Course architect Steve Smyers redesigns Indiana University’s eyesore layout with the hope that it will improve the public's playing experience — and the Hoosiers’ on-course results
Before Jorge Campillo was a winner on the European Tour, he was part of a strong recruiting class for Indiana University’s golf team in 2005. Coach Mike Mayer was overjoyed to get the Spaniard and two other young players to the picturesque Bloomington, Ind., campus for a visit.
One notable facility was left off the tour, however.
“We didn't step foot on the golf course," Mayer said. "It was not something I wanted to show them.”
Less than a half-mile from Assembly Hall, a mecca of Big Ten basketball, was a golf course that was a conference afterthought. In-state rival Purdue University boasts the Pete Dye-designed Kampen Course, Ohio State has the renowned Jack Nicklaus-redesigned Scarlet Course and Michigan owns an original Alister MacKenzie design, to name three layouts that could beat IU 7-and-6 every day in the golf architecture derby.
"We had a basic community golf course," Mayer said. "From a collegiate standpoint, it didn't help our teams."
While the pandemic is dimming the college sports arms race, Indiana was fortuitous in redesigning its golf course in 2018-19 and reopening it in June as The Pfau Course at Indiana University, named for a donor family full of IU graduates and Hoosier sports fanatics. The course that was laid out in the mid-1950s by a club pro and Bloomington businessman, using Hoosier athletes as laborers, got a $12 million reimagining from designer Steve Smyers and southern Indiana legend Fuzzy Zoeller. Now the course can be in the conversation as among the best in the Big Ten and perhaps beyond.
In becoming a par-71, 7,908-yard track (speaking of challenging the best in the college game), the same 265-acre hilly plot of land that previously held an 18-hole and nine-hole course was left to speak for itself — "absolutely ideal for golf," Smyers said — and not require a complete transformation. Some 80,000 yards of dirt were moved to create tees and greens, not the 800,000 or more that some projects boast to create a championship course.
The minimalist approach extends to an increased native landscape, as some 72 of the 265 acres were returned to native flora and fauna. Zoysia covers 32 acres of fairways, a grass requiring little water and upkeep.
Some of the same tree-lined corridors from the old layout remain, but 147 bunkers are more than what the old course had by about a multiple of 10. The wispy native rough is another twist for those that may have known the previous course; it doesn't always hide balls but doesn't let them out easily either.
"As long as you don't create penal situations, then the average person doesn't feel overwhelmed," Smyers said. "Find the golf ball and hit it — they might not like where they hit it, but they can find it and manage their way out of it. It's something where alumni and supporters of the university could come and play a championship course, maneuver around it and be successful."
Indeed, only the par-4 18th hole (517 yards from the back tee) requires an airborne approach to the green whereas every other hole has an opening for a rolled-up shot. Therein lies the secret of a college campus design, being able to accommodate everyone from top college players to alumni playing on a fall Saturday morning before a football game to students getting away from the books for an afternoon. (Seven tee options help, starting from 4,586 yards.) Those weekend alumni will pay the highest freight — $95 including cart and use of practice area — but the price isn't out of line with the aforementioned Big Ten brethren.
The Pfau Course also puts Bloomington on the map for a golfer with an open calendar and a car. The acclaimed French Lick Resort, with a Pete Dye championship course and a 1917 Donald Ross course, is an hour south. Indianapolis is an hour north, Cincinnati is two hours east and Louisville is two hours due southeast.
Those are also all places that the Indiana University men's and women's golf teams (both of whom haven't won a conference title since 1998) won't have to go anymore to get a true test of their game, having a new course with an expanded team-only practice area on-site that also includes an indoor facility.
After the course's opening, Mayer hosted a pair of top-30-ranked junior players -- "I don't think I'd have gotten either of these players without this golf course," he said.
The golf course that was once avoided on IU campus tours has now become a must-see stop of any tour.
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