NASHPORT, Ohio - Longaberger Golf Club helps define exactly how much golf means to you.
For example, how hard do you really want your golf to be? At Longaberger, try a rating of 75.2 with a slope of 138 from the black tees. Even from the white tees, the rating is 69.6 and the slope is 128.
How fast do you want your greens to be? At Longaberger, the average is 9.5 on the Stimpmeter, and that's only because it's as slow as the staff can keep them.
How much slope do you want to play? Every fairway seems to slide one way or the other, and some sit so steeply on their sides that it's dangerous to drive a cart on them.
Finally, how much are you willing to pay? At Longaberger, that might be the most telling question because you'll have to dig deep - $95 deep, to be exact. (Your fee includes a cart, club cleaning after the round, use of the private locker room and - hold onto your chairs - a free towel!)
Toledo-based architect Arthur Hills designed Longaberger, which is about 45 miles east of Columbus. Hills is a disciple of Donald Ross, and his layouts include Michigan's Bay Harbor, which was one of only 16 courses in North America to get Five Stars from Golf Digest; the Red Hawk Golf Club in East Tawas, Michigan, which was an honorable mention in Golf Magazine's "Top 10 You Can Play"; and the Golf Club of Georgia in Atlanta, which Golf Digest rated the best new private course of 1991.
Longaberger has been honored as well. Golf & Travel Magazine ranked it 23rd in its list of the top 40 daily fee courses in the country, and Golf Magazine included it among "The Top Ten You Can Play" in its March 2000 issue.
But the attention was delayed by the decision not to open Longaberger until a year after it was finished. Hills completed the course in 1998, but it didn't open to the public until May 1999.
"It is unusual to let a golf course sit for an entire year," said head professional Danny Ackerman, who's also been the head pro at Quail Hollow Country Club and Pinehurst #6. "By allowing it to sit, the course and the golfers really benefit from a number of things. First, a lot of problems with drainage and washed-away areas can be solved before the course opens. It also allows the greens and fairways to mature."
That delay was unusual; most new courses open as soon as possible because the owners need cash to offset the cost of building them. But this course was built by the Longaberger Company, a direct-sales company that makes handcrafted baskets.
It was listed in the Top 500 Privately Held Companies in the U.S. by Forbes Magazine, which meant it could afford to put off the opening.
Hills' design might make you a basket case before your round is over. Hills, who was inducted into the Ohio Golf Hall of Fame in 1993, designed numerous forced carries to fairways more than 200 yards away; thin, slick, difficult greens; and more slopes than you'll find on a roller coaster. The course can play up to 7,243 yards, which would be long even on the PGA Tour.
Much of that yardage comes from a quartet of par fours that average 466 yards from the black tees. That's right, average. For comparison, consider that the USGA likes to convert a par five at each U.S. Open into a par four in the 470-yard range to serve as the ultimate challenge for its competitors. Longaberger has two par fours longer than that without any conversion.
But you don't have to play Longaberger as a monster course. There are five sets of tees from which to choose. For example, you can ease onto the white tees, which play 6,075 yards and from which "The Big Four" only average 409 yards. The slope is still sharp at 128, but the rating is just 69.6 - which, considering the severity of the course design, is still too low.
But if you want to play like the big boys, you'll want to try from the black tees. It can be a humbling experience, but exhilarating at the same time.
The par-four 13th hole plays 480 (gulp!) yards from the back tees, 461 from the golds, 454 from the blues and 434 for the whites. You've got to hit your best drive here just to reach the fairway, which doglegs slightly to the right around a huge bunker.
If you happen to slice the ball short of that bunker, you'll be in thick rough with an uphill lie and a blind shot to the green. But even from the fairway, it's a tough second shot. You'll be hitting a fairway wood or long iron to a two-tiered green protected by mounds that drop off the right side and a bunker to the left.
The green is hard, fast and sloped from left to right. It's also slightly diagonal to the fairway, making the depth questionable when you're trying to hit it from 230 yards away. Few players will actually reach this green in two, so unless you're a big hitter, play this hole as a par five. Lay up on your second shot, then try to hit a wedge close enough to make the putt. The scorecard will say par, but your heart will say birdie - and in golf, you should always follow your heart.
The par-four second hole plays almost as long at 474 yards from the black tees. But this shot is played from the top of the course; the tee sits so high that you can see the Longaberger Company's headquarters several miles away. You can't mistake the building, either; it's a seven-story structure built to look like one of the company's baskets.
The landing area for your tee shot is generous, but the second shot is anything but easy. You're left with more than 200 yards to a small green protected by deep grass, grassy mounds and a deep drop-off on the left-hand side. The fairway runs pencil-thin to the green, so the option to lay up and play this hole as a par five isn't nearly as appealing.
If you decide not to challenge this beast from the back tees, you can play from the whites, which are a calming 393 yards. But that brings the fairway bunkers into play. They're steep and deep, and if you land in one of them, you'll probably have to lay up anyway.
The 18th hole plays longer than any of the par fours even though it's "just" 466 yards from the black tees (404 from the whites). From the tee, there's another long carry to reach the fairway, which curls around a large tree in the left rough. The fairway slopes sharply from right to left, and the approach is uphill to an elevated green.
The clubhouse sits atop a large hill behind the green, and the mounds around the green frame the shot like a picture on your wall. The shot is reminiscent of the 18th at The Tournament Players Club at River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut, where the PGA plays the Greater Hartford Open. (There may be tour events in Longaberger's future as well; the course already hosted a match between Karrie Webb and Dottie Pepper for "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf.")
From the 18th fairway, you're left with a three-wood to a tough green. But if you're in the rough, your best bet is to play this hole like a par five, just like you did at 13. Lay up, and then try to stick a wedge close to the pin.
That approach is no guarantee of a good score, though. Greens that are this hard don't hold approach shots very well. Even on a wet day, your sand wedge will bounce and roll several yards after it hits the putting surface. And you also have to block out loud classical music that for some curious reason is piped outside from the clubhouse.
The junior member of the Crushing Quartet is the par-four eighth, which received an honorable mention from Golf Digest in February 2000 as one of "America's best 18 holes." It's just 444 yards from the back tees, but it's the hardest-looking of the par fours because you're forced to hit a long drive over rough just to reach the fairway, which tilts so far to the left that you should use a rope-and-buddy system just to reach your ball.
You can see the green in the distance, but it looks like it's on another planet. It's so far downhill that you feel like you're floating above it in a balloon, except that dropping a ball onto the green from a balloon wouldn't be nearly as difficult as hitting it with a long iron.
It would be shorter - and probably safer, considering the cantilevered fairway - to go straight at the green from the tee. But the green is surrounded by water, and from the tees it looks like that water cuts off the direct route to the green.
That's not true. In fact, there's actually fairway short of the water; it's just blind from the tee. You have to carry a couple of hundred yards of deep grasses to get there, but it's worth the risk for a big hitter. Just aim left of the big tree that seems to be holding up the hillside portion of the fairway like Atlas shouldering the weight of the world.
But you have to hit the ball well for this to work. If you don't reach the fairway, you'll be hitting from thick rough over the water to a green that's as receptive as a bride when her mother-in-law shows up for the honeymoon.
If you do hit the fairway, you still have to be careful on your approach because you'll have a downhill lie. If you don't swing with the slope, there's no telling where your thinned shot will finish; all that's certain is that you'll hate the result.
As if those holes weren't challenging enough, none of them are the number-one handicap hole. Only two of them are even in the top five; the eighth is the third-toughest hole, and the 13th is the fourth-hardest.
The hardest hole is the par-five fourth, which plays 563 yards from the blacks and 452 from the whites. The tee shot is downhill to an adequate fairway; the trouble comes if you miss the short grass. Miss to the left, and everything slopes to the woods, which are perilously close. Miss to the right, and you bring the water that runs along the last 100 yards of the hole into play on your approach.
This hole is so tough that a marshal is posted on the tee to help you. He patiently explains where you want to hit your tee shot and where not to miss. After you hit, he scoots along in his cart to help find your ball. Then, as you're getting ready to hit your second shot, he explains the pros and cons of each possible choice.
For example: "See that green. Don't go for it."
The marshals at Longaberger are like veteran caddies, except that you don't have to pay them. They know what they're talking about because they play the course on a regular basis. For every two days they volunteer to lead nervous golfers around by the hand, they get to play two days. One of the marshals even admitted that once he signed off with Longaberger, he just couldn't go back to his old club to play anymore.
Anyway, the water isn't the only hazard on the fourth. The green is smothered on the left by thick bushes, and behind the green is a severe drop-off leading to more thick bushes and high grasses. Lay up short of the water - don't worry, your marshal will give you the yardage - then try to hit the green with a short iron.
And look out for that ridge in the middle of the green. It's tough to see from the fairway, which is why the marshal happily points it out just before trolling back up the hill to help the next foursome.
One of the nicest things about Longaberger is that the course is spread out. Each hole seems secluded, and there are no houses littered along the course to distract you. You don't even see many golfers; tee times are spaced 14 minutes apart rather than the traditional eight, which gives you plenty of time to consider your shots without worrying about holding up traffic behind you.
Even when you're in trouble, you don't have to worry about the pace of play. The groups behind you are probably trying to extricate themselves from potential disaster, too. You can take the time to really enjoy your round.
The staff goes out of its way to make sure you have a good time, too. When you arrive, the bag handlers are there to unload your clubs and take them to your cart. The clubhouse is huge - it looks like a resort hotel as you drive up to it - and includes a restaurant with a chef hired away from Disney World.
There's a clubhouse attendant ready to help you as soon as you enter the door, and someone always reminds you to take home your complimentary towel from the locker room.
In the pro shop, big, comfortable chairs sit in front of a large television as if it were someone's living room. While you wait for your round to start, you can have a seat, watch The Golf Channel and chat with the volunteers about the course.
Once you're on the course, rangers cruise up to you a couple of times just to make sure you're enjoying yourself. This is disconcerting at first if you're used to rangers bearing nothing but bad news, but you learn to appreciate the smiles and advice from these roving volunteers.
The staff at Longaberger treats your round like it's a great event in your life, which it is for many people. Public-course players often plan an excursion to Longaberger as a chance to be "big-time," and tee times are tough to get.
All 21,000 of the season's tee-times were filled by May 1 in 2000, and the season ran from April until Nov. 4. If you want to play here, you have to call early in the spring.
To alleviate that crushing demand, Longaberger is building another course on the same site. It will be designed by Ohio native Tom Weiskopf and should open in 2003.
So, to the ultimate question - is Longaberger worth nearly a hundred bucks of your hard-earned money? Well, that depends on who you are.
If you're just a mediocre player but take your golf seriously, go somewhere else. Longaberger will frustrate you so much - and so early in the round - that you'll be miserable all day. You can play badly and enjoy Longaberger, but only if you don't care about your score.
But if you're a good player looking for a challenge, Longaberger is the course for you. The rough is wicked, you'll have uneven lies in the fairways, the course is long and the greens are hard and fast.
If you want to score well, you'll have to play the course several times to learn where not to miss your shots, but you'll still have a good time if you have a one-round stand with the course.
If you're worried about bang for your buck, Longaberger probably isn't worth $95. For that price, you could play Cooks Creek twice (at weekday rates) or Champions Golf Course in Columbus three times. But if you're looking for that once-a-year excursion with your buddies, or if you're looking for a vacation experience to brag about back home, Longaberger is worth your time.
Just work on your long game before you get here, and don't forget your mountain-climbing gear so you can safely play from the fairway on number eight.
But no metal spikes, please. They aren't allowed.
Longaberger Golf Club
One Long Dr.
Nashport, OH 43830
Phone: (740) 763-1100