The South course at NCR Country Club was one of two golf courses originally laid out in the mid 1950s for the employees of the NCR Corporation. The country club is still owned by the employees of the giant NCR global technology company and joining the club is still free today for all NCR staff.
Dick Wilson designed both the North and South courses and the latter is universally considered the best. The 7,055-yard South route has become known as the “thinking man’s course” because accuracy rather than length is key to a good score on this heavily wooded, cleverly bunkered and often doglegged layout.
NCR’s South course has hosted three major championships – the 1969 PGA Championship, the 1986 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2005 U.S. Senior Open. Ray Floyd won the former tournament and Gary Player suggested that golf architects “could learn a lesson from this course”. Jack Nicklaus is an admirer of the sloping green on the long par three 13th and said “what a job that architect Dick Wilson did!”
While most would say Pine Tree, Laurel Valley or even Bay Hill are the finest designs of Dick Wilson, I would say NCR South is his best course. One could argue the Pine Tree is his best work given the flatness of the course. It does require talent and creativity to create a compelling course out of “nothing” land. The land for Laurel Valley is better although one’s gaze often goes to the beautiful surrounding hills. Laurel Valley and Bay Hill are fine course although both have been tampered with resulting in much of Mr. Wilson’s original work being altered. There have been few changes at NCR South, primarily removing a few trees for better views for spectators during 5he four significant tournaments it has held.
At NCR South, Mr. Wilson found rolling, hilly land defined by ridges. This is also the land found on several holes of the adjacent Moraine Country Club, whose highest point abuts NCR South at the second green and third tee. Moraine was brilliantly restored by Keith Foster and is considered to be the superior course to NCR South due to its tree removal program and wonderful green complexes. While I agree that Moraine offers the superior views and slightly better green surrounds, I do not think it is a championship course whereas NCR South is a championship test of golf. The topography and routing of NCR South offers more strategy and requires a stronger golf game. It remains heavily lined with trees which is very out of fashion these days, but the trees are a primary defense of the course. If one gets out of position at Moraine, a par is still within reach. If one gets out of position at NCR South, there is a lower probability of achieving par. One can make a birdie at Moraine whereas a birdie at NCR South is to be prized.
The routing of NCR South features a number of doglegs that take prime advantage of the change in terrain formed by a glacial moraine. Many of these doglegs play downhill and then back up. One is tempted to try to hug the inner corner of these doglegs but the trees provide both a defense or at a minimum a consideration. Bigger hitters can run through the doglegs and leave themselves either an awkward stance or a shot from higher rough. Mr. Wilson does provide bunkers on the corners that serve as guide points for the holes. I especially liked that the doglegs move both left and right. There is a wonderful variety of holes here that rise and fall across valleys, rises, within ridges and on plateaus.
Due to the change in terrain, many of the holes feature elevated tees, some of which have quite a fall down to the fairway of as much as 50 feet. These higher tees enhance the attractiveness of the holes due to the bunkering and trees as well as an opportunity to determine the best landing spot for the tee shot.
The greens at NCR South lack the hollows, swales, spines, and depressions that often define the more highly rated courses of today. These features are present on the greens at NCR South but muted. Instead Mr. Wilson utilized steeply tilted greens. On many greens the slopes and slants are very pronounced.
Mr. Wilson’s routing places nearly every green site on the most interesting piece of land. One has to be cognizant of the slopes so that a recovery shot is not downslope where the ball can quickly scamper away past the cup. One can easily putt a ball off a green if behind a front pin location.
The bunkering is nearly perfect and fits well with the land and greens. The fewest number of bunkers on a hole is three with the highest being eleven. As an example is the fourteenth, a 400 yard par 4 begins with an elevated tee shot dropping 30 feet down to a dogleg left. From the tee one can see four bunkers on the inner corner and two on the outer corner of the turn. It is both beautiful and challenging. Yet the best bunkers on the hole come at the green where five surround a green that is angled well to the left. This green is narrow and appears as a sliver due to the angle and those surrounding bunkers.
I likely favored the par 5’s as the strongest holes on the course, but there are only three of them, with consecutive par 5’s on holes five and six as well as the final par 5 on the tenth. The sixth hole starts with another elevated tee hitting downhill to a dogleg right landing in a concave fairway. The hole then goes uphill to an elevated green surrounded by six bunkers. After playing the tenth, I found myself wanting another par 5 as the tenth is one of the best holes on the course. On the tenth, the tee shot is not much of an issue to a fairway playing uphill and sloped to the right. Once one crests the hill they look down on a green that is wonderfully protected by a large early bunker and then five bunkers encircling the green. The green rises above you once you get within 60 yards. The centerline bunker is deep and if coming in from the right appears almost like a double bunker. This green slopes strongly to the left while being placed on the hillside.
As stated, I liked all of the par 5’s. The only small criticism is that they are essentially the same length of 540-560 yards, rather than having one long one and one shorter one. I also found it interesting that one crosses over a bit behind the sixth green to get to the fifth tee as well as one crosses behind the fifth tee to get to the seventh tee. This is because the fifth sits inside the sixth hole where it appeared the more natural routing would have been to reverse these holes keeping the fifth along the edge of the property. The fifth plays straight whereas the sixth twists a bit and perhaps had the holes been reversed those twists would not have worked. In addition, I suspect Mr. Wilson thought the green sites on both holes were superior in his routing rather than reverse these holes. Indeed, the sixth has a very good elevated green banked steeply to the left laying naturally on the land. The green sits uphill but with a sharp, steep back of 15 feet for its front. Two bunkers front the green and sit well below the surface while the bunker to the right is nearly hidden. Playing from this right bunker to a near pin requires a very deft touch. The fifth and sixth feature relatively narrow fairways for the length of the hole making the trees and banks of the hills even more of a defense. I favored the sixth over the fifth both for the green complex as well as the bunker on the left off the tee serving as a very good aim point. The fifth does feature a drive through a narrow chute of trees and a green that has a central spine but overall the green surface and land movement on six is more interesting.
The par 3’s are equally good with two of them at approximately 175 yards and the two on the back nine being over 200 yards. The fifteenth is 230 yards playing uphill with a green tilted to the left. Four bunkers surround the long, skinny green including a rear bunker. Yet the other three par 3’s are nearly it’s equal. While the fifteenth is likely the most difficult par 3, I favored the thirteenth at just over 200 yards with two bunkers on the right and one on the left. I particularly admired the narrow front third of the green placed between two bunkers as well as the overall tilt of the green strongly to the back and to the right. Yet one might favor the second hole which plays slightly uphill and features another skinny green shaped like an elongated hot air balloon. There is a front bunker and a bunker to either side which means only a precise shot will find the putting surface. The green is also multi-tiered.
The par 4’s are also strong with the sixteenth perhaps being the most difficult due to its length and its sharp dogleg right requiring one to both clear the dogleg and strike a long shot into a green that is framed by two front bunkers and an almost hidden rear bunker. After playing the difficult sixteenth, I was glad for the birdie chance at the short seventeenth at less than 360 yards playing downhill to a green set into the hillside. There are three fronting bunkers and another rear bunker on this sloped green. One needs to get close to the pin on sixteen given it’s slope. After facing sixteen challenging holes, perhaps this easier hole comes a bit late in the round but it was nice to have a breather before playing the stout, uphill eighteenth which slides a bit to the left, and plays longer than it’s 420+ yards. The eighteenth is bordered by trees on both sides and features another well bunkered, sloped very large green with a tier.
The first is a par four and is rated the most difficult hole on the course and it is a close call to four-five others for difficulty. The first fairway tilts to the right with thicker trees down the left side. The green also tilts to the right but also runs away from you bringing two rear bunkers into play. The left side of the first’s green is shallow due to a bunker placed front left. I assume this is rated the most difficult due to its length and being difficult for an opening hole.
The third plays sharply downhill and doglegs right, then uphill to an elevated green perhaps 35 feet above you. The green is sloped steeply back to front. I really admired the three bunkers on the inner corner offset by a single bunker on the left.
The fourth hole, another par four, has perhaps the quirkiest green on the course. This downhill dogleg right has its three inner corner bunkers stretched out. The green is nearly 50 yards long due to a very thin piece of green at its front placed between two bunkers. The “right” bunker is actually a front center bunker for the majority of the green, which overall is shaped like an upside-down beaker. All of the bunkers on this hole are deep.
I could not decide my favorite par 4. I think one could choose from the third, seventh, ninth, eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth. The seventh has the smallest green on the course along with four of the deepest bunkers on the course surrounding the green. The ninth is a dogleg left with tree down the right with two inner bunkers on the turn. The green is large with another thin front portion and steeply sloped again to the front. The front bunkers are very deep. The eleventh features a thin, but long green. The twelfth is a difficult hole that is a long par 4 playing downhill then up again. The farther one hits it off the tee the narrower the fairway becomes. The green is tilted to the left and to the front.
NCR South might be the most underrated course in Ohio, perhaps even the entire country. It really offers everything one could want in a golf course - great bunkering, fabulous land movement, terrific tilted greens, elevated tees offering a nice look at many of the holes, and holes that move all ways.
While one might go next door to Moraine or perhaps to a few other highly ranked courses in Ohio to have a fun, relaxing game, if one wants to truly tests their game they would play NCR South. There are fifteen very good golf courses in Ohio, but I certainly see NCR South as one of the best.
During his heyday Dick Wilson was the main rival for Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and his layouts generally followed a predictable pattern. Big time greens, broad fairways, often engaging dog-legs and bold bunkering. The layouts often featured a "muscular" dimension with little in regards to subtle features. I have had the opportunity to personally play a number of Wilson designs but only few have merited serious acclaim when viewed from a 2021 perspective.
Architecture styles have clearly evolved from that era and few of the Wilson designs have remained near the forefront. The South Course for National Cash Register (NCR) is clearly on the short list of courses I've played by Wilson that are truly compelling. Why the course is not held in even more regard is truly baffling.
The central prominent for the South Course is the land itself. The facility is located just south of Dayton and is situated on a global moraine. The ebbs and flows of the golf round are considerably bolstered by the topography and the elements of virtuoso shotmaking is clearly required.
Having quality land in my mind is no less than 60% of the total equation when assessing any course. Wilson's more noted other courses - Pine Tree, Doral Blue, Laurel Valley, Cog Hill #4, Meadow Brook, La Costa, Bay Hill, Deepdale, are the usual ones spoken about. The South Course provided Wilson with a top tier site to work his magic and I would say among the best 2-3 layouts I have played of his handiwork.
The South Course did have its moments of outside exposure when the 1969 PGA Championship was played there and a U.S. Women's Open was also contested in 1986 as well as the U.S. Senior Open in 2006. Unfortunately, southern Ohio has taken a backseat given the annual fanfare tied to The Memorial event in Columbus and when pro golf has gone to Firestone in Akron.
Wilson did include his penchant for dog-leg holes and the South has a number of superb ones with the likes of the par-4 3rd and 7th holes as well as the engaging par-5s at the 6th and the beautiful downhill 10th.
On flat land Wilson designs can appear washed out but with the South layout you are inspired and the variety of holes -- in conjunction with a routing that never demonstrates predictability.
As the round reaches its culmination the slightly uphill par-3 15th is noteworthy. Far too many architects in recent years have eschewed long par-3s. Such holes have a place the 15th is testing and yields nothing especially if the green is missed to the right. The dog-leg right par-4 16th is a first-rate follow-up. The approach is played to an elevated target and pity the player who fails to judge club selection correctly.
The only downside of the South comes with the penultimate hole. The short par-4 is a clear birdie opportunity and one has to wonder if Wilson ever created a vintage two shot hole where the yardage was
on the short side. Fortunately, the closing hole is a testing two-shot hole that ends the day on a high note.
The South Course calls upon consistent shotmaking -- being able to work the ball off the tee is an absolute must. And the putting surfaces are cleverly shaped -- with fascinating panhandle inclusions at the par-3 2nd and par-4 14th.
Interestingly, NCR is located immediately next to Moraine CC - another of Ohio's brilliant courses.
Is the South Course a top ten course in the Buckeye State? Unquestionably, it's a serious contender and the sum total of what is there has much to savor. Those traveling to the greater Dayton / Cincinnati area should endeavor to play both courses. Your time will indeed be well spent.
M. James Ward
The first unusual observation was that the very first hole is handicap/index #1. It’s a straight tree-lined 420-yard par 4. Reflecting back, I couldn’t fathom why it was handicap #1.
The ‘National Cash Registry’ corporation engaged with Dick Wilson to build a very fine golf course in the mid-1950s. The property is blessed with really amazing topology. The changes in elevation are dramatic, frequent and thrilling.
Wilson created a ‘thinking man’s course’ is an understatement. The course is visually stimulating and I’ll remember the holes 50 years from now. You have to admire the ridges that run through the property which Wilson took advantage of to perfection with the routing he left us with. This course, without question, exceeded my expectations and went to the top of the list of the Dick Wilson courses I’ve played in the past 10 years.