Alister MacKenzie fashioned the layout for the Ohio State University in 1938. The course was revised by Jack Nicklaus in 2006 and many commentators think the Golden Bear's changes have made a marked improvement.
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.