Trip Dispatch: Finding golf salvation in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS -- The name alone is intriguing: Purgatory Golf Club -- it seems appropriate for a golf course. How often have we felt while playing golf that we were paying penance? Conversely, when it goes well, playing golf can seem like a heavenly experience.

Of course, Catholics know full well that Purgatory is neither heaven nor hell but, rather, a purification station, perhaps, on the way to eternal bliss. The same could be said for this wonderful Ron Kern design, which was my first stop on a golf trip to the Indianapolis area.

Of course, the name of the course wasn't without controversy -- at least in the beginning. When it first opened, owners Mike and Tenna Merchent heard from a devout Catholic who thought the name was blasphemous.

They eventually eased her concerns.

"I told her my wife was Catholic, and it wasn't meant to be disrespectful," said Mike Merchent, a PGA member.

The capper, though, is that the course has even been blessed by a priest, the family's "Uncle Buddy." And around the logo, there's a Latin phrase that translates into: "Time Spent Here is Well Rewarded."

Since 2000, this family-run operation located in Noblesville, Ind. just north of Indy has just been providing an exceptional golf experience -- from the quality and beauty of the course to the clubhouse dining operation, with green fees in the $60-$75 range. Tee times are 10 minutes apart, the dining is well above average and so is the staff, led by Director of Golf Jon Stutz. And there are no homes on the 218-acre course.

The course is an obvious labor of love for regional architect Ron Kern, who incorporated a links-look design with light tall fescue, generous fairways and well more than 100 bunkers. A civil engineer by trade who turned golf course architect, Kern designed all aspects of the course, including drainage and irrigation. He's also an artist (literally) and has an appreciation for the classic designs on both sides of the pond. He even has "Diddel" bump on the 11th hole in honor of one of his favorite architect, Bill Diddel, a fellow Hoosier who designed many golf courses in Indiana and often incorporated this feature into his designs.

After the rain, late round at one of #Indy area's finest, Purgatory Golf Club. @purgatorygolfclub

A photo posted by Mike Bailey (@mstefan.bailey) on

There are bunkers throughout Purgatory G.C., but no hole has more sand coverage than the 17th -- "Hell's Half Acre" -- a par 3 where the green is surrounded by eight very large sand traps. It's just 173 yards from the back tee, but the hole can certainly be intimidating. One of the coolest things about the hole, though, is the 54-yard forward tee, which is set up such that a player could actually use a putter from the tee (there's a run-up option between the bunkers).

And while putter isn't a good option from the other 17 forward tees, which play 4,400 yards, there's always a route to the green that doesn't involved a forced carry, which makes this course imminently playable.

It should also be noted, however, that from the back tees, Purgatory is 7,754 yards. Most of the back tees (which are red, by the way) aren't even noticeable if you're not looking for them. But just out of curiosity, I had to try to hit a driver from the tips on the par-5 13th, which plays (get this!) 741 yards from said tees. The carry to the fairway is more than 300 yards. And no, I didn't make it to the fairway. Yep, those are for players younger and more talented.

Purgatory leads off great week of golf

Dodging some thunderstorms early in the week, I got to play 27 holes at Purgatory Golf Club, which was hardly the only quality golf in Indianapolis and the surrounding area. On day 2, we had the opportunity to sample another family owned operation, Rock Hollow Golf Club, which is on the other side of Indianapolis in Peru. The course is owned and run by Terry Smith, whose sons Terry and Chris both played on the PGA Tour. In fact, Chris still plays golf for a living, and the grandchildren of the golf course's patriarch are following in the family's footsteps in college and high school golf.

The course was built on the site of an old mining operation that had been in the family since 1923, though the old quarry certainly isn't evident. The tree-lined course, which has played host to a number of high-level amateur events, is mature beyond its years. Designed by Pete Dye protege Tim Liddy, it's solid golf throughout, and from 6,944 yards, it's a formidable test.

I also ventured away from Indianapolis a bit to check out a couple more courses that Golf Advisor readers have rated among the best in the area. In Lebanon, which is about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Indy, is The Trophy Club, another stellar Liddy design that's well worth the drive. One of the best conditioned courses I played on this trip, this bentgrass layout with fescue highlights is super interesting with elevated green complexes surrounded by bunkers and closely mown chipping areas.

Farther away from Indianapolis in Lafayette is another highly rated course -- Coyote Crossing, a Hale Irwin design carved through rolling hills and around and over creeks. And next door, I checked out another gem, the Kampen Course at Purdue University, designed by Pete Dye. The Kampen is one of the best public college courses in the country.

Beautiful Coyote Crossing Golf Club in West Lafayette, Indiana.

A photo posted by Mike Bailey (@mstefan.bailey) on

Closer to Indianapolis, I made a couple of other stops. Another Dye course, Plum Creek Golf Club at Lynnwood Farm in Carmel, just north of the city, also drew rave reviews from our readers. And closer to the airport, 36-hole Eagle Creek Golf Club is a local favorite.

Last day yields private gem

But one of the biggest treats of this weeklong trip to Indianapolis was getting to play Highland Golf & Country Club, a private club that dates back to 1919. Joining me during the round was the same architect who crafted Purgatory, the aforementioned Ron Kern, who's a pretty good stick.

Kern has been doing the restoration at Highland along with Highland's Director of Agronomy and Facilities Ryan Baldwin, CGCS, who has supervised the construction. The course was originally designed by Willie Park Jr. and Diddel and still has its original greens. After one renovation in the 1990s removed some of the bunkers, Kern has brought most of them back, although they are in some new locations to adjust for the modern game. Kern, who played the course growing up, used childhood memories for part of the restoration since only a couple of old photographs were available. He is also in the process of regaining some lost green space, but as Highland stands now, it's one of the best golf courses in Indianapolis, and that would be true even without its history.

Highland G. & C.C. has played host to some important events over the years. Walter Hagen won the 1926 Western Open there, and the next day, Bobby Jones beat Hagen in an exhibition match, where they both shook hands and reportedly buried the hatchet over some long-standing hard feelings between the two. Highland is also where the great Babe Zaharias won her third Western Open title shortly after learning of his mother's death back in Los Angeles.

As for our match, Kern won that one easily. He shot 74. Of course, he had home-course advantage and a little inside knowledge. I'll certainly be looking for a rematch upon my return.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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Trip Dispatch: Finding golf salvation in Indianapolis