GALLOWAY, Ohio - Playing at Bolton Field Golf Course in 2000 is like showing up for a birthday party an hour early.
You know the scene. The place is typically a mess. The cake is still being frosted. People are running around half-dressed. Folding tables and chairs are still leaning against the wall.
That's the way it feels at Bolton. The course turns 30 years old in 2001, and it's undergoing a major renovation this fall. By spring, the course will have a new clubhouse and a new cart barn. But for now, the pro shop is in a trailer, the 19th hole is in a perpendicular trailer and the cart barn is a fenced-in corral.
The original clubhouse burned down in August 1999, and it's a coincidence that the new one will be ready for Bolton's big 3-0. But the symbolism is too much to ignore. This is a fresh start for one of Columbus' more popular courses.
In the pantheon of courses run by the City of Columbus - OK, seven courses don't exactly equal a pantheon, but let's not quibble - anyway, Bolton is sometimes overlooked. It sits on the southwestern section of town, across the road from Bolton Airport, and sister courses Champions and Raymond Memorial draw more attention.
And why not? Legendary architect Robert Trent Jones designed both Raymond and Champions, and his big name would attract attention if he'd designed a parking lot.
Bolton, on the other hand, was designed by the ubiquitous Jack Kidwell. If you've never heard of Kidwell, it's only because you've never played golf in central Ohio. Kidwell made quite a career of designing Ohio courses, including the highly regarded Players Club at Foxfire and Indian Springs. He also was the guru to course architects like Michael Hurdzan and Barry Serafin.
Kidwell influenced central Ohio golf so much that there's a memorial garden in his honor by the 10th tee at Bolton. The area is small, but there are several benches on which to sit and a stone plaque with Kidwell's face carved on it. It's a modest but touching tribute to the man who might be called the father of Ohio golf course architecture.
Kidwell could be proud of his progeny at Bolton. The course is unremarkable at first glance, just 18 holes jammed into a square of land surrounded by roads. But if you look more closely, you'll see that Bolton is superior to many city courses in several ways. For example, the maintenance is top-notch. The fairways are manicured, the rough is well-defined, and the greens are hard and fairly quick.
The best part might be the cost. Like most city courses, Bolton is modestly priced -- $17 on the weekend, $13.50 on weekdays. The place is crowded by golfers, but the pace of play is good - at least, after the third hole. Traffic backs up after the first hole because Kidwell jammed back-to-back par fives on holes two and three.
The 510-yard second is an uphill hole that curves from left to right. Trees frame the fairway on both sides, and everything but your best drive will leave you having to lay up on your second shot. That's all right, though, because the closer you get to the green, the tighter your landing area gets. The green itself is protected by bunkers on both sides and by trees to the right.
Even more distracting is the third tee, which is located about 15 yards behind the green. The golfers waiting to tee off there are clearly in view, and if you catch your approach to the second green shot flush, you just might drill somebody in the head.
The third hole, which is 540 yards from the whites, plays so far downhill from the tees that you might have a flash of vertigo in your backswing. A pond sits to the right, ready to accept any weak slice that you offer to it. A steady wall of trees is down the left side, behind which is out-of-bounds.
If you can clear the lake, there's a bailout area to the right, but stay as close to the fairway as you can get. This hole plays straight and narrow, and the closer you can be to the center, the better.
The second shot on this hole causes most of the backup. After your tee shot lands in the valley, the hole immediately climbs back to the level of the tee box.
That means your second shot is totally blind up the hill, and you're never quite sure when the group ahead is clear. Again, you have the opportunity to flush a shot off somebody's noggin, so most golfers wait longer than necessary before hitting their lay-up.
And you will be laying up. There isn't much room to miss the fairway anywhere along the length of this monster, and trying to hit the green in two is such a fool's errand that nothing good could come of it, anyway.
These two holes highlight Bolton's best defenses: length and slope. Bolton plays 7,034 yards from the blue tees with a rating of 71.9 and a slope of 118. From the whites, it's still a healthy 6,611 yards with a rating of 70 and a slope of 112. Heck, even the golds play 6,251 yards.
The distance isn't all jammed into the par fives, either. Three of the four par fours play more than 200 yards from the blues, and the shortest hole on the front nine is 191 yards from the whites.
Many of the greens are elevated, and there are three lakes that come into play on a total of six holes - five on them on the front nine. There are plenty of trees framing the holes, too, but the trees do little to block the wind, which is a constant force that has to be considered on every shot.
The signature hole has to be the sixth, which looks on the scorecard like a simple par four. It's 430 yards from the blues, 400 from the whites, and you're driving the ball back toward the near-cliff you had to climb on number three. If you take a driver and really whack the ball, you could clear the hill, but you'll probably have a downhill lie on your second shot.
It's a majestic second shot, especially from atop the hill. Your approach has to carry over a valley of fairway and two ponds pinching the neck of the green. That green is built into the side of the next hill, so it slopes severely from back to front. Any putt from above the hole will seem like you're trying to stop the ball on a concrete cart path. But you can't be too cute trying to land your approach short of the pin.
If you mis-hit a shot aimed at the front of the green, the water lurks. Since your approach is significantly downhill, you'll expect to get extra yardage, but the angle of the green is deceiving. Your ball actually doesn't carry like you think it will, again bringing the water into play. This is the number-one handicap hole on the course, and it deserves the distinction.
The back nine isn't as scintillating as the front, but the holes are just as difficult, mainly because there's less room.
Number 10 begins a stretch of road holes that will test your ability to block out distractions. Now, the most famous Road Hole in golf is the 17th at St. Andrews, where the road is in play and you're expected to play from the pavement if that's where your ball finishes. You can't do that at Bolton. If you try to play from the road here, you'll be part of the grillwork of a speeding Buick before you can even guess your yardage to the flag.
The 10th is a 402-yard par four (from the whites) with Alkire Road running all along the left side. There are two fairway bunkers if you bail out to the right, and the green is tucked as close to the road as it could be without having to register a separate address with the postal service. The green is tricky, too.
The front slopes back into the fairway, and any pin positioned there is brutal. Even tougher, though, would be a pin in the back left. This part of the putting surface is squeezed by the road on the left, trees behind the green and trees to the right.
The 11th tee is located at the intersection of Alkire and Norton. As the traffic lights change over your shoulder, you're trying to hit a thin fairway that doglegs left. There's a large hump that hides the fairway beyond the corner, and trees line both sides of your target like Tiger's gallery on a Sunday afternoon.
Even if you hit the fairway, your second shot will probably be a lay-up. The hole plays 522 yards from the white tees, and the crosswind takes a lot of juice out of your approach. You're also hitting to a small, elevated green. The putting surface is exposed to so much wind that it's the fastest one on the course.
The 12th hole is a 161-yard par three. The road is far enough to the left that you don't have to worry about hitting it, but there's a fence tucked all along the left side of the hole. Clear it, and your ball is lost in a grassy wasteland that you're better off ignoring.
The 13th hole is the final par five. It's the shortest at 526 yards from the blue tees and 490 from the white, but it's also one of the most difficult. Bausch Road is so close that any shot that's pulled to the left - even slightly - risks hitting a tree or a passing car. If you fade the ball, you're forced to flirt with those trees on your tee shot. If you draw the ball, you can aim right, but a duck hook will leave you bouncing on the pavement.
Even if you hit the fairway, the hole is still tough. It's tight all the way, and the green is well-protected by trees, the road, and a bunker. This is another par five where you'll probably have to lay up. It's not worth the risk to try to force a three-wood to the green in two, especially if you're into the wind.
The course tames a bit after that. Four of the last five holes are par fours under 400 yards, and the lone par-three - the 177-yard 16th - is similar to the fifth hole. The direction is identical, and both greens are big enough to handle any shot you want to try. The hole even looks like the fifth.
The 18th hole is another short par four, 370 from the blues and 350 from the whites, but it leaves you feeling good about the course. There's a lake to the left if you pop up your tee shot or hook a low screamer, but there's plenty of room to land your tee shot on the right.
The fairway turns slightly to the left, and the green is elevated. There are bunkers on each side of the green, but if you're in the fairway, the approach is fairly easy.
The party that is Bolton Field Golf Course is just getting started. If you insist on coming to the party early, ignore the pounding, the temporary fences, and the congestion around the first tee. Once you get away from that confusion, you'll have a great time.
Just remember that anybody who shows up early to a birthday party has to put up with the host scrambling to get the place ready for the rest of the crowd.
Bolton Field Golf Course
6005 Alkire Road
Galloway, OH 43119