MT. STERLING, Ohio - The closer you get to Deer Creek State Park Golf Course, the less you expect to find when you get there. That just makes the experience of playing Deer Creek that much better.
Deer Creek is located in the heart of Ohio's farm country. In fact, the area is so rural that on your way, you'll likely pass Bubba's Convenience Store, Bambi's Farm Market, and Fred's Feed Store. Everywhere you look, there are country roads and farm fields, and it's easy to get lost because there aren't nearly enough signs to the park.
When you finally find the park, you'll find many things you don't normally associate with a good golf course - 232 campsites and the firing range come to mind - but you'll also find a 110-room lodge overlooking the lake, a marina, and seven miles of horse-riding trails (but you have to bring your own horse). The golf course was built in 1982 by Jack Kidwell, who designed many of the courses in central Ohio.
The area is beautiful even if you don't like farm fields. The park, which opened in 1974, contains second-growth woods and wildflowers galore. There's plenty of wildlife and even a few prairies. But golfers mostly care about one thing - the course - and Deer Creek holds up well in that respect, too.
The staff is among the friendliest you'll ever meet. The woman in the pro shop laces her sentences with "honey" and "sweetie" the same way Bobby Knight drops profanities on reporters, and everyone seems to smile when they see you.
Before you tee off, you'll be able to practice each area of your game. Deer Creek has a driving range, a practice bunker with a very steep lip, and a putting green. The best part about the putting green is that it may be one of the only ones you'll see at a public course that doesn't prohibit chipping. Of course, it's probably the only you'll ever see with a plastic deer in the middle, too, but you can overlook that.
What you see from the first tee is pretty much what you're going to get at Deer Creek. The first hole is 410 yards from the white tees with a soft dogleg to the right. There are bunkers on either side of the dogleg, but they're far enough away from the fairway that you can miss a shot a few yards to either side and still avoid the sand.
If you can ignore the first-tee butterflies - and more importantly, the first-tee bees feeding off the flowers beside the tee box - it's a fairly simply first shot.
If you're looking for a lot of variety in course design, Deer Creek will disappoint you. Each of the par fours is a dogleg either left or right, and there are bunkers at the corners of each dogleg. The course does feature water hazards, but they're almost always blind; often, they're behind the greens, and you don't know about them until it's too late.
Because of the water lurking behind several of the holes and the fact that the greens mostly slope from back to front, you'll want to hit your approaches below the hole whenever possible.
Deer Creek is also a fader's golf course. Only four holes turn to the left. Everything else is either straight, fades softly, or actually makes a dogleg turn to the right. Deer Creek fits the fade so well that you can imagine Jack Nicklaus doing well here (of course, Nicklaus would do well on any public course, but you get the idea).
If you're a big hitter, Deer Creek will suit your game. It plays 7,116 yards from the blue tees with a rating of 73.7. From the whites, it's no picnic, either: 6,663 yards with a rating of 71.2. But most of the challenge comes from the distance.
The fairways are well-kept, especially for a course that charges less than $25 on a weekend, and the greens putt nicely. You'll come across an occasional four-foot divot left by raccoons and skunks digging for food in the fairways, but besides that, the course is green and lush.
There's a fair amount of room on either side of the fairways to play from, but if your shot strays too far, you'll be in the prairie grasses that define the holes.
If you're lucky enough to find your ball in those weeds, the best you can do is hack out and live to play another shot. Try something heroic, and the grass is strong enough to turn your clubface, hooking your next shot hopelessly farther into the weeds and flowers.
Another factor that favors the big hitter is that most of the trees on the course are young trees. They're only big enough to bother you if you're right next to them, so they don't pose a threat to your shots. A few years from now, when the trees grow to a fearsome height, this will be a different golf course, where the accurate driver will be rewarded. For now, it's like a driving range for the big boppers.
And being able to bop the ball will help on the par fives. Unlike many public courses, Deer Creek features four legitimate par fives. From the blues, they play 508, 575, 549, and 567 yards. From the whites, the seventh hole plays a relatively easy 473 yards, but after that it's 554, 531 and 521 yards. Even the longest hitters would be challenged to hit these greens in two.
The wind also plays a factor at Deer Creek. The first two holes play considerably longer than the card says - 410 and 396 yards from the white tees - because of that wind, and there's a definite smell of fish from the lake while you're waiting to play. But most of the day, you play with a crosswind; only on the 18th hole does the wind give you a real boost.
And because so many of the trees on the course still need to mature, your ball is exposed to the wind on almost every shot.
The par threes may be the most impressive part of the course. The third hole is a 154 yard tee shot to a two-tiered green protected by bunkers short left and right. If you come up short, you have to pitch uphill between the bunkers; go too long, and you're left with a downhill putt, especially if the pin is on the lower tier. And as is the case on most of the holes on this course, you're dead if you fly over the green.
The par three eighth hole should be a simple 161 yard shot, but there's trouble everywhere you look. The high grass will catch any shot mishit to either side. There's a bunker to the right of the green and a pond behind. If you can block all of the trouble spots out of your mind, it's not a hard shot, but you have to be mentally strong to make a good swing.
The par-three 11th is also an intimidating shot. It's only 166 yards from the white tees, but the green is tucked behind two bunkers. There's a pond short and left, and if you carry the ball too far, you're stuck in several of the small trees. This is another shot where you have to trust your swing.
The final par three, the 169 yard 15th, is protected by the grasses down the right side of the hole, a large pond on the left, and a large bunker left of the green. But this shot isn't that intimidating. Besides the bunker, the trouble is far enough away from the hole that it shouldn't enter your mind, and you've already had this distance on the last two par threes.
The most interesting hole on the course is the par four 12th. It's just 391 yards, but the trees pinch the rolling fairway. If you hit the ball well, your tee shot will roll down a hill to the 150 yard marker; in fact, my shot funneled onto the 150 yard marker and settled there. From there, you have an uphill shot that requires two extra clubs to a two-tiered green.
You almost have to bail to the right on your approach shot because to the left of the green, just a few feet from a greenside bunker, is the forest. It hovers over the left side of the green like the woody maw of a monster, and if your approach goes in there, you'd be better off writing X on your card and moving on to keep up the pace of play.
The oddest aspect of the course may be the 150 yard markers on the sides of each fairway. Plumes of native grasses are used, and from a distance they look like a cross between a pineapple and Don King on a bad hair day. But you need to keep them in mind when sizing up your approach shots; besides the cement blocks at 200, 150, and 100 yards, the Don King grassy clumps are the only yardage markers on the course.
All in all, Deer Creek is a good value. It's a well-kept golf course, as evidenced by the fact that the fairways were still lush in late August, when Ohio summers typically turn the ground into a concrete-like runway of dry dirt.
The pace of play is also excellent; even on a Sunday afternoon, the only wait to hit a tee shot came because two parents were teaching their kids to play, and they waved us through as soon as possible.
Deer Creek is worth all of the distractions you encounter trying to find it. Just be careful of the shooting range on your way in, and tell Bubba that I said hello.
Deer Creek State Park
20635 Waterloo Road
Mt. Sterling, OH 43143
Phone: (740) 869-3088