One of the Midwest's most coveted tee times awaits at Ohio's Longaberger Golf Club

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

NASHPORT, Ohio -- So you're driving down the highway somewhere east of Columbus, Ohio, and suddenly, you pass a seven-story basket along the side of the road, complete with rows of windows woven into the sides and two handles soaring 100 feet into the crystal-blue sky. No, nobody spiked your mocha latte. What you just saw was in fact the home office of The Longaberger Company, the premier maker of handmade baskets in the United States.

More importantly, if you happen to be a golfer, that utterly unique structure means that you are very near one of the best public courses in the nation -- Longaberger Golf Club. The 7,243-yard Arthur Hills design, despite opening only a few years ago, already is in elite company. In 2000, Longaberger was named "America's Best New Upscale Public Course" by Golf Digest. This year, it rocketed to 34th place on Golf Magazine's "Top 100 You Can Play" list. And in 2004, the course will host the National Club Pro Championship, which is often viewed as a precursor to hosting a regular tour event.

A very tough tee time

Browse through the basket section of eBay, and you will find literally hundreds of listings for Longaberger baskets, which are all handwoven by Longaberger's almost 7,000 craftspeople. By creating a market-frenzy for each new release and each discontinued model, The Longaberger Company has grown into a billion-dollar business.

By creating an equal frenzy among golfers, Longaberger Golf Club quickly has become one of the Midwest's most coveted tee times. Group outings, company employees, and more than 70,000 independent Longaberger sales associates have first dibs at tee times and are able to book up to one year in advance. So even at the relatively salty rate of $115 a round, golfers without corporate connections line up around the block for a chance to play this memorable track.

But when the time finally comes to tee it up here, the wait and the greens fee are all worthwhile. The marvelous, expansive clubhouse, with its cathedral ceilings, sweeping vistas, and first-class pro shop (complete with collectible baskets, of course) is as close as one can come to that exclusive country-club feel at a public course. In the spotless locker room, golfers are even given a Longaberger golf towel by the attendant. The only way you can get one of these is by having a tee time. The towels have become collectors' items in their own right, fetching up to $30 apiece on eBay.

An Arthur Hills classic

Arthur Hills, one of the most prolific - and lowest-profile - golf course architects of the latter third of the 20th Century, is famous for mixing the dramatic elements that American golfers are so fond of with understated accents reminiscent of more classic British and Irish layouts. His green complexes, for instance, are equally likely to be guarded by grass bunkers as sand bunkers.

Some critics consider Longaberger to be Hills's finest public course to date. It includes elevation changes of over 100 feet, and has all the natural beauty one would expect from an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary. Conditions are impeccable, and a premium has been placed on shot-making, especially when it comes to iron play.

"We have fair driving holes," says Longaberger PGA Professional Danny Ackerman, "but you had better be a good iron player, and be able to use a 60-degree wedge if you miss a green." However, with water in play at six of the greens, sometimes your lob wedge won't do much good. (Your only hope is that one of Longaberger's underwater basket-weavers tosses your ball back onto dry land.)

The view out over miles of rolling valley from the practice green might just tempt you to linger there longer than usual. But don't delay getting to the first tee, as this is one of the finest opening holes in the Midwest, and requires a good bit of forethought to determine how best to play it. At 411 yards from the tips, this sharp dogleg right plays all uphill. Your tee shot must either carry the bunkers at the corner of the fairway, or avoid the towering tree growing precisely at the point where the best landing area would be.

From No. 1 onward, it seems that each hole offers something new: downhill, uphill, wide landing areas, narrower landing areas, split fairways, water, trees. Even the one slightly dull hole (the 211-yard, par-3 12th) has a green complex replete with mounds, sand, and swales, which, when combined with the prevailing wind, can wreck your score as quickly as any of the more dramatic holes.

One of the most dramatic of the bunch is the simply awesome 563-yard, par-5 4th. A well-struck ball seems to sail forever off the elevated tee. Even from the middle of the fairway, going for the green in two seems almost unthinkable, as the small, table-top putting-surface is all but cut off by water in front and to the right. Bailing out left is also impossible, as deep bunkers and a brush-filled ravine await on that side.

The back nine features fantastic views of the palatial clubhouse, greens fronted by flowing streams, and one of the best collections of long par 4s to be found anywhere. No. 11, though, demonstrates how length isn't everything. At just 364 yards from the back tees, your first shot requires nothing more than a fairway wood, and even that might be too much. If you drive to the far left side of the fairway, you discover that you have a blind second over a rocky creek into a shallow green.

The 466-yard, par-4 18th is an intimidating, humbling closer. From a slightly elevated tee shot, you need to be well out into the gently ascending fairway to get to the green. Walking up the 18th, the clubhouse balconies loom high above you, and you can almost hear galleries cheering from the amphitheater mounds encircling the green.

Improving on perfection

Head pro Danny Ackerman is eager for the 2004 National Club Pro Championship to arrive. The spotlight that the event shines on Longaberger will be bright, and could attract the attention of the main professional tours. He admits, however, that one hole - the 444-yard 8th - needs retooling. The right side of the split fairway is pitched so steeply right to left that balls simply don't stay in the short grass.

Golfers who have tried to play safe and avoid the long carry to the left side of the fairway end up in thick rough and often are blocked by trees, hitting toward a peninsular green with water on three sides. In short, this hole can turn you into a basket case (bah-dum-DUM!).

Aside from this weakness, however, Longaberger is practically flawless. The greens are tricky because they are so ingeniously subtle in their contouring. Pace of play is strictly regulated by the starter, who keeps groups 14 minutes apart. And from the locker room attendant, who looks like he would defend the complimentary towels with his life, to the wait staff in the classy but relaxed restaurant and bar, everyone is focused on making guests feel welcome in every way. The pro-shop folks will even engrave your name on the complementary bag-tag for you after your round.

But don't think Longaberger is sitting on its laurels; the basket-making giant didn't become one of the top privately owned companies in America by being complacent. A new Tom Weiskopf layout has been routed, cleared, and roughed out, but it presently is on hold due to the economy. When it is completed, however, Ackerman promises all the quality of the present course, with a different feel. "The Weiskopf design will be more penal off the tee," he says, grinning the grin of a professional golfer who hasn't topped a drive since junior high.

Until that second course opens and some of the demand for tee times at Longaberger Golf Club is alleviated, however, this is bound to remain one of the Midwest's most exclusive public courses.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


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