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The two Ohio State golf courses, the Scarlet and the Gray, are located in suburban Columbus, Ohio, USA, two miles from the university main campus. The courses intertwine on gently rolling parkland. They are the design of the famous British golf architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie (born in England of Scottish parents; 1870-1934). These web pages are devoted to the tougher Championship Scarlet Course and offered for your enjoyment in the tradition of "world wide web fan pages." The author of this photo tour has no affiliation with OSU Scarlet. This site carries no endorsement by or recognition from the Ohio State University or its golf courses.

Personal Observations

You may be reading this because of an interest in golf course design and architect Alister MacKenzie. Or you may have an upcoming opportunity to play the course and want to know what kind of battle waits. I have tried to appeal to both interests. My qualification to speak authoritatively about Scarlet is the local knowledge I've gained playing the course over 300 times since 1995.

MacKenzie wrote "A good golf course is like good music. It does not necessarily appeal the first time one plays it." Hmmm...I don't know about this! I can't imagine any golfer playing what are considered the pinnacles of MacKenzie's work, Augusta National, Cypress Point, and Royal Melbourne, leaving the 18th thinking they'd need time to decide whether they'd played a great course. Where the observation perhaps becomes relevant is in the matter of lesser works of the masters.

Case in point: Alister MacKenzie's Scarlet Course. In the clubhouse there's a large and beautifully hand-drawn design map by MacKenzie dated January, 1931. The course was on the drawing board for many years. It was built in 1938, four years following his death in 1934. So MacKenzie did not have a hand in what people recognize as the important detail work and decision making that occurs as a course is built and shaped. In addition to the absence of MacKenzie's direct supervision during construction, it seems clear that MacKenzie didn't set out at Scarlet to create a course the stature of his Augusta National or Cypress Point. Golf architect Dan Bucko points out that MacKenzie's "globetrotting left him only a couple days at a few sites..." Until I find the time to do additional research at the university archives and shed more light on this issue, it is a fair assumption to believe that the Scarlet project engaged MacKenzie's full professional attention but not his personal passionate attention. He was contracted to design two courses for the university that would challenge students, faculty, staff, and in the case of Scarlet, be a strong, tough venue for collegiate tournaments. It's my belief that the genius of MacKenzie is affirmed because a truly great golf course still originated from his less than total involvement.

In the area of the "ratings game" OSU Scarlet has been ranked by Golf Magazine as #81 in its "100 Greatest Courses in the U.S." list (1995), and #74 on GolfWeek's "America's 100 Best Classical Courses" (1997). In years past statements have been heard such as "it's a given that Scarlet is 'the finest collegiate course in the nation'." More to the truth is that there are many fine collegiate courses in the US such as Yale, Stanford, Michigan, and others. Even as highly rated as Scarlet has been, there are dissenting views regarding the course. To bring up a couple examples, writer Bradley S. Klein in an article "Head of the Class" appearing in the October/November 1998 issue of Golf & Travel, rated the Scarlet Course as the 10th collegiate course in the nation. Here are Klein's comments:

"There are those who swear by the two courses at Ohio State University in Columbus; routed by MacKenzie, they were built in 1938, four years after his death. The reputations of the Scarlet and Gray courses owe much to some glorious varsity golfers who played there: guys named Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Ed Sneed and John Cook. If the truth be told --and isn't that the mission of a university anyway?--both courses are disappointing, primarily because of random tree plantings. (In golf course design, a cardinal rule is "No trees inside the line of fairway bunkers.") It's still possible to discern some faded grandeur here, especially in the roly-poly putting surfaces, though access is limited to faculty and staff, students and alumni."

In addition to the Klein criticism, Tom Doak in his book The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (1996) presents a mixed to unfavorable review. It's been awhile since I read Doak's critique but I recall he focused on weak bunkering, and his feeling that Scarlet's high reputation floated to an extent on its link to Nicklaus. Where do I come down on the status of the course in the ratings? I believe you can't necessarily cruise into town, play a round, and immediately know Scarlet as a great course. This gets back to the observation about greatness being revealed over time and through repeat exposure. Scarlet may not reach out and knock your socks off the first time around. It is a course to be appreciated and played over and over and over again. Each time, something is revealed about the course, your play, and the game of golf. I remember sitting-out a late Fall 1998 storm in a shelter off the7th tee with a player I respect: an avid, devoted golfer, a "student of the game," a member of a Golfing Society whose 20-some membership includes Mike Cowan ("Fluff" Jim Furyk's caddie). I repeated to this man the substance of Klein's short dismissal of the Scarlet. He said, and I repeat: "He doesn't know what the *$^# he's talking about. It doesn't get any better than this." I agree. Yet I regard the intent and purpose of ratings and rankings as useful, as long as those making them give us reasoned and informed stands.

Strengths

Routing: The Scarlet routing shows the work of a genius. If you're playing the course in casual play,without a tournament pin placement sheet, there's a combination of mystery and opportunity for advance study. There are greens that are visible for the first time only after your drive (the 1st, the 3rd, the 16th come to mind), and other points on the course where you get a chance to glance over and make mental notes on upcoming holes. Attempts for optimal position entail risk and reward. There's always a feeling of forward movement. The site and the topography are revealed to you in an interesting way as you play the course. It's a pleasant walk. When you get home you will clean all the clubs in your bag.

Greens: The greens are magnificent. They are broad, large, rolling contoured surfaces. There are no gimmes. At two or three feet you face those difficult choices on benders --whether to ram it and possibly leave it past four feet, or give the hole away and take off speed. The greens are tough, but fair. You will not face the annoying occurrence found at some tricked-up courses aspiring to have tough greens where you risk putting off the green surfaces. The greens appear as entirely natural features of the landscape. I've played lesser quality courses where you look at the green contours and can almost smell the diesel fuel and hear the "beep" "beep" "beep" warning siren of a bobcat in reverse and paint a mental picture of a construction crew standing around looking at a design map saying: "now the architect says he wants a little ridge to run through this area..." MacKenzie is quoted responding to a question on how he got his greens to turn out so interesting and natural looking; he said: "simply employ the biggest fool in the village and tell him to make all the greens flat."

Find your ball and try to recover: MacKenzie didn't believe in high, thick rough, because of the annoyance of lost balls which would slow play. The brilliant Scarlet course superintendent Mr. Gary Rasor maintains the course rough in this spirit. An off-line shot into the rough at Scarlet entices you into thinking you can recover, but more often than not features in the design have effectively taken away an optimal and realistic angle to the green. You try shots you shouldn't and pay for them. With low rough, you will walk to the next hole with your bogie or double from the rough as quickly as if you had striped a career drive down the middle of the fairway. In fact, when rough is low your ball with sometimes run further into trouble.

Absence of tricks and tricked-up holes: Jack Nicklaus made a striking comment about good course design. He described some famous "resort course" where the golfers file one after another into the grill room talking about how they lost eight balls or 9 balls on 'water holes.' The golfers are happy to have paid large sums of money to have taken a beating, but Nicklaus felt that in reality they hadn't played a good golf course. Although a lake and stream are in play on seven of the Scarlet holes, water isn't used as a gimmick. You won't find manufactured lakes running down sides of fairways, or excessive forced carries over water. The course will let you score your best if you're playing well, but doesn't insist that you'd better leave the grounds adding 10 to the card over your usual handicap index. At my average ability, I more often than not play a round on Scarlet using one ball.

Demand of correct positioning: Golfers fail too often in their quest to hit tee shots where they know they should to be placed. After playing Scarlet a few times you stand on each tee with complete knowledge of the ideal spot your tee shot should land. Hit that shot and you've got an 8 or 7-iron approach into the par 4's. A little off the ideal position and even though you may still be in the fairway you've increased your yardage. Now you have a 4 or 5-iron. But there's more: some obstacle --sometimes subtle or sometimes demanding-- stands between you and the ideal way into the green.

Demand of Thought and Correct Thinking: Golf is a physical activity. You can't purely think your way around a course, unless you are walking without clubs. Still, the need for smart thinking and control of your emotions is essential. Scarlet has a way of sneaking up on players and inflicting severe psychological and emotional trauma. The turmoil this course can dish out can be several factors more anguishing than, for example, a high score run up on a tricked-up course. At the tricky courses there's something discernible you can pin your high numbers on. Maybe it's a feature such as a tough to hit 'island green,' a narrow tree-lined corridor only a professional bowler could negotiate, or other some such. Your downfall came by something you could recognize and understand. In effect you can identify something that serves as an excuse. Scarlet is a beast lurking and lying in waiting at all times. It is an unseen cruel monster that sucks you silently down under water. The course doesn't insist on your acknowledgment that it had a hand in your downfall. Yet it's a known fact that you cannot commit suicide by holding your breath. In reality the course had lots to contribute to your fate. The devastating meltdowns I have witnessed, and experienced personally, at Scarlet have the nature of slipping from the safety of a lifeboat into deep ocean waters. No one tipped the boat, you left it on your own, and in your confusion you may feel you have only yourself to blame. Clear thinking can help you avoid this fate.

Appeal for all skill levels: I have played the course with golfers in their 80s, novice players under the age of ten, and others of all levels and ages between. I've been in the gallery at NCAA Championships and qualifying sectionals for the US Open. Every golfer will experiences a challenge, regardless of level of play.

Weaknesses

Location: Everyone's heard the statement that the most skilled course architects do more than just built a course: they "reveal the essence of the land." MacKenzie and his builders did a great job uncovering the truth that the land around central Ohio is flat! The land is so gently rolling that severe uneven lies in fairways are rare, moreover the land lacks memorable geologic or topographic features. This same criticism would hole true to most parcels of land within a 20 mile radius of the Ohio State University campus. The course is beautiful though, and the land in addition to serving golf has become a beautiful park in the 60 years of its existence. People jog, walk their dogs, sled and cross country ski in the winter, and high school and college teams run cross country. But the setting is not an isolated urban paradise. There is traffic noise. City streets border the course on two sides, other holes run alongside the backyards of suburban homes. There are no tee boxes perched on cliffs with sea spray in the air, no climbs up fairways to 5-mile vistas. Welcome to Central Ohio!

Bunkering: MacKenzie's design map in the clubhouse shows a lot more free-flowing bunkers (sometimes in different positions) than the ones ultimately built. The bunkers that went in are for the most part effectively placed, pleasing to the eye, and do serve as challenging hazards. However they tend to be oval little lumps. Overall, the bunkering is mundane.

Lack of Full Realization: The more you study the course, the more you feel your regret that MacKenzie couldn't have had a hand in the actual building of the course. As fine as the course is, there's the knowledge that it would have been better had he lived to see the project through to its completion. Internationally renowned Columbus-based architect Dr. Michael J. Hurdzan makes this point in his book Golf Course Architecture: "As a great MacKenzie devotee who has studied his creations in detail, I find my beloved home course lacks much of the richness and nuance found at Pasatiempo and Cypress Point, where MacKenzie was available to interpret details."

Heavy Play: There were about 70,000 rounds played on the two courses during 1998. Although the course is immaculately groomed for competitive events, on a day-to-day basis sometimes the beating Scarlet takes shows. The course is closed from mid-December to March and in-season on Monday afternoons so it can "rest."

Overwatering: Members of the Scarlet course like to squeal about the water situation. There may be no way around the fact that too much water needs to be applied to the course. At least 300,000 divots are carved out of the golf course fairways over a season. Less water and they don't grow back in as fast. You would hear some real squealing if the fairways looked like a cow pasture. The downside of the heavy water application is that MacKenzie's bump and run-up areas, so integral to his design philosophy, become plop and plug areas. If there are tournaments scheduled on the course the water is cut back. Most of the tournaments end early afternoon Sundays. You will see quite a lineup of the better Scarlet players on Sunday afternoon waiting for the course to reopen so they can experience the fast greens and ideal course setup. Probably the best time to play Scarlet is during September and October when the season is winding down. The summer watering is cut back and the course plays fast, and true to its character.

It's a University Course, not a Country Club: You go up to a counter in the proshop where a member of the courteous and efficient staff will take your money or ring up your charge card. If you ask they will direct you to the first tee. You will find no red carpet. 'The Tavern' is one of the most inhospitable and uncomfortable environments to tally up the scorecard or enjoy a beverage of about any course I've ever played. It's a windowless room with square plastic tables, bus station waiting room chairs, and lighting that manages to be dim, yet harsh. The food is very good though and the people working there nice. Unless you need the air conditioning of The Tavern on a hot day, take your beverage outside and go up to the tables overlooking the 18th green on the Clubhouse balcony. The setting there is pleasant. To sum up the ambiance, the OSU golf courses don't deliver the cues some people require that make it known you're about to or have just played a great golf course. Frankly I like it this way. This is listed as a 'weakness' because it likely has had the effect of diminishing the course its overall due.

You Could Play with Anybody: From professional athletes, politicians, professional golfers, titans of science and industry, ordinary people, to rank beginners, if you walk on the Scarlet you'll play with a cross-section of the golfing community. I remember being on the first tee with a player who missed the ball on his first swing. Completely sincerely, he addressed the ball again and hit the ground this time missing the ball about a foot behind. The club flew from his grip and did cartwheels across the tee. Embarrassed and discouraged he made indications that it would be best for him to walk in. He was encouraged to take a third swing at it. This time the driver again first made contact with the ground behind the ball but the club shaft caught a piece of the ball on the way by. It teetered on the peg for an instant before falling over forward. Laying three, one inch off the tee. His group walked in after six holes. The weakness hinted at here is that you could be behind a group like this when you play the course.

About the Photos

The photos of the course were taken with a 640x480 resolution digital camera. They are not the quality I would like. In the future I want to substitute better photos. In particular these photos do no justice to the contours of the greens.

Update: June, 2016. This Website and the photos for it were created and taken in Autumn of 1998. If you have questions about the site feel free to contact me at jskh1@netscape.net

 

 

 

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