Ohio State University is known for its scarlet and gray color scheme, so for the school’s championship route, the Scarlet, there must also be an 18 dedicated to the Gray.
The course has always and ever lived in the shadow of its brighter-toned brother, but there is still considerable charm to be had on the shorter course. For one thing, it provides students and membership a considerably less severe challenge than the Scarlet, with smaller sand hazards and much shorter yardage (maxing out at just 5,800 yards across 18 holes).
Fans of historic golf may find other positives to take from Gray. It’s a traditional route that begins and ends at the clubhouse, without returning in-between. Perhaps more relevant to readers of this site, the original Alister Mackenzie design (constructed by Perry Maxwell) remains untouched here, whereas the Scarlet course was significantly overhauled by alum Jack Nicklaus during the early part of the new millennium.
Ohio State is blessed with two Alister MacKenzie courses. Having said that, course architect definition has become a bit muddled over time. MacKenzie died in 1934 and the plans that were ultimately used were not drawn by MacKenzie. While he is rightfully so held in high regard the plans did not have any fairway bunkers. The Gray course is a par 70 and from the tips plays less than 6000 yards.
The first hole is a short welcoming par four with a greenside bunker right. The 2nd a mid-yardage par 3 with greenside bunker front left. The 3rd is a 300 yard par four that bends left. There are greenside bunkers right and front left. The 4th is the shortest hole on the course with a bunker front left. The 5th is a straightaway par four with a fairway bunker left and the 6th is also straightaway with greenside bunkers left and right. Not sure why it is the number one handicap hole. The 7th at least has a water carry and greenside bunkers front right and left. The par 5 8th is reachable, favor the left of center off the tee. The 9th leans right and is the longest par 4 on the course at 400 yards.
The back starts with a par four that leans a wee bit right with fairway bunkers right. Followed by a mid-range par three that is protected with three bunkers. How does a 460 yard par 5 sound? Like Christmas? In fairness a 200+ yard par three is next, but… The 14th is another short straightaway par 4. The 15th is the number 5 handicap hole, but it is a straightaway par 5 with front bunkers eager to gobble up aggressive second (or third or even fourth shots). The 16th leans right and is probably the toughest hole on the back with one of the tightest fairways. You can cut the corner, but you can also drive thru the fairway. The 17th is a forgettable par three and 18 is a 300 yard par four. It leans left and the ideal tee shot is a high draw. The green sits behind a front right narrow bunker.
This is a course that is living off its alleged pedigree. Worth playing the same day as Scarlet, but otherwise there are a lot of better options in the Columbus area.
There are typically two opinions when discussing Ohio State University’s Scarlet Course: one, that Jack Nicklaus did a fine job restoring the course to championship-caliber glory from the bones of the Alister MacKenzie that sat there, or two, that Nicklaus is a heathen who ruined a perfectly good MacKenzie. The trick is that MacKenzie had died before Scarlet was constructed, and therefore the greens presented are actually a mix of those designed by the man himself, and the rest by the team of Professor George McClure and original superintendent John McCoy. In fact, the original Scarlet course featured no fairway bunkering (due to lingering budget effects of the Great Depression), and McCoy handled all fairway bunker design and placement years after the club opened.
Why is your correspondent blathering so much about the Scarlet course in an alleged review of the Gray course? The point is that MacKenzie is sacred to believers, and messing with any of his original work will create a tizzy, even if it wasn’t actually his original work.
Perhaps this is why Gray sits largely untouched at one of the nation’s most well-funded universities, even after management splurged millions on a marquee renovation of its Scarlet Course.
Granted, another reason is simply that Gray was always intended to provide a more casual round of 18 than its muscular brother (and it plays this role well). But perhaps if those near the top accepted McCoy’s oversized role in Gray (nine of the holes were completed to his specifications after the opening of the other 27), they might be willing to sink a few quid into adding a bit more excitement?
The Gray opened with zero fairway bunkers and has since escalated to six, two of which have real strategic impact on the course. In terms of geographic interest, much is withheld until No. 16, where the previously pancaked property (there’s slope, but barely enough to merit a sleigh ride, and no wrinkles for odd lies) folds up into a blanket of moraine, which it rides for the final three holes. These three need no help from man, but the other 15 holes (excluding the four par threes) could use some help. The fairways are wide and accepting...and boring. A tasteful touch of challenge would do the course well, both by our standards and MacKenzie’s. After all, it seems unlikely that his original drawings featured no fairway bunkers—the understaffed university just never got around to placing them!
One area of Gray that needs little touching up is the greens. They are small, and McClure notably preferred them this way, but they work well for a course that maxes out at 6,200 yards. McCoy, although not a Hall of Famer like MacKenzie, created devious little curiosities among his half of the greens. Among my favorite are No. 4, a short par three with a long movement...No. 14, a short par four with a funnel out the back (to stump those putting to long pins from the wrong side of the green), and No. 15, a reachable par five that wraps up and around two fronting bunkers, ever tempting to those who have struck a long drive to its toothless fairway.
Ah but if that fairway had teeth, I would presumably have fewer career eagles to my name, and such is the problem across much of Gray. The course is maintained to the same high standard as the Scarlet, and its position as the more relaxing of the pair is appreciated. But I would not mind if someone added more intrigue from the tee. As C.B. Macdonald noted, if a golf hole is a portrait, the green is the face. I am awfully fond of my wife’s face, to be sure, but I do not mind other, ahem, hazards.
It would do Gray well if the MacKenzie MacKult put down its pitchforks, and somebody encouraged some sacrilege to “his” design. The architect himself may appreciate if his final route brought on a touch more challenge.