At one point, Purgatory Golf Club had both the longest (7,754 yards) and shortest tees (4,562 yards) in Indiana. Although the “longest” mark has since been eclipsed, whether a round at Purgatory ends up being heaven or hell will depend on whether you choose the correct distance to play from.
Ron Kern has not traditionally been regarded as a sadistic architect but he provided when ownership asked for a devious design. Bunkers are not in short supply, and neither is water for that matter. Two holes summarize the course’s themes of length and sand.
No. 13 is the longest hole on the course, and where Purgatory’s back tees get most of their yardage. Although those wise enough to play from second set of tees will find this par five to be a “reasonable” 590 yards, the tips stretch to an absurd 743 or 825 yards (the scorecard lists both, with no hint as to where the public may find the tee box from day-to-day).
No. 17 is more realistically playable, but nonetheless reflects Purgatory’s sinister intentions. Although just 175 yards from the back tees, at least 100 of those yards are covered by bunkers (not waste area, but individualized bunkers).
Drove the Green on the 1st hole, going over the traps. Guys with me said I could read it, but I did. Then 3 putted the stupid thing. Great course. All those traps, but you get to the green and look back, and you dont see any of them. Pretty amazing. Made it 11 holes without hitting into a trap, which if you golf this, will find to be pretty amazing in itself.
My return visit to Indiana this summer included rounds at locations I had played previously. Purgatory is an excellent name for a golf course -- because you'll feel like a soul seeking a final resting spot. However, your pathway to such bliss can only be achieved with first rate thinking and execution. Kudos to Ron Kern for a design that provides a solid routing on land essentially dead flat.
The layout is situated on 218 acres and fortunately has no interference or clutter. There's also over 125 bunkers ready to snare the half-hearted of plays.
The opening hole belies what you will soon encounter. The par-4 373-yard hole is fairly benign and it's best to get an early par or birdie because the demands intensify as soon as you depart that green.
The 2nd hold is called "Stains of the Inferno" and when you arrive at the tee the challenge ramps up considerably. A large pond protects the dog-leg left and a series of bunkers awaits those who chicken out and go too far right. The fairway tapers down considerably the longer one hits it. Amazingly, this is only the 8th handicap hole.
Kern smartly provides for a routing that always keeps moving in different directions -- given the daily vagaries of how wind blows in the Hoosier State one must always then make adjustments. Case in point, the long par-4 4th plays towards the west and can be anywhere from 2-3 clubs longer for the approach shot. When you get the 5th -- a par-5 going in the opposite direction strong players can have a go for the green in two shots but then the element of risk intensifies with a pond that hugs tight to the green. One of the most interesting elements Kern includes is the narrow landing area for those opting to play the hole as a 3-shot hole.
The 6th is well-protected in the drive zone with diagonally positioned bunkers on both sides. You can take the heroic approach over the right side but the play had best be well-executed. The green is also diagonally angled and well-defended. Kern gives you the option in running the ball towards the target but for those who seek the brave play -- albeit foolish for many -- then the effort must match the bravado.
The concluding trio of holes on the front are extremely challenging. The long par-3 7th can often play downwind but at 231 yards one has to be ever mindful of a menacing pond that protects the left side. There's bailout room to the right but it's small comfort as the wherewithal to escape with par becomes problematic when the pin is cut to the extreme front or deep far left corner. The par-4 8th is nearly as touch as the earlier 4th -- once again fairway bunkers must be avoided and the green is equally vexing with a narrow frontal area before widening to the rear. The outward side concludes with a par-5 with a too extreme narrow landing area between two pinching in bunkers on both sides. To find the short grass on a speck of fairway goes beyond human skill level. If the gap was widened just a bit more the desire to take on the challenge would only increase. In sum -- the bait is not worth the bite. The rest of the hole is fairly conventional. The best play is to hit one's second shot to the far left side of the fairway thereby providing the best angle into any pin location.
The inward side starts with two fairly basic holes at the 10th and 11th respectively. Both are par-4's and simply a step lower from what you have already encountered.
The par-3 12th, named "Valley of the Kings," provides numerous different teeing areas with the max yardage at 235 yards. Kern provides for a series of different playing angles and the varying challenges are well done.
Sadly, the par-5 13th is one that will surely have many scratching your head. The hole has a rear located tee pad stretching the hole to 741 yards along with 14 bunkers. No misprint. There's no need to add yardage for the sake of yardage and the hole actually plays better at the 624 and 590 tee areas. The bunker pattern for the hole could have been done differently instead of the predictable placement of bunkers to each side. Having a few center-placed bunkers would have added more strategic mixture without going for the excess number.
The concluding series of holes is well done -- especially the final two. The 14th through 16th are demanding long par-4's and each is positioned so that any wind pattern faced will be different. The par-3 17th is under 180 yards but is entirely engulfed by bunkers. Many of them are purely eye candy but there are a few that will insert themselves into the mix when the pin is cut close to any of the green edges. The concluding hole is a superb risk / reward par-5. There is a split fairway and the bold can choose the more challenging left side. The landing area is well-defended with a series of bunkers but if successful you can shorten the hole and have a clear go at the green.
The main weakness at Purgatory is the lack of any first rate short par-4 and other mid-length par-4 type holes to balance out the full menu of holes. Kern clearly has included a series of strong holes but often it's where max yardage is the sole outcome. The golf experience would have been enhanced by such a varied hole collection so that golfers would need to demonstrate the fullest range of shots throughout the round. Nonetheless, if one happens to be traveling through the northern area of Indianapolis be sure to check it out. Lost souls can only be saved at Purgatory with a golf game capable in mounting the challenges encountered. Remember -- you have been warned!
M. James Ward