In 2016, our annual Guys’ Golf Trip took us to the greater Indianapolis metro to explore the best public courses in the area. Indy is well-known for its many memorable Pete Dye-designed golf courses, but it was a course constructed by Dye understudy, Tim Liddy, ASGCA, that perhaps made the most lasting impression.
The Trophy Club in Lebanon, Indiana, located 20-plus miles outside the Interstate 465 loop, is a charming, linksy golf course set over gently rolling terrain, straddling both sides of Prairie Creek. The setting very much resembles the rolling hills of central Kentucky’s Bluegrass region.
Built in 1996, its design and execution defy many of the worst qualities of contemporaneously constructed golf courses, creating an experience composed of familiar aesthetics, generous use of width, and memorable challenges posed.
The course’s tree-lined perimeter separates it from the surrounding farms, but the course’s interior is largely treeless, save for the shaded banks of the aforementioned Prairie Creek, which nominally comes into play on eight holes, though it certainly doesn’t intrude on most shots or strategic decisions.
The lack of trees make for longer, gentler vistas, somewhat hiding the subtle tee to green elevation changes in plain sight, frustrating golfers foolish enough to select clubs casually.
While Pete Dye is known for incorporating deceptive, visually intimidating features into his designs, Liddy’s Trophy Club is visually welcoming course. There are no houses or other non-golf distractions adjoining the course, providing an oasis for golf within a sea of farms.
At 7,317 yards from the tips with a slope and course rating of 75.3/138 from the championship tees, the course has plenty of defenses of par. We found plenty of interest and challenge from the much friendlier blue tees, which play closer to 6,600 yards with a slope and course rating of 72.1/130.
Long fescue and bluegrass native areas frame the individual holes, which are played on beautiful, lush, dark green bent grass fairways, several of which measure more than 60 yards wide. Trophy Club is a golf course on which an average golfer should not lose many balls.
On holes lacking interesting natural features, Liddy skillfully constructed smart land forms, including small, high grass-faced bunkers that resemble moguls, adding intrigue and compounding the links-style feel of the course.
In addition to the gently winding Prairie Creek and a few small ponds that form obvious hazards to avoid, the course’s wide playing corridors are freely accessible, though are plenty of fairway bunkers guarding the insides of dog legs and dictating shot shape decisions. The massive tee boxes are frequently mowed directly towards the trouble, so to speak, adding another visual trick for players to think through.
One of the subtly brilliant features of Trophy Club is the balance demanded by the design. While hitting the ball straight is always a theoretical option, the course favors hitting a draw on exactly nine tee shots and a fade on the remaining nine tee shots.
Accompanying this balance, Liddy incorporated the reversing of the shots concept on several holes, including holes 3, 12, and 15. This design concept, often credited to Donald Ross and expanded by Dye, requires a player to move the ball in both horizontal directions within the same hole, i.e., if a draw is desired from the tee to get into the best position, then a fade will be the best subsequent shot attacking the green.
The USGA specification greens and green complexes are the real stars at Trophy Club. Seventeen greens are noticeably deeper than they are wide, with at least one side of the green open from the fairway approach so that a ball can be run onto the green from a great distance away.
While at least one side of each green is generally guarded by one or more bunkers, there is frequently a bail out area available on the other side, behind the back of the green, or both, lending the course a level of playability not particularly common in courses of its vintage.
Very good holes that I found memorable include the 8th, 9th, and 11th holes.
The par three 8th hole is really cool visually, a bit intimidating, for a change, and has all the markers of Pete Dye’s influence. From the tee, the pond juts in from the right, overtaking the straight line between the player and the green, pushing one’s eyes to the left.
However, left of the green is a large mound littered with deep bunkers that will collect an errant bailout away from the water. True to Dye’s style, there is actually plenty of room to miss the green left or short, and a closely mown area behind the green, but those areas of safety aren’t where the eye is drawn.
The par five 9th hole is a fantastic risk-reward challenge that uses a center line bunker to force a decision from the tee.
Aiming right of the bunker is the higher risk, higher reward option, requiring the player to land between the center bunker and a pond hidden to the right of the fairway. Successfully executing this drive sets up the better angle and shorter distance to the green on the second shot, opening up an approach that can be run up onto the green free of bunkers.
If a player takes the safer route to the left of the center line bunker, then bunkers in the left rough come into play. The massive bunker guarding the center and left front of the green eliminates the option to run the ball up to the green from this side of the fairway, necessitating a lay up and an aerial third shot.
The uphill par five 11th hole, just two holes later, flips the script from the 9th, presenting a center line bunker and native grasses splitting the fairway on the landing area of the second shot.
The massive, ascending elevation change from tee to green means only the longest of hitters could possibly reach the green in two, so this center line hazard creates an intriguing decision matrix that can, frankly, lead to paralysis by analysis, a delightfully evil result that would surely make Mr. Liddy smile.
The massive green complex includes a long, slender bunker below the putting surface running the entire length of the green from front to back. An imposing closely mown collection area and swale hug the right side of the green.
This feature in particular creates its own set of options and challenges: if behind or in the swale, one could putt with a putter, hybrid, or wood to try to get the ball to the green, pitch it over the swale, try to flop it, or hit a running chip into the bank of the swale.
All of these options inevitably lead to one of three results, namely, that either the shot is well executed and ends up on the green, is duffed and the ball ends up in the bottom of the collection area, or the shot is too hard and the ball runs over the green into that long bunker below the left side the green. The possibility of playing ping-pong over and back, over and back is very real at the 11th green. Trust me.
The only hole that I didn’t particularly care for was the short, hard dog leg right par four 7th hole. The edges of the man-made pond are dead straight on two sides, creating hard lines not really present on the rest of the course.
The tee shot is too uncomfortable for being a relatively short hole, with a group of bunkers and out-of-bounds left, water on the right, and the possibility of tree trouble or out-of-bounds waiting for a drive hit through the fairway’s corner. Also, not personally a fan of the double hazard of a bunker lying between the green complex and the water on the approach.
I suspect one could counter these concerns by noting that the front of the green is unprotected and that there are generous collection areas left and long behind the green, encouraging the player to be aggressive on the second shot.
The tee shot simply didn’t fit my eye and I felt the hole was just a bit out-of-place with the rest of the course’s aesthetic. For my two cents, softening the contours of the pond, thereby creating a larger landing area and reducing the stark right-angle turn would decidedly improve the hole.
No more than two consecutive holes play in the same direction, so the routing does a nice job of playing into every possible wind direction. It should be noted that the routing does not return to the clubhouse after 9th hole, but there is a small halfway house available for snacks and facilities.
Set on 247 acres, there isn’t a lot of space wasted from green to tee, so I would hope that the course gets plenty of walkers, as the terrain certainly lends itself to a strenuous but enjoyable walk.
As I was preparing my initial draft of this review, The Wife asked, “What made that course so special? Why write about it now (more than two years after our group visited)?” My initial reaction, based on several days’ reflection of that very notion, was because the course is not particularly incredible, but yet I remember so much of it so vividly.
The Trophy Club is not an extravagant, bucket-list course that golfers would cross the country to play. It’s not featured at the top of many “Best of” lists, which is an oversight and a shame.
It is, however, a beautiful course that I could play every day and be very happy about. It’s physical attributes and the Pete Dye influences remind me very much of home course of Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Kentucky. Much like Kearney Hill, I would be very happy walking The Trophy Club on a regular basis, enjoying the different challenges presented in various wind and weather conditions and with a rotation of pin positions on the massive greens.
There are plenty of remarkable, highly regarded golf courses around the greater Indianapolis metropolitan area, both public and private. I don’t know where the Trophy Club course ranks on the pecking order with locals, but I thought it more than justified it’s $50 weekday greens fee with a cart and the drive a little out of the way from the city’s hustle and bustle to an entertaining golf oasis.