Golf at the Kentucky Derby? The 7 courses to play near Churchill Downs

Visiting Kentucky for the Derby? Here are the courses you should check out.
Rich Strike, ridden by jockey Sonny Leon, crosses the finish line to win the 148th running of The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs May 7, 2022.

Why does the Kentucky Derby go hand-in-hand with golf? The big race is only two minutes, which gives attendees plenty of time for a round at one of the local courses.

The Kentucky Derby has brought horse racing fans across the world to Churchill Downs, the crown jewel of Louisville, Ky., for 148 years running.

Truth is, many Louisville natives, myself included, have never been to the Derby. Kentucky home-growns spend weekends and nights at the track year-round but when the big day comes, we step back and let visitors from all over get a taste of Churchill Downs. While I can’t put in writing what the Derby experience is like, I can tell you all the best golf courses to visit during your time away from the stables.

Lost within the craze of Derby horses are the lovely golf courses the Bluegrass State has to offer. Spread across the city of Louisville and right across the Ohio River are dozens of courses with their own charms and challenges.

Not every Derby-goer will gamble on the right horse, but you can bet on Kentucky being a great place to tee it up. Here's where to play, whether you're in town for the Derby or, really, any time.

  1. Audubon Country Club
    Audubon Country Club's sixth hole is a 400-yard par 4 featuring an uphill approach shot with multiple fairway and greenside bunkers.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs: 3.1 miles

    How to Access: Audubon is private and not easily accessible to non-members. However, there is an unspoken rule between private club professionals that can allow an opportunity to play. If you belong to a private club, have your golf professional call the club and speak with a golf representative who may have the ability to offer you a time. Around Derby time, clubs know to expect an influx of visitors and may be flexible with tee times.

    While proximity to the Derby festivities may set ACC apart from others, its location isn’t all it's got going. My opinions of the club are slightly biased as my father has led the club for 22 years and counting and its grounds are where I learned the game. It remains my favorite course in all of Kentucky.

    Founded in 1908 and designed by Thomas Bendelow, Audubon has been a staple of the city's golf scene. With tree lined fairways nudged against the local neighborhood, choosing the right club off the tee will make or break your round. The zoysia fairways and grueling rough feature heavy undulation that will test your skills off uneven lies.

    Recent renovations by architect Lester George unveiled new tee boxes on holes 9 and 11 and opened a brand-new putting facility featuring a nine-hole course and practice area that has been coined “The Nest.”

    Its proximity makes it a great choice for a quick round before heading back to bet on your favorite horses.

  2. Valhalla Golf Club
    The PGA of America recently sold Valhalla Golf Club, but the 2024 PGA Championship will still be played at the prestigious Jack Nicklaus course.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs: 21 miles

    How to Access: Due to a change in ownership, Valhalla requires guests to play with a member making it the toughest of these courses to access.

    If you are in search of a true championship golf course with some serious history, Valhalla Golf Club will not disappoint. Home to the 2008 Ryder Cup and several PGA Championships, this club is Kentucky’s most prestigious.

    Valhalla opened its doors in 1986 after being meticulously designed by Jack Nicklaus. The PGA of America purchased Valhalla in 1993. The 1996 PGA Championship soon followed.

    The clubhouse is practically a trophy case to prove its illustrious history. Valhalla is classy at its core and offers an old school and sophisticated set of rules and services, setting it apart from the modern club movement.

    Being on the grounds at Valhalla to watch Rory McIlroy win the 2014 PGA Championship in my hometown was a sight to behold and a memory I will never forget. As Valhalla prepares to host the 2024 PGA Championship, the course is in prime condition and is exhilarating to play.

  3. Hurstbourne Country Club
    The clubhouse of Hurstbourne Country Club sites behind the par-3 18th hole.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs: 13 miles

    How to Access: This private club requires call from head professional similar to Audubon.

    Hurstbourne holds a special place in my heart as it winds through the neighborhood I called home growing up. It features some of the most challenging greens in the state. Hurstbourne’s 18th hole is my favorite hole in Kentucky. The uphill par 3 introduces a tee shot aiming at the beautiful castle-like clubhouse. The green is sheltered by deep bunkers that force accuracy.

    I admire this club for its consistency in manicuring and overall beauty. It’s one I would play every day if I had the opportunity. While I personally feel the back nine is tougher due to the heavy undulation and the need to shape shots to get in position, both loops will challenge you.

    If you have extra time, the executive nine is a ton of fun to play for any skill level.

  4. Heritage Hill Golf Club
    Heritage Hill is a popular pick for the Golfers' Choice rankings in Kentucky.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs:  22 miles

    How to Access: Book a tee time, costly roughly $45 with cart, by visiting their website.

    Out of the city and into the hillside, Heritage Hill Golf Club is, arguably, the best of the public courses in Kentucky. Its high rankings in Golfers' Choice - ranking in the top 10 every year since 2015 - prove that most players love it. While it resides outside the city lines of Louisville, it’s worth the drive to see this beautiful piece of property that features loads of elevation changes with great views of the surrounding countryside.

    Heritage Hill is a par 72 designed by Doug Beach featuring bent grass greens and zoysia fairways. I’ve played a great deal of competitive rounds at this track and appreciate the variety of holes it offers. You can find tight tree-lined fairways followed by demanding par 3s and tee shots that offer room to miss either direction.

    Like Hurstbourne, Heritages’ 18th hole is a stunner. It features an elevated tee box overlooking the green tucked behind a pond to its left side. This gorgeous display of golf is built along a conservation property, the Salt River, with no houses or development around the property.

  5. Fuzzy Zoeller’s Covered Bridge Golf Club
    A view of the 16th green with water coming into play at Covered Bridge Golf and Country Club.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs: 20 miles

    How to Access: Book a tee time through their website or through GolfNow for roughly $45-60 with cart.

    Another course just across the Kentucky state line is Fuzzy Zoeller’s Covered Bridge Golf Club in Sellersburg, Ind. Covered Bridge is at the top of the list when it comes to full-service public courses in the area. If you are looking for a place to spend the day, this is an excellent choice.  

    Fun to play for all skill levels, Covered Bridge exhibits generous zoysia fairways with mainly flat terrain. Built in 1994, its well-manicured course and practice facilities are accompanied by its beautiful scenery that shows off southern Indiana’s charm.

    There's even an excellent patio and dining room to enjoy a meal or a drink before or after a round.

  6. Chariot Run
    Chariot Run delivers an excellent experience in southern Indiana.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs: 32 miles

    How to Access: Book a tee time through their website or through GolfNow for roughly $45-60 with cart.

    Though Chariot Run is also across the state line in Laconia, Ind., it has a real Kentucky feel. The course considers itself “equestrian-themed”, making it perfect for a Derby weekend visit. It features more water than a typical Kentucky course but is still fun to play. This is among the courses in my regular playing rotation while I’m visiting my hometown. 

    Chariot Run is straightforward and consistent in its setup but doesn’t hesitate to make you think through your shots, especially around the greens. While the course appears open, spraying the ball off the tee will get you in trouble due all that water.

    Located near a Caesars casino, Chariot Run makes for a great day trip during your stay.  

  7. Nevel Meade
    Nevel Meade Golf Club is a popular course for Louisville-area golfers.

    Proximity to Churchill Downs: 22 miles

    How to Access: Book a tee time for roughly $52-$62 with cart by visiting their website

    Nevel Meade Golf Club in Prospect, Ky., holds its place as one of the top-tier public course in the state. This well-manicured 18 designed by Steven Smyers features rolling hills with forgiving fairways. Its fair share of deep bunkers and fescue will keep you on target but compared to other course in the area, it offers more places to miss. I would recommend this course for any skill level looking for an easily accessible and well-maintained track.

Libby Gilliland, a Division I golfer at La Salle University in Philadelphia, is an intern with GolfPass.
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Golf at the Kentucky Derby? The 7 courses to play near Churchill Downs