Stars Align at EagleSticks and Virtues
Pinehurst. Myrtle Beach. Hilton Head. Zanesville, OH? Admittedly, the last one doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue when discussing golf travel destinations. Maybe it should. Because not too far from downtown Columbus a pair of the Buckeye State’s most-awarded layouts have partnered to offer a one-two punch worthy of hometown champion James “Buster” Douglas.
EagleSticks Golf Club in Zanesville and Virtues Golf Club in nearby Nashport, OH, operate as independent entities. And, on their own merit, each one presents a unique and unparalleled golf experience. Combine them, however, and what you get is “9 Stars of Golf,” a cross-promotion between the clubs that invites players to stay-and-play at two of the finest public access facilities in the Midwest.
In context, the overnight, two-round package tagline refers to the 4-1/2 Stars both layouts have received from Golf Digest. Both facilities have on-site lodging which provides a convenient way for golfers to spend a couple of days away from home enjoying world-class golf. The package price is very affordable and info/reservations can be made by contacting either of the course’s PGA professional staff.
Of course, for locals or day trippers, a single round at either club can be equally as satisfying, as well. But with a caveat: choosing which one to play on a particular morning or afternoon won’t be easy. EagleSticks and Virtues are both incredible golf venues, each presenting thrilling layouts, expert conditioning, and the amenities one might expect to find at a posh private or resort course. Similar to the proverbial “glass is half-empty, half-full” paradox, you may find yourself having the day of your life while at the same time wondering what you might be missing.
Let’s start with EagleSticks, designed in 1990 by Ohio’s own Dr. Michael Hurdzan. Perhaps best described as Augusta National in a shoebox, the layout tumbles across 150 acres of rolling farmland with elevation changes of more than 100 feet. Most of the tee boxes are located on the highest ground, so you’ll be treated to panoramic views on most holes before launching majestic drives down to the fairways below. Cascading waterfalls and pristine woodlands of oak, maple, ash, locust, walnut and cherry trees add to the course’s intrinsic beauty.
Challenging and compact at just 6,500 yards from the back tees, EagleSticks is a layout that clearly favors accuracy and finesse over raw power. There are 90 sand bunkers sprinkled along the fairways and greens, and pin placements on most holes are well protected. Again, those who attempt to “muscle” the course will most likely be sorely disappointed when they tally up their scorecard.
One of the things you’ll quickly figure out at EagleSticks is how the shorter holes are the ones with the sharpest claws. For example, the downhill 338-yard, par-4 No. 7 is no less challenging than the longer par 4s at Nos. 8 and 9 which play well over 400 yards. And that’s the beauty of Dr. Hurdzan’s handiwork here: nearly every hole rewards creativity off the tee and on the approach, a skill that flies in the face of today’s popular grip-it-and-rip-it mentality.
That’s not to say EagleSticks plays “short” by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, finding the correct place to hit your approach from is often preferable to finding the closest distance to the green. So expect to use every club in your bag. The par-5, No. 11 is a prime example. Considered the course’s signature hole, it measures nearly 600 yards and starts with a stomach-dropping downhill plunge off the tee. The fairway is split in two by a creek about 225 yards out and a stream runs alongside the left as you get closer to the pin. It might just be the best three-shot hole in central Ohio.
Frankly, there are no weak “links” to be found, here. From the opening tee shot at No. 1 played from an elevated tee box over a deep gorge to the reachable-in-two par-5 No. 18 with its strategically placed pot bunker in the middle of the fairway, every hole or shot for that matter presents a variety of options and challenges. Whether you decide to press the gas pedal or pump the breaks is entirely up to you.
In addition to its 4-1/2 Star rating by Golf Digest, EagleSticks has been awarded the distinction of being one of the “Top 10 Courses to Play” in the state of Ohio by both GOLF Magazine and GolfWeek. Despite these accolades and many more, it remains modestly priced and accessible for all levels of golfers.
While EagleSticks relies more on feints, jabs and rabbit punches, Virtues Golf Club about 20 miles to the northwest goes straight for the kisser with 18 holes of roundhouses and haymakers. The par-72, 7,243-yard parkland-style layout was designed by Arthur Hills and ranks as the “#1 Public Course in Ohio” by GOLF Magazine and the state’s only “Top 100 Public Courses in the United States” by Golf Digest.
Virtues blends effortlessly with its pristine surrounding, and is considered to be one of the renowned architect’s most “natural” designs. The course wanders gracefully from ridge top to valley floor, featuring wide rolling fairways and oversized greens framed by stately stands of mature trees. With panoramic views around every rugged bend and endless shot variety dictated by the varied terrain, it may just well be the best and most exciting public layout you’ll ever have the pleasure of playing.
But first a little history. The course opened in 1999 just in time to host a “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” match between LPGA stars Dottie Pepper and Karrie Webb. The event generated instant television exposure for the club, which had been developed by Longaberger (the upscale basket company that went belly-up more than a decade later). The course was purchased in 2013 and the name changed from Longaberger to Virtues a few years later. In fact, you drive by the abandoned basket-shaped office building on your way to the course. With the ownership and name change came a commitment to make the facility the standard bearer for upscale, daily-fee golf in the greater Columbus area.
Virtues reveals one memorable hole after another as you traverse the property. Some holes are open and lined with thick fescue grasses. Others rise and fall, and when coupled with the occasional blind shot, are reminiscent more of mountain golf. And then there are times when you play through meadows and gently rolling countryside sequestered on both side by tree-covered hills. At all times, however, you experience a refreshing sense of isolation as if the course is yours and yours alone.
The opening hole sets the tone of what you can expect at Virtues. The uphill tee shot is complicated by a tree in the middle of the fairway before doglegging right and continuing up to a green with a severe fall off on one side. The par 4 introduces you to the elevation swings you’ll be faced with throughout your round. There simply isn’t a lot of level ground, and uphill, downhill and sidehill approaches are par for the course.
While picking a favorite hole can be as difficult as timing the stock market, the 563-yard No. 4 is often elevated to signature status. The par 5 is played from a towering tee box that plummets over 150 feet to the wide and inviting landing zone below. It’s likely you’ll enjoy a career-long drive thanks to the extra carry and subsequent roll down the sloped fairway. The hole eventually gives way to a pond that fronts the narrow, back-to-right angling green.
It is rivaled by No. 8, a 444-yard par 4 which presents players with two options off the tee. A cluster of trees sits at the corner of the bend on this dogleg left. The inside route requires a much longer drive to a tight landing area, but shortens the hole considerably. The safer play is right of the trees to the wider part of the fairway, leaving a longer approach shot from a sidehill lie. Either way, you’ll still be left with a dangerous approach into a peninsula green with water on the left side and in the rear, with a large greenside bunker added for good measure.
Like many of the holes at Virtues, the 527-yard, par-5 No. 16 offers a risk-reward opportunity… and a reasonable birdie chance. Water runs the entire right side of the hole and dares golfers into biting off as much of the corner as possible. There’s plenty of room to the left, however, with the ideal tee shot landing just right of the fairway bunkers on the high side. The green can be reached in two as long as you avoid the left bunker just in front. Players not wanting to risk the long approach can opt for a wide swath of fairway just short and to the left of the green, setting up a rather easy wedge or pitch shot into a large green that slopes back towards the water.
With over 70 strategically-placed bunkers, wetlands and ponds in play on nearly half the holes, sometimes awkward fairway stances and amazing green complexes often framed by grassy mounds and collection areas, one might think Virtues could be too much to handle for the recreational golfer. But it’s not, as long (or short) as you pick the right tees. From the middle markers the course plays a reasonable 6,180 yards softening its bite but in no way diminishing its character. It is a fair test that sets up exciting shots and nice views throughout, and rightfully deserves all the praise and rewards it has received over the past two decades.
An invitation to play two of the best public layouts in Ohio just miles apart — and on back-to-back days — deserves a swift RSVP. EagleSticks and Virtues epitomize everything golfers love about modern golf course design: stunningly beautiful, challenging but fair, meticulously conditioned, and earmarked with enough twists and turns to keeps you on the edge of your cart seats. Now all you have to do is answer the bell.