Hoosier Hillsides and Pristine Vistas at Sugar Ridge Golf Course

By John Eckberg, Contributor

LAWRENCEBURG, IN -- As most every golfer knows, hills and dales in the full glow of spring can turn a routine course into something of a treasure. And if the course has a setting that is dramatic to begin with because the fairways are chiseled along grooved ridges and through bending valleys, well, all the better.

That's the way it is at Sugar Ridge Golf Course on the Indiana-Ohio border in extreme Southwestern Ohio. It's hard to say when it is the best season to play here:

The Hoosier hillsides are full of color in the autumn but in April, when the redbuds bloom and the wind brings a whiff of lilac and Springtime optimism, a round at Sugar Ridge offers some of the finest Hoosier golf in the southern half of the state. It's golf that is fulfilling, too, for all levels of expertise.

The address says Lawrenceburg, IN, but as any dedicated Buckeye golfer knows, it will be a Greater Cincinnati or riverboat gambling crowd that fills the first tee here on most weekend mornings. After all, half the course is in Ohio and it's only a short drive up into the rolling Indiana hills from the gambling boats down on the Ohio River to the first tee.

Even before the starter can grab his clipboard and trudge out through the gray fingers of another dawn, golfers are probably going to already be out on the course; at least they were on one recent trip to Sugar Ridge last summer and during another this Spring.

You've got to like courses where the jackrabbit foursomes with their low handicaps can pay up, beat the starter to the tee and be gone without a lot of hullabulloo.

Like foothills golf

It is a surprisingly scenic assortment of holes that keep golfers flocking to this lay-out that wanders through and along the ridges far west of Cincinnati's sprawling suburbs. Designed by Brian Huntley, an Arthur Hills protégé, and former co-owner Mike Macke back in 1994, the course offers pretty much unrivaled vistas of Indiana countryside.

From some tees, all you can see is ridge stacked upon ridge and stacking up that way into the distant horizon for miles. It is more mountain foothills golf than Midwestern plains golf.

"I suppose the course itself fills 150 acres," says Sugar Ridge owner Jason Guard, who led a team of investors that bought out Macke late last year. "You are overlooking valleys. It captures the natural beauty of the region and takes advantage of the land that is already there."

"We didn't have to move tons of dirt. Quite a few of the tees have nice views."

What is nothing short of amazing is that not a rooftop is anywhere in sight even though this place is just 25 minutes from downtown Cincinnati and 30 minutes from the local international airport in Kentucky.

The reason is simple. The course was built on property that spans more than 250 acres, enough land to allow the holes to wind along ridges and valleys rather than crisscrossing through them. The land provides a natural buffer of acreage on many of the holes. You have no sense here of this course being a round-peg-array crammed into a square-hole block of acreage.

Parallel fairways? Forget about it. And a foursome has to reach the 12th tee before he even sees a house, and this particular house is probably going to be a welcomed sight, anyhow.

Out front near the driveway on the edge of the course, a kid named Joey Kushman has filled a bucket with balls and is selling them through a Hoosier honor system at 25 cents each and 50 cents for top-of-the-line unblemished balls that scream Titanium and Balata. It is one of those rare business niches where the supplier is usually a customer.

A faded Brummel & Brown margarine tub has a slot in the lid and inside the tub is a wad of one dollar bills. Don't you just love the faith of an enterprising 11-year-old American kid, who is a budding golfer himself?

The beauty of this ball business is that, like a golf swing, it's all rooted in trust. Take the club back, throw the hips and have faith that a good thing will happen to the ball. It's the same with Joey, fill the bucket with balls, clean out the money each evening and save for the future. Again, it's all about trust.

Because there are few parallel fairways, that leaves plenty of time to ponder just how deep and dark a forest can be when a wayward drive has sounded from deep inside a grove of oak or maple trees.

The hills and hollows here tend to keep other golfers hidden, even those but a fairway or tee-box away. Online pitches for the course tout its majestic backdrops, secluded fairways and lush valleys and the fact is that it's all true. There are six ponds or lakes cut into hillsides with dams and small creeks.

Here's another mystery about Sugar Ridge (other than, of course, the exact location of the proverbial Sugar Shack): how can greens that are so wet with dew be so fast so early?

Though no hole is breath-taking, a few are very, very impressive. The drive from No. 4 pours over a pond and then down into a beautiful sculpted valley with a second shot to a green guarded by water to the front and right. It is followed by No. 5, a long pull of a par 5 at 505 yards from the blue tees, then a plain par three and pair of broad par fours before ending with an easy par five No. 9.

Wild turkeys abound

The backside feels more open, probably because of the many lakes and ponds that haunt many shots. Overall, expect to find easy par threes throughout the round, par 5s with sloping and uphill fairways and a handful of par 4s that will be memorable.

The course, too, is thick with wildlife. There are wild turkeys in the underbrush, black locusts and hardwood groves along many fairways. Deer are commonplace and when they cut loose across a fairway, it's tail-to-the-sky and away they go.

When the course was created, the nearby towns of Lawrenceburg and Rising Sun, less than five miles down the road, were only contemplating riverboat gambling, says Guard. Today, the gamblers flock to the casinos, while the golfers come here for a quick round.

Woods can be a blessing and a curse for golfers in the fall. They bring leaves that conceal balls but without the trees, courses like this one would be bare and suffer from sameness. Expect the fairways to be more crowded this year than in years past as visitors to the nearby gambling boats find the course.

You won't notice the difference, however, because of the seclusion and rolling nature of many of the holes.

"Having the casinos nearby has been great," Guard says. "I'm not sure we're a destination course, yet. I think that'd be wishful thinking. But a round here does tie together a trip to Argosy Casino. There's lots of wildlife, probably more turkeys than deer, and people are finding out it's a fun course to play."

Many courses bring you memorable, even enduring rounds. From the optimistic kid's bucket of balls at No. 12 to the wild turkeys in the honeysuckle scrub at No. 18, expect the round at Sugar Ridge to be enduring and perhaps a little endearing.

Tees Yards Par Slope
Gold - 6,793 - 71 - 122
Black - 6,213 - 71 - 118
Silver - 4,747 - 71 - 109

Weekday - 18/cart, $34; 9/cart, $19
Saturday, Sunday and Holidays: 18 /cart $39.50; 9/cart, $22
Senior (55 or older) before noon weekdays: 18 holes /cart $25
Twilight rate, weekdays and weekends: $25.95 unlimited golf (usually after 3 p.m.)

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Sugar Ridge yardages

    Lee Ransick wrote on: Aug 13, 2004

    Yardage need to be updated, also
    their score has an arithmetic error !