The "Golden Age" of American golf course architecture is often considered to have come to a close with the onset of the Great Depression. That makes the opening of Moraine Country Club in Dayton, Ohio, in 1930 all the more remarkable. The brainchild of Colonel Edward A. Deeds -- co-founder of the Wright Airplane Company and co-inventor of the automobile self-starter with Charles F. Kettering, but ironically not a golfer -- Moraine opened in the early days of the Depression, while many other private clubs were beginning a decline in memberships that led to closings, bankruptcy and conversion to public and often municipal golf courses. Designed by Scottish-born Alec "Nipper" Campbell, Moraine quickly established itself as one of the best, most-challenging courses in the country. It was selected to host the 1945 PGA Championship -- Byron Nelson's fifth and final major and his 9th consecutive win en route to his record 11 tournament wins in a row. Today, the course is ranked No. 65 on Golf Magazine's list of the Top 100 courses in America.
Campbell's approach to the design of Moraine began long before Campbell first arrived to survey the farmland Colonel Deeds set aside for the club's development. Long, as in the Ice Age, when glaciers carved their way through the region and shaped the land. When Campbell came to Ohio, he sought to design a course that fit the ground as he found it -- a course that would embody the style of the great links courses of his native Scotland.
Through the years, Moraine evolved with the ebb and flow of trends in golf course design and the changing preferences of its membership. Thousands of trees were planted, bunkers were reshaped and other changes were made that left the course with little resemblance to the Scottish links-style course Campbell had designed. In 2014, the club hired renowned golf course architect and restoration expert Keith Foster to oversee an effort that would return Moraine to its roots as Campbell envisioned it.
Studying thousands of drawings, old photographs and other artifacts from Campbell's work and the early days of the club, Foster's restoration effort included the removal of nearly 2,000 trees, new and reworked bunkering, softening of some of the slopes throughout the course, new drainage systems, enhancements that improved the movement of the course from greens to tee, and the widening of fairways -- all of which led to improved playability, better sight lines throughout the course, a rediscovered aesthetic evocative of those Scottish links courses that inspired Campbell's original design, and a course that is environmentally more sustainable and less costly to maintain.
From the tips, Moraine plays to a total distance of 7,270 yards from the championship tees and a par of 71. It's a par-72 from the club's other tees. I was fortunate to play as the guest of a wonderful Dayton-area pediatrician I'll call Dr. Dave, whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. The day we played, we elected to play from the white tees, at just over 6,400 yards. So, all distances throughout this blog will be from the white tees unless otherwise stated.
Hole 1 - Par 4 - 364 Yards
Moraine offers up an inviting first hole -- a generous landing area, provided you avoid the fairway bunker on the left, and a shortish par-4 to get things started on the right note. It'll take a tee shot of about 225 yards to clear the bunker, and if you do that, your ball should catch the other side of a small rise in the fairway, adding a bit of extra distance to your opening tee shot. Be wary of the rough, though. If you miss the fairway on the first hole, you'll quickly come to realize that the rough on this course is thick and unforgiving.
From the vicinity of the fairway bunker, it's only about 150 yards to the middle of the green. With a decent drive, most players are looking at no more than a wedge or short-iron into this slightly elevated green. The green is guarded by bunkers front right and left. If you're going to miss, miss left, where there is a bit of room to bail out and remain on the same plateau as the putting surface. Miss right or long, and your ball is likely to kick down the hill from the green into thick rough, leaving a difficult and delicate pitch to get up and down for par.
Hole 2 - Par 3 - 192 Yards
If the first hole intended to welcome you to the club, the second hole is the place where Moraine lets you know that this course is going to test your mettle. The longest par-3 on the course, No. 2 plays slightly uphill to a sloping green guarded by a huge, deep bunker on the left. But visually from the tee, the more prominent feature is the large bunker to the right. Sitting some 20 yards or so short of the green, the fact that it can be seen while the bunker on the left is somewhat hidden by the rolling terrain plays with a golfer's mind and tempts you to play farther left than you otherwise might. And escaping the greenside bunker on the left -- I can attest from experience -- is no easy task, especially playing to a pin tucked into that quarter of the green around which the bunker is wrapped. This is no easy hole; play for the middle of the green, and be very happy if you walk away with a par.
Hole 3 - Par 4 - 359 Yards
The third hole plays a bit longer than its yardage on the card. The tee shot is slightly uphill to a fairway that begins to bend a bit to the right, tightens and steepens beginning about 200 yards off the tee. Drives won't get as much roll on this fairway, and the uphill second shot will add a bit of length to the hole as well.
Dense trees line the hole down the left side for the most wayward of tee shots. But other than that, there isn't a lot of trouble to be found with your driver on No. 3. The real challenge are the deep bunkers around this green, which slopes severely from left to right. Players who find one of these sand traps -- and those whose approach shots maybe find the green but fail to finish on the same level as the pin -- are likely to have a difficult time making par on this challenging hole.
Hole 4 - Par 5 - 506 Yards
The 4th hole features a blind tee shot to a fairway that looks exceedingly narrow. Shorter players may want to take something less than driver just to find the fat of the fairway before playing over the rise. But for longer hitters, a drive of 230 or so yards will get you over the crest of the hill, where the hole bends a bit to the left and begins to widen again. Careful, though -- the high grass left of the fairway will catch and hide balls that are pulled in that direction. So, if you're going to go big, be sure you hit it straight.
The fourth fairway offers a good look at the green, but mature trees left and right, just off the short grass, threaten to knock down any ball that doesn't keep to the runway for those who decide to go at this green in two. As the fairway pitches from right to left, the ideal second shot may be a ball played toward the right side of the green that draws back toward the middle. Whether you're going for it all in two or laying up, that ought to leave you in fine position to set up a scoring opportunity.
The green on No. 4 is protected by a false front and greenside bunkers front-right and to the left. Balls that miss right and long will bound down the hill away from the green into thick rough. But for those who have laid up, a wedge or short-iron approach ought to yield a birdie opportunity or a relatively easy par.
Hole 5 - Par 3 - 130 Yards
No. 5 is a terrific little hole. At just 130 yards, it's not likely more than a wedge or short-iron for most players. And the green is deep -- sloping from back to front. But it's also narrow and surrounded by three large bunkers. Balls that just miss the green and find the banks are likely to wind up significantly below the putting surface, making for a delicate chip back to toward the hole. Fun note - if you take a couple steps over the hill above this green, in the upper-left of this picture, you'll find yourself on the third tee of NCR Country Club, Dayton's other great private golf course.
Hole 6 - Par 4 - 325 Yards
No. 6 is a fantastic short par-4. At just 325 yards, with the right wind, big hitters could possibly thread the needle and drive this green. For most of us, though, it's enough to just get our tee shots out past the fairway bunker and to keep it on the short grass to set up a short wedge into this green.
The fairway on the 6th cants from left to right, and balls that land on the right side are likely to find the right rough. Better to challenge the fairway bunker and aim for the left side of this fairway in order to keep it in the short grass. From there, the hole plays to an elevated tee with bunkers left, right and long and a steep false front that will send short shots as far back as 30 or 40 yards from the green. This green is one of the shallower greens on the course at less than 30 yards of depth, and it's multi-tiered. So, while this is a short hole, there's no shortage of challenges to navigate if you want to have a go at a birdie here.
Hole 7 - Par 4 - 302 Yards
I think the 7th hole at Moraine is the hole where I really came to appreciate the greatness of the course. This short par-4, measuring just over 300 yards, dares players to bomb it all the way to the green ... but trouble abounds. Drives that carry far enough to clear the fairway bunker on the left run a high likelihood of catching the slope and chasing all the way into the deep bunker right and short of the green. And drives that make it beyond that bunker are more likely to find the right rough or one of No. 7's challenging greenside bunkers than the green itself as the fairway running up to the green slopes from left to right. It's a risk-reward hole that entices you to think your odds of success are far greater than they actually are when you step up to the tee and consider whether or not to pull the big stick.
As I realized after making an absolute mess of this hole, the smart play is likely to hit a simple 200-yard shot off the tee to the widest part of the fairway, setting up a straightforward wedge into this narrow green. It should be an absolutely easy par with a better than decent opportunity to score a birdie.
Or, play it like I did. Hit a gorgeous drive that kicks straight right from the fairway into a bunker, leaving you well below the green. Mis-judge your sand shot and blow it over the green into the fescue. Chop it out of the tall stuff with no hope of holding the green and watch helplessly as your ball rolls into one of the deep bunkers on the right. Fail in your first effort to get up and out and back onto the putting surface, and watch the ball trundle back down the face through the rough and into the sand for another go. Finally blast one out with enough force to be sure it won't come back to you, and leave yourself a difficult two putt for a cool triple-bogey.
Hole 8 - Par 5 - 532 Yards
The eighth tee is possibly the most picturesque vantage on the golf course. Standing atop the hill, you get a 360-degree view that lets you look out over almost the entire front nine, as well as the closing holes on the back nine. And laid out in front of you is a long, straight, gettable par-5. Players who can blast it past the fairway bunker on the left can catch the downslope, and on a hot, dry summer's day, a great drive can become a gargantuan drive as the ball bounces and bounds down the fairway, leaving a manageable fairway wood or hybrid into the green. For the rest of us, though it's plenty good enough to just get it into the fairway and set up a quality layup.
A layup down the right side of the fairway to just about 160 yards will catch another downslope that drives your ball toward the green, leaving a mid- or short-iron approach into this large, two-tiered green. Three bunkers -- two left and one right -- guard the green but aren't the most difficult hazards on the course for those who do find them. They're relatively shallow, making them easier than some to escape. For those who do find the green, the real trick is simply playing to the right distance and finishing on the same level as the hole. I was fortunate to do so and was rewarded with a birdie ... which felt like even more of an accomplish coming off of my triple on the previous hole.
Hole 9 - Par 4 - 422 Yards
The front nine finishes with a long par-4. There's nothing tricky about this hole. Hit your ball straight, and there's no reason not to score par. But play it crooked, and the rough can turn an easy 4 into a frustrating 5 or even a 6. There are no fairway bunkers, and there is no water; No. 9 is just long and straight ... and that's how you need to play it if you want to score.
The ninth hole has one of the most inviting approaches of any hole on the golf course, offering a wide runway to play a low ball along the ground and into the green. The putting surface isn't particularly deep, but it is wide. And the bunkers left and right shouldn't be too much of a concern for most golfers coming into this hole, spread so far apart as they are. Play for the middle of this green, and enjoy the walk up the fairway toward the clubhouse, and be sure to tip your cap to the members enjoying a drink or a meal on the new veranda should you make your putt for birdie.
Hole 10 - Par 4 - 416 Yards
No. 10 is a challenging par-4 that plays long and requires a well-placed tee shot and then a precise approach to a small, crowned green that runs off in every direction. From the tee, two fairway bunkers on the right demand respect. A ball that lands in either of them sets up a second shot that may not even make it across the creek some 100 yards out from the green, let alone the green itself. While this hole does play downhill, the creek isn't likely in play for most player off the tee. Play the ball to the left-half of the fairway to avoid the sand, but be careful not to pull your tee shot too far to the left, as gnarly rough and trees down the left side wait to bury your ball and block you from playing your second toward the green.
The approach to No. 10 plays across a creek to one of the smallest greens on the course. Making this approach significantly more difficult is that balls that land or roll toward the edges of the green are likely to wind up sliding away, down the sloped banks into the thick rough. And there is no guarantee that a pitch from that rough, which allows for no spin, won't just zip across the green and down the opposite bank, leaving a similarly delicate return pitch to this unforgiving putting surface. Having somehow escaped this hole with a bogey, I'm still not sure what the ideal (or lowest-risk) strategy is for scoring on this hole. But one thing I know for sure is that a birdie on this hole is an accomplishment worth celebrating for those who achieve it.
Hole 11 - Par 4 - 373 Yards
The 11th hole plays parallel to the 10th with the tee shot across the creek to a fairway that slopes gently uphill as it approaches the green. Trees left and a fairway bunker on the right challenge you to hit a solid tee shot up the middle of this mid-length par-4.
Players who find the fairway are likely to be rewarded with a mid- to short-iron approach -- possibly even just a wedge -- into this green, which is one of the flattest on the course, setting up a good look at a makeable birdie putt. Avoid the false front and the bunker front-left of this green, and fire at the flag!
Hole 12 - Par 3 - 174 Yards
The 12th hole is a mid-length par-3 with bunkers short-left and right. The green slopes from back to front, which should help players hold the green, even paying mid- and longer-irons into this one-shot hole. Players may even want to try a low, running shot up the apron into this green. Just be careful not to go long, as the green drops off steeply back and to the right, and holding the putting surface with a return pitch from the rough in either location might prove near-impossible. After my round, I was told by one member who described himself as a short hitter that he plays this hole with an 8-iron to the fairway cut, about 50 yards from the middle of the green, and then a pitch to the hole. He said he might not ever birdie this hole, but unless he blades or chunks his pitch, he never cards worse than a 4 and often comes away with par. Seems like pretty sound strategy.
Hole 13 - Par 5 - 537 Yards
I got caught up in Dr. Dave's storytelling on the 13th hole and failed to take any pictures until we were near the green. As we stood on the tee waiting for the group ahead of us to play their second shots, Dr. Dave asked me if I'd ever heard of a golf course architect named Mike Strantz. Not only had I heard of him, I'm a big Strantz fan. And I told the good doctor about the blog I'd written about Strantz and his designs a year or so ago. Well, it turns out Dr. Dave and Mike Strantz were close friends for decades, dating back to Strantz's days as an artist in Toledo, before he'd broken into golf course design. Over the next few holes, I heard wonderful personal stories about Strantz -- the man, the friend and the visionary golf course architect whose life was sadly cut short by cancer. It was such a random, unexpected treat that made my visit to Moraine exponentially more enjoyable ... and I was already having a pretty great time.
The 13th hole at Moraine is a long, uphill par-5 that bends gently to the right as you make your way from tee to green. Theoretically, I guess there are some players who could challenge the green in two on this hole, but I don't know that I've ever played with any of them. For us mortals, the goal off the tee is simple -- avoid the bunker on the right, and find the fairway. That's all it takes to make a successful start at this hole. Similarly, the second shot is just a long lay-up -- as much club as you can confidently keep straight, avoiding two bunkers left and keeping it in the short grass.
Assuming you've played a good drive and a solid second shot (And why wouldn't you assume that, right?), you'll likely find yourself looking at a short- to mid-iron into a small, elevated green guarded by deep bunkers left and right. If you're not certain you can avoid those bunkers, I recommend putting this ball if that's what it takes to keep it down the middle and run it into this green. No joke; a putter might not be the club, but a putting stroke played with a hybrid might actually be a legitimate approach to keeping the ball out of trouble and finding this green. If you're going to play a more conventional stroke with a lofted iron, be happy to land the ball in the heart of the green and take your two-putt par. A birdie putt that finds the bottom of the cup is just gravy on this long, tough par-5.
Hole 14 - Par 4 - 370 Yards
No. 14 is a really cool par-4, playing up and over a hill to a landing area that can't be seen from the tee as it dips below the ridge. Play the tee shot to the left side of the fairway, and give it all you've got. It'll take a drive of about 220 yards to carry beyond the left fairway bunker and catch the slope on the other side of the hill. From there, the ball will roll out and down to the right, hopefully settling in the fairway to set up a short-iron approach. Avoid the right fairway bunker at all costs, as reaching the green from that sand requires a high-trajectory long-iron and a healthy amount of prayer.
Sitting in a bit of a valley, the approach shot on 14 plays uphill to a plateau green. Balls left short will run 30 yards or more back into the fairway, and balls that miss right are in for an even worse fate as they bounce down the steep bank and settle in the thick rough. A bunker short-right of the green is no picnic, either. If you're going to miss on your approach, miss left, as shots left will tend to kick right toward the putting surface. I played this hole well, going fairway to green for a two-putt par, but even if I'd doubled the hole, I think it would still be one of my favorites on the course.
Hole 15 - Par 3 - 150 Yards
No. 15 is a tough mid-length par-3. The prominence of the fescue, the danger of being the trees encroaching from the right and three deep greenside bunkers offer up a buffet of visual intimidation before you even address the ball. The green is slightly elevated, making the bunkers appear that much deeper and more dangerous. Balls that land short of the green will roll back 20 yards or more in the fairway cut or, worse, into the rough on the right. And balls that go long of the green will kick forward toward the trees. This tee shot is about confidence and execution. If either falters, it's going to be easy to make a big number. For those who pull the right club and put a good swing on the ball, however, birdie is absolutely in play.
Notice the caddies out to the left in the photo above. Moraine has a wonderful caddie program featuring talented, dedicated young people from the local community. I was impressed both by the number of young women I saw caddying at Moraine and by how proud the club is of their young loopers. Like many clubs, Moraine's membership supports a meaningful scholarship program for its young caddies. But I haven't seen many other clubs that display the names of their caddie scholarship honorees on the walls of their pro-shop as though they were the names of the club champions. It was really impressive to see and to hear the members I encountered talk about the quality of their caddies.
Hole 16 - Par 4 - 370 Yards
The 16th hole is another on which I found myself so caught up in the conversation that I neglected to take a photo from the tee. This straightaway par-4 plays downhill, requiring a tee shot that threads the needle between three fairway bunkers in order to find the fairway. The approach plays over something of a valley in the fairway to a green that sits above, making it difficult to run a low ball into this hole. And the putting surface is surrounded by four large greenside bunkers that all sit well below the level of the green. Making this hole even more of a challenge, the green is one of the smallest on the course, sloping from back to front with a false front designed to send shots that come up short well back into the fairway.
Hole 17 - Par 5 - 449 Yards
No. 17 is, by far, the shortest par-5 on the golf course, offering up one last great opportunity to post a birdie or even an eagle. Fairway bunkers left and right require an accurate tee shot, but for those who find the fairway, it's going to be decision time. From the area of the bunkers, it's only about 200 yards into this green, and unless you're really afraid of the sand in the two greenside bunkers, this is the hole to go for broke.
Even if you wait for the green to clear only to duff your second shot and hit a weak 100-yard top down the fairway (like I did), you're still likely to find yourself in position to play a comfortable wedge into this green. The two bunkers that protect the putting surface are deep, but don't let fear shake you. This green is receptive and will welcome a well-struck lofted ball as you take dead aim at this flag.
Hole 18 - Par 4 - 430 Yards
If 17 was one of the easiest scoring holes on the course, 18 is anything but. There's nothing tricky about this hole. It's just a beast of a par-4 at 430 yards, playing slightly uphill. Trees to the right and sand and fescue to the left make for a challenging tee shot. Play your ball to the right side of the fairway in order to shorten the hole as much as you can as it bends gently to the right. Playing from that side also will allow for options about how you approach this green.
The shot into 18 can be played through the air, but the preferrable shot -- in keeping with the Scottish links-style design of the course, perhaps -- may be a low runner along the fairway that spends more time on the turf than in the air as it makes its way toward the putting surface. Avoid the bunkers short-left and to the right, and this relatively flat green just might permit a par or even an occasional birdie. But for those of us playing our second shots from 200 yards or more out, that's going to be easier said than done. Regardless, when you putt out on 18 at Moraine, no matter what you've got on the scorecard, you feel like you've really experienced something special.
I can't thank Dr. Dave enough for inviting me to play at Moraine, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to experience this wonderful club and course. It was an absolute delight even on the holes I knew I was playing all wrong. I've got a friend who says he knows he's played a great course when he finishes 18 and immediately wants to play the course again. I had that feeling at Moraine, and I look forward to the next opportunity to visit.