One of the true highlights of my season occurred this past week as I was twice invited to play golf at Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington, KY.
For those of you unfamiliar with Idle Hour Country Club (IHCC), it’s arguably the most famous, most exclusive, and most secretive of all the golf and country clubs in the Bluegrass area, and perhaps all of Kentucky.
Thus, my getting invited to eat lunch and play golf there is basically equivalent to me taking a stroll down Magnolia Lane or being invited beyond that gates at Seminole Golf Club.
IHCC isn’t the kind of place that often ends up in the local newspaper, and the golf course doesn’t show up on a lot of “bests” list, primarily, I suppose, because that’s exactly how its members want things.
Make no mistake, though; just because the Idle Hour’s golf course doesn’t show up on a bunch of self-aggrandizing lists doesn’t mean the course isn’t fantastic. It is.
This 1924 Donald Ross design, located just a few short miles from Lexington’s downtown city center, shows no sign of its age, and as far as I could tell, only seems to get better with each turn of the calendar.
The design of the individual holes is interesting and challenging, each with its own little risk/reward strategy at play. The bunkers are in the correct places to challenge and frustrate a golfer from the tee, as many of the parkland style fairways are guarded by a mix of hardwood and evergreen trees.
Upon first impression, I thought driving the ball at Idle Hour was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t that the fairways were narrow in absolute terms, but the subtle angles created from the tee boxes were enough to justify feeling uncomfortable with a driver in-hand.
On the first nine, water comes into play on a couple of long par fours, making for a steep penalty if one tries to find a little extra power off the tee and misses.
The 3rd and 7th holes are particularly intimidating tee shots, and second shots for that matter, even on the second go around the course.
My host informed me that several years ago, the course changed or added several links style fairway bunkers, complete with high faces on the green side, and whose edges contain the long, scruffy fescue you’d expect to find on a true British links course.
Several of these strategically placed links bunkers’ faces were tall enough to add to the visual intimidation on the tee box, as not knowing exactly what was behind them was discomforting and tended to force me to aim away from the bunkers all together. Of course, the second time around, they were only slightly less scary from a strategic standpoint.
Nonetheless, the golf course at Idle Hour isn’t a brow-beating exercise in pain or masochism. There are several holes that lend themselves to good scoring if a golfer simply executes the shots that the design of hole requires.
What I mean by this is that every fairway, long, short, wide, or narrow, did include a reasonable landing area. At just under 6,700 yards from the “Back” tees, Idle Hour plays to a course rating and slope of 71/132, which at first guess would make the course susceptible to long hitters.
There is a set of “Ross” championship tees that play considerably longer than the back tees, though the notion of trying to hit hybrids and long irons into those greens all day conjures up an entirely new set of potential nightmares. It was difficult enough trying to scramble from the back tees.
All of the sets of holes, the par 3’s, par 4’s and par 5’s, included a nice variety in length of the holes and the shot-making skills required to score well. Shorter holes included a barrage of hazards, while the longer holes largely tested my ability to get up and down.
However, the relatively short yardage does not take into account the lightning quick, largely elevated greens at Idle Hour. I’ve played fast greens before on some championship tracts (i.e., Hurstbourne Country Club in Louisville, Traditions G.C. in Northern Kentucky), but I don’t think I’d ever putted on greens that were as fast as Idle Hour’s that lacked severe sloping and undulation like Idle Hour.
Much like Persimmon Ridge, the greens are the real stars and defenders of par at Idle Hour. Playing at the tail end of the dog-days of August, the prodigious ball marks left by even a marginal approach shot made obvious that the green complexes were receiving a tremendous amount of water.
So, the greens were at least receptive and would hold a well struck ball. Nonetheless, all the water in the world apparently wouldn’t slow the speed of the ball rolling across Idle Hour’s impeccable putting surfaces.
Whether large or small, all of the greens were all sloped in one direction or another. However, with the exception of a few notable ridges, the slopes were natural, subtle, almost sneaky.
I didn’t notice any greens that included gimmicky, multi-tiered shelves that you’d expect to find on your garden variety upscale 1980’s or 1990’s designed course. Even once I got a handle on the tremendous speed of the greens, reading the greens accurately remained at a premium, as much or more so when chipping as when putting.
The overall feel and lasting impression made by having played 36 holes at Idle Hour is one of impeccable quality. The course was absolutely manicured and in pristine condition, without being ostentatious or over-the-top.
For instance, I don’t recall seeing one patch of nut sedge or crabgrass, even in the rough, at which I received an extended viewing.
If I had but one critique of Idle Hour, it would be that time, and several excellent renovations, have taken a toll on the routing of the holes. For a course whose topography remains very conducive to walking, there are several green to tee strolls that are quite lengthy and appear confusingly out-of-order to the newcomer.
Nonetheless, it was refreshing to observe that there are no paved paths on the course at Idle Hour, and only a small handful of mulched pathways for carts at certain bottlenecks and high-traffic areas.
The ninety degree temperatures gave my host and I the moral cover to justify using a cart, and without his guidance, I’m certain I would have gotten lost several times.
Idle Hour may well have been a country retreat when it was constructed, but as is true with so many courses of its vintage, the city grew out to and beyond Idle Hour’s serene 18 hole retreat.
Despite being bordered by a main thoroughfare, an active railroad, and long-established housing development on all sides, Idle Hour remains a peaceful oasis of calm and decorum amidst the hustle and bustle of Lexington.
The tremendous foliage of the trees and shrubs bordering the golf course almost obfuscate the walls and fences separating the course from the outside world.
My capacious beard made me an obvious interloper amongst the members of Idle Hour I encountered during my visits, but to a man (or woman), everyone was polite and welcoming. Never once was I shot a dirty look or made to feel like I didn’t belong there.
My first two rounds at Idle Hour will forever remain in an esteemed parcel of my memory bank. It was a truly first-class experience on all fronts, and I now have a fuller appreciation why my friend, who is a member of Idle Hour, rarely plays any other area courses in the Bluegrass area.
For a golf enthusiast or the Kentuckian alike, Idle Hour is one of those golf courses that if you should have on your bucket list. It is, in fact, that wonderful.