Golf scene in Columbus piles up points

The 17th hole at Longaberger Golf Club.

The 17th hole at Longaberger Golf Club.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There’s a tradition in Ohio State football that, like Brutus Buckeye himself, can’t be missed.

Thread a gantlet of street vendors hawking $5 buckeye necklaces (“Looks great in scarlet and gray!”) across the Olentangy River on gameday. Near Ohio Stadium, timeless St. John Arena houses a crossroads of music and football, Ohio State’s past and present. Under all those championship banners, the echoes of Havlicek and Lucas mingle with 10,000-plus earlybirds to the Michigan State game for Skull Session, a heart-thumping game-day freebie. “The Best Damn Band in the Land” snakes its way shoulder-to-shoulder, quick-stepping to a martial cadence. The 225-strong, all-brass ensemble, on a stage built for 5-on-5, soon rattles the rafters with the sounds of “Buckeye Battle Cry.”

A nearby alumnus, no doubt weary from a recent football scandal and NCAA sanctions, remarked to a friend, “This could be our best show of the day.”

Hours later, a tone-deaf offense would prove him to be correct.

• • •

Columbus’ golf roster is stacked with All-Americans: The Golf Club, Scioto, Muirfield Village and Double Eagle among them. But those tracks are as exclusive as they are exquisite.

Drive about an hour east, where farmland rises into the Appalachian foothills, and your public-play options expand.

Isaac “Ike” Kelley, scars lining his knees like railroad tracks, pumps a well-coached fade into the first fairway at Longaberger Golf Club in Nashport before easing into his favorite topic: Ohio State football.

As a two-time All-American linebacker under the legendary Woody Hayes in the 1960s, Kelley earned a spot on OSU’s All-Century Team. Readers of a certain vintage might remember him as the ringleader of “Kelley’s Killers” special teams with the Philadelphia Eagles. (“After seven years and three knee operations, they told me I was too slow,” he said.) His name and No. 53 jersey hold a place of honor at Ohio Stadium. As such, his opinions carry some weight in these parts.

When he casts ousted coach Jim Tressel, the fall guy in a tattoos-for-swag caper – quaint compared with recent horrors at Penn State – as “a good man,” you want to believe him.

When he says the Buckeyes, barred from postseason play this year, “will be OK,” you want to concur.

Across Ohio last fall, signs and T-shirts defiantly proclaiming “WTF” (“We’ll Take Fickell”) sprouted in support of elevated coach Luke Fickell.

And they did . . . until Urban Meyer became available.

Michigan State isn’t the type of opponent to accommodate a freshman quarterback’s growing pains. On a raw, rainy day before 105,306 at “The Horseshoe,” Braxton Miller’s performance in a sluggish 10-7 loss fell as flat as an out-of-tune sousaphone. OSU’s Victory Bell won’t toll on this night.

The late Hayes famously stated that, when the Buckeyes put the ball in the air, only three things could happen, and two of them were bad. Even he might have appreciated the aerial game at Longaberger.

Arthur Hills’ brawny 7,243-yard design, No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list in Ohio for 11 years running, offers big hitters plenty of room in the fairways. Yet Hills, an Ohioan educated at Michigan and Michigan State, requires a tight spiral with the irons at Longaberger.

“He really places a premium on where you place it on the green,” said Danny Ackerman, Longaberger’s general manager and head professional.

With Kelley and his Kappa Sigma wingman, OSU alumnus George Haag, we ascended to the No. 4 tee and surveyed the 150-foot drop to the serpentine par 5 below. You might have to wait, as we did, for a member of Ohio’s massive deer herd to play through, so enjoy the view of the unfolding Licking River Valley. And when you reach No. 8, a downhill 444-yard par 4 to a peninsula green, take a tip from the pro and play it left into the split fairway. You can thank Ackerman at the turn.

Just south of Nashport, EagleSticks Golf Club in Zanesville underwhelms at first glance. Set back from a busy commercial district off U.S. 22, with working-class homes on one side and a mobile-home park on the other, the course is bisected by high-tension wires. Yet it’s no accident that the 1990 design by Columbus-based Michael Hurdzan has reappeared in Golfweek’s Best this year, at No. 10.

A then-unknown Hurdzan, with only one course to his credit, saw the promise in the McClelland family farm after others had dismissed the 135-acre parcel as too constrained.

At 6,508 yards, EagleSticks won’t make the U.S. Open rota. But the undulating terrain rewards position. Plus, at EagleSticks, you can answer golf’s plea to “Tee It Forward” while playing it back.

Heading west toward Columbus, U.S. 22 winds through hamlets that affirm this region’s ability to raise more than corn. In Somerset, Union Gen. Phil Sheridan, hat in hand as his horse rears back, strikes a statuesque pose in the town center. Up the road, Lancaster produced William Tecumseh Sherman. Maybe there’s a future OSU field general nearby.

Just south of Columbus, at Cooks Creek Golf Club in Ashville, ripened walnuts land with a staccato “plunk-plunk-plunk” left of Nos. 4 and 5 along the Scioto River. The 1993 Hurdzan-Dana Fry design (with input from former OSU star John Cook, who did more than lend his name) has been a regular among Golfweek’s Best.

If you can dodge the hazards in the air and on the ground, co-owner Ken Corliss advises a birdie or two on Nos. 4-7. As Cooks Creek rises from floodplain to meadowland on the back nine, so, too, might your scores.

In Upper Arlington, just northwest of campus, Ohio State Golf Club wears its colors for all to see – and hear – as the jaunty cadence of “Across The Field” washes over the grounds.

Jack Nicklaus added to his local legend with a 2006 update of Alister MacKenzie’s masterful Scarlet Course, No. 7 among Golfweek’s Best Campus Courses, restoring bunkers and stretching the layout to 7,455 yards.

The Web.com Tour sharpshooters might make it look easy each spring, but the greens complexes can turn birdie into bogey. Head pro Brian Kelly offers some advice for the amateurs among us: “For the average player, you don’t even want to look at the flagsticks out here.”

Brad Smith can be excused for taking dead aim. As a former all-Big Ten golfer for the Bucks, he knows the Scarlet better than perhaps even Nicklaus.

“You can’t really fake your way around out here,” said Smith, who certainly didn’t in a round on the eve of the MSU game.

As the Buckeyes football team bellied up to a traditional Friday home-game meal inside the clubhouse, Smith, a budding touring pro whose uncle is PGA Tour veteran Chris Smith, went to work on his putting.

Outside, the alma mater “Carmen Ohio” (“carmen” means “song” in Latin) swept the grounds.

His wife, an Indiana alumna, is named Carmen, and his newborn daughter is Scarlet.

“I kid my wife that we need a Gray,” Smith said, “but I don’t think she’ll go for that.”

With that kind of school spirit, the Buckeyes won’t be down for long.

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