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Cumberland Trail Golf Club in Pataskala: A true challenge in central Ohio

By Carl W. Grody, Contributor

PATASKALA, Ohio -- Golf architects often get carried away when asked to build an upscale course.

Cumberland Trail Golf Club - 13th
Cumberland Trail Golf Club might be the fairest upscale public course in central Ohio.
Cumberland Trail Golf Club - 13thCumberland Trail G.C. - clubhouse

The big budget that goes with such projects offers the chance to include all sorts of bells and whistles. Ever dream of designing a 650-yard par five? How about a par three with a ring of bunkers in the middle of the putting green? Or a green as steep as a ski slope and grass cut so close that the Stimpmeter approaches Tiger's point total in the World Rankings?

Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry ignored those temptations when designing Cumberland Trail Golf Club, located about 20 miles east of downtown Columbus. Don't get the wrong idea; Cumberland Trail can be difficult, but that's not because Hurdzan and Fry tricked up the place.

Cumberland Trail opened in 1999 and sometimes gets overshadowed in central Ohio by other big-budget, heavily publicized courses like Longaberger Golf Club, Cooks Creek and Westchester Golf Club. But Cumberland Trail is a well-designed course that can hold its own with the others; in fact, for entertaining every level of golfer, Cumberland Trail might be the best of the bunch.

Cumberland Trail doesn't come cheap, but it offers five tees that give each type of golfer the chance to enjoy his round. The course can play anywhere from 7,205 yards from the black tees (rating 73.9, slope of 130) to 4,925 from the green tees.

If those extremes don't appeal to you, try the golds from 6,738 yards (rating of 72.2, slope of 125) or the whites (68.8, 118). If you stay true to your handicap and don't bite off too much of this course, Cumberland Trail will be a nice experience.

Hurdzan and Fry included plenty of those bells and whistles mentioned earlier, but you can play around them with good course management. The real trick to scoring well on this course is being good with the putter.

Cumberland Trail Head Professional Lonnie McGowan positively beams when he talks about the greens.

"You'd better stop at the putting green before you go out," he says with a wink. "We've got faster greens than Longaberger." [EDITOR'S NOTE: Longaberger G.C. is now known as Virtues Golf Club.]

Longaberger tries to keep its greens at 9.5, but McGowan revels in the fact that his greens average 11.5. And the greens are huge, which makes recovery shots possible but also makes three-putts common.

The size of the greens can be deceiving, though. Each slopes in several directions, effectively creating several smaller greens on each hole. The pin positions and slope of the greens are well-displayed on the yardage book attached to your cart, and you'll have to pay attention to those factors to knock your approaches stiff.

Nowhere is course management more important than on the par-five 12th. It plays 553 yards from the black tees and 494 from the white, but blasting a driver isn't the best option.

The fairway is open from the tee, but there's little room to miss on either side. To the left are trees, mounds and out-of-bounds. To the right is a pond that's in play for the first 150 yards (from the white tees), and the 13th hole is to the right of that.

If you slice a shot but manage to clear the water, trees cut off your second shot to the hole, and you have to carve a fade through a tight throat of trees guarding the fairway about 230 yards from the green.

But more problematical is the water hazard that cuts across the fairway near those trees. Unless you're able to carry the ball 330 yards, you can't clear that water from the white tees, so you have to lay back with a three-wood.

From the black tees, that hazard isn't much of a factor. You'd have to drive the ball 300 yards just to reach it. But a slice with the big stick really brings the trees into play on your second shot, so it's better to lay back with a three-wood, too.

The second shot is uphill, but it plays shorter than it looks. In fact, my seven-wood from 250 yards stopped in the rough just 30 yards from the green. That's because the fairways at Cumberland Trails are cut tighter than most greens. Once the ball hits those fairways, it rolls like Jack breaking his crown as Jill comes tumbling after.

There are other places where you're tempted to plumb-bob the fairway. For example, Cumberland Trail Golf Club's 16th hole is a modest par five that plays just 438 yards from the whites (525 from the blacks). The hole is straight-away and uphill, but the fairway slopes sharply from the left to the right. It funnels hot tee shots toward a water hazard lurking on the right side for the entire length of the hole.

There's an out-of-bounds line to the left, but you need to aim your tee shot at the large mounds left of the fairway and hit it straight or with a slight fade. Then, while you watch helplessly from the tee, all you can do is pray that you read the "break" of the fairway correctly.

Your second shot will seem ridiculously short for a par five, but there's method behind the madness. A 250-yard drive from the white tees will leave you with a mid- to long-iron in your hands, and the green looks large on the yardage book - 33 yards deep and 31 yards wide. But your actual target is significantly smaller; there are five different areas for pin placements, and all of them slope off the green into chipping areas.

The most extreme drop-off is with a right-hand pin placement. The green feeds to a slope that drops close to the water, and you're left with a pitch up a hill that would dwarf Shaquille O'Neal.

This might be the most interesting shot at Cumberland Trail Golf Club. The grass is cut fairway-tight, and you can play almost any kind of shot. You could putt the ball, for example, but gauging the speed would be almost impossible; hit it too soft, and the ball will return to your feet like a round boomerang. But if you hit it too hard, the ball will careen off the other side of the green, and you'll have to figure out how to get the ball close to the pin without knocking back down that slope again.

Another option is to pitch a seven-iron into the hill, hoping the slope would take off the speed and allow the ball to trickle to the pin. Or you could hit a more-lofted club into the face of the hill near the top, hoping for the same result. Or you could hit a high flop shot.

Then again, unless you've practiced the flop shot a lot, forget this option. The temptation to peek while swinging is about the same as the temptation to watch a pretty girl while your wife's around; you know you're not supposed to do it, but you just can't help yourself. Some people blame libido; some blame foolish human pride; some blame stupidity.

Whatever the reason, if you try to hit the flop shot from this tight of a lie, you're likely to scull the ball and kill a member of your foursome. There's a reason that professional golfers scream and run whenever an amateur pulls out a lob wedge at a pro-am.

Cumberland Trail Golf Club's first really tough hole is the par-three sixth, and the difficulty will be all self-induced. The green on this hole is huge and sloped from back to front, but water surrounds the green like a watery hug.

There's a thin sliver of fairway to the left-front portion of the green, but you're better off trying to block out the water and hitting to the center of the green.

The trickiest hole at Cumberland Trail is the seventh, which plays as the third-hardest hole on the course. It's just 378 yards from the white tees, but there's trouble everywhere you look. To the right are trees, grassy mounds and out-of-bounds.

Along the left side is a line of trees. And cutting across the fairway is a creek that angles toward you from the right; the farther left your tee shot goes, the more you have to worry about the water.

Even if you hit the ball straight at the 150-yard stake in the center of the fairway, you could be in trouble. The fairway dips just past that stake, and the speed of the fairway allows your ball to bounce perilously close to the creek.

The fairway also thins until it looks like a tongue hanging out of someone's mouth (probably from somebody hyperventilating after pulling his tee shot left). To be sure to stay dry, you have to lay back of the 150-yard marker. Hit an iron from the tee and accept a second shot in the 160-yard range.

Number eight is rated as the hardest hole on the course, but it doesn't have to play that way. From the black tees, it's a monster at 458 yards, and reaching the green in two requires a driver and a long iron. But from the white tees, the hole plays just 404 yards.

There are three bunkers to avoid on your tee shot, one of which actually sits in the fairway, but there's plenty of room to land your ball in the short grass either in front of or behind those bunkers.

The approach is tricky, though, for several reasons. First of all, the shot plays uphill. Secondly, there's water to the right of the green. Third, the green crowns in the middle, and you again have to land your approach on the proper part of the green to have a chance to make birdie. But as on most of these holes, par is a good score, and you'll be satisfied with your four.

The ninth hole is interesting because of what you can do before you play it - namely, order lunch. There's a phone to the grill room along with a menu; call in an order before teeing off, and your food will be waiting when you finish the hole.

The front nine is mostly open and exposed to the wind. It's not a true links style, but it feels like it. The back nine is a different kind of course. It cuts through the woods and winds around environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands and wildlife habitat areas - which means there are a lot of places to lose your ball, but few places where you're allowed to look for it.

The oddest hole on the course is the par-four 13th. The fairway is tight and hemmed in by water on the right and an elementary school on the left. A large screen runs along the entire left side of the hole to protect the children, and there's a lot of noise when the kids are at recess. But if you have kids, that's no big deal.

At some point, you've probably practiced putting in your basement while the kids took out the wall of the family room with a pickax; if you could block that out, what's a few kids running around a playground?

If you don't have kids, you'll have to figure out some way to ignore the distraction, especially on your second shot. The fairway narrows significantly after the 150-yard marker, and the green is tucked behind water. This is another hole where you aim for the middle of the green and hope you'll have a reasonable putt -- or any putt at all.

As with most Hurdzan golf courses, you can score well if you keep the ball in the fairways, which means you'll be using a lot of three-woods at Cumberland Trail. But at the 15th hole, big hitters finally get a chance to let one loose, especially from the white tees.

You can drive this 277-yard par four, especially if you hit a controlled draw. A duck hook will careen into the trees left of the hole, but players with a power fade have a large bailout area to the right of the green. If you're going to miss, you have to miss this hole to the right.

From the gold tees, you really have to crush the ball to reach the green -- it's 319 yards away. And from the blacks, which play 348 yards, you'll have to lay up with a three-wood, bringing the bunkers on either side of the fairway into play.

When you finally walk off the 18th green, you'll be satisfied with your experience. Good course management will help you post a good score, and the course is kept in excellent shape.

Cumberland Trail Golf Club might be the fairest upscale public course in central Ohio, and you'll enjoy your round no matter how badly you play.

Carl W. Grody, Contributor

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