Wolf Run Golf Club
Numerous courses on this website have been included because (in part) they provide challenge to the low marker while remaining fun for the weaker player. This obvious desirable attribute is possessed in spades by St. Andrews, North Berwick and Cypress Point among many others.
However, courses can be built for a clientele with a specific purpose in mind – to provide a stern test. Oakmont and Winged Foot (West) are prime examples. Another example is Wolf Run. This course was always intended to be an all male retreat, a pure golf club, and a stern challenge. While the architect Steve Smyers delivered on this last point, he did so with variety and flair.
The course property was good, but not great, about ten miles north of Indianapolis. The terrain is rolling and has a creek meandering through it. However, the course is bounded by county roads on two sides and there would be literally hundreds of pieces of land as appealing scattered across the United States. So how did Smyers transform this property into a course of such distinction?
Most importantly, Smyers maximized the natural features of the land with a superb routing. While this expression is so over-worn as to have lost all meaning, in this case it holds true because the property is relatively tight. Smyers didn’t have the massive acreage of some of the world’s great courses like Shinnecock Hills. A lesser architect would have been boxed in somewhere on the small property and weak or forced holes would have resulted. This patently did not happen at Wolf Run. The holes set along Eagle Creek, in the wooded valley of the course, were built with little earth being moved, while the upper holes on farm land were sculpted more.
There are numerous examples of how Smyers took advantage of the land he had. The 1st tee sets on a high point of the course and the tee shot is to the valley below, similar in concept to the first at Shinnecock. On both the front and back nine, Smyers uses par fives to climb the hills. While the par five 3rd and 17th holes are among the least appealing holes on the course (although the imaginative green complexes make them anything but indifferent holes), they allowed Smyers to create excellent holes around them. The heroic 235 yard par three 13th across the valley floor to a green perched high on the other side took real vision to locate what know appears as a natural hole. The location of several of the green sites in front of gullies makes for memorable holes such as the 5th and 18th holes.
Finally, the creek was used to excellent effect on the 2nd, 7th, 8th, and 16th holes as well. The authors know of few other courses where the same water hazard is put to better use and in different ways. Eagle Creek fronts the 2nd green, crosses in front of and then along the right side of the 7th green, crosses the 8th fairway (requiring a 220 yard shot from the back tee) and then hugs the left side of the 16th green.
Smyers wisely promoted the property’s rugged look to create a unique feel. This is mid-America farm land and the club has encouraged the native fescue rough to grow. Smyers promoted this ‘links’ style. For example, with the wind blowing the fesque around on the mounding along the 4th hole, the golfer can be understood to think the ocean is just over the next hill.
For a course with such a fearsome reputation from tee to green, there is a surprising amount of short game interest. This detailed work around the greens turns the course into a placement course first and foremost. It is also a sure sign that the architect spent plenty of time on the property. Designed in 1987, and thanks to the exhaustive time Smyers’ spent here, Wolf Run ended up launching Smyers’ career. For example, Nick Faldo was so impressed by it that he hired Smyers to build his Chart Hills course outside London.
Faldo in particular was captured by the superb bunkering, which makes the course visually so intimidating. Smyers is among the finest architects today at the building and placement of bunkers. His bunkering has a dramatic flair. If Royal County Down were to build a few more bunkers on their course (God knows why), Steve Smyers would be a great candidate – no higher compliment can be paid.
Wolf Run has an unfair reputation of being ‘a two sleeve’ course. Smyers only gives the golfers two holes on the course where proper execution is an absolute must (one being the long four par 14th over a pond; the other hole being the long three par 2nd hole over a creek). Otherwise, the thinking golfer can always score a bogey without any heroics. However, stop thinking and start slugging and all bets are off.
Holes to Note:
5th hole, 440 yards: A gully guards the left half of this green. However, Smyers gives the golfer a chance as the bold contouring of the green helps feed a drawn ball back toward the left hole locations. Conversely a high fade can be ideal to hold the ball against the right to left slope to stay near right flag positions. The green contours make it a fascinating hole that encourages different type approach shots dependent on the day’s hole location.
7th and 16th holes, 300 and 135 yards, respectively: These are the two smallest greens the authors have ever seen on a full length course. These holes are great changes of pace and help instill in Wolf Run variety rarely found. The 16th in particular comes at a key point in the round as it follows a stretch that Nick Faldo called the most difficult four consecutive holes he has played. The exacting pitch comes almost as a shock to the player after battling his way through 12-15.
18th hole, 430 yards: The golfer cannot play safe and must hit his driver on the last hole if he hopes to get par. There is a ridge across the fairway at the 220 yard mark that is imperative for the golfer to carry if he wants to a decent chance of hitting the green. Otherwise, he is faced with a semi blind 220 yard shot from a sloping lie to a relatively small green that sits on the far side of a gorge peppered with deep pits as bunkers.
Does the course sound long and hard? Well, it is hard in that the golfer must continually place each shot properly but it is only 6,700 yards from the back tees. Has Wolf Run been a complete success? Yes and no. Yes, Smyers gave the owners what they wanted â€œ a tough course â€œ and he imbued in it much more lasting character than just that. No, in the sense, while other leading Indianapolis courses have a membership waiting list, Wolf Run does not. The owners must live with the financial consequences of having a course that will appeal on a daily basis only to 10 markers and below.
Nevertheless, the satisfaction of a well played round here is immense. The intricate green complexes keep the pressure on the golfer throughout to think and execute. A member’s game here will travel well indeed.