Build it, and golfers just might come to Iowa

No. 6 at Spirit Hollow

No. 6 at Spirit Hollow

Burlington, Iowa - From above, summertime Iowa looks a lot like you might expect. In fact, maybe even greener. Upon descent, an endless green landscape stretches until it gently disappears over the horizon, the corn and soybean fields held in place by a cargo net of perfectly perpendicular country roads.

Abandon any preconceived notions of flat, bland Iowa upon arrival at the gates of Spirit Hollow Golf Club in Burlington. Like many of the courses of eastern and central Iowa, its elevation changes will sneak up on you, affording stunning vistas that are surprisingly common in these parts.

“Most people expect to come to Iowa and play golf in the middle of a cornfield,” said one playing partner. “It’s just not like that.”

As a vacation destination, Burlington probably doesn’t make the first page of many lists. Snake Alley, the world’s most crooked street, can be enjoyed only so many times. But if you’re staying at the Pzazz – and if you’re in Burlington, you probably are – the only time you’ll need to leave the enormous resort is for your tee time at Spirit Hollow. Complete with five restaurants, indoor and outdoor waterparks, a full casino and FunCity – which houses arcade games, laser tag, go-karts and two bowling alleys – Pzazz is the culmination of years of planning and relentless expansion by the local Winegard family. 

John Winegard was the founder of the Winegard Co., which developed TV antenna technology and later shifted its focus to satellite technology. As the company’s success grew, Winegard aimed to bring a bit of Las Vegas to his hometown. The result was Pzazz. Winegard built it one attraction at a time, retrofitting and expanding restaurants and other amenities as demand grew. Today, from the top of the FunCity waterslides, you look down on a building that looks like a child’s summerlong Lego project – a swimming pool stuck here, a go-kart track added there. The resort has become a “staycation” destination for residents of Des Moines, Iowa City and the Quad Cities.

Pzazz consists of two separate hotels: The Pzazz Hotel and Resort, which provides easy access to the arcade and waterparks, and the Catfish Bend Inn and Spa, a collection of luxury suites centered around the casino and a day spa for guests 21 and older. Those traveling without children should choose the latter to avoid being overrun by family reunions and birthday parties – the lodging equivalent of a six-hour round in mid-July.

Despite its ties to Pzazz’s family-fun atmosphere, Spirit Hollow, No. 3 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Iowa, is a player’s course that can jolt you from the back tees while being eminently playable from the forward tees. Even during a heat wave, the rough is thick, the greens slick and true. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful shot in the state than the tee shot into the water-guarded, par-3 15th.

As our group teed off on No. 10, a busy fleet of dump trucks and skid loaders ground to a halt. From the sounds of it, Randy Winegard, John’s son and the owner of Spirit Hollow, regularly uses these adult Tonka toys in his pursuit of the perfect golf course.

“Randy is constantly improving that golf course,” said Brian Fleming, Pzazz’s director of sales and marketing. “If he’s not making it longer or more challenging, he’s improving the drainage system or doing something else to make it better.”

•••

Standing on the 16th tee box at Riverside’s Blue Top Ridge, it’s difficult to focus on the beefy, corn-fed par 5 that unfurls below. From the 665-yard back tee, it’s the longest hole in Iowa. Swing hard for the semi-blind fairway, but try to keep it between the weathered country road left and the tall fescue right. But before I do that, paralysis sets in: two fawns have wandered into the fairway and are chasing each other in circles.

Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.

Wildlife viewing aside, Blue Top Ridge, No. 2 in the state and part of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, is a must-play Rees Jones design. The allure of a lovely casino and resort doesn’t hurt, either.

“The golf course is almost like a piece of jewelry for the resort,” golf professional Derek Birt said. “In fact, it’s a pretty nice piece of jewelry.”

In the best way, the course feels somewhat like a roller-coaster ride. It starts slowly with some gently rolling, linksy holes, then slowly climbs and twists through the forest before reaching the apex, the 16th tee. From there, it’s a thrilling downhill finishing stretch with the mammoth par 5, the short risk-reward par-4 17th and a lengthy straightaway closing hole.

After the Iowa River flooded in 2008, the course lost four holes and subsequently opened four new ones (Nos. 2-5). The damaged four holes have been repaired and can be played for free by members of the GIVE (Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere) Foundation.

•••

For all of the elevation change at Spirit Hollow and Blue Top Ridge, neither comes close to Amana Colonies. The William James Spear design northwest of Iowa City feels more like Appalachia than the center of the Hawkeye State. Though a rousing course to play, the countless hills and mounds leave a number of blind tee shots. Being paired with a local your first time around is helpful.

For something a little more “Iowa,” stop by Finkbine Golf Course, the University of Iowa’s home. Under coach Mark Hankins, the Hawkeyes’ men’s team has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround, tying for 10th at the NCAA Championship. Finkbine’s Bentgrass fairways and pristine greens are the best in the area.

And you just might leave with that vision of a bucolic Iowa countryside intact.

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