In The Highest Regard – Big Spring Country Club, Louisville, KY

The par 3 2nd hole displays the relatively flat ground of the southern half of the course, and the meticulously maintained turf and green complex.

If you asked me to close my eyes and said “country club golf course,” Louisville’s Big Spring Country Club is what I would see in my mind. It’s the best prototypical private local club course that I’ve played. It’s not a gem from a master of golf’s Golden Age of architecture, or big enough to host modern professional tournaments, but it is the best combination of difficulty, intrigue, and enjoyment, things I value highly in a “members’ course,” that I have played.

By reputation, Big Spring Country Club is one of Louisville’s venerable old clubs in golf and social circles. It’s not on any Top 100 lists, but I’d cancel appointments and tee times most anywhere else to go play it again. After playing there, I understand why golf architect Rees Jones keeps getting work.

Setting

Like many formerly rural or suburban courses of a certain vintage, the Louisville metropolitan area has swallowed the Big Spring property, making it very much an urban golf course. The absence of housing abutting the course and the abundant tree canopy gives the course a secluded feel despite the bustling city around it.

The 9th green is a good example of only half of a green being protected by a bunker, while the other side uses longer rough to dissuade attacking that side of the green.

The course is set on only 163 acres, which is very compact by modern design and routing standards. Despite this dearth of space, the routing makes each hole feel a tad isolated rather than some place where one requires a helmet or keeping their head on a swivel for wayward shots from other holes, and the playing corridors were wide enough to give a player options when attacking the greens.

Enough room…except for the airplanes flying low overhead. Really low. The 5th tee

On the 5th tee boxes are at the end of the NE runway of Bowman Field. Exactly 170 yards. I had to mention to one of my playing partners that he might consider backing off his pre-shot routine as he was addressing the ball and waggling because there was a very real possibility that he was going to hit the Cessna preparing to pass directly in front of us on approach. The ridiculous truth of my suggestion was good for a handful of laughs.

The approach to the par 4 13th hole requires a shot straight up the hill to green surface that can’t be seen from the fairway.

The northern half of the property is dominated by the Middle Fork of the Beargrass Creek, which meanders through the course’s valleys.  It acts not only as a water feature on multiple holes, but the valleys created by the creek’s path provide the most dramatic elevation changes of the course, adding layers of interest on top of the architecture.

The southern half of the property is fairly flat, moving thru parkland style, tree lined fairways, leading to more docile green complexes, relying more on architectural strategy and eye-candy camouflage. Transitions between the two distinct topographical sections create a natural flow, a series of small crescendo moments to the round.

Big Spring appears to be an excellent walking course, with a few challenging inclines and gentle declines, with plenty of flat patches of respite to make the hike manageable for all.  As a private club, use of caddies or forecaddies seems like a natural fit, given the terrain and course character.

History

What is colloquially identified as Big Spring Country Club is more accurately the Big Spring campus of the Big Spring Country Club.  In 2014, Big Spring CC combined with Harmony Landing County Club in Goshen, KY, an affluent Louisville suburb to the city’s northeast, to create a single 36-hole club with two campuses.

A signature hole, the tough par four 5th hole tumbles downhill from the tee, then back up to the green while the camber of the fairway reverses along the dogleg.

The club and original course date back to 1926, when George Davies laid out the original routing (coincidentally, Davies also laid out the original 9-hole layout at the original aforementioned Big Spring – Harmony Landing campus.). The course underwent significant renovations under William Diddel (1951) and Arthur Hills (1988), but the club now proudly credits Rees Jones with a complete redesign in 2004, with co-design credit given to Bryce Swanson.

Carrying forward his commitment as an ASCGA Fellow, Jones incorporated the Longleaf Tee System at Big Spring. It is an initiative that adds tee boxes and teeing areas to courses so that players of every skill level have an opportunity to experience the course from the proper distances. Sometimes that means additional formal tee boxes, sometimes it means placing teeing areas forward in strategic parts of the fairway.

I didn’t notice that there were any extra tee boxes on my visit. Rather, I only noticed something unique upon studying Big Spring’s scorecard, noticing that there are eight tee boxes listed. The course starts at the Brown tees at 2,148 yards with a course rating and slope of 53.8/93, stretching all the way to the Black tees at 6,958 yards with a course rating and slope of 74.3/138.

From the bottom of Big Spring’s 5th fairway, one gets a sense of the roller coaster topography and blind shots that dominate the northern half of the property.

Among the more remarkable moments of Big Spring’s history came when it served as the host course for the 1952 PGA Championship.  The event was the only major win for Jim Turnesa, who won the match play final 1-up over Chick Harbert, who would go on to win the 1954 PGA Championship. Of historical interest, the Big Spring’s course played to 6,620 yards for the Championship, and Turnesa walked away with the $3,500 winner’s share of the $17,700 prize pool

The Course

During the KGA AmSeries event that I played in, my flight played a hybrid tournament tee box that played to roughly 6,400 yards with a course rating of 71.1.  The aforementioned Black tees at Big Spring Country Club stretch to a course rating of 74.3 at 6,925 yards, though I assure you that the course plays much tougher than that yardage might indicate.

Big Spring shares a telltale characteristic of most golf courses around Louisville, in that, portions of the course that do provide elevation change generally have steep grades and narrow hills in places.  The contrast is stark coming from the Bluegrass plateau around Lexington, where the hills are much shallower and more gently rolling.

The par 3 15th hole is one of the few that guarded both left and right sides of the green with bunkers, adding difficulty and interest to what might be an otherwise unremarkable hole to relax upon.

The course layout features plenty of bunkers, 58 of them, in fact, all with very modern, Rees-ian shapes and curvatures. There are fingerlings, amoebas, clusters, and even a coffin behind the 14th green to catch waywardly long shots from trundling down the valley to the creek below.

Despite the wealth of sound to be found on the course, the bunkers are very well done from a strategic point of view. Rarely was there simply a bunker left, a bunker right, and a bunker behind the green. The green complexes contain great variety, with one side of the hole the relatively easier side from which to attack, provided one is comfortable with thick, grabby rough instead of sand.

Moving back from the green to the fairways, at least one bunker clung to every fairway, but rarely more than two could be in the landing area, and very rarely on both sides of the fairway. leaving a golfer options. The fairway bunkers, to some extent, provide eye-candy attraction, while the real challenge of a hole may be presented to the golfer in the forms of elevation change, fairway pitch, and divergent results based on angles of attack to the green.

The 4th green looks fairly benign from this view from the right of the green, but a deceptively devilish tilt from back to front makes any shot long a hope for a two-putt.

The greens are on the large side, with distinct sections divided by ledges, ridges, gentle slopes, or changes in pitch and camber. The green shapes display good variety, and are generally receptive of shots from multiple angles. However, the firmness of the greens and trouble often lurking long place an emphasis on distance control rather than executing precise shot trajectories.

If there’s an overall theme or feel to the Big Spring course, it’s that it seems to fit it’s place. The round there feels like a golf journey though a magnificent city park.  There’s a quiet luxury at work on the course; there are very few places where the scenery or vista would take one’s breath away or demand a quick picture as a keepsake. However, each hole provides multiple reasons to appreciate simply being there, the golf strategy involved chief among them.

The scale of the holes and the way the routing work together fit the property nearly perfectly. There are plenty of visual respites from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city, but the planes approaching the airport and the occasional murmur of traffic remind one of what likes on the other side of the perimeter tree line.

Featured Holes

Several holes stand out as more memorable or more interesting than the rest at Big Spring, with one somewhat notorious monster that might take a handful of rounds to even begin to solve. It’s no surprise that a majority of those holes are ones on the more interesting land, those above or abutting Beargrass Creek, that take advantage of the beauty of the natural hills and valleys.

The par three 6th hole is a true beauty, requiring a shot from an elevated tee to an elevated green, with a flowing creek and valley set between the two.

The par four fifth hole begins the transition from the flat parkland portion of the course towards the more rolling hills. From an elevated tee, the preferred shot would a big draw that might swoop around the corner of the gentle dogleg. Hit the drive far enough and the approach will be from an uphill lie to a green perched on top of the hill. From further back or further right on the drive, the stance for the second shot compounds the significant distance disadvantage.

The false front of the green turns a tough semi-blind shot into a brutal uphill assault that will likely leave a tough pitch just to get up and down for par. It’s a beautiful hole that invites an aggressive play from the tee with the promise of a stealing a shot from the field if the drive is well executed.

The lovely par three sixth is perhaps the most picturesque hole from the tee at Big Spring.  It’s just plain scenic and pretty, with lots of eye candy to dominate the golfer’s visual assessment of the hole. For instance, from the elevated tee, a bend in the Beargrass Creek catches the eye, as if it were guarding the left side of the hole much closer than it actually does.

From the 7th tee, all one can see is trouble. Tree trouble. Sand trouble. Water trouble. Angle trouble.

Playing over a the valley carved by the creek and the unfortunate cart path, the massive bunker carved into the hill to the right of the green places the target between two devastatingly penal areas. One would be forgiven, then, for failing to notice that the approach landing area short of the green is actually offset diagonally, inviting a draw into the green. A closely mown area behind the green, which slopes significantly from back to front, makes for a tricky up and down if the tee shot is too aggressive. Middle of the green is always a good play.

The par 5 seventh hole is a different kind of signature hole at Big Spring. It’s notorious. It violates one of the few design principles that should be inviolable: it’s a long par five that likely takes driver out of play from the tee. The 4th hole at Eagle Ridge is the only other long par five that comes to mind that has three consecutive sections of fairway that may take driver out of play from the tee.

From the tee shot landing area, the 7th holes second shot options are daunting, at best.

Big Spring’s 7th hole begins in the valley beneath the 6th green, then bends hard to the right with a hillside and collection of large, mature hardwood trees guarding the inside of the dogleg. Going over the top of the trees to cut the corner is speculative, at best with the creek guarding the entire right side of the middle section of the fairway.

Thus, players are left to play around the hills and trees on the right, playing straight forward and laying back from the tee. From the back tees, unless one can bend the ball to the right like it’s got a wound core and a balata cover, the play is to hit a fade more than 170 yards to clear the first crossing of the creek, but less than 230 yards, which would put a shot into the bunker on the far side of the fairway, leaving almost no room for a smart, aggressive play.

Oddly, instead of simply requiring a forced carry to cover the first intersection of the creek, there is a maintained fairway on the short side of the creek, beginning 110 yards from the tee, running for 30 yards.

Looking back down the fairway from the 7th green, I see a wealth of alternative possibilities.

If one has found the fairway short of the first bunker, one is left with a short iron to carry the turn of the creek that bisects the 2nd and 3rd fairways. From that second creek intersection, the hole moves straight up the hill to a green perched atop its crest, with a green that slopes back to front significantly.

From the landing zone, it would require a shot of more than 270 yards up the hill to reach the green through a narrowing fairway; it’s a tough ask for players of all skill levels. There is nothing wrong with a three-shot par 5, but this hole feels so disjointed, like it’s parts are out of order or out of place.

After studying the hole and the surrounding topography, the hole would support an intriguing par four hole covering the same ground. From the existing forward tees, the hole plays roughly 375 to the middle of the green.

The golfer would be put to a decision straight away: carry the creek or lay back? It would be 210 yards to get into the creek or 230 yards to carry the creek and find the fairway. Laying back would leave 170 yards uphill to reach the green or a mere short iron or wedge to reach the green if the creek was carried on the drive. That seems imminently more interesting that the current configuration.

The 12th hole should be easier than it looks, but there’s a lot of trouble to be found.

After a sojourn through the flatter portion of the property on either side of the turn, the course returns to the hills and valleys of the Beargrass Creek, with the 12th thru 14th making the best use of the course’s features on the back nine, and cleverly camouflaging the areas of safety and danger by using that elevation, hazards, and mowing lines so that there aren’t any particularly comfortable shots within that stretch.

The 12th hole is a gambler’s dream, a short, downhill par four full of options and peril. On a straight line, down the hill, a shot of 275 yards would land on the green, with a narrow landing area short of the green wedged between the creek and a pond.  Trying to drive and hold the green with such a tiny margin of error would be nuts, but not impossible.

The 12th is a really fun hole that makes one think there are options, though so many of them are terrible ideas.

The smart tee shot on the 12th hole is to play to the distance that creates the best chance to hit the approach close, whether it be a pitch or a full shot. A drive of 235 yards will carry or roll through the left half of the fairway, leaving a terrible angle, or worse, roll into the creek from the right half of the fairway.

The design says pick a shot to lay back to a certain distance, commit to it, and execute with a mid iron, yet there are so many other options and visual distractions that the 12th hole can produce a terribly uncomfortable shot. The approach shot ought to be fairly straightforward as well, but the water and the sand, with the possibility of hitting from the sand into the water, add extra pressure to any shot there.

The concept of uncomfortable shots extends to the next hole at Big Spring, as the thought process of picking a target on the 13th hole in my pre-rangefinder days was miserable. This tough, uphill par four puts the risk decision to the golfer straight away, as the tee shot requires a carry off a large pond: the more pond one chooses to carry, the shorter the second shot to the green on top of the hill.

For extremely long players, a large bunker awaits on the far side of the fairway at 280 yards. Whether one could theoretically reach the sand or not, it’s an intimidating piece of the visual puzzle of the hole that affects the psyche much more than the actual shot.

There are no good feelings associated with Big Spring’s 13th tee. None. A good hole, though.

Play the tee shot too conservatively, away from the pond, and one risks going through the fairway into the rough or the 14th fairway, which results in the approach shot to the green being completely blocked (the author’s chosen route, as it were).

All of this before attempting to calculate the true playing distance of an extremely uphill approach shot to a semi-blind green surface that one can only imagine. The 13th is a hole that likely gets significantly easier upon subsequent rounds, once a player determines the best aiming line and strategy for his or her game, but for a one off appearance, the hole is a bear.

Concluding this wonderful three-hole stretch is the short par four 14th hole. Once again, the golfer is faced with a significant strategic decision before any club is pulled from the bag.

The choice is between laying back to take advantage of the widest part of the fairway with a shot of approximately 200 yards (or less), thereby taking the bunkers out of play from the tee, or aggressively attacking the skinny part of the fairway by curving a drive around or carrying over the bunkers (approximately 245 yard carry) to set up a veritable long pitch shot for an approach to the green.

For someone that predominately hits a draw, the look of the hole invites taking on the risk of the fairway bunkers and the trees to the right, as the curvature of the fairway fits that shape shot perfectly.

The 14th green is guarded like a fortress, with a tiny strip of fairway approach flanked by a massive drop off below the green surface level to the left and a desert of sand short and right. The green slopes significantly from back to front, which compounds the trouble if one goes long and reaches the sneaky, blind bunker behind the green, which prevents a wayward long shot from ambling all the way down the massive slope to the creek below.

Experience

Big Spring’s golf course is incredibly difficult, but I didn’t feel beat up after 18 holes because on so many shots, I felt like I had options from which to choose, so my rather large score was the product of my poor choices, poor execution, or both. This was quite the contrast after playing another, more famous Rees Jones renovation, the appropriately names Dubsdread course at Cog Hill outside Chicago.

The 18th hole was one of the few that hemmed a player in with sand on both sides of the fairway, punishing wayward long and short players alike.

My day at Big Spring was in a KGA Tournament. I shot myself out of the money pretty early on in the day, so I was able to take in and enjoy the surroundings. The course stands as a testament to the idea that length is not required to add difficulty to a golf course, and the more a course makes a golfer think around a course, the more difficult and more fun the course becomes.

Controlling distances, controlling trajectories, and patience on the greens were the keys to scoring on our event’s day. A true basher of the golf ball gained only a slight advantage on most of the holes because the angle from which one approached the green was as important as being close to the green.  It’s a real player’s course, one that must be thought around rather than just swung around for anyone other than the longest elite players.

Impeccably maintained inside the urban core, Big Spring is a course that should produce high caliber players capable of hitting a variety of shots or attacking holes in a variety of ways. I would feel absolutely spoiled if I got to play it with regularity, it’s that good. If you are fortunate enough to be extended an invitation to play Big Spring, accept it graciously and count yourself as lucky that day.

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