Cincinnati's Vineyard Golf Course is a toast to good golf at a good price

By John Eckberg, Contributor

CINCINNATI, Ohio -- The Vineyard Golf Course in an eastern suburb of Cincinnati probably has a grapevine or two on it somewhere. That's what golfer Robert Ohler heard anyhow, so he spends a part of each regular round looking for it. Maybe off the fourth tee or back near the green on No. 15. It's somewhere, he figures. It's got to be there.

But it's not just a grapevine quest that keeps him returning to this course on the hills above the Ohio month after month and year after year.

Golfers like this Covington, KY, 38-year-old have been coming to this course from throughout the region for more than two decades because of its reputation for delivering great golf to the public at a good price year after year after year.

In its own rights, it's a historic course, too, one of the first to be built by a county park district as part of a system of regional courses. From its inception in the mid-1980s, planners told architects Kidwell and Hurdzan to design a public course with country club ambiance that offered playability for all levels of expertise.

How many public courses offer guys in khakis with walkie-talkies who take your bag from the car trunk? How many public courses owned by a park district have greens that are nanosecond swift and triple-tiered diabolical? How many courses have hole after hole of graceful bending doglegs that take you through colorful hardwood groves and over and past calm and quiet lagoons?

Par threes framed by blue sky, dogwood and azalea each spring? Got ‘em. Nasty bucket bunkers with throats as narrow as a pickle bucket, veritable vortexes and hexes for those wayward short irons? Got some of those, too.

From its first round in 1986, this course, which is owned and managed by the Hamilton County Park District, has been a challenging track. Fairways seem flat but the golfer soon learns about a slight drain - into a pond.

Other fairways span gorges of mature hickory and oak. Each of the par threes, even those that seem easy, has something going on that makes a birdie a tough proposition. While there are few long par fours that require repeated driver-three iron combos, that doesn't mean that the remainder of the holes are baby cakes easy.

The course remains among the region's most popular places to play with bent grass fairways that are resilient and do not show the wear and tear of 40,000 annual rounds. Until the mid-1990s, the Vineyard had a virtual monopoly on great public golf in the region. But other tracks were built, and soon the Vineyard had competition. It ended up being not much of a problem.

There was that country club ambience and because the course has a full-service clubhouse with a banquet room at Sweetwine Lodge, officials at the park district decided to offer Sunday morning brunches. If you are traveling to play the course, and it's on a Sunday, you don't want to miss this feast.

Dining aside, few golfers in the morning care very much about good grub - at least not when there is titanium to hammer.

Like many courses, it is split into halves. The front side is flatter and more open. Water comes into play on four out of the first six holes with holes No. 5 and No. 6, clearly under-handicapped because they are tougher than they look at 398 and 390 yards respectively from the blue tees. A few of these jade fairways may seem wide but don't be fooled.

This course has grown up in the ensuing years, and as a result, about 200 trees have been removed. The culling has occurred because the trees have grown up so tightly over and near the fairways that navigating many holes for a high-flying golfer meant luck and not skill could rule a round.

The Vineyard draws John Parker, 49, of Cincinnati almost every weekend. No, make that every weekend. "When my relatives come to visit, I tell them up front - I'm golfing on Sunday,'' he says. And he's golfing at The Vineyard. It's that kind of loyalty that has made this course's reputation.

Parker plays in one of those foursomes where a $5 Nassau is de rigor. His pals have seen that $5 escalate through presses to more than $100 on Vineyard's slippery slopes, though that will never happen to Parker because he refuses to double-up on a bet and bans others from doing it with is bets, too.

These guys are typical during prime time, too: low-handicappers with big appetites for a little weekend golfing pressure. On this brisk Sunday morning, Parker considered the round, which was delayed for a frost warning and started nodding at the others in his foresome as he mentally added up how much money he would make that morning in the best of all possible worlds.

Let him sum up The Vineyard: "a really great course."

Though you'll find that conditions to be uniformly fine, the course is not without its annoyances: six par fours are in the 400 to 370 yard range. Even from the blue tees, the course can have the feel of driver-short-iron-driver-short-iron-driver-short-iron.

Still, strategic sand and those strange but nasty Scottish pot bunkers will absolutely murder a round. Pay attention, too, to the flag color. Red means the hole is up front, white puts the hole in the middle of the green and yellow means it's in the back. That's critical stuff when the green is triple-tiered like the devilish par three No. 3.

Billed as a Hometown Golf Resort, the object is to give a player a feeling that he is on vacation, says Doug Stultz, golfing supervisor for Hamilton County Park District. And for many, that's exactly what is going on.

"Cincinnati is about halfway for people headed to Florida from Michigan and Canada, and maybe that's drawing people who head south in the spring," he said. "It only takes one or two groups and word spreads. We've seen quite a bit of that already this year."

Exit I-275 at No. 65, go west onto Ohio 125. Left soon at Nordyke to the course on the left.

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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