ASHVILLE, Ohio - Deep down inside, every golfer thinks he could be a professional if he just had more time to practice.
He could be the one in the final pairing with Tiger; the one to hoist huge checks and even larger trophies on Sunday evening; the one trying to figure out where to put another sponsor's logo on his clothes.
Well, it's time to put up or shut up. At Cooks Creek, you get the chance to play like the pros.
The Cook in the title is John Cook, winner of 10 PGA tournaments. He's a native of Ohio and went to The Ohio State University, so teaming with Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry to build a tour-quality course in mid-Ohio made perfect sense.
What didn't make sense - at least to Hurdzan - was building the course on the Cook's family farm. Cook's father and grandfather both farmed this area next to the Scioto River, and the land was just a cornfield and a flood plain. Hurdzan tried to talk them out of the project, but the Cooks were determined to make it work.
So Hurdzan sighed heavily, rolled up his sleeves and moved 800,000 cubic yards of dirt. He created 72 acres of wetlands to serve as habitat for birds like kestrels, barn owls, and blue herons while also building the holes in the flood plain.
The result was a wicked layout that plays 7,071 yards from the back tees - which on this course are called the Cooks tees. Those are where John and his professional buddies play from, and it's your chance to see how you'd measure up against the challenge they face every week.
And it's quite a challenge. Cooks Creeks received four stars from Golf Digest, which also rated it as the runner-up in its 1995 "Best New Public Course" contest. Golf Digest also rated Cooks Creek as the seventh "Best Public Course" in Ohio.
With a rating of 73.7 and a slope of 131 from the Cooks tees, Cooks Creek plays as even more of a challenge than paying for your round -- $48 on a weekday, $60 on the weekend. That money doesn't go to waste - there seem to be more maintenance people on the course than golfers - but it's a stiff price to pay to have a lousy time.
If you're a beginner, play somewhere else. But if you're a veteran of public golf, you're probably ready for something new.
Of course, you might quickly change your mind. The first tee, located at least a quarter-of-a-mile from the pro shop, is at the top of a hill so high that you could putt the ball off the edge and it would roll 100 yards just from the gravity.
You'll have one of two reactions when you look out from the first tee: either "I'm in Heaven," or "Please, God, I'm sorry, I'll never do it again." Either way, the view on this par five fits the name of the hole - "Vista."
By the way, there are two ways to tell you're at an upscale course - the holes have been named, and the names are carved into granite slates on each tee. Cooks Creek qualifies on both accounts. But why aren't the holes given names more befitting your reaction to them - things like "Embarrassment," "Humiliation" or "You Stupid -"?
But I digress.
On the first hole, a 552-yard par five from the Cooks, you're driving through trees to a fairway surrounded by water. There are two huge bunkers in the landing area, and four more lurk farther down the hole.
If you're able to control your nerves and somehow find the fairway, your lay-up is just as challenging. Miss to either side of the fairway, and your ball is wet. Large mounds also frame the fairways, a favorite design feature of Hurdzan.
The next hole, a 366-yard par four, is even more intimidating from the Cooks tees. Your drive is over water to a fairway angled diagonally to your right. There's no good place to miss here, either; there's the reed-filled water on the right, and to the left there are trees and the Scioto River.
Your approach is even more vicious. There's no place to miss the green and be safe. Right of the green is a deep bunker that at least keeps your ball from going in the water. A slip-up here, and you're looking at double-bogey.
By now, you're ready to give up your professional golf hopes. All you're trying to do is survive the round. It's time to move back to your normal tees before you do severe damage to your psyche.
There are six tee choices, and most average golfers play from the middle tees. They play almost 900 yards shorter than the Cooks, and the rating is more than five strokes lower - 68.5.
If you're worried that your buddies will razz you for moving down in difficulty, start a conversation about the nearby blue heron rookery, then sneak to the middle tee and hit before they notice that your professional dreams have evaporated.
And don't worry - their dreams are lying somewhere in the bottom of that last pond, too.
The third, fourth and fifth holes are more of the same - trees left, water right, tight greens protected better than the President at a rock concert. By the time you're through that stretch, you'll either be thinking about taking up another hobby - knitting never made you want to rip your heart out and offer it up to a tricky pin placement - or you'll find some sort of comfort zone.
Let's hope for the latter. You'll need it at "Defiance," the par-three sixth hole. The green is surrounded by water, and most of the 183 yards from the middle tees is also over the pond. From the Cooks tees, this hole stretches out to 219 yards (and why are you still playing those tees, anyway? Didn't you learn your lesson when you went through two sleeves of balls on the first five holes?).
Next up is the par-five seventh, named "Tightrope." Any guesses why? That's right, water in front of the tee as well as to the left and right of the fairway. The hole plays 452 from the middle tees, but it's all uphill, and your second shot has to cut through trees flanking the fairway.
The good news is that once you've hit your second shot, the water is out of play for several holes. But the seventh green sits in a bowl of mounds large enough to hide an elephant. The mounding here is reminiscent of the PGA's Players Clubs, where the large mounds are designed for fans to watch the action. You'll notice more of that as you continue through the course; it's as if the course was designed with a future tour event in mind.
The eighth hole is a 151-yard par three called "Charlatan," but the only magic there comes from the disappearance of any ball pulled left or long. And the ninth hole is a brutal par four that doglegs to the right, plays uphill and features a green about the size of your shoe.
The 10th hole is another beauty, a downhill par-five that plays 495 from the middle tees. This is the "Creek" hole, even though the scorecard doesn't actually show you the creek. That can lead you astray if you trust the scorecard when deciding how to play the hole.
For the record, the creek winds its way along the left side of the fairway, then cuts in front of the elevated green. You'll need to make good contact on your approach to make sure you carry the creek. Don't worry if you go over the green; there's an ample chipping area cut at fairway height to help you save your par.
The 11th hole is hard to find. You have to climb a steep and winding hill from the 10th green, and the first tee you encounter is actually for the par-three 15th. Keep moving along the cartpath, and you'll find the tricky but playable 11th.
Big hitters will be tempted to drive the green because it's only 289 yards from the middle tees. But anyone that could hit a tee shot 290 yards shouldn't be playing the middle tees, anyway, so forget that. Knock a lesser club to the middle of the fairway, then make sure you hit this sloping, crowned green in two for a chance to make par.
The 12th is the second-hardest hole on the course, a 415-yard par-four from the middle tees. The difficulty on this hole comes from the length - it stretches to 461 from the Cooks tees - and the long, thin green that's protected with water on the left and more trees and mounds everywhere else. (You didn't think the water was gone for good, did you?)
That's followed by the "easiest" hole on the course, the par-three 13th. It plays anywhere from 66 to 123 yards, but the hole is treacherous. The tee and green are both elevated. The land falls off in front of the green and to the right in much the same way a mudslide clears a path down a hillside. If you miss the green in that ravine, you'll have to hit a full 64-degree wedge just to land the ball on the green 10 yards in front of you.
There's a small bailout area in front of the left side of the green, but it's a small swatch of fairway that wouldn't be big enough to make a quilt for each member of your foursome.
After the par-four 14th, which is 351 yards from the middle tees but plays more like 400 because it's into the wind, you get to the most intimidating hole on the course. That's the par-three 15th, which plays 223 yards from the Cooks tees to a green snugly surrounded by water.
Heck, just finding your tee is an adventure at 15. There are several tees located on the side of a hill, and they're spaced so far apart that you need a ski lift to take you from one to the other. Take the wrong turn off the cart path, and you could find yourself 50 yards from the proper tee.
Once you find your tee, you have to gather yourself for the mental challenge ahead. The water cuts in front of the green, wraps around the right side and blossoms into a full-fledged pain in the tushy behind the putting surface. There's no room to go left, either, because a large tree sits beside the front of the green.
Further complicating your shot selection is that the hole is downhill and downwind. Your ball will carry as much as 20 extra yards, so take two less clubs, have faith in your swing and try not to worry about your ball swimming with the fishes.
The 16th hole is wide-open, inviting and long - 621 yards from the Cooks tees and 563 from the backs. From the middle tees, it's just 481, but the tee is exposed to the wind. Unless you're a really big hitter, make this a three-shot hole.
It's even harder to find the 17th hole than it was to find the proper tee at 15. You actually cut across a road, past the parking lot and back down the path you took when you went looking for the first hole.
When you finally find the tee, there's a moment of confusion about which direction you're supposed to tee off. The actual fairway runs parallel to the nearby highway, but to the right are reed-filled water and the 18th fairway. Since you've played over so much water already, it's a natural assumption that you're supposed to do it again.
The course layout in this section is one of the few design weaknesses at Cooks Creek. You pass the 17th tee and 18th green on your way to the first hole, and it would make more sense to make them the first two holes on the course.
Number one would then be the third, and the 16th - with its endless stadium mounds and dramatic eagle possibilities - would be the final hole. This would make even more sense if Cooks Creek ever does host a tour event.
The 17th is a medium-length par four with water in front of the tee and to the right of the fairway. There's also water to the right of and behind the green, but a large bailout area to the left has been cut at fairway height. There's no reason to miss to the right unless you hit a bad shot or you're just too stubborn to play to the safe side.
Cook and company may have picked the next hole to be the final one because it certainly leaves an impression. It's the longest par four on the course, playing 474 yards from the middle tees and 488 from the Cooks tees.
To make it even harder, there's water on both sides of the fairway, and the hole plays uphill. This is a par five on almost every other course, including several U.S. Open venues, but here it's just the longest par four you'll ever have to play.
The best approach is to just ignore the scorecard. It looks like a par five, it plays like a par five, it tastes - well, never mind that. I'm not so dedicated as to taste the turf for you. But it fits the other characteristics of a par five, so treat it that way. Hit the fairway, lay up and then knock a wedge to the green.
This green sits in a huge bowl, too, with mounds as high as many trees you'll see on another course. It's a deep green, 36 yards long, but there's not much room to miss the green without finishing either on the side of a hill or in a bunker. Heck, you could do both at once; the back bunker sits halfway up the mound, 10 to 15 feet above the green.
As you leave the 18th, you might feel ripped off because you spent $60 for an afternoon of golf that rivaled a root canal without Novocain. More likely, though, you'll see the afternoon as a positive experience. You'll marvel at your ability to make it around such a tough track without tossing your clubs in one of the many water hazards.
You might not have played the Cooks tees - well, at least not for more than a few holes - but for that one brilliant shot every golfer hits in a round, you felt like a touring pro.
That moment of glory will be enough to feed your pro golf delusions for at least another year. "If only I had more time to practice," you'll say to your buddies as you stroll to the parking lot, "I could hit every ball like that tee shot at 16. Did you see the way it flew past that bunker? I'll tell you, boys, I could teach that Tiger a thing or two."
Keep that dream alive, buddy. It's what makes the game fun.
16405 U.S. Rt. 23
Ashville, OH 43103