The Big Blue Course at the University Club of Kentucky is a long, fun, difficult golf course with a relatively short, but interesting, history in Central Kentucky. After 20 years, this unique original remains one of the most memorable and memory-making daily fee courses in the Lexington area.
Originally designed by Danny McQueen, the University Club opened for play in 1993 under the name of The Players Club of Lexington.
In 2000, the course was sold to University Clubs of America, LLC for almost $8 million, who, in a partnership with the forerunner of Arnold Palmer Golf Management, rebranded the course as the University Club of Kentucky.
This was one of four University Clubs of America properties, in addition to similar clubs at the University of South Carolina, the now defunct Capstone Club at the University of Alabama, and University of Louisville.
The University Club model marketed the concept of affiliating a top flight golf course with universities through official licensing, attempting to capitalize on alumni and booster support, while providing an “official golf home” to the universities’ golf teams.
Arthur Hills was hired to renovate the layout of the Big Blue course, which re-opened for play in 2001 as a private, member-only club, and also the official home course of UK’s men’s and women’s golf teams. Fairways were raised, bunkers added, and green complexes given an overhaul.
The clubhouse was also renovated and expanded, creating elaborate locker rooms, a banquet facility, and private practice facilities for the University’s golf teams.
Unfortunately, the University Club model suffered under the glut of high-end course construction of the early 2000’s, and University Clubs of America folded when it’s funding dried up and the existing clubs were unable to sustain themselves.
University Club founder Paul V. Degenhart being charged with operating a Ponzi Scheme by the Securities and Exchange Commission didn’t exactly inspire confidence moving forward.
Fortunately for golfers in Central Kentucky, McQueen stepped back in to assume ownership and operations of the University Club of Kentucky in 2003.
After nearly a decade of Big Blue only being available to the club’s members or members of the Alumni Association except for the rare outing, the Big Blue Course is once again open to the general golfing public.
My friend, Darin, and I got out earlier this month and were reminded of just how special the Big Blue Course is, and how difficult the course can be under the right moisture and wind conditions.
Hills’ renovation resulting in a big, long golf course that plays to 7,013 yards from the tips. Even from the men’s tee (Tee Four), the course plays to a course rating and slope of 72/137 at 6,505 yards.
Big Blue traverses over a couple hundred acres of rolling pasture land that includes significant elevation changes on each hole, with water in play on no less than seven holes.
With few large lines of trees in the area, there are virtually no windbreaks to soften the predominantly westerly gusts that seem to affect club selection even on the calmest of days.
The signature hole of the Big Blue course is undoubtedly the par 3 eighth hole, which is a 50+ foot downhill hole played to an island green with short or mid-iron shot into the predominant wind.
While the island green is deservedly a star of the Big Blue Course, there are plenty of other memorable and exciting holes.
The front nine begins with a few simple, straightforward warm up holes. However, by the time one reaches the tee of the long, par 4 fourth hole, the course begins to get very interesting.
The course has an excellent mix of short, medium, and long holes for each par tier, all of which have at least one or two uniquely distinguishing characteristics.
For instance, the uphill ninth hole is an all-or-nothing driveable par four, with such a narrow fairway that the penalty for botching your lay-up is almost as severe as going for the green from the tee and missing.
The lake at the end of the short par 4 14th hole’s fairway and the peninsula green across that lake means that hitting driver off the tee, even into the wind, is a suicidal adventure reserved only for the most carefree adrenaline junkie.
By contrast, playing it safe off the tee of the extremely long, uphill 15th virtually turns the hole into a three-shot hole just to reach the undulating, elevated green.
If you are absolutely striping the golf ball, at least two of the four par 5 holes might be reachable, regardless of which direction the wind is blowing. However, hit a poor tee shot on any of these holes, and getting up and down for par becomes a real challenge.
Typical of most Arthur Hills courses I’ve played, the greens of the Big Blue Course are large complexes that are well-bunkered and contain multiple slopes and undulations, which puts a premium on shot-making and flight control.
With an abundant supply of water from the course’s multiple reservoirs, Big Blue has seemingly perpetually lush, dark green fairways, tees, and greens. Our visit this summer was no different, as the recent wave of unseasonably cool weather left the tee-to-green bent grass thriving.
Selfishly, I’m glad that the Big Blue Course is once again open to public play. It is big, long, difficult course unlike almost any other public course in Central Kentucky. To challenge par, the course requires accuracy, precision, and patience.
I would like to think that local knowledge of the course might save me a few strokes a side. However, having played the course probably 30-plus times, I routinely struggle to break 90 on Big Blue, and this recent visit was no different.
There have been some cuts to inventory in the pro shop, the grill room’s menu is a little shorter, and the shine on the little extras that made the University Club such a privilege have begun to fade.
Fortunately, the course remains in near pristine, private club condition, which when combined with the fantastic layout of holes, makes Big Blue still extremely fun to play, even if, like me, you’re not exactly on top of your game.