GROVE CITY, Ohio - If you get tired of playing the same old course all of the time, try the Phoenix Golf Links just south of Columbus. It's never the same course two days in a row.
That's because Phoenix settles in a bit more each day. It's a new course - it opened June 1, 2000 - but that's not why it has to settle. Phoenix was built on top of a landfill.
That doesn't mean the bunkers are full of pop cans and the fairway is littered with discarded office paper. You do see an occasional piece of trash or, in the case of the 14th fairway, a thin strip of an automobile tire. But the landfill is not still active. In fact, it was a closed landfill for more than 10 years before its owners, Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, decided it needed to make some money from the eyesore.
That wasn't easy. SWACO made a deal with Petro Environmental Technologies to design, build, and run the golf course. Petro in turn hired course architect Tim Nugent, one of the few people with experience designing a course on a dump.
The landfill had to be capped with concrete and covered with tons of dirt before construction ever started on the course. Under the cap sits 5,000,000 tons of decomposing waste, known to you and me as "stinkin' trash." And the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency had to agree to everything Petro wanted to do.
There's no doubt what the place was before it became one of central Ohio's hottest new golf hangouts. The surrounding area is full of businesses that still rely on trash and construction. There's a smell in the air that could only be from a landfill. Even the pro shop looks secondhand - it's a trailer.
But that's due to change next year when the real clubhouse is built. In the meantime, you have to forgive the fact that the entrance to Phoenix looks like just another salvage business.
Of course, Phoenix is a salvage business in a way. Much like its namesake which rose from ashes to full glory, Phoenix looks to reclaim a 185-acre patch of land given over to the waste and excesses of today's society. For all of the debate about where to build golf courses, for all of the arguments about wetlands and environmental impact studies and the value of passive recreation vs. active recreation, one thing is sure - nobody minds if you cover a dump with a golf course.
If there was ever a perfect place for a course, on top of a festering pool of trash covered with concrete seems like the perfect place.
But it took a lot of work to convert Phoenix from a dump to a debutante. There's the little matter of dirt, for instance, and grass. Considering the newness of the course, Petro did a decent job turning the place green - and we're not talking about something oozing from the pores of the course, either.
But about that ...
Phoenix is littered with wooden fences holding signs that say, "Danger: Flammable Gas." That's because pockets of methane gas are common in landfills, and these areas contain vacuum systems that collect the gas and convert it to electricity.
Not all of the gas gets captured, though. You'll smell it several times during your round. Just keep walking and smack anybody who tries to light a cigar. (After all, nobody needs to read this headline - "Golf course explodes; golfers annoyed about resulting slowdown in play.")
Small patches of concrete are also visible - in the rough, in the fairways, even around the greens. That's where the settling of the golf course is a problem. In fact, the constant subtle shifting of the course was so unsettling to the designers that they built a 19th hole. The neglected par three will only be used if one of the other holes collapses back into the landfill.
Even without all of those, um, challenges, Phoenix would still be one of the most interesting courses in the Columbus area. It's a true links course - long, hard, and windy. Nugent had no choice about that; tree roots could poke holes in the landfill's cap.
The fairways and greens are bordered with mounds and high grasses just like the great British links courses, and the wind whips across the course because it's so high above the ground.
The wind is such a factor that yardages don't mean anything when it's blowing hard. For example, a member of my threesome once played Phoenix in a 30-mile-per-hour wind. On a hole downwind, he nailed a 376-yard drive. On the next hole, his drive went 190 yards into the wind.
Phoenix plays 6,922 yards from the blue tees with a rating of 71.7 and a slope of 119. From the whites, it's 6,310 yards with a rating of 68.8 and a slope of 116. If the wind's blowing, those numbers are nothing but a fool's dream.
If there is no wind, those numbers are possible because the course plays like a driving range. Wherever you hit the ball, you'll have a shot to the green - providing that you find the ball, which often does some settling of its own to the bottom of the rough.
Because of the wind, you need to play from the proper tees. The bent-grass fairways are wide in the normal landing areas, which gives you at least a chance to score well in the gusts. But if you play from the blues and your handicap is 20, your landing areas will be small.
The same is true if you like to play from the white tees but regularly blast 300-yard drives; you'll spend more time looking for balls in the rough than you will holding your nose near pockets of gas.
There's irony in the design of what is probably Phoenix's signature hole - the par-four ninth. It's one of just two holes on the course that has trees. The drive for this 385-yard beauty (from the whites) has to carry 175 yards over a large pond filled with such high reeds that you can hardly see the fairway. From the blue tees, the carry is about 215 yards.
The fairway is angled left, and any drive to the right is just as likely to go through the fairway and down into a ditch as it is to stay in the short grass. Even farther right are huge grassy mounds, from which you can hack a wedge about 75 yards.
If you manage to hit the fairway, let out a sigh of relief - and then suck it back in. Your approach is to a small, thin green tucked into the side of a tree-covered ravine. Trees rim the green on the left, back and front, and three bunkers will eventually guard the right side. For now, they're just three chewed-up chunks of ground that look like fossilized tracks from a dinosaur stampede.
The previous hole, the 151-yard eighth, is a downhill par-three over a marshy looking creek to a long sliver of a green. The creek slips snugly around the green to the left, and steep hills hover over the right. If you knock your tee shot off those hills, gravity will suck the ball across the putting surface and into the left-hand rough or bunker near the creek.
Besides those holes, Phoenix is a classic links course. The fairways are hard, and the ball runs forever downwind. The greens are so firm that's it often hard to find a ballmark, even when you hit a high wedge. The greens are fast, too, and you'll be happy just to three-putt until you get a feel for the speed.
Bunkers are everywhere, and they're often sitting in clusters. On the fourth hole, there are two fairway bunkers in the landing area for your drive; another bunker 50 yards short of the green; three bunkers short and right of the flag; and another bunker left. Six more bunkers guard the fifth hole. The 13th has five bunkers left of the green alone.
If you miss the bunkers, you can still find trouble. The grass is so high in spots that small children - and annoying partners - could be lost. The mounds are high, especially around the greens. And if you fly over a mound behind a green, your next shot will be difficult, if not impossible. There are also a few waste areas that are blind until you reach them.
Unfortunately, with all of the beauty and brilliance in the design, the designers felt the need to "trick up" the fourth hole. The green slopes from right to left, and the green slopes even more sharply near the left side.
One member of our threesome almost made a putt from below the hole by knocking the ball past the pin, then letting gravity pull it back. He still had a three-footer from below the hole for his next putt.
Any ball hit in that area has to go with the slope and will probably run into the bunker. Hit that bunker shot short, and the ball will roll back to your feet. Hit your bunker shot long, and you're left with a slick downhill putt that will probably trickle back into the sand.
And if you miss the green to the right, your chances of getting your pitch to stop on the green are nil unless your last name is Mickelson, Woods, or Houdini.
The other disappointment with the course is the one you expected even before you arrived. The course is surrounded with the vestiges of its dumpy past.
The view includes a large pit across the road; an industrial site where grown men drive overblown Tonka Toys; and if you jerk your tee shot left on 16, the ball will land near a huge mound of trashed tires. (Remember, old tire dumps are prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes.)
If you're bothered by these sights of society's seedy residue, you have three choices: look instead at the view of downtown Columbus; study the traffic patterns
on nearby I-70; or play somewhere else.
Whatever you decide, Phoenix will continue to grow and evolve. In a few years, when the grass has all grown in and the concrete patches are covered and the occasional bubbling pool in the middle of a fairway has evaporated, Phoenix will be known as one of the most challenging and enjoyable courses in central Ohio. That is, if the smell doesn't get worse and if no more than one of the holes collapses.
Phoenix Golf Links
3413 Jackson Pike
Grove City, OH 43123
Phone: (614) 539-3636