Indianapolis, IN - It is the Halloween season once again, the time of the year when we dare to delve into the deepest, darkest corners of our psyches and allow ourselves to flirt, however briefly, with our worst fears. What is yours? Rabid bats? The Grim Reaper? An incurable slice? How about being buried alive? Imagine the pitch-blackness all around you, your arms and legs nearly pinned to your sides as you hear shovel after shovel of moist, worm-ridden earth pile up on top of your coffin.
If this image doesn't make you too claustrophobic, indulge me a while longer as we take a stroll through Coffin Golf Club in Indianapolis, Indiana. I do not know how the name came to be, but I do know that it is apt--the course is as tight as its namesake, and may well induce fits of panic on many holes as you feel the trees and water closing in on all sides. If you don't hit all shots straight here, you will most certainly send many a golf ball to an early grave.
Coffin is just outside of downtown Indianapolis, and is the scarab in the crown of the city's public courses. Originally built in 1931 by William Diddel, Coffin has been the venue for two Public Links Championships. However, the course began to decay by the 1970s and 1980s.
It closed down in 1994 for a complete overhaul and redesign by Tim Liddy, a protege of Pete Dye. In 1995 the resurrected course reopened with fanfare worthy of Lazarus himself, and is today the best public course for the money in Indy.
Green fees are remarkably reasonable at $22 to walk 18 and $38 to ride. Space is lacking in this urban setting, so the course isn't long from the middle tees, at only 6,056 yards (par 72, rating 69.6, slope 119). But from the tips, the course stretches to a respectable 6,789 (par 72, rating 73.7, slope 129). As you can tell, there is an enormous advantage in playing the whites, and in fact several holes look completely different from the tips.
On the scorecard there is no indication of mid-back tees (say around 6,450 yards); however, on the course you'll see unmarked tee boxes for these tees. I'm not sure if the mid-backs are planned for next year or if, since it was late in the season, they were simply out of service. Whatever the case, my only real complaint about the course was the large difference between the whites and the tips.
Nevertheless, even from the whites any level golfer will be challenged by the narrow bluegrass fairways at Coffin. The overall great playing conditions of the fairways and bentgrass greens do not mean much if you can't keep your ball in play. And on some tees, even scratch golfers will need to take out irons and just go for a straight shot down the middle. But if you're reckless like me, you can try to overpower some of the holes with woods off the tee. Being straight and long off the tee will definitely help you shoot some low scores.
There was no starter when I played, and as such, there was the potential for a back-up on the first tee. This situation was exacerbated by the difficulty of the tee shot on the 552-yard par-5 No. 1. There is a big tree pretty much right where you would want to land your drive, and to evade it, you will need a long draw around it. If you go left, you will likely end up in a bunker. Woods and OB run all along the right, so close that even a slight push will end up dead.
Second shots needs to miss fairway bunkers and some mean rough on the left. This green--like all of the others here--was extensively rebuilt by Liddy. It and the other 17 greens feature lots of contours, some unusual shapes, and potentially deadly pin placements.
No. 5 (533 yards, par 5) is the signature hole. From the dramatically elevated back tees (both the tips and the phantom mid-backs), you have a spectacular view of the Indianapolis skyline and a picturesque bridge across the White River, which runs along the length of this hole (and four others). The tee shot down over brush is intimidating, despite the wide fairway. Long left or long right will end up either wet in ponds or in heaps of trouble in brush. A slice will sleep with the fishes in the mighty White.
The pond on the right, which runs parallel to the river (as if the river didn't provide enough of a water hazard), is particularly troublesome as it pinches off the fairway for the second shot. Laying up here is not as safe a play as a player of my limited skills would like.
The 351-yard 6th is narrow from tee to green. You tee off over water and need to land between the water on the left and the huge tree growing just to the right of the middle of the fairway. Coffin is old, so the course is fully mature and boasts dozens of trees of a stature that you will not find on new, suburban courses. When you get past that tree, you'll find that the green on No. 6 is deep and narrow as well.
No. 8 (446 yards, par 4) is also extremely tight, with monstrous trees cutting into the fairway on both sides. Two new ponds come into play big time off the tips, and even off the whites if you don't catch all of it.
The back nine can be hellish. No. 10 is where you may begin to feel the walls closing in on you. There can't be more than twenty yards of fairway between the water that runs from tee to green on the right and the woods that run from tee to green on the left. The microscopic strip of short grass also tilts from left to right towards the water, so in order to end up in the middle of the fairway, you need to flirt with the woods on the left.
The water curls behind the green as well, so it is very easy to bail out short and left on your approach and leave yourself with a gruesome chip or putt over the wild undulations on this large green.
The par-3 12th is an example of the discrepancy between the whites and the tips. From the tips, you will be faced with a difficult, 219-yard tee shot over some serious bunkering around the green. From the whites, you only have to play a 130-yard chip shot. For most golfers, something in the middle would be most appropriate.
Nos. 13, 14, and 15 are three lovely holes, eclipsed in their collective beauty perhaps only by Nos. 16, 17, and 18, which were all three added in 1995 and run along the White River.
The 416-yard 13th requires a long tee shot over a rather deep valley. The tee shot is blind, and if you don't get to the crest of the hill, your second will be blind, too.
The 505-yard, par-5 14th is tougher than it may appear. If your drive gets to the bottom of the swale in the rolling fairway, you can go for the green in two. But you will need to keep to the left of the fairway, as the deep green is tucked back to the right behind some imposing trees that I was very fortunate to get a 5-iron over.
No. 15 (484 yards, par 5) is another potential signature hole whose only blemishes are the road running along the left-hand side of the fairway and two rather ugly, muddy ponds. The tees are again dramatically elevated--a real rarity for urban courses.
You need to launch your tee shot off the face of the cliff over the ponds (that could be turned into deep rough with better effect) somewhere into the generous fairway. For once, there is not much trouble on either side (except for the few small trees my playing partners and I found), and the green is very reachable.
As I mentioned, Nos. 16-18 all run along the river. The 361-yard 17th is a bugger of a dogleg, bending left along the river. It is a very tight tee shot with trees and river to the left and sand on the right at the bend. The green is a wonderfully designed, two-tiered target that simply cannot be missed to the left (brush and river) nor to the right, where the side of the green drops off abruptly into a pond.
Last but not least, we reach the 18th, perhaps many golf balls lighter than when we began. You know how, in horror movies, after the hero has seemingly escaped the crazed killer, all of the sudden the killer pops back up from behind a bush or out of his grave? Well, at Coffin, just when you think you've clawed your way to the surface, Tim Liddy (course architect and closet sadist) decided to slam the lid back down on you.
I won't say that the tee shot on the 447-yard, number 1 handicap 18th is unfair, but from the tips you are required to drive through a gauntlet of trees no more than 15 or 20 feet wide. Not only do the overhanging branches arch over so close that they nearly touch, the arboreal corridor bends to the left, forcing a precision draw.
Obviously, right or left will hit trees; but too far left, say, to cut the corner of the dogleg, will end up in the river. To top it all off, there is no fairway to land in, none that can be seen from the tees, anyway.
Never mind what I said: No. 18 is unfair. Even from the whites, you will be lucky to end up in the ribbon of fairway. Obviously, Liddy ran out of room for this hole, and as a closing hole, it presents the potential for lots and lots of lost balls, penalty strokes, Mulligans, and slow-downs in play. So even if you are coming off the 17th green with a career round going, remember that the Freddie Kruger of golf holes is waiting to spring up out of Coffin and eviscerate your score.
If you are prone to bouts of claustrophobia, just about the worst place imaginable is the inside of a coffin. And if you are erratic off the tee, Coffin Golf Club could be a nightmare for you. But maneuvering through the tight fairways here could also be a huge ego boost and could help you take your game to the next level.
As Nitsche said, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Coffin has the potential to do either one.
2401 Cold Spring Road
Indianapolis, IN 46222