Cincinnati: A fine golf destination in southwest Ohio

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

CINCINNATI -- Marty Meeker has an idea to help get the word out about southwest Ohio's underrated public golf scene.

Aston Oaks Golf Club - hole 8
The spectacular eighth hole at Aston Oaks Golf Club plays over water.
Aston Oaks Golf Club - hole 8Shaker Run Golf Club - fishermanLegendary Run Golf Course - hole 11
If you go

"Cincinnati has a lot of low-cost, pretty good public golf courses. Somebody should start a golf trail with (hotel) packaging," Meeker said in between shots at his home course, Legendary Run Golf Course.

Like most major rust-belt cities, Cincinnati doesn't spend too much time and effort marketing itself as a golf destination. But developers, eager to take advantage of cheap and plentiful rolling land surrounding the downtown perimeter, have steadily built one over the past two decades.

Legendary Run could be the poster child for Cincinnati's public golf scene. It's a scenic place on the southwest outskirts of the city, carved out of hills and through woods by Arthur Hills. The 6,920-yard layout is a blast to play. And Meeker said golf here rates high on the value meter, often costing less than $50 for an excellent course.

Cincinnati seems to be ideally positioned to attract transient players from all directions driving along either I-75 or I-71. Spring breaks sooner and fall extends deeper into November along the Kentucky border, affording a longer golf season than anywhere else in the Midwest. To me, Cincinnati appears to be a buddies' getaway just waiting to happen. Mix in some tickets to the Reds in summer or the Bengals in the fall and you've got a great weekend of games -- on and off the course.

"You have plenty of options, from par 3s to high-end courses," Drew Macke said of the region. His family business, Macke Golf, runs several courses northwest of Cincinnati, including Aston Oaks Golf Club and Deer Run Country Club. "At one time, we had five of the top 10 (listed by) Golf Digest in Ohio."

Must-play golf courses in Cincinnati

While Legendary Run is good, Hills' best design in the region remains his original routing at the 27-hole Shaker Run Golf Club in Lebanon 35 miles northeast of downtown.

Shaker Run's Woodlands and Lakeside nines both end with epic par 4s on the lake. The Meadows nine, added by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry in 2000, plays perfectly fine, yet doesn't deliver any hair-raising shots like Hills does.

Elks Run Golf Club, a Greg Norman design from 1999, faces a long road ahead out of foreclosure, although a new management company, Sequoia Golf, is making a major impact by improving course conditions. Norman, not normally in such a friendly mood when designing courses, created a shot-maker's test filled with cool holes. The collection of par 3s is particularly stellar. The par 5s at No. 3 and No. 5 share a pond and a double green.

Golfers dream of the day when Aston Oaks, a Jack Nicklaus course 15 miles northwest of downtown, shakes the conditioning issues that have plagued the layout since it opened in 1999. A lightning strike crippled the facility's irrigation system last summer. The course lost 40 percent of its fairways, said Macke, whose staff is working overtime to overcome the loss. If Aston Oaks can rebound, a spectacular piece of land oozes with glorious views and tantalizing moments.

Other top-flight Cincinnati golf options

Deer Run makes for a great sister course to Aston Oaks just four miles away. Macke took over management last summer and has the troubled track on a comeback. Deer Run plays much longer than the scorecard implies. Tight corridors sometimes take the driver out of a player's hands, leaving longer-than-you'd-like approach shots to severely elevated greens.

The best concentration of courses are tightly knit northwest of the city near Mason, the home to The Grizzly course at the Golf Center at Kings Island.

The Grizzly has a championship pedigree few courses can match, hosting the PGA Tour (1973-77), LPGA Tour (1978-89), Champions Tour (1980-2001) and the Futures Tour (2009-11) over four decades. The 6,504-yard course has lost some of its original holes. The layout's teeth, however, remain intact. This is Cincinnati's most expansive golf facility, home to the Academy course -- a four-hole course used for lessons and shorter rounds; the Bruin nine, an oversized executive course with four par 4s; and a teaching academy.

I didn't have time to see everywhere I wanted to test drive. Both Beckett Ridge Golf Club in West Chester and Heatherwoode Golf Club in Springboro (halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati) regularly earn high praise from locals for their layouts and consistent conditioning. Heatherwoode used to host the Miami Valley Open of the Nationwide Tour.

Where to stay

During my five-day trip this spring, I stayed in Warren County just north of the city along I-75 at a Drury Inn & Suites in Middletown. Golfers will love the conveniences of a Drury Inn: Free breakfast buffet, free Wi-Fi, spacious suites and free appetizers and snacks at happy hour. This Drury Inn was just minutes from Shaker Run, Heatherwoode and King's Island and within a half-hour of Dayton's top courses, like Yankee Trace and Beavercreek.

Dining in Cincinnati

I found two treasures on my trip. The Montgomery Inn in the tiny village of Montgomery (northwest of the city) serves the meatiest ribs I've ever had. Its sports-bar feel is ideal for golfers. Seafood lovers will salivate over the selections at the Pelican's Reef, a strip-mall hideout just 14 miles from Elks Run where customers fight over parking spots just for the chance to get inside.

Cincinnati off course

Traffic jams notwithstanding, being a major metropolitan area does have its advantages. Warren County bills itself as "Ohio's largest playground" with The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the Newport Aquarium, three water parks (such as Great Wolf Lodge) and King's Island, an amusement park.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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