Destination: Zanesville? It's an arranged marriage

The 193-yard, par-3 10th hole at EagleSticks in Zanesville, Ohio.

ZANESVILLE, Ohio – When avid golfers envision a vacation spot, they’ve likely got Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst or one of the many Sunbelt destinations in mind.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever considered Zanesville, Ohio.

Didn’t think so.

Truckers running freight from Columbus east to Pittsburgh know this stop on I-70 as the last city of any size before cornfields give way to the Appalachian foothills. Golfers are starting to identify this crossroads of east-central Ohio as a weigh station of another kind.

Longaberger Golf Club, minutes north in Nashport, and EagleSticks Golf Club in Zanesville have forged a coalition among competitors. Longaberger, the perennial champion in the Golfweek’s Best Ohio rankings, and EagleSticks, an annual contender, have bucked the economic headwinds of recent years. Sure, business is off a bit – in the single-digit percentages – but it could be much worse. Their partnership is a big reason why it isn’t.

It’s sort of like a two-man scramble team: one bomber (Longaberger) paired with a precision player (EagleSticks).

“We went together and created a win-win,” said Danny Ackerman, Longaberger’s general manager and head professional.

EagleSticks, an efficiently routed Michael Hurdzan design on a cozy 135-acre tract, makes no apologies for latching onto Longaberger’s lengthy coattails.

“People want variety,” EagleSticks general manager Kevin Knapp said.

With these two courses, they’ve got it.

Longaberger, an expansive 7,243-yard Arthur Hills creation, has been Golfweek’s No. 1 public-access course for 10 years running. It’s a championship-caliber layout built by the nearby Longaberger Co., maker of handcrafted baskets, on rolling woodlands in the scenic Licking River Valley.

About 30 minutes south, across I-70 and on the south side of Zanesville, sits EagleSticks. Set back from commercial property on Ohio Route 22, the course is bordered on one side by modest working-class homes, the other by a mobile-home park and has the aesthetic misfortune of electrical towers running throughout the property. But don’t let its 6,508 yards from the back tees underwhelm you. EagleSticks is a well-kept position golf course of elevation changes where wayward shots result in awkward lies, obstructed angles and slippery putts.

In short, quite a contrast – and complement – to its brawny neighbor to the north.

Each winter, both courses will combine to staff a booth at seven regional golf shows, focusing on securing business from Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Packages start at $137 for two rounds and one night’s lodging (www.9starsofgolf.com). It was a no-brainer for both clubs.

In seven years, Longaberger and EagleSticks have built package play into 25 percent of their business. It has been a welcome cushion to the bottom line in an industry fighting for survival.

“Where we are in Zanesville, Ohio, doesn’t lend itself to $50 golf,” EagleSticks’ Knapp said. “We have to work for every dollar. A four-hour drive is a potential client.”

Their mutual investment at golf shows attracts repeat business.

“We’ll run into them at the golf shows and call them by name, and they’re like, ‘Wow; you remembered.’ It’s neat to see some of the same faces coming back each year,” said Mike Walters, an assistant pro at EagleSticks.

According to the National Golf Club Owners Association, a Charleston, S.C.-based trade group dedicated to course owners and operators, it’s a welcomed approach that is gaining traction in the industry.

“As an association, we believe in strength in numbers,” Sarah Gurley, a spokeswoman for the NGCOA, said via email to Golfweek. “The industry is so desperate for new golfers, not just to come play at our individual courses but to play the game in general.

“We obviously understand there is competition at the local level. But we encourage our members to find their niche and market themselves accordingly,” she said, noting the adverse effects of price wars.

Knapp married into the McClelland family that built EagleSticks on the family farm. The emphasis on appearance is apparent with the first steps onto the property. Thousands of red and white impatiens (this is Ohio State country, mind you, but the flowers don’t come in scarlet and gray) frame the entrance and No. 1 tee box. The final resting places of the McClellands’ trotting horses and treasured pets lie in marked graves under a shade tree.

The club has carved out its niche with the help of non-golf events. A year-round heated tent between the driving range and parking lot can accommodate wedding parties and reunions of up to 400. Talk about convenience: What couple could resist the groom’s golf outing and the wedding at the same spot? Not many, apparently: EagleSticks, with former head pro Kelly Morrow overseeing the union of golf and nuptials, hosts about 50 weddings per year.

Those vibrant red-and-white impatiens fronting a carpet of green make the wedding photos pop, too.

“It’s a big selling point,” Morrow said.

But foremost, this is a quality golf experience, and the union with Longaberger is more than a mere marriage of convenience.

On a recent early-autumn day, Knapp had just steered an 80-man outing of asphalt suppliers from Marietta, about 60 miles to the southeast, onto EagleSticks. He says up to 80 percent of the club’s rounds come from players who live more than 30 miles away.

“That’s why we have to work so hard for it,” he said.

“You tell other courses what you’re doing and they say, ‘People come to Zanesville?’,” said Knapp, underscoring the importance of a partner. “We’ve tried to stay ahead of the business. They don’t go out of town to play the same course four days in a row.”

It’s a shared philosophy on two dramatically different courses. Opposites, indeed, can make an attractive couple.

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