Founded in 1920, Kirtland Country Club quickly engaged Harry Colt’s associate, C.H. Alison, to design a new golf course on an attractive, 260-acre property to the north east of Cleveland. Within a year, the architect duly delivered when his new 18-hole layout was unveiled to an expectant membership.
The outward half plays out over a rolling landscape while the inward half is routed along the valley of the Chagrin River. Many of the holes are characterised by severely raised greens and pronounced bunkers, both features forcing golfers to carefully consider their tee shot placement in order to find the best angle of approach.
The modern day course retains most of its original design features, thanks mainly to a sympathetic restoration programme that was carried out by Ron Forse at the end of 2007, when he renewed all of the sand traps, recaptured width on many of the fairways and reclaimed putting surfaces on a number of green surrounds.
The front nine at Kirtland comprise a wonderful circuit of testing golf holes but these are simply overshadowed by a fantastic back nine, where the architect incorporated the flowing waters of the river at every opportunity for maximum strategic effect.And just when golfers think the exhilarating aspects of the inward half are about to subside, they’re invited to ride the funicular from the 17th green more than 150 feet up to the 18th tee at the home hole – what a wonderful way to end a round of golf.
Kirtland C.C. is considered to be in most golfers top 5 in Ohio. I was lucky enough to be an assistant pro @Kirtland during the mid 80's. Classic Alison design. Superb conditions, excellent caddie program, and a very fair but difficult layout. The first 7 holes would be a star at most courses. The next 11 are some of the best holes you will play. Gardner Dickinson once said the back 9 at Kirtland was his favorite 9 anywhere!! Hole # 10 is the most famous & gets the most photographs. #11 is a par 3 @ 220 yds. with the Chagrin River hugging the right side & #12 a long par 4 requiring a strong drive to clear the river, to an uphill undulating green. My favorite 3 hole toughest stretch anywhere. If you get the chance go play Kirtland !!
The Kirtland Country Club is known for having the best back nine in Ohio, and one of the better back nines in the USA. Because of this recognition, Kirtland is one of the five courses in the debate for best course in northeast Ohio.
The back nine is outstanding, with the course having a very good second, eighth and ninth holes as well. In fact, my host member told me the course begins on the eighth hole.
Charles Alison is the architect responsible for designing and routing Kirtland, which opened in 1921. Mr. Alison did not design many golf courses, but his designs are recognized as some of the finest around the world, particularly several in Japan.
I was impressed by the course despite the heavily soaked fairways from the previous day’s never-ending rain. After driving nearly 2000 miles, playing ten courses the previous six days, and “celebrating” the rainout of the previous day, I was also a bit tired. We played with a previous club champion who hits the ball pretty far, much like we did at Brookside. He was an excellent host telling us about each hole as we played it.
The front nine plays over longer rises and declines while the back nine begins with a 100 feet drop down to the fairway where you stay on lower ground until you reach the sixteenth hole. The back nine is better simply because of the land which is more dramatic with holes ten-seventeen set apart from the rest of the course. This stretch of holes is very secluded and makes one feel as if they are playing in the mountainous area of western North Carolina.
From the Black tees the course is 6967 yards, par 71, rated 73.9/139. From the Blue tees it is 6624 rated 72.7/133. From the White tees the course plays to a yardage of 6436, rated 72.0/132. Given the amount of rain the previous day where we were rained out at The Country Cub (over 3 inches in six hours, followed by periods of intermittent rain), we elected to play the White tees. With the course drenched and hearing water splashing with nearly every step on the fairways, it felt as if the course played 6800 yards. I will reference the Black and White tees as the Blue tees are a combination of these two.
1 – par 4 415/404. Teeing off to the left of the pro shop, driving range, near the parking lot and locker rooms, the first hole is a slight downhill dogleg left with an inner corner bunker and a collection of trees. The fairway is tilted to the right. The green is very elevated with a false front, steeply sloped back to front with a deep bunker on the right side due to the height of the green which perhaps crests as high as seven feet at its rear. Being above the pin for a putt will likely lead to a three putt. It is a good starting hole to ease one into the round.
2 – par 4 480/460. Heading back the other way, this hole is very difficult both due to its length, its uphill for the tee shot which adds more length, it is a dogleg right with another inner corner bunker and trees more in play down the right off the tee. The fairway slopes to the right so the left side is preferred. The trees continues down both sides to a green that is defended by a large bunker on either side. The green has decent inner contouring and is also sloped back to front and a bit right to left.
3 – par 3 164/148. I do not know why this hole did not appeal to me more than it did. Perhaps it was that the sky got very dark and a drizzle started and my mind started to imagine more rain. This is a good hole situated right next to Kirtland Road on its left. The hole plays uphill with a steep fall-off of the right side of the green. You play over a pond to a green that is a bit flatter than the two before but is well guarded by three bunkers left and one on the right. I flew the bunker on the right and had a blind shot due to the eight feet rise.
4 – par 4 415/385. This straight, uphill hole is perhaps the least attractive hole on the golf course, partially due to the power lines and electrical tower behind the green. Mr. Alison had nothing to do with that! There are no fairway bunkers until a large one off to the right about 35 yards short of the green, followed by a bunker down the entire left side of the green and one beginning about ten yards short of the green edging into the right side.
5 – par 4 404/385. This hole plays slightly downhill and is the best bunkered longer hole on the front nine with bunkers left and right set up on mounds on both sides of the fairway. There is another bunker about 300 yards from the tee on the right. The green is elevated again, although not as dramatic as the first, with another false front and flanking bunkers on each corner. These two holes do not worry the better players unless they get above the pin on the fifth.
6 – par 3 203/166. This longer par 3 plays over the same pond for the third hole with bunkers between the green and pond. There is another bunker to the left of the green. I wish I could remember the hole more but I bladed a shot from the front bunker well over the green so I rushed to finish out the hole given the dark skies. I do recall the green being flat.
7– par 4 382/372. Crossing between the second green and the third tee with out-of-bounds right to Kirtland Road, there are trees down the left side and a large bunker eating into the fairway. Another bunker is placed to the left of the green. The green is easy to read running to the right but difficult to recover if one misses to the left if the pin is also on the left.
8– par 5 534/525. A straight par 5 with some rolling land offers Sherwin Road as out-of-bounds on the right. The only fairway bunker is approximately 80 yards from the green on the left while a bunker is placed short of the green on the right. This is another raised green and very slick. The green makes this an above-average par 5.
9 – par 4 445/395. Although the pond on the par 3’s are pretty, this is the most visually appealing hole on the front nine. As it lies on land closer to the steep fall-off down into the valley, the land has some interesting contours to it with the fairway tilting left to right. Because the play is down the left side of the fairway, Mr. Alison put a bunker on the left. This is the first angled green on the course, going left to right with the fall of the land. Missing right of this green is a no-no as it will be a blind recovery shot. A bunker fronts most of the green while three bunkers are covering the entire back side of the green. The green is substantially tilted back to front and to the right. Balls hit on the left side of the green will run a long way to the right. It is a very good golf hole and my second favorite on the course.
10 – par 4 515/459. There is an incredible view from the tee on this hole due to the 100 feet drop down to the fairway below. You see nothing but the golf course below you framed by trees. You pass a charming halfway house that looks like a cabin in the woods. It is sublime. You really want to linger here for some time. The dark skies had gone away but as we were not entirely convinced of the forecast, we did not stop as we were trying to get in a second round later that day at The Country Club where we had been rained out the day before. I do not normally like a hole that has such a steep fall-off because most of those holes are semi-blind or offer a kick off the fairway that is unknown, but the tenth at Kirtland offers a flat fairway. A good shot is rewarded. The hole has the first cross bunker on the course about 50-40 yards out and another bunker on the left side of the green. It is amazing. Once you arrive on the fairway you stay at this level for a while, completely surrounded by trees and nature and nothing else. Between holes ten, eighteen and the clubhouse is a large section of trees that spill down into the valley, probably 50 acres of trees.
11 – par 3 225/198. This is the flattest green on the course if you can carry the East branch of the Chagrin River which angles across the hole and continues down the left side. You can land your ball well short of the green and have a good chance of recovery. There are two large bunkers left of the green. It is a very good par 3 both visually and in playing it.
12 – par 3 449/403. The tee shot has to carry the Chagrin River to this hole that plays straight off the tee but with the green set off to the right. Fronting the green is a bunker on the left and two on the right about 35 yards out and continuing to a third bunker on the right side. The green is undulating. While the hole is flat, it is visually pleasing.
13 – par 4 371/325. Playing from an elevated tee across the Chagrin River followed by a walk over a swinging bridge, this hole offers romance but finishes with a devilish green due to the slope left to right. Trees are on both sides of the fairway defining the playing corridor. The green has a large bunker left and two on the right and is set back into the trees pinching in from the right. It is a beautiful golf hole.
14 – par 4 425/385. The tree line is thick down the right saving balls hit with too much fade from going out-of-bounds onto Markell Road. This slight dogleg right offers the second cross bunker, situated about 50 yards short of the green followed by bunkers left,/front, right and back of the large green. For me, this is the least memorable hole on the back nine but it is still a fine golf hole.
15 – par 5 537/500. The easiest hole on the back nine but offering two significant defense. First you have to clear the Chagrin River which angles left to right, avoid the trees on both sides off the tee. Then the key is to get as far down the fairway as one can. There is a bunker about 90-75 yards out that narrows the right side of the fairway. This is followed by bunkers on the left, right and back of the green. The green is very sloped left to right and is perhaps my favorite green on the golf course. Better players likely have an eagle opportunity on this hole.
16 – par 4 365/331. Despite the beauty of the previous holes, particularly the tenth, my favorite hole on the course is the sixteenth which is a dogleg right playing uphill to a green that is tucked into the side of the hill. There are three bunkers down the right, each separated by 30-40 yards beginning at about the 200 yard area and ending about ten yards short of the green. The fairway offers various shelves to it. The green has no bunkers but is angled to the right continuing the slight apostrophe look of the hole. The hole requires an extra club to the green. It is a wonderfully situated green and a prime example of Mr. Alison’s genius for routing.
17 – par 3 188/185. My favorite par 3 on the course plays mostly level to a green with trees down the left side, and encircling the green. There are five bunkers right and a large bunker left. The best chance of recovery from missing the green is to be short. The green slopes substantially to the right with a tier. It is a beautiful par 3.
18 – par 4 450/410. To get to the eighteenth tee one can either climb a very steep hill taking about three minutes leaving one winded, or take the funicular, which we did for the experience. The only negative is that the funicular is very slow due to over-zealous government regulations. There is a large fall-off on the left into the trees but the fairway slopes to the right. This is a long dogleg left which offers an opening off the right side due to no trees. The only bunker on the hole begins about 20 yards short of the green on the right. The green is banked back to front. It is a fine finishing hole.
The negatives to Kirtland is in the first eight holes which do not offer the interesting terrain and multiple holes that utilized the East branch of the Chagrin River. Yet the par 3’s are good, several of the greens are good and the second is a very difficult hole. However, the greens look the same and could have benefited from more interesting green contours, particularly angling some of the greens to the fairway which was done on the back side. The bunkering is fairly routine, not nearly as interesting as the back nine, which utilizes cross bunkers on several holes. The criticism of the back nine is that several of the greens could be more interesting, although holes fifteen-seventeen are excellent. Also, there could be more interesting micro-contouring nearer the greens on the holes that do not have as many bunkers. It is a bit too flattish at times near the greens.
The members are blessed here. Once one gets to the ninth hole, they are playing truly special holes. Once they arrive at the tenth tee, due to the secluded setting, they are alone in the world playing golf. The back nine is as good as its reputation. It is a wonderful golf course.
Kirtland is one of the best courses that few people outside of Ohio have heard abut it. This C.H. Alison course is worth a special trip to see. Based on this rating system, the front nine is "Birdie" and the back nine is "Albatross". There are big, bold bunkers and fast greens that have enough slope to make you nervous but not so much slope that you are thinking it is unfair. The par 3 3rd, par 4 9th, par 4 12th, par 5 15th, and par 3 17th are all world class holes.
Charles Alison routed the two nines over two distinct pieces of land. He didn’t design that many courses in the US, but those that remain are certainly commendable. Northern Ohio (and indeed the entire state of Ohio) has a prominent number of classic courses, with Kirtland being towards the top of the pile.
While the front side is relatively flatter, the tree clearance has opened up amazing views across the course before taking you to the more dramatic back nine. As I walked to the 10th tee, my caddy asked me: “Do you like elevated tee shots?” Little did I realise what was ahead of me. The change in elevation across the back nine is glorious, add in the river that runs through the course and the unique feature of a cable car to get more seasoned golfers up the steep hill to the exciting finish!