part of a double-bogey. There's a large pond on the left for the last 150 yards, and the green is tucked against the woods on the right. You're better off hitting your three-wood from the tee, then laying up to a comfortable yardage for your approach.
The other par five is not reachable to any mere mortal. It's just 484 yards from the white tees, but it's the most severe dogleg to the left that you've ever played.
In fact, it's two doglegs to the left, and the green actually sits on a straight line from your left shoulder. You can't see the green, though, nor could you drive it. You're teeing off in the valley, and the green sits on a high hill behind a mass of tall trees.
Your tee shot should be a simple, straight three-wood. You could try to cut the corner, but you'd have to carry the ball over a tree that's as tall as Paul Bunyan on his tiptoes. And cutting the corner wouldn't accomplish much, either.
The green sits above the fairway like a fortified castle, protected from an onslaught by sheer height and a moat - er, creek - running in front of it. Since you can't lay siege to an elevated green - play would slow down too much for that to be practical - you'd better lay-up and then knock another wedge onto the green.
Possibly the most intriguing hole is the fifth, a 136-yard par three that ranks as the number-17 handicap hole on the course. That might seem like a contradiction - how can a hole that easy be interesting?
You'll only have to step on the teebox to find out. The shot plays over a deep ravine to a small green. Come up just a bit short, and your ball could roll back 50 yards. Your pitch will not only be blind, but it'll be like trying to hit your ball through a third-story window.
Jones did a masterful job of turning a modest layout into a golfing adventure (some might say nightmare). You have to take an extra moment before every shot and say to yourself, "OK, is this shot a stupid idea?"
The course plays a lot like an uphill putt with no break; you'll find yourself studying even the most simple shots, wondering what the catch is. And you'd be completely justified in doing so.
What can't be justified is the shabby treatment of the Walk of Champions, an honorary walkway dedicated to important people in the history of the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department. Those names are engraved in the bricks, but the walkway leads to an unkempt area framed by bushes (although hidden might be more correct).
Inside the "honorary" circle were an old table with fraying corners, a couple of folding chairs and a few empty water bottles. If you didn't know the walkway was supposed to honor somebody, you'd think it was a bunch of bricks leading to a scorer's table left over from a past tournament.
But that problem is easy to fix - a little paint, a little policing of the area, a little trimming of the bushes. Champions has the larger problem already licked: it's a first-class golf course designed by a first-class architect.
Now it's time to deal with the problem of how to play it. Repeat after me, everybody, and this time with feeling -"Fairways and greens, my friend, fairways and greens..."