Karsten Creek Golf Club was named after the founder of Ping, the late Karsten Solheim, and the course was fashioned by Tom Fazio. The 110-acre Lake Louise, named after Karsten’s wife, is a predominant back nine feature of the course, especially on the 555-yard downhill closing hole that requires a forced carry across the lake which then borders the entire length of the hole.
The Solheims were major backers of the Oklahoma State University golf teams in recent years and that support continues into the future with a high tech OSU private practice facility located close to the clubhouse.
The holes at Karsten Creek were hewn from thick forest and although most playing corridors are relatively wide, it goes without saying that more wayward shots will be harshly punished within the dense wooded areas that line the fairways.
In Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses You Can Play book by Brian McCallen, playing conditions are described thus: “The ball sits up nicely on the zoysia-grass fairways. Greens, surfaced in bentgrass, are subtly contoured and very fast. Many have been left open in front to encourage bump-and-run shots, a sound option when the prevailing southwest breeze stirs.
“Among the feature holes is the par three 11th , which plays straight up the throat of a sunken creek to a large, terraced green; and the rigorous 17th, a par four stretching to 464 yards with water guarding the entire left side. It’s one of the tougher holes on a layout that carries a course rating of 74.8 and a slope of 142 from the championship tees at 7,095 yards (par is 72).”
I had been wanting to play Karsten Creek due to the excellence of the men’s college golf team from Oklahoma State University. It was reputed to be the best college golf course in America which would be high praise given the quality of the golf courses at Yale, Duke, North Carolina, Williams, Clemson, Stanford, Michigan and Ohio State.
This Tom Fazio design was completed due to the involvement of donors to the university’s team in recognition of one of the most successful college golf coaches of all-time, Mike Holder, who coached the team for 32 years. Mr. Holder took almost a decade to locate the land and raise the funds for purchasing and building the club. He found the land via a person who shared his office, not knowing the type of land he wanted actually was so close to the university with a lake and rolling terrain (front nine). It is named for Karsten Solheim who was instrumental in raising the initial funds to build the golf course.
Karsten Creek was voted best new course by Golf Digest in 1997 and appears on many of the top 100 public golf courses in the U.S.A, typically in the top 25. As new public resort courses appear from the minimalist designers, it has fallen considerably due to courses at Streamsong, Bandon Dunes, and Sand Valley.
My member friend told me that I should expect to play a very non-traditional design by Mr. Fazio as the course is very difficult and not pretty until the end when it reaches Lake Louise (named after Karsten Solhiem’s wife). This par 72 course is 7449 yards from the tournament tees with a rating of 77.2/152. There is a dramatic reduction of yardage to the next set of tees at 6597 yards with a rating of 73.3/141 which is what we played.
Prior to Karsten Creek being built, Oklahoma State often used Lakeside Golf Course for practice and events. But Mr. Holder felt he needed a better golf course to attract more talented golfers rather than developing them as the previous successful coach, Labron Harris, had done. I am certain Mr. Holder wanted Mr. Fazio to build a difficult, challenging course. I wonder whether Mr. Fazio felt he was in competition with Pete Dye’s hard course at Oak Tree National. What makes Karsten Creek difficult are the trees, rocks, and tall grass once off the fairway. If one leaves the fairway, they are often struggling to find their ball, or if found, have little more than a shot laterally back to the fairway. Yet Mr. Fazio designed the course to be more playable from those forward tees with wide fairways, few bunkers, while the greens are not overly contoured. As to the fairways, there are several holes on the front nine offering uneven lies to contemplate on one’s approach shots. Perhaps he made the second set of tees much “easier” to entice donors. Yet I found the tees we played to still be very challenging.
I was told, but did not try to confirm this, that when Mr. Holder was the coach of the OSU team, he had a lot of depth to his teams. To determine who would play in that week’s competition, he would send his team out to Karsten Creek with one ball and he would determine who would play by the person who could complete the round or perhaps go the farthest before losing their ball. I did lose two balls and considered that a victory.
I played Karsten Creek on May 13, 2017 after playing a morning round at Twin Hills. This was my final round of a nearly two-week trip that included eleven rounds of golf and a 12K run in Oklahoma. Perhaps it was due to fatigue from all of the golf but I do not remember as much of Karsten Creek as I normally do. Or perhaps it is simply because the trees are so overwhelming that it is hard to distinguish one hole from another.
For me the highlights at Karsten Creek are the par 3’s and the finishing holes on the water. While playing I did note the holes I thought to be worth recognition as #2, #5, #6, #8, #9, #11, #13, #15, #16 and #17. #8 and #11 are the best holes. I felt the par 5’s to be relatively benign. The course plays very differently for good players from the back tees than for the average player as there are many long, forced carries, some of which I probably could not make.
The greens are large but straightforward and left me wondering why more interesting greens were not built. My member host told me the greens can be speedy but they were not for our threesome in early May. I am not saying the greens could ever be like the Course at Yale, but there is a lack of shaping here. In addition, trees are close to many of the greens resulting in a lack of good green surrounds and chipping areas. Perhaps they did not have the budget to clear more trees and rock but there is a claustrophobic nature that one can feel when arriving at the green. Perhaps that was intentional as OSU wants its players to learn how to hit greens in regulation, but I feel it is likely to diminish one’s short game if you rarely have to use it.
There are also fewer bunkers here than one would normally find on a course designed by Mr. Fazio. I think that is a good thing given the harsh penalty from venturing into the tree that never leave the golf course until the eighteenth hole. The highest number of bunkers is on the fourth hole where there are five. The eighth hole has no bunkers. Many of the fairways have only a single bunker.
I thought the par 3’s to be the highlight of the golf course. The third hole plays downhill at 198/177 and has a nice horizontal spine in the middle of the green. There are two fronting bunkers that are fairly deep.
The uphill seventh is a par 3 of 206/165 where you do not want to be short. The green has a false front and deep bunkers on a steep fall-off on the right side of the green. It is a tough recovery shot from those bunkers. There are a lot of large rocks below those bunkers which create a nice visual but one should not be there. The safe miss is to the left of the green. The back half of the green is flatter than the front half and overall is also slopes left to right consistent with the land.
Eleven is a nice hole as a par 3 of 209/169 playing downhill from an elevated tee where the creek seems intimidating but really is in play only if the flag is on the left. A mound on the right can propel balls back onto the green. Hitting into the trees on the left leaves one with nothing good.
Fifteen is a lovely par 3 at 217/175 with a nicely contoured green and chipping areas. It has two large bunkers left and one behind the green. It also has a false front with a substantial fall-off and hollow on the left.
As to the par 5’s thankfully for such a difficult golf course, Karsten Creek begins with a “gentler” par 5 going uphill at 542/496 with a bunker left off the fairway and then two at the green. Due to the terrain changes with slightly higher ground off the fairway, this hole is a double dogleg first left than right as the trees come in at various points on either side. If one plays the hole conservatively and can stay out of the trees they will likely make a par.
Nine bookends the front nine with the second par 5 and it’s a long one at 623/535. I looked at the tournament tee way behind and above me and thought that I would not have been able to hit a driver to the fairway due to the long carry. This dogleg left seems to go on and on tumbling down the hill with some significant, sudden drop-offs. Trees seems to be a part of the green complex given their close proximity.
Fourteen is a par 5 of 570/522 and the par 5 I liked the most with another long, forced carry. It has the most interesting greens of the par 5’s and the trees do not seem to crowd one as much as on one and nine.
Eighteen is a nice finishing par 5 of 551/482 with the tee shot over the water as a dogleg left. The brave hitter will try to carry as much water as they can while the conservative player will play towards the center-right. For shorter hitters, it is difficult to carry the water if there is any wind in one’s face. Mr. Fazio put a bunker on the left side against the water which I do not like as it offers too much safety for the riskier player. Assuming the fairway has been found, this is a pretty simple hole. There are two bunkers front right and one left center of the green which is elevated but not very near the lake. Finally, there is some room around the green for chipping if that is required. The green is long and large. It is a beautiful hole from the tee with the long view of Lake Louise.
As to the par 4’s of note, eight is a long downhill par 4 of 501/412. Much like nine, the tournament tee has a very long forced carry where I do not think I could make the fairway. I walked back to it, studied it, shook my head, and then walked to my tee. The tees are built on “levels.” This dogleg right has no bunkers. I feel this is the most difficult hole on the golf course from the tournament tees due to both length and the angle into the green. From the tees I played I feel the second hole, rated the number one index, as the hardest pa4 4 at 458/40but uphill. The second was one of three holes I double-bogeyed.
The twelfth is the easiest hole on the course and the shortest par 4 at 350/340. The green has its crown in the middle and a single bunker on the right front. Fall-offs right and behind can send one’s ball into the stream that pinches in from the right and continues behind the green. This hole is the most fun hole on the course.
Thirteen plays over the water with a forced carry to this par 4 of 425/404 where it seems a wider fairway is on offer but Mr. Fazio left some trees on the right coming nearly onto the fairway. If you play down the left there are some trees on the left side near the green that can block one’s view.
The green for the sixteenth hole sits on Lake Louise. Finally at this green one gets a chance to escape the trees and breathe. This par 4 of 471/399 starts with another long, forced carry and has a single bunker on the right. It is a nice green location with a small bunker fronting the green and a larger one on the right. The water line is well behind the green and not in play. This is one of the better shaped green complexes due to little mounds and swales.
Seventeen is a long par 4 of 471/428 where the back tee has a long, forced carry over Lake Louise of perhaps 220 yards. Trees are on both sides for the tee shot to frame the hole and perhaps prevent balls going left from heading into the lake. This green is close to the water with a single bunker at the front left.
Inside the clubhouse which serves also as the locker room for the OSU golf teams, there is an impressive display of the accomplishments of the teams and individual players. You should make a point to see it. Outside between the clubhouse and the parking lot is a circle denoting the many donors to Karsten Creek and the OSU golf teams. It is equally impressive.
As to the question is Karsten Creek the best college golf course in the country. I have not played the Scarlet course at Ohio State or Taconic, but I do think it is better than the others. Yale has the architectural pedigree but it now lacks the difficulty required for good amateur players. Karsten Creek is certainly better than Duke, North Carolina, and Michigan. Only Stanford is better as it has more beauty and variety.
What I found missing at Karsten Creek is consistency. The front nine is hilly while the back nine is relatively flat. The final three holes are open whereas every other hole is closed in with no view due to the trees. The green surrounds could be more interesting but that would require clearing out some additional trees. The greens are beautifully conditioned but are not as contoured as they could be. I can see how the course would be very useful for recruiting purposes for the college. The course is so good it will offset the harsh winters when the wind makes everything colder. It makes me wonder whether the golf teams spend a lot of time down south or west in the winter. I highly recommend stopping here to play. A very nice trip is to play Southern Hills, Oak Tree National, Karsten Creek and The Patriot which is the order I rate them.
Loyalties run deep, which is why I take a little offense that Purdue's fabulous 36 holes aren't mentioned in your list of top notch university courses. I see a few on that list that I'd consider inferior.
Karsten is an oasis of golf, tucked back into a wooded area in the sometimes treeless Oklahoma prairie. Other than holes finishing stretch of 18 through 18, each hole is nestled into own secluded environment. Fairways are of generous width, but beyond a narrow width of rough lies a what is likely an unplayable lie in the woods. Greens, are some of the consistently best in the surrounding area. When rolling quick, you better pay attention to which side of the pin your approach is playing into to avoid being above the hole or being shortsided. Inside the clubhouse is an amazing tribute to the dynasty of Oklahoma State Cowboys golf and includes accolades for all of the individual and team national championships as well as the Cowboys in amateur and professional ranks.