Alister MacKenzie drew up the plans for the golf complex at Ohio State University in the early 1930s and Wendell Miller – a Columbus native who had worked on other projects (such as Augusta National) with the architect – was to be the lead builder on the assignment.
Unfortunately, MacKenzie died and Miller was struck down with a heart attack, delaying the start of the project. A replacement architect was sought and, despite the recommendation from Bobby Jones that Robert Trent Jones should be selected, Perry Maxwell was given the contract.
According to Christopher Closer’s book The Midwest Associate: The Life and Work of Perry Duke Maxwell the architect and a professor named George McClure handled the job: “Maxwell would oversee the construction of a majority of the holes on the complex, before dropping from the project and it was completed by McClure.”
The author continues: “The Ohio State Golf Course may not be the best collegiate course in the nation but it has an amazing legacy and history that was touched by two of the greatest architects in history. One can only imagine what the course would have looked like if Mackenzie and Maxwell had seen the project through to its completion together.”
There are actually two 18-hole layouts on the property: the par 71 Scarlet course, measuring 7,455 yards, which was unveiled in 1938, and the shorter par 70 Gray course, which followed a couple of years later. Host venue for the US Junior Amateur Championship in 1977, the Scarlet course was renovated early in the new millennium by Ohio native Jack Nicklaus.
Every year, golf media repeats similar praise for the maintenance at the Muirfield Village Golf Club, home to the Memorial Tournament and—perhaps more notably—Jack Nicklaus himself. Another route in the Columbus area deserving recognition is another one of the Bear’s “biographical” courses: The Scarlet Course at the Ohio State University Golf Club.
A typical “win” for golf architecture fans is when a modern architect can sweep in and, with the help of documentation, restore Golden Age courses that have fallen on unkempt times. Historically, attempts to “improve” the works of masters to suit the modern game have been damaging. Rare is the case where these courses actually needed renovation so much as restoration, much less from one as touted as Alister MacKenzie. Some have claimed Nicklaus manhandled MacKenzie’s intentions, but that’s a chronologically-inaccurate complaint. MacKenzie passed away before his plan could be implemented. Without his boots on the ground, and a relative lack of drawings from the original architect. And so Nicklaus took the simplest route toward creating what a MacKenzie course “should” look like: bunkering.
And so we return to the quality of maintenance at Scarlet. Nicklaus enhanced the course’s original bunkering to take on a more authentic approach—featuring high sand lines, steep faces, and plenty of grass fingers. Such an approach demands proper upkeep, and their intent remains true even after a rain. Certainly the most photogenic example is No. 13, a short Par 3 fronted by stellar examples. Even then, the soft sand might be a better play than putting downhill from the back of this green—which has also recovered Mackenzian essence. Perhaps the best indication of Nicklaus’s strength in the renovation is that it doesn’t play like a Nicklaus course, despite his heavy footprints. If you’re looking for something more Bearish, look to the No. 4 Par 5, which is truly a total overhaul. What was once an automatic score now features a creek crossing to consider upon the second shot, as well as a pond curled up to the green.
Ohio State University is among the largest in the country, so MacKenzie fans shouldn’t struggle to find an alumni host. The experience lives up to one’s expectation of a MacKenzie route, and not down. And some good news: Although the bunkers may approach the quality of sand at Muirfield Village, the greens do not. Which is to say, no 12-on-the-Stimp nightmares.
Jack Nicklaus is an alumni of Ohio State and with an incredible golf resume, the debate as to who would win the work to restore the Scarlet course didn’t take very long. When I pegged it up on the Scarlet course, I was fortunate to play with a member of 35 years, so I could grill him with questions all day long. The majority of the changes made by Nicklaus to the MacKenzie layout were actually quite helpful. Without losing their original design intent, he significantly deepened the bunkers, including the enormous fairway bunker complexes.
It’s a sincerely strategic course with fantastic visuals, and I even concluded that it was underrated in the state of Ohio. Jack did move a couple of green locations, including the creation of a strange par 5 early into the round. It was originally a par 4, but he moved the green 60 yards right and expanded the pond in front of the green, rendering it an awkward 3-shotter for most golfers.
With that said, Jack did a good job preserving the spirit of MacKenzie’s imagination. The bunkers were the highlight.