Ultimate Itineraries: Where to play golf in Kentucky

Golf, horses and bourbon from Louisville to Lexington
Valhalla Golf Club, Kentucky's top-rated course, has hosted multiple majors

Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, is best known for a single annual event that is over in less time than it takes to change into your golf garb. Churchill Downs annually stages the Kentucky Derby, "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports." Though the race occurs in Louisville, the dreams typically start about 80 miles to the east in Lexington, which bills itself as the "Horse Capital of the World" and boasts the largest concentration of horse farms on the planet. Naturally, the rolling grasslands of the Louisville-Lexington region conjure up images of lush playing fields for our favorite game. Golf in this realm runs the gamut from Valhalla Golf Club, which has hosted multiple major championships, to a Marriott golf resort and a passel of worthy daily fee layouts. With the excitement of rival college towns (and basketball powerhouses), an abundance of horse farms and museums, and the distilleries of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail beckoning, the Bluegrass State makes for a splendid summer swing getaway.

Day 1: Louisville

The PGA of America considers Valhalla Golf Club one of its go-to venues for its premier events, such as the Ryder Cup Matches and PGA Championship.

Whether you fly to Louisville International Airport or drive to the city, you’ll want to hit the ground running with Day 1 golf. The most famous Louisville-area golf course is Valhalla Golf Club, an exclusive golf-only private club whose members tend to be very good players. While everyday play is restricted to members and their guests, as a courtesy to PGA of America professionals throughout the country, this flagship property welcomes a limited number of reciprocal rounds from members of private clubs. It is well worth seeing if your home pro can arrange to get you a tee time.

Valhalla’s founder, the late Dwight Gahm, realized he could make a lasting contribution to the Louisville area by building a world-class test that could attract major competitions. He commissioned Jack Nicklaus to design the layout and the club opened for play in 1986. Eventually the PGA took it over and from 1996 to 2014, Valhalla hosted three PGA Championships, two Senior PGA Championships, the PGA Professional Championship (for club professionals), and a Ryder Cup.

If you've only seen Valhalla on television, you will likely be surprised at how pretty the site is. While the front nine sports a links-style look, the back nine takes on a traditional, parkland aspect, the playing field turns hillier and mature trees provide some seclusion on a site totally free of any housing.

Chariot Run, in Laconia, Indiana, is one of the top-rate public-access courses in the the Lousiville orbit

Since there’s no guarantee of a round at Valhalla, we’ve got a plan B for you. In the public sphere, Golf Advisor’s 2018 top-rated Louisville course is actually across the Indiana border. Chariot Run, in Laconia, Ind., is a very well-maintained, links-style layout with wide fairways, elevation changes, great greens, and plenty of sand. A stretch on the back nine delves into wooded terrain.

For a two-night stay in Louisville, check into an elegant room at the Seelbach Hilton, a masterpiece of Beaux Arts Baroque grandeur that’s been a downtown landmark since 1905. F. Scott Fitzgerald thought enough of the ornate hotel to make it the setting of Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. Stay downtown for dinner and then head to the Fourth Street Live Entertainment District for Louisville’s nightlife scene.

DAY 2: Golf, Bats and Bourbon

A busy day lies ahead. Start the morning by stepping up to the plate at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. Everyone who takes the tour gets a (miniature) Louisville Slugger bat.

Now, how about sampling one of Kentucky’s great homegrown products - bourbon? The numerous distilleries in the 80 miles between between Louisville and Lexington produce 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. Some 13 signature distilleries, including five in or very near Louisville, make up the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The most famous is the Jim Beam American Stillhouse in Clermont. Tours are offered seven days a week.

Heritage Hill Golf Club was Golf Advisor's top-rated course in all of Kentucky in 2017

There’s still time for an afternoon round of golf. Heritage Hill Golf Club tops the Louisville-area’s order of merit. In 2017, it was Golf Advisor’s top rated course in all of Kentucky. Another alternative we like is back in Indiana. Covered Bridge Golf Club, in Sellersburg, is a very pleasant design by Clyde Johnson and Fuzzy Zoeller.

DAY 3: Churchill Downs, then on to Lexington's Griffin Gate Marriott Resort

The recently renovated Rees Jones-designed golf course gets star billing at Griffin Gate Marriott Resort

Before heading out of Louisville, make a pilgrimage to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. You’ll feel the history and get a rush as you head down for a close-up view of the track. Every day is Derby Day at the Museum, a family-friendly, interactive attraction where you can replay some of the greatest horse races of all time.

Moving on the Lexington, 80 miles to the east, make the Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa your base. The resort, which is just off I-75, features an attractive hotel lobby, a cocktail lounge and restaurant, a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, an exercise room, and, most importantly, a recently renovated Rees Jones golf course.

After checking in at the resort, you only need to walk a few hundred feet to Griffin Gate Golf Club, which starts in back of the hotel and winds through a residential development on the back nine. The par-72 layout is short, predominantly flat, and highly playable. Griffin Gate hosted a Champions Tour event from 1983 until 1989; Lee Elder, Gene Littler, and Bob Charles top the list of winners.

DAY 4: Lexington Golf and More Horse History

P.B. and Pete Dye collaborated on city-owned Kearney Hill Golf Links

Rise and shine for a morning round in Lexington. Kearney Hill Golf Links is a city-owned, links-style Pete Dye/P.B. Dye collaboration from 1989 with exceptionally wide fairways and gargantuan greens. When the Champions Tour left Griffin Gate, it moved to this muni for an eight-year run (1990-1997). Gary Player won twice here. Kearney Hill also hosted both the Men's and Women's Pub Links Championships.

Finally, off the course, you can get a great feel for Lexington’s horse scene at beautiful, historic Keeneland Race Track and at the Kentucky Horse Park. The season at Keeneland’s alluring Red Mile track, the second oldest harness racing track in the world, runs from late July to early October. The nearby Kentucky Horse Park is a family-friendly place that features numerous demonstrations and horse shows. A number of Derby-winning horses have retired there and can be seen in their stables, and the great Man o' War is buried there. The Horse Park is also home to the excellent International Museum of the Horse.

Of course, Lexington offers more opportunities to hop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The most convenient place to start is the Barrel House Distilling Company. The tour of this craft bourbon producer gives you two for one: In addition to seeing how the bourbon is made and trying samples, you also get to sample Barrel House’s beer products, including the nationally well-known Bourbon Barrel Ale and Kentucky Ale.

DAY 5: A Getaway Round at the Kentucky Wildcats' Home Course

We always like to end our ultimate itineraries with a round on departure day. Your best bet is the University Club of Kentucky, the home club of the Kentucky Wildcats. Notable UK alumni who went on to the pro tour include Russ Cochran, Steve Flesch, and J.B. Holmes. While the University Club boasts two Arthur Hills-designed eighteens, the one to play is Big Blue. Routed over rolling terrain, this broad-shouldered layout over rolling features tricky, undulating greens and a signature island-green par 3.

It’s tough to leave Lexington without playing the other course at the club, but chances are you will want to come back to Louisville and Lexington for another visit. Kentucky may not be well known for golf, but a summer swing in the Bluegrass State makes for a great golf getaway with tons to do.

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Ultimate Itineraries: Where to play golf in Kentucky