3 TOP COURSES | Near Columbus

Longaberger Golf Club
Nashport, OH
The area: Fifty miles northeast of Columbus is one of the most talked-about public courses in America, a track so storied that last year there were no tee times remaining after May 1 for a season that ended Nov. 4. The course is part of the Longaberger empire, a family business devoted to handmade woven baskets with its headquarters in a seven-story building shaped like a picnic basket, complete with handles, in Newark, Ohio. The empire also includes the Longaberger Homestead, a nostalgia-invoking retail complex of shops, restaurants and performance venues and the Longaberger Family Center. The golf course opened in 1999. Beginning with the imposing clubhouse and moving across the more than 7,000-yard course and 25-acre practice range, the facility offers country-club conditions for the daily fee player. For that $115 fee, the player gets a cart, the run of the spacious locker room and shower, club-cleaning service and a towel. The clubhouse dining room, set off by a massive stone fireplace and chimney, presents both a fine view of the course and an ambitious menu. A small and cozy barroom is available for rehashing the round over refreshments.
The course: The real fun begins on No. 1, an uphill dogleg par 4. With a choice of five tees, the hole plays from 411 yards to 302 yards. The average duffer will choose the white markers -- 349 yards here -- that turn the course into a 6,075-yarder. The slope is 128, and the rating is a somewhat generous 69.6 for men. For women, it's 74.9 with a 134 slope from the whites. In contrast, the slope from the "tips," or longest tees, is 138. Aiming at a lofty hardwood tree directly at the bend of the dogleg, the golfer needs a down-the-middle drive here. Anything drifting right will find a slippery hillside topped by four large bunkers. A drive pulled left makes hitting the narrow, long green in regulation a remote possibility. Ordered to preserve as many trees as possible on this former rolling pasture, architect Arthur Hills was forced to follow the natural contours of the land. The result is a meandering ramble where few fairways adjoin, meaning that even with its packed schedule, Longaberger seldom feels crowded. And, well away from Columbus' urban sprawl, the atmosphere is quiet and unhurried.
Review: Longaberger presents the average player with the classic hazards -- lots of white sand, water, wetlands and a variety of hillside lies. Adding to the challenge are the course's slick greens, many of which cling to the land's wavy contours and manage to be located near a pond or stream. The course is a challenge to the weekend player, but a fair one from the white tees. And, what's really key to enjoying a round there are the rangers, a group of genial older gents who know the course and are free with helpful advice. Meticulously, almost fussily, groomed and sparkling, Longaberger is one of those rare glimpses of exclusive private-course golf for the public-course player.
Misc.: The pro shop is a rare treat as well. Where else could you buy a handmade basket to store your golf balls?
Information: The course phone number is (740) 763-1100. You can get on a waiting list.
Cook's Creek Golf Club
Asheville, OH
The area: While you're waiting to play Longaberger, you can find similar challenges for your game at this recently opened course 25 miles south of Columbus near Circleville, home of Ohio's famed Pumpkin Festival.
The course: Owned by the family of golf professional John Cook, the 8-year-old course is only a notch below Longaberger in quality, but $80 less in weekday greens fees. The weekend rate is $47. Carts cost $13. A new clubhouse is scheduled to open in July. Cook's Creek is laid out as two very different nine-hole tracks, the front nine Bottom and back nine Upland. They play just as their names would indicate, a flat, wide-fairway opening nine switching to a hilly, tight 10 through 18. And, there's nothing deceptive about the "creek" in the course name; water comes into play on many holes. Unlike Longaberger's No. 1, Cook's opening hole is a wide-open par 5, a very playable 507 yards from the middle tees. Driving from a tree-shaded elevated tee, the golfer faces a broad, flat fairway, with margins for error right and left. Be aware, though, that water can be found on both sides, especially as the player contemplates the second shot. There's room to lay up, leaving a short pitch to negotiate around bunkers guarding a wide green. Thanks to its schizophrenic nature, Cook's Creek offers more variety than its costlier cousin, especially in its par 3's. Memorable were No. 8, a tight green reached over a gully, and No. 15, where an elevated tee presented a mature tree in front of the green and a pond behind to contemplate.
Playing the middle tees at Cook's translates into a 6,182-yard course with a slope of 122 and 68.5 rating. From the tips, it plays 7,071 yards; rating, 73.7, slope 131. The course was in rougher shape than Longaberger, and its location along busy state Route 23 was somewhat distracting on a few holes. Still, these are quibbles.
Information: The number for tee times is (800) 430-4653.
Eagle Sticks
Zanesville, OH
The area: Fifty miles due east of Columbus on Interstate 70 is the Muskingum River town of Zanesville and site of what Golf Digest called the top public course in Ohio. But that was in 1993, before either Cook's Creek or Longaberger came along to displace it.
The course: Wedged among homes and a trailer park, Eagle Sticks is a tight, hilly course. It's not particularly long -- 6,508 yards from the back tees (rating 70.1, slope 120), a mere 5,493 from the whites (rating 65.5, slope 108) and 6,124 from the middle tees (rating, 68.3, slope 108). The women's yardage is 4,233 (rating 63.7, slope 96). The opening hole sets the tone for the course, a 385-yard par 4 where the fairway runs like a trough between a steep hill and an adjoining hole. Despite superb conditioning, this course lacked both the variety of Cook's Creek and the beauty of Longaberger. Its pluses are its well-tended fairways and greens, a full-service clubhouse with restaurant and bar and its prices -- $30.50 Mondays through Thursdays, $40.40 Fridays through Sundays. Carts are $9.50.
Information: For tee times, call (800) 782-4493.

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