Granville Golf Course: A Truly Special Donald Ross Layout in Ohio

By Carl W. Grody, Contributor

GRANVILLE, Ohio -- At first glance, there's nothing special about this small Ohio village.

The town is small. It's rustic. There's a large clock that bongs out the hours for all to hear. Antique stores dot the downtown strip. Granville feels like a New England transplant in the Midwest.

That's why you don't expect much when you set out for Granville Golf Course. The name itself is so simple that you expect 18 holes plopped in a cow pasture by a city government looking to cash in on golf's popularity in the new century.

If Granville Golf Course were a great course, wouldn't it be called something like, "The Legends at Granville Woods" or "The Granville Golf Experience" or "The Course That Jack Didn't Build But Once Played On"? Wouldn't the green fees be in the three-digit range? Wouldn't there be a two-year wait for tee times?

It can't be true. You decide Granville just has to be another in a long line of municipal courses that all look the same.

That's before you get to the course. You're impressed from the parking lot, but you can't be sure yet. You've been burned too many times by courses that look pretty good until you get out of sight of the clubhouse, courses that play like cornfields away from the watchful eyes of passersby on the street.

Then you pick up your scorecard. You notice the name of the course designer. It, too, looks average and pedestrian.

You stuff the card in your pocket and head for the sharply sloping putting green. In mid-stride, you whip the card out of your pocket. You read the name of the designer again.

Donald Ross.

Two more normal names have never meant more in your golfing life. Yes, it's THE Donald Ross - the man who designed Pinehurst #2, Oakland Hills and Seminole. The man credited with between 400 and 600 golf course designs before his death in 1948. The man who spent his life toiling in a cottage behind the third green at Pinehurst, designing courses from topographical and geology maps.

Suddenly, Granville feels like a special place.

That's especially true when you consider that many Ross courses aren't open to the public. In fact, there are only five in Ohio that you can play, and two of those are on the same site - Mill Creek Park in Boardman, which hosts 110,000 rounds per year on its North and South courses.

GCC hosts about 30,000 rounds per year, and the cost is reasonable. You'll pay $32 to walk during the week and $39 to walk on a weekend. Add a cart, and it's $44 and $51.

GCC was built in 1924, but it's not obsolete -- at least, for the average golfer. The greens are hard and fast, the fairways are tight and sloped, and the rough is just deep enough to be diabolical. It's a short course, playing just 6,559 yards from the back tees, but it's rating of 71.3 (with a par of 71) and slope of 128 attest to its difficulty.

Many new courses are built with the idea that gadgets and tricks are needed to keep modern golfers entertained, that any par five less than 575 yards is a pushover. Ross' designs take exception to that. GCC is a simple course to follow, and there's little doubt about where to hit your next shot. A few of the bunkers are obsolete, but most are still strategically placed. And since they're generally not more than a few feet long but very wide, you can find yourself having to hit a pitching wedge from 180 yards just to make sure that you clear the lip of the bunker.

Ross never saw most of the courses that he designed because the fastest way to travel was by train. Rarely, he made a trip to see a site, and most of his work took place in his head as he imagined the land mapped out on his desk before him. There's a possibility that Ross actually made the trip to Granville, though, since he also designed Scioto Country Club in Columbus and Inverness in Toledo at about the same time, but nobody in Granville can say for sure, making this the golf equivalent of a possible Elvis sighting.

Regardless, several golfing greats of the time did see the course. Walter Hagen, Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen all played GCC as guests of then owner John S. Jones, and they all rated GCC as highly as they could.

The beauty of Ross' design is that he couldn't move a lot of dirt because the tools used by today's designers simply didn't exist. Most of the moving had to be done by the sheer strength of workers and their animals, so Ross instead took advantage of the lay of the land. The result in Granville was a course with lots of slope -- not the USGA kind, but actual hills on the course. Half of the challenge of playing GCC is dealing with the sidehill lies that you'll have on almost every shot.

The greens are especially tricky. They feature large undulations that seem easy to read, but you'd better take your time reading the break because there are plenty of subtle breaks that you won't see at first glance.

GCC has been updated, though. Markers on each tee box tell you the yardage to the hole. There are lots of sprinkler heads marked with distance. There are limited cart paths on which to park while you tee off, yet those cart paths stop quickly when you leave the tee so as not to mar Ross' design. And there's an actual bathroom -- not pit toilets and not a port-a-potty -- on the course.

You see Ross' touch as soon as you step on the first tee. The first hole is just 334 yards from the back tees, but the fairway is lined by trees and slopes from right to left. The approach is to an elevated green protected by Ross' small but steep bunkers.

The second hole is the hardest on the course, a 444-yard par four from the back tees that plays more like 480 yards. The tee shot requires a 200-yard carry from the back tees just to reach the fairway, and there's a water hazard to the left that's blocked from your view by trees.

Even if you hit the fairway, your approach is brutal. You're trying to hit a severely elevated green with a long iron or fairway wood, and you're trying to get the ball to stop on the proper level of the two-tiered green.

The green itself sits in a bowl of grassy mounds, which really causes problems if you miss the green long. A pitch shot downhill will probably catch the slope and shoot down to the lower tier whether the pin is there or not.

The fourth hole can be wicked, even by Ross' standards, or simple by anyone's standards. From the whites, this is just a 130-yard nine-iron to an average-sized green. But from the back tees, the hole plays 233 yards -- a blast equal to any par three you'll ever play. There's not much room to miss the green, either. To the left are the out-of-bounds line and trees. To the right is a line of small trees protecting the fifth tee. And behind the green are trees and more out-of-bounds stakes. From the back tees, you have to hit a fairway wood a precise distance just to make your par.

The sixth hole features another Ross trademark: slope in the fairway. This 501-yard par five moves slightly from right to left, but the fairway slopes severely from left to right. No matter where you are in the fairway, the ball will be below your feet, and you'll have to challenge the trees and o-b stakes along the left side of the hole with a fairway wood if you want to reach the green in two.

And if you miss the fairway? You'll just have to lay-up. As is the case at many Ross courses, the rough is punitive. It's not a punishment in the true tradition of the U.S. Open, where rough sometimes hides small children, but your ball will settle deep in the grass until you can't get anything longer than a nine-iron on the ball.

The 540-yard 10th hole features more of Ross' slope. The tee shot is uphill, and your lay-up will have to deal with the fairway's steep slope from right to left.

The 323-yard 13th hole may be the most memorable on the course. It's not supposed to be hard -- just the number 10 handicap hole -- but you have to be patient to avoid a big number here.

The tee shot is downhill to a tight fairway that doglegs to the right around a series of tall pine trees. Big hitters will be tempted to try to go over those pines, but they're farther away and taller than they look. And if you land your tee shot with those trees between the ball and the green, you have no chance to get your wedge on the green. You're better off laying up with a five-wood, then trying to stick your wedge close from the fairway.

The 14th hole is a tricky par three that hugs the trees on the left side and slopes into more trees on the right side. If you miss the green on either side, you'll be hard-pressed to make par.

More disturbing is that house construction is occurring left of the hole. Unfortunately, it's just a taste of what you find on your way to the next hole.

You find houses. Lots of them. A road that you have to cross to reach the 15th tee. Cars driving by. "For Sale" signs in empty lots. Ross' creation is marred by new houses.

Of course, these aren't ordinary houses. These are huge, ornate, meticulous homes that anybody with an average yearly salary of $500,000 would be glad to buy. Only too glad, judging by the amount of construction going on.

The 15th features the toughest tee shot on the course, a downhill 250-yard tunnel through trees before reaching open fairway. There's a water hazard in the distance, and you still have 200 yards to the middle of the green even after a good tee shot.

The houses on the left of the hole serve as an even greater distraction -- not because they exist, but because they exist in relation to this otherwise pristine Ross layout. The houses also run along the side of the 16th hole, a brutally uphill 330-yard par four, and then houses wrap around the green at the par-three 17th, making you wonder whether this course was actually a part of one of Michael Hurdzan's courses built in conjunction with housing developers.

To reach the 18th hole, you again have to cross a street, but you're rewarded with a view that makes you forget about all of the construction. This hole might be the most downhill you'll ever play; the tee boxes are 300 feet above the fairway, and you have a view of the golf course and the town of Granville that makes the round worthwhile by itself.

It might be the most majestic tee shot you'll ever play. It also might be the last tee shot you'll ever play.

That's because most of the fairway -- including the landing area -- is blind from the tees. You can be patiently waiting in the fairway for the green to clear when suddenly you're bombed by tee shots from above, projectiles launched by well-meaning golfers who just don't know you're there.

You're not safe when you reach the green, either. From the white tees, the hole is just 340 yards, and big hitters can drive the putting surface, especially downwind. Golfers have actually been hit by tee shots as they lined up their putts.

If you survive the 18th hole and thus the round, you'll drive away rethinking your approach to golf courses. Maybe a course doesn't need to be called something pretentious like "The Legends at Spooky Hollow Point" or "The Links at Highway Four." (Tip: anyplace that professes to be "at" someplace must always be viewed as potentially pretentious. Another tip: you'll have trouble holding the greens on any course played on a highway.)

At least in this case, a simple name for a simple approach and a simple design leads to a glorious afternoon.

And for the record, word has it that Nicklaus did play here. After winning his first Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Nicklaus reportedly bought out GCC for a day and enjoyed his own round on the course that Ross built. It was a case of one designing legend paying homage to another.

Considering that, Granville really must be a special place.

Carl W. Grody, Contributor

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