LeBron James and golf: Two winning combinations in Cleveland, Ohio

CLEVELAND -- Although I've only visited once, I've got a soft spot for Cleveland.

My college roommate from the Buckeye state was a diehard Indians and Browns fan, even though they stunk (and still do). One of my first big stories in journalism was to cover a rising basketball star from nearby Akron. His name? LeBron James. I was the Midwest editor for Student Sports, a magazine that covered high school sports on a national level. We hired a local newspaper reporter -- now ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst -- to write the first-ever national cover story about James. The headline was "King James: The New Version," a nickname that has stuck with James throughout his career. I co-authored a follow-up cover story his senior year (click here to read it).

But it wasn't until I visited in 2013 that I really fell for the whole "Cleveland Rocks" mentality. It's got some great old golf courses, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a revitalized downtown. With winter fully melted away, and James ready to push the Cavaliers to another potential NBA Finals run, let's celebrate Cleveland's golf scene.

Four hidden gem golf courses in Cleveland

Golfers have some driving to do to hit the most interesting courses surrounding Cleveland. Most of them are relatively inexpensive hidden gems loved by locals. Start with the Legacy Course at Sweetbriar Golf Club west of Cleveland in Avon Lake. During my visit, I ran into a childhood hero, former Detroit Tiger third baseman Tom Brookens, who, at the time, was coaching the Tigers in a series against the Indians.

Kent State University's golf teams call Windmill Lakes Golf Club in Ravenna home, despite its location six miles from campus. If it was good enough for 2003 Open Champion Ben Curtis, then it's certainly strong enough to test anybody. Medina, located about 30 minutes south of Cleveland, has two courses ranked among the top dozen in the state by Golf Advisor users in 2015: no. 12 Shale Creek Golf Club and no. 5 Ridge Top Golf Course.

Three modern standouts

All of Cleveland's best modern designs were all built on the east side. Pete Dye contributed his brand of intimidating golf at Fowler's Mill Golf Course in Chesterland, where the par 5s stand out. Some mounding and large bunkers characterize Little Mountain Country Club, a Dr. Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry design in Concord. For more rolling land, check out Boulder Creek Golf Club and Event Center created by Joe Salemi in Streetsboro.

Two classic architects

Here's where Cleveland really rocks. Two of the game's legends -- Canadian Stanley Thompson and native Scotsman Donald Ross -- designed three really interesting classic courses. Each one has been incredibly well preserved over the years. Best of all, they're very affordable.

Thompson's Sleepy Hollow Golf Course in Brecksville is quite possibly the best of the bunch. The rolling hills and deep ravines of the Cuyahoga River Valley allow the 6,723-yard, par-71 course to disappear from civilization, hidden from homes and roads. It was a private club on land leased from the Cleveland Metroparks system until turning public in 1963, a path similar to the Metropark's other gem, Manakiki Golf Course, a former private course designed by Ross in Willoughby Hills.

Ross's Hawthorne Valley Golf Club in Solon was also a private playground until the recent recession pried open its doors. The tiny greens look like the size of a pair of king beds laid side by side. Good luck hitting them in reg.

One golf resort

There aren't many golf resorts in Ohio. The Cleveland area happens to boast possibly the state's best -- Quail Hollow Resort in Painesville.

Guests can set up stay and plays at the nearby Quail Hollow Country Club and its Weiskopf-Morrish Course and Devlin-Von Hagge Course. Little Mountain and Fowler's Mill are also close by. The 172-room resort features a Jack Arras Spa & Salon, indoor and outdoor pools and CK's Restaurant.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Little mountain and hawthorne need to come off this list immediately. Swap in Pine Hills - certainly not the most impressive course but it is always in great shape which is more than can be said about Hawthorne and Little Mountain. 

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LeBron James and golf: Two winning combinations in Cleveland, Ohio