You're right; Ohio is not the first state that rolls off the tongue of a golfer who has his clubs nestled into a travel bag. But why isn't it? Ohio has five of Golf Digest's top 100 Best Public Courses within its borders.
And Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Cincinnati and Dayton are all big enough towns to give any traveling foursome an easy time with transportation planning, airports, hotel reservations, and things to do when you're not roaming the fairways. Yeah, there's that cold weather thing that happens nearly half the year, but that's not an excuse in golf rich Michigan, so what gives for Ohio? The answer might surprise you.
It seems Ohio doesn't care to be a major golf destination. It likes its golf just the way it is.
"Ohio golf is at a very comfortable level right now," says Jim Popa, the executive director of the Ohio Golf Association. "I don't ever see Ohio becoming a corporate-like marketing machine to promote its golf courses. No, no way."
Unlike many other states, the golf organizations in Ohio are fragmented. There are associations and organizations in Toledo, Dayton, the Cleveland area, Cincinnati and Columbus, and although they work together on some projects, and consider themselves unified, they really are quite separate and see very little need to pool their resources to establish some massive public relations plan.
This is not to say Ohio's courses don't need and want to grow their businesses. They just don't want to do it at the expense of a long-standing tradition of welcoming a golfer like a good friend, like a member of the family.
"I would bet there are more family run, privately owned public golf courses in Ohio than in any other state," says Popa. "In Ohio the guy that owns the place is likely the guy who sells you the greens fee and his son is probably the one pulling the cart around for you."
The National Golf Foundation's latest statistics show Ohio has some 575 public golf courses placing the Buckeye State in the top five nationwide for public access golf. Michigan has the most with more than 700 and Florida is second with 675, but corporations, private management companies, and municipalities run many of the public courses in Michigan and Florida, they are not what many would call "family" operations. Although the statistics are hard to nail down on the category of family golf courses, those close to Ohio golf believe the state is loaded with them.
"I would guess there are as many as 500 daily fee, family owned golf courses in Ohio," says Ken Gunther, executive director of the Ohio Golf Course Owners Association. "Ohio is steeped in family golf. It's the backbone of golf here."
And there is no doubt a family business of any kind thinks differently. It tends to want to super serve the people the owner knows, the community, and enjoy the homey atmosphere created by that philosophy. In Ohio, that approach carries over to golf. Mill Creek Golf Club, the family course of Open Champion, Ben Curtis is a perfect example. The land was once his grandfather's farm, his dad is the superintendent, his mother sells the hot dogs at the turn. The quaintness of Mill Creek has been in the spotlight since Ben's big win, but the Curtis family's simple approach to the game and the business of golf is not very unusual in Ohio. In fact, it's very much the norm.
"Not only are golfers in Ohio a course's customers, they're your friends and your neighbors too," says Gunther. "But I must add that Ohio courses are struggling like courses everywhere to attract attention to golf. We still need to let people know there is great golf in Ohio and very reasonably priced."
Golf writers and avid golfers have been complaining for years about ridiculously high greens fees, criticizing stuck-up, snooty service at upscale courses, and wondering aloud about how big business and marketing plans have taken over the game. Someone needs to tell them to make their way to Ohio.
"People prefer to go where they're welcome," says Gunther. "I know family course that is just a few miles down the road from a corporate course and the family owned place does better. Golf in Ohio is cheap because it's all about family ownership."
"Ohio is a hell of a value," says Popa. "You can play for less than $50 on a weekend, with a cart, almost anywhere and have a fabulous time." In fact, $50 is probably on the high end.
What about the courses themselves? Isn't the land in Ohio boring? Actually, there's a misconception about Ohio's topography. Although there are many miles of relatively flat, shapeless land, there are also pockets of rolling hills and mature forests that have been the perfect canvasses for golf architects.
Ohio also has a rich golf history. Jack Nicklaus, a Columbus boy, is its favorite son. Classic beauties like Inverness and Scioto and Firestone are among its private clubs. And modern public layouts like Longaberger, Shaker Run, StoneWater, Avalon Lakes and Eaglesticks are praised by Golf Digest and other golf publications as some of the best places to play in America.
But the heart and soul of golf in Ohio is not inside a oak-paneled locker room, it doesn't emanate from a golf cart's high-tech GPS system, and certainly is not found between the $100 bills you might need to pay a premiere course greens fee. The soul of Ohio golf is in its hometown courses, its mom and pop pro shops, its regular Saturday morning foursomes, its dew sweeper, its local leagues and junior tournaments, and its love of the spirit of the game.
Even with nationally ranked courses and some head-turning great values, Ohio may never become a major golf destination on the scale of Michigan or Florida or California. And that, my friend, for many who play and own the courses in the Buckeye State, is just perfectly fine.
July 23, 2003