Table Rock Golf Club: Where the Air is Fresh and the Pace is Slow

By Carl W. Grody, Contributor

Centerburg, OH - Ohio's state slogan used to be, "Ohio: The Heart of It All." That means Centerburg, located dead in the middle of the state, is the center of that heart.

Centerburg is a small town about 30 miles northeast of Columbus. It's home to just 3,000 residents, the best-known restaurant is Subway and there aren't any hotels within the city limits. In other words, this is the kind of one-horse town that even horses have to leave for a good time on Saturday night.

But golfers can take heart. Centerburg is also home to Table Rock Golf Club, a beautiful and well-maintained course that would impress even the most jaded city slicker.

Table Rock offers peace and serenity. Instead of trucks roaring down the highway, you hear roosters crowing. The air is fresh. The pace is slow.

Course manager Kathy Butler thinks that should appeal to the average golfer, even though she's trying to increase the number of rounds played at Table Rock from just over 20,000 to 30,000 a year. She said more golfers should drive up from the craziness that is Columbus for a quiet day in the country.

Of course, if you like hustle and bustle, come to Table Rock in September. That's when Centerburg's Old-time Farming Festival attracts 20,000 people; the Heart of Ohio Five-Mile Run is held; and the local conservation club sponsors the Heart of Ohio Skirmish - a reenactment of Civil War battles featuring such competitors as Sherman's Bodyguard, the Fourth Kentucky Cavalry and the Rockbridge Artillery unit.

You won't need that kind of firepower to play Table Rock, though you might occasionally be tempted to blow away a few of the trees.

The course opened in 1971. It was a creation of the recently deceased Jack Kidwell, who designed so many courses in central Ohio that you can't mount a charge without tripping over one. The quality of Kidwell's courses was almost always determined by the patch of land he had to work with, and he obviously had a good spot in Centerburg.

Table Rock plays 6,771 yards from the blue tees (rating 71.4, slope 119) and 6,336 yards from the whites (69.4, 115). There's plenty of water, even if a lot of it is out of play, and the greens are predictably hard (come on -- the place is called Table Rock. What did you expect?) Green fees are low -- just $22 on the weekends.

Table Rock shows a deceptive side of Kidwell that he didn't often display. Many of the apparent hazards at Table Rock aren't really problems at all. Many of them are out of play for any golfer not named after a large cat, but the average golfer can -- and will -- be fooled. Time after time, Kidwell plopped down a hazard where the average golfer can't reach it, but just the sight of water in the distance will send the Joe Average scurrying into the woods to find his ball after a bad tee shot.

The deception starts before your round even starts. From the front, the clubhouse looks more like a small log cabin for a weekend fishing trip than a proper place for a pro shop. It looks small and inadequate for such a big golf course.

But inside, the pro shop is larger than it appeared. It leads down to a room where Table Rock offers thousand of new and used golf clubs for sale, including more than 1,000 putters. The walls glitter with silver whenever light shines in the windows, and there are so many bags of clubs jammed into the middle of the room that the place looks more like a showroom in a tire dealership than your typical pro shop.

Once out the door, the air of illusion intensifies. From the back, the pro shop is huge, a multi-storied building that seemingly appears out of nowhere.

The illusions continue on the course. Time after time, Kidwell shows a fake hand to you as he deals out the cards, and if you pay attention to Kidwell's sleight of hand, he'll win the pot on every hole.

Kidwell pulls his first trick from his sleeve on the second hole, a short par-three through trees to a small green. The hole looks simple enough - 126 yards from the white tees -- but a line of trees behind the green fools you into thinking you could miss the shot long without penalty.

Wrong. The green is actually elevated, and the first time you see the steep drop-off behind the green is when you walk to the edge and stare down at your ball, which will be buried in the deep rough ten feet below your feet.

The third hole starts from a deceptive tee just to the right of the second green. (Too close, in fact, for safety's sake.) The tees are wedged into a box of trees that block the wind, and you can't get a good feel for either the strength or direction of the wind from the teebox. The hole also looks tight from the tee, but once your ball has traveled 100 yards or so, the fairway is actually quite wide and accepting.

The fourth hole is a 348-yard par four that doglegs to the right around a large pond, but once again it's much ado about nothing. If you forget about the water, it's simply not in play. The same is true of the out-of-bounds line hugging the left side of this hole. The hole turns so sharply and generously from left to right that the o-b stakes only come into play if you stare at them and lock them in your brain.

The illusions continue throughout the course. The fifth is a par-three that looks shorter than it is because of a large pond between the tee and green. The eighth hole is a simple, 365-yard par four made difficult because the tee box again blocks the wind until your tee shot is soaring over the fairway -- and suddenly gets knocked to the left behind a large strand of trees.

On the ninth hole, a 374-yard par four that doglegs sharply left, a water hazard to the right of the fairway makes you bail out to the left. Massive trees then block any approach to the green, even from the fairway. But when you finally walk past the pond, you realize it was just another trick. The water is 300 yards from the blue tees, and most golfers couldn't reach it with a jetpack, a fairway as hard as calculus, and several buddies kicking the ball forward every time it stopped rolling.

On the 10th, a bridge in the middle of the fairway announces a similar water hazard. Again, it'll take more than a 300-yard blast to reach it. On the 13th, trees again shelter your tee shot from the effects of the wind.

The 14th hole is littered with water, much of it blind from the tee and fairway. Of course, this is a good thing on your approach because the water surrounds all but the left side of the green, which is protected by trees and out-of-bounds stakes beside a cornfield. The sight of that much water might cause more trouble than the illusion of dryness, so Kidwell did you a favor hiding the agua on this hole.

The 467-yard par five 17th repeats the water hazard scenario. The pond cutting into the fairway looks like a problem from the tee, but it's actually 300 yards away. Again, you need to ignore the hazard and just hit your normal shot.

But just when you've caught on and are finally ready to ignore the next hazard you see, reality strikes on the 18th hole. It's a 419-yard par four that plays over a large pond and then uphill to an elevated green. "Big deal," you say to yourself. "The water can't possibly be as long as it looks."

Plunk. Plunk.

Oh. It was.

You have to blast your drive more than 200 yards to reach the fairway. The carry is less formidable if you aim to the right, but you're playing away from the hole when you shoot that direction. If you play too conservatively from the tee, you'll have a 250-yard approach shot to an extremely elevated green, and you'll have to hit a fade around tall trees to get there.

The hole plays a lot shorter if you try to drive the lake straight-away or even to the left, but the farther left you go, the more airmail postage your ball needs to stay dry.

It's a cruel trick in retrospect. It's the equivalent of someone offering you a cookie, then pulling it away and spitefully saying, "Psyche!" Kidwell plays with your mind all day long, playing trick after visual trick until you're sure you can see his sleight of hand. Then he smacks you with all the subtlety of a mallet between the eyes, and if you don't recover quickly, you'll finish the round with a double- or triple-bogey.

Kidwell's design particularly excels on the back nine. The front half of the course is functional but a tad predictable, but the back nine was carved through tall trees that tower over and pinch the fairways. There's no room to miss the fairway without being in the trees on any hole except for the 14th, and that's because there's so much water. And even that water is hiding behind more trees.

The back nine weaves through the woods in a way that's reminiscent of the back nine at Oakhaven or several of the holes at the Players Club at Foxfire, and the average golfer might come away from the experience with a dread of tree trunks, gnarly branches and squirrels.

But unlike Oakhaven, you never feel like you're in danger of being plunked by a wayward ball from a nearby hole. The trees are so large and the holes are so well-routed that you feel perfectly safe -- except, of course, when you're trying a recovery shot through trees and risk drilling yourself in the noggin with a hot ricochet.

Table Rock will play on your mind for a while after you've finished your round. You'll feel like a rube for falling for Kidwell's tricks. You'll feel like a fool for expecting another illusion on the 18th. And you'll wonder whether Centerburg's claim of being the center of Ohio is yet another hoax.

For the record, it's not a trick. Centerburg is indeed the heart of the heart of it all. Well, sort of . . .

Ohio isn't really the "Heart of It All." Geographically, that would probably be somewhere in a cornfield in Iowa. Maybe the good folks in Ohio realized that, too, because the state's new slogan is, "Ohio: So Much to Discover."

Hopefully, nobody will be distracted by this sudden switch. After playing Table Rock, you'll need to focus all of your attention on learning to trust your senses again.

Carl W. Grody, Contributor

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