IBJ Average Joe

BENNER: An Average Joe Hack’s 36 holes in Purgatory

By Bill BennerIndianapolis Business JournalAUGUST 11-17, 2003

It was the most fun I’ve ever had shooting 113, a mere 31 over par, in golf.

It was the most fun because it was one of the biggest challenges I ever have undertaken in golf.

But before I dig into the details, a preface.

As I have noted in this space, I am Average Joe Hack on the links.

I can occasionally hit a shot that indicates a modicum of hand-eye coordination and some mastery of the golf swing’s many moving parts. Sometimes I can even do it twice in a row.

Then my next shot–or two–will appear to be the product of a duffer who borrowed his uncle’s clubs and has maybe played no more than two or three rounds. Ever.

That maddening inconsistency is what, at once, drives me both to and away from the game. It’s the love-hate relationship all golfers have with the game, and why we’re also reminded that golf spelled backward is flog.

Anyway, inspired by the sight of the world’s greatest golfers being flogged themselves during the recent British Open, I decided I wanted to take my Average Joe Hack game onto one of the most difficult courses in this area. I wanted to play said course from the back-back-BACK tees, play strictly according to USGA rules (no mulligans, no gimmies, no improved lies), count every stinkin’ stroke, and see how I fared.

Thus, I headed to the imaginatively, figuratively and literally named Purgatory Golf Club, a few miles north of Noblesville off State Road 37.

Why Purgatory? Well, for starters, length, baby. From the tips, it is 7,754 yards. Co-owner/Director of Golf Mike Merchent says he knows of no longer par-72 course in America. It features a 741-yard par-5, several back-breaking 470-yard-plus par 4s and a couple of 230-yard, all-carry par 3s. It has 8,000 tons of sand (actually, crushed limestone) in nearly 130 bunkers. It has five lakes, slick undulating greens and enough heather, gorse, fescue and non-grassy green stuff to feed several hundred goats for eternity.

But it also has an enchanting design, gleaned from the inspirations of legendary architects Alistair MacKenzie, George Thomas, Seth Raynor and Indiana’s own Bill Diddle. Ron Kern, with input from Merchent, is the designer who turned farm fields into what I believe is the best new public-access course in Indiana. At least the best new one I’ve played.

Fact is, it’s more beauty than beast. The greens are firm and fast, but fair. A well-struck putt is rewarded. The fairways, which I strolled across during my forays into the bunkers and rough, were exceptional. And even the rough–and I saw plenty of it–wasn’t as bad as I remembered when I played Purgatory a year ago. Indeed, I lost just one ball as I beat it around those 7,700 yards, and that was one I dumped in the water.

In just three years, Purgatory has grown in beautifully.

But from the tips, make no mistake, it’s a mighty test, not just for Average Joe Hack, but for my playing partners Jon, The Other Bill and Merchent, who provided a fascinating play-by-play of the design concepts and influences incorporated into each hole.

Purgatory starts out gently enough–No. 1 is just an average 372 yards from the back–but it turns mean on the second hole, where a 262-yard carry over water is required to reach the fairway. From then on, there’s just no letup.

I was highly encouraged when I made the turn in 49, but my euphoria was short-lived. I topped a drive and made triple at the 10th, and my death march had begun.

On the 741-yard, par-5 13th, I had a dirty dozen. Yep, 12. From the back tee, it’s a 309-yard carry over some really gnarly, uh, stuff. I got into the giggle weeds off the tee and chopped it five times before I finally reached the rough alongside the fairway. When I finally got to the green, I proceeded to 3-putt for my 12. Then, on the next three holes, I went 7, 8 and 9–the 9 abetted by the bunker that it took me four–count ‘em, four!–hacks to get out of.

Thus, I brought it home in 64 for my 113, but I still felt a perverse sense of satisfaction. I’d played it down, counted them all and lost only the one ball. Mike, who can really play when he’s able to get out of the pro shop, struggled on the front but brought it home in 38. Jon took great pride in breaking 90 (89) while The Other Bill totaled 106.

Undaunted, we ate lunch, then The Other Bill, Mike and I headed out for a second 18–this time from the blue tees, which measure “only” 6,796. In fact, Purgatory features six sets of tees, and can be taken down to just 4,562 yards from the front. It was probably because we all played better, but the 6,796 yards didn’t seem daunting at all, and the afternoon 18 brought another kind of joy. Mike eagled the 18th and shot 75; The Other Bill checked in at 89 and I departed quite satisfied with my 92–and again, only one lost ball.

In all, it was quite a day–36 holes, 14,550 yards, 205 strokes and only two lost balls. Average Joe Hack had survived in Purgatory.

Besides, sometimes it’s about the challenge, not the score.

Benner, a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star, is now vice president of communications for the not-for-profit Indiana Sports Corp. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.com or send e-mail tobbenner@ibj.com.