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|Famed architect Tom Doak has mentioned Harrison Hills among the most fun to play anywhere in the world. (Kiel Christianson/TravelGolf)|
ATTICA, Ind. -- When it comes to describing public golf courses, the term "hidden gem" is perhaps the single biggest cliche. Despite the over-application of the label, sometimes it is warranted.
Joel Baumgardner, head professional at Harrison Hills Golf and Country Club, explains the nearly-not-hidden quality of his little slice of golfing heaven: "If we were eight miles closer to I-74, or 15 miles closer to Lafayette, we'd have double the play."
The obvious question, then, is something like, "What's a beautiful course like you doing in a place like this?"
As it turns out, for the first 70 years of Harrison Hills' history, being out of the way was just fine with everyone who played the course, as well as the owners. That's right: the first 70 years.
Back in 1924, William Langford, of the Golden Age golf architecture firm of Langford and Moreau, constructed the original nine holes of Harrison Hills. The National Car Coupler Company (now known as the Harrison Steel Castings Company) commissioned the facility in the small town of Attica, located about 20 miles from the Illinois state line. It was intended as a private club for the employees of the company, and it remained that way until 1996.
"Each member out here had his own golf cart," Baumgardner says. "Each one had a key to the cart barn, too."
Given the sparse, private play and tender, doting care of maintenance staff, the classic Langford design survived practically in its original condition.
In 1996, Pete Dye protege Tim Liddy was hired to weave nine new holes into the existing nine to make more complete use of the rolling, wooded 200 acres upon which the course sits. It was at that time that the golf course was opened to public play.
The result is an amazingly seamless amalgam of holes that are nearly 90 years old and holes that aren't even old enough to vote yet. Put them all together, and you have quite possibly the most little known, must-play course in the Hoosier State.
Langford designed some 200 golf courses throughout the first half of the 20th century, mostly in the Midwest. The sleepy towns in which he and partner Moreau worked their magic are not generally on the radars of recreational golfers, but they are well known to golf course architects.
Tom Doak, famed architect of Pacific Dunes and author of one of the bibles of golf course design, has mentioned Harrison Hills in the company of Scotland's Cruden Bay as among the most fun to play anywhere in the world, according to Mark Chalfant at GolfCourseAtlas.com.
What makes Harrison Hills so special? Langford's original remaining eight holes -- 1-2 and 13-18 (the original third hole was turned into the driving range in 1996 to maintain routing) -- hug the contours of the rolling Indiana woodland. Uphill and downhill tee shots lead to fairways that leap and tumble toward the greens.
On the 394-yard first hole, for example, a solid tee shot lands you over an invisible rumple on a fairly steep downhill lie. Your second shot leaves you firing back uphill at an itty-bitty green that not only is mostly occluded from view, but also is guarded by a severe bunker right and falls away to the back left.
At 6,820 yards from the tips, Harrison Hills is not long by today's standards, yet at 6,398 yards from the members' tees, it is all the course most recreational golfers could want. (Other teeing options are from 6,106 and 5,223 yards.)
"I wish we had more tee box options," Baumgardner says. "The brown tees [for members] are best for average golfers. To be honest, I don't even play the championship tees anymore. Maybe if I were on Tour."
This lack of modern-day scale is perhaps one reason why the owner decided two years ago to let enormous swaths of grass grow knee-high. It was decided that the course needed to be harder.
"The owner has had a change of heart the last couple of months," says Baumgardner, with a hint of relief. "We were getting complaints about losing balls, so we've cut back the heather grass. But the course is still a challenge, especially the original holes, which are more tree-lined, and the greens are more undulating."
Indeed, when you have a woodland course that is 90 years old, you're going to have plenty of mature trees to swat off-line shots. And that mown heather grass is still nearly impossible to hit from, even if you do find your ball.
The major defenses throughout the course, though, are the green complexes. These greens are nothing short of masterful. Langford was heavily influenced by Scottish greens, and fond of dramatically contoured, curvilinear landforms upon which he would perch steeply canted putting surfaces. Nearly every green at Harrison Hills is guarded with at least one bunker, and some of these are close to 20 feet deep.
Take the bunkering at the 356-yard 15th hole, for example. Here you find one of Langford's signature greens. It consists of two tiers, the back being so steeply above the front that it plays more like two small greens. On either side of the narrow, deep putting surface, the land falls away almost 20 feet down to sand bunkers that run the length of the green. Choose driver off the tee and hit it off-line, and you've got nothing but awkward angles in. Lay up off the tee, and you have to hit the devilish green from farther back.
On the newer holes, Liddy has done a brilliant job of following Langford's design principles. Aside from a more wide-open feel and somewhat larger, more forgiving greens, the strategic angles, deep bunkering and visual chicanery are completely faithful to the original holes.
And when it comes to optical hijinks, Langford was a master. Consider one of the more memorable par 3s you'll encounter in the Midwest. At the 195-yard second hole, you're faced with a completely blind shot over a wooded ravine. As it turns out, there's a good 30 yards on the other side of the hazard before you get to the green and no bunkering at all. But you don't know this, and an up-and-down from anywhere other than short is difficult because the postage stamp-sized green is steeply banked.
Harrison Hills is a shot-maker's golf course. Position is critical, but, unlike "target" golf, out-of-position shots usually allow a path to the greens. The problem is that the wrong lines will force carries over cavernous bunkers or mature trees to miniscule, sloping greens.
On many holes, driver is not the club of choice off the tee. Remember this when you get to what is called by many "Indiana's Amen Corner" -- holes 9-12. I prefer to look the other direction and refer to them as "Hooker's Hell." On the 435-yard ninth, a leftward tee shot on the dogleg left will land you in high grass behind full-grown trees. On both the 432-yard 10th and 306-yard 11th, going left will get you wet. And on the 195-yard 12th, any ball not on the Redan-style putting surface will likely net you a bogey, if you're lucky.
Conditions at Harrison Hills are befitting of a private club -- the bentgrass tees, fairways and greens are tight, smooth and true. The service is prototypical of "Hoosier hospitality." When golfers arrive and want to order a beer, the staff will apologize that they don't in fact sell beer in the charming, old-timey clubhouse. But they will hand you a cooler and tell you to take a cart to the liquor store down the block. Stay-and-play packages are also available in connection with Lafayette and West Lafayette golf courses.
The coughing, gas-powered golf carts could be upgraded, a few more visible yardage markers could be added and there's pebbly sand in the bunkers, but these are minor quibbles when you consider the generous rates of $35-$45 with cart (which you'll need on the ubiquitous hills).
In sum, a visit to Harrison Hills Golf and Country Club is like a trip back in time to The Golden Age of Golf. The course offers one memorable hole after another, inspired by the landscape and forged from the imagination of artistic course architects. Just step out the back door of the clubhouse, directly onto the first tee, and let yourself be transported back to the time of hickory shafts and persimmon heads. You'll marvel at the deceptive difficulty of the place, as well as the faultless melding of old and new.
October 4, 2013
Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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