After the soft opening to the golf season in the South Carolina Lowcountry, I finally opened the 2014 golf season in Lexington on Wednesday at Lakeside Golf Course. Since John Mark was heading in from Louisville, I hoped to meet him at the University Club of Kentucky to wrangle with the Wildcat Course for the first time in a decade.
However, the overcast skies and impending cold front meant that the U-Club was shuttering operations early, so we would have to score our golf fix elsewhere. The wind was already howling consistently at 25 mile per hour by noon in downtown Lexington, so I turned my attention to Lexington’s relatively inexpensive municipal golf course collection.
Opened in 1970, Lakeside was designed by the landscape architecture firm of Scruggs and Hammond, Inc., with contribution from Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame member John C. Owens. Though leaders in the field of landscape architecture, rather than exclusively golf course architects, Scruggs & Hammond also designed Lexington’s Greenbrier Golf & Country Club and the most recent incarnation of the Frankfort Country Club.
At the time it was built, Lakeside had a reputation as one of, if not the, longest public golf courses in Kentucky. It still boasts three of the longest par 5 holes in the state, all of which involve significant elevation change from tee to green. Lakeside’s marquee hole is the ninth, a brutally long par 5 that bends up a hill to the right from the tee that measures 653 yards from the blue tees.
Lakeside has hosted the Kentucky Open Championship, Kentucky State Amateur, Senior PGA Monday Qualifier and every USGA Local Qualifier. Like Kearney Hills, Lakeside is a municipal course that contains some championship caliber characteristics. From the tips, which we played from for no good reason, the course plays to an even 7,000 yards, with a course rating and slope of 73.2/132.
I hadn’t played Lakeside in a few years and hardly recognized the course as I stepped on the practice green. I was aghast had how many trees had been lost or removed. Granted, it would be weeks before the hardwoods bloomed, much less displayed any foliage, but the golf course looked naked.
Though always more open than the typical parkland style golf course, my memory was that long Bluegrass fairways framed by alternating stands of pines and hardwoods, moderate to above average elevation change, and extremely large greens were the defining architectural characteristics of Lakeside.
In years past, by mid-summer I might argue the 9th hole’s 653 yard length, abundant crabgrass and ubiquitous great gobs of goose shit were the course’s defining characteristics, but those latter two weren’t an issue this early in the year.
It wasn’t until the round was almost over that it occurred to me what probably happened. I’m sure this winter’s abundant snow and ice storms took their toll on all manner of trees, necessarily resulting in a relatively more open course. However, I believe a great number of the missing hardwood trees were probably ash trees.
Lexington and the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky have been hit particularly had by the emerald ash borer in recent years, as the invasive, destructive beetle epidemic has spread south and west across the United States from the Great Lakes areas. I suspect Lakeside’s stands of beautiful old ash trees either fell victim to the beetles’ destruction or were preemptively removed to try to slow the borer’s growth and migration.
Either way, on multiple occasions, standing a tee box, my mind would look for trouble on the next shot that my eyes couldn’t find. Where I formerly identified trouble in the form of leafy branches and majestic trunks I found new openings and benign landing areas.
The loss of so many trees, and without any leaves on any of the hardwoods, the course almost played like a links style course, with no corner of the course sheltered from the day’s jarring wind gusts.
The Bluegrass tees, fairways, and rough remained largely dormant, leaving the course varying shades of brown and light green. Because the grass had yet to start growing, there was very little difference between a ball lying in the fairway versus one out in the rough.
The expansive Bent grass greens were long, not having been mowed yet this year, and as best we could tell, sporadically rolled. The greens were a little bumpy The wildlife areas that fill the spaces between holes on many parts of the course was still ankle height, following an end-of-the-year trimming last fall.
In a month’s, once the grass greens up and the trees blossom and leaf out, Lakeside will be in mid-season form. But on this day, the dry, blustery conditions overpowered what ever discipline I had been developing with my new work-in-progress swing. John Mark remarked that I was hitting my long clubs much better with this new swing than I did my shorter irons and wedges.
He was right. I hit a handful of truly pretty tee shots with the driver and hybrid, and maybe a couple of the best 3 wood shots of my life. But most of the resulting 6, 7, and 9 irons struck from the fairways were “inconsistent” at best.
It would have been infuriating on most other days, but I realized very quickly I hadn’t had time to put in work after my latest lesson to play up to the difficult course conditions. So much like my round at Palmetto Dunes a few weeks earlier, I was content just to hit the occasional good shot and enjoy the company of one of my best friends.
We had the golf course almost to ourselves, having caught just one twosome for a couple of holes before they left the course. In 17 years of playing golf, I’ve never played well in high winds, and I certainly have not developed the confidence in my new swing fundamentals yet to allow me to mentally attack a course like Lakeside on a day like Wednesday. So, I chalked the round up as a dress rehearsal for the real beginning to the spring golf season sometime later this month or next.
My lone highlight of the day may have been on the most ridiculous hole I will play all year. The afore-mentioned 653 yard par 5 9th hole played directly into a 30 mile per hour wind. I guess the enormity of the challenged forced me to focus for the entire hole. I hit my best drive of the day, followed by my best 3 wood of the year.
My reward? I was still roughly 300 yards away from the green. So a perfectly curled hybrid and full gap wedge later, my ball was on the green. I two-putted for six and felt like I had defeated the hole, despite having to record bogey on the scorecard. It may have been the best I ever have or ever will play that particular hole.
I can’t bring myself to recommend Lakeside Golf Course; I almost feel like I would be betraying my beloved Gay Brewer Jr. Course at Picadome. It isn’t a particularly interesting or dynamic layout. The course conditions are probably average for a Lexington municipal course, though, to be fair, Lexington maintains a relatively high standard compared to other municipal golf courses in Kentucky.
The golf course is very long and can be very difficult under certain wind conditions. If you haven’t played Lakeside in a couple of years, it may be worth a visit after mid-April, just to see how different the experience is with the loss of so many trees. And remember to bring your A game to the 9th tee or else you are in for a long, joyless slog towards the turn.