CANAL WINCHESTER, Ohio - Westchester Golf Course is supposed to be one of the hardest courses in the Columbus area.
It plays 6,774 yards from the back tees, from which it has a rating of 71.5 and a slope of 127. It was designed by renowned course architect Michael Hurdzan, a Columbus resident. Its fairways are tight. Its greens are fast. If you miss either, Hurdzan has hazards wherever you might go.
But there's a dirty secret that's just between you and me. Westchester isn't that hard.
Shhhh! There are probably people listening (or reading over your shoulder, as the case may be). But Hurdzan's design is imminently playable, and despite trouble lurking everywhere, there's an escape route built into each hole.
There's a catch, of course. You have to either be able to hit the ball straight or know how to manage your curving shots. If you don't know where the ball is going before you hit it, Westchester is the wrong place for you.
There are six lakes, more than 75 bunkers and countless waste areas filled with native grasses and wildflowers. There's also a creek winding through the course. This is not the place to try to learn the game.
But if you know what kind of shot is coming off your clubface, you can get around Westchester without much difficulty. The key is using good course management.
That means you first have to identify - and accept - your weaknesses. This is not the course to try to force a draw when you've hit nothing but a slice for the last two years. If you have a natural slice, you simply have to take the advice of the late, great Harvey Penick - aim left.
Westchester is a new course. Hurdzan built it in 1997 as part of an upscale housing project. In fact, the course sits smack in the middle of that project, which unfortunately is still being built. The clubhouse hasn't even been built yet. The staff operates its pro shop out of a glorified trailer.
But the course is supposed to be as upscale as the neighborhood. The staff advertises it as a country club atmosphere for the public course player.
On the front nine, a country club atmosphere apparently means having houses too close to the fairways; playing through the sounds of hammers and electric saws; and waiting out a constant backup on the first tee.
The construction is to be expected because of the newness of the course and the housing project, but that doesn't mean it has to be embraced. On several holes, the houses are just too close to the course.
For example, several backyards are just left of the third tees. The sixth hole is infested with new construction just right of the fairway, and the back tee at number eight sits about 20 yards from somebody's back porch.
The front nine seems manufactured, forced into someone's master plan of how the course should fit among the houses. Twice during the first seven holes, you have to drive across a road to reach the next tee. There are actually STOP signs for your cart.
If the entire course were like the front nine, it wouldn't be worth the price - $49.50 on the weekend with a cart, which is always required. The holes are well-designed and challenging, but the atmosphere is definitely more like a stroll through your neighborhood than a round "at the club."
But the back nine makes Westchester worth your time. To reach holes 11 through 17, you drive under busy Gender Road to find a course unfettered by houses. You ride over a rickety wooden bridge - the boards actually seem to bounce beneath you, making you wonder if you paid too much for the chance to drop into the creek - to a beautiful par five, the 516-yard 11th.
The 11th doglegs slowly to the right, and a good drive will leave the big hitter with about 250 yards and a tough choice: whether or not to go for the green in two. When in doubt, lay up. The green is small and tucked tight into the trees. If you miss too far to the right or left, you'll be lost in the woods.
The 12th hole is listed as the number-10 handicap hole, but it will be one of your toughest shots of the round. It's just 153 yards from the white tees, but the green is fronted on the left side by a small lake.
Behind the water and short of the green is a huge mound that hides the entire left side of the green; when the pin is there, all you can see is the flag and half of the pole.
Hit the ball short, and there's no chance the ball will stay dry. The obvious target is the right side of the green, but the putting surface is crowned. Again, if the pin is on the left side, you'll be putting up a severe slope, than trying to get the ball to stop as it races down the other side. A sliver of water also cuts into your target line about 50 yards short of the green, and any shot hit fat will plop into it.
The 13th looks like a simple par four from the tee. It's just 326 yards from the whites, and the fairway is wide until trees pinch in just short of the green. But there's a creek running down the right side of this hole, partially camouflaged by trees.
You don't really notice the creek, although you might notice the pumps that feed it as you leave the 12th green. That creek also cuts through the 13th fairway short of the green, but it's blind from both the tee and on your approach shot.
The green is small and diagonal to the fairway, and the only good places to miss are the bunkers on either side of the putting surface. Those bunkers are fluffy and fair, and playing from them isn't a real problem. But if sand shots psyche you out, you're in trouble.
Sculling a shot from the sand would send the ball screaming into the reeds and creek behind the green, and you'd be staring at a best-case scenario of double-bogey.
The key on 13 is the same as on the rest of the course. Don't try to force anything. Take what the golf course gives you. Be at one with the natural harmony around you.
In other words, don't do anything stupid.
Hurdzan surrounded almost every hole with natural grasses that tickle your knees. He strategically placed bunkers to force you to avoid them. He's done everything to map out your route around the course except leave a trail of bread crumbs.
Few of the bunkers - if any - are there just for show. On the 348-yard fourth hole, for example, a large bunker looms along an aggressive path toward the green.
The hole is a slight dogleg to the left, and Hurdzan dropped a bunker on the left corner of the dogleg like a challenge. It's as if he's standing there himself, thumbing his nose, yelling, "I dare you! I double dare you! I triple dare you on your mother's grave!
Ignore the temptation. On the other side of the bunker is rough, hidden from the tee by the bunker's large lip. Your shortcut to slice 50 yards off your approach will end up being a disaster. You'll be in the rough trying to hit your approach between trees to another well-protected green.
One of the beauties of Hurdzan's design is that he didn't rely on length for the toughest holes. For example, the number-one handicap hole is the 358-yard sixth hole. This sinister experience starts with a tee shot to a fairway that doglegs from left to right. Left of the fairway is a large lake, then trees and a deep fairway bunker.
But you can't favor the right side. The fairway is thin, especially in the landing area, and a group of large trees cuts through the right rough. Just to the right of that are houses, most of which are still under construction. If you slice the ball more than just a little bit, you'll be out-of-bounds before a roofer can scoop your ball out of his morning coffee.
The number-two handicap hole is the last, the 373-yard 18th. It plays uphill but doesn't really look like it from the tee. Your shot has to carry 175 yards to clear a batch of Hurdzan's wild grasses, and the fairway is thin in the landing area because it turns diagonally to the left.
If you land short of the fairway, you'll have to hack out of the grass, assuming you find the ball. Hit your tee shot left, and you'll bounce down a slope behind trees and rocks and probably end up in more high grass. Go right of the fairway, and you'll probably have a shot, but it'll be much longer than you'd like - maybe 250 yards uphill if you manage to avoid the grasses on the right.
Even from the fairway, the approach is a tough shot. The fairway gradually slopes uphill, and unless you notice that, your approach will finish well short of the green. Hurdzan framed the shot beautifully with trees on either side of the fairway, and there are bunkers to contend with as well. But if you pick a long enough club, focus on the target and hit the ball straight, this is not a hard shot.
Of course, if we all looked like Mel Gibson, had Donald Trump's money, and golfed like Tiger Woods, it'd be easier to get a date, too.
The best par-five on the course is the fifth, which plays a modest 457 yards from the white tees. (If you'd like more challenge, try the blue tees at 483 or the blacks at 503). This hole features two fairways cut down the middle by a bunker.
The conservative play is to the right fairway because this hole wraps around a large lake on the left. The short hitter - or the conservative one - will stay right, lay up and hit a wedge to the green.
The aggressive play is to fire at the left fairway, challenging the water but setting up a shorter second shot to the green. If you don't hook into the water, you'll be able to reach the green in two. But even then you'll want to bail out to the right; the water sits precariously close to the left side of the green.
Walkers will be put off by the "cart only" rule, but Westchester is one of the few courses that really needs it. The course is so spread out that it'd be impossible to walk it and still keep rounds under six hours. Even with the cart, playing your round within Westchester's self-induced four hours, 20 minute-limit is just about impossible.
By now, you've decided that I'm crazy. Westchester can't be an easy course. It sounds like a bear.
Well, it can be. But remember, Hurdzan himself left the trail of crumbs for you to follow. Don't try to do too much. Don't challenge the bunkers or the waste areas. Hit the fairways. Hit the greens. Two-putt whenever possible.
Remember, this is just between us. When you're done with your round, tell your buddies how tough the course played. If you shot a good score, wave your scorecard under their noses. If you played badly, blame the golf course. Anybody would believe that a course as upscale as Westchester has to be hard.
The truth can just be our little secret.
Westchester Golf Course
6300 Bent Grass Blvd.
Canal Winchester, OH 43110
Phone: (614) 834-4653