Culver Academies Golf Club
Indiana, United States of America
GolfClubAtlas.com takes immense pride, and even joy, in posting this updated 2016 review of what is arguably the greatest nine hole course in America. When I first visited the course in 2006, that was certainly not the case but after a first rate restoration in 2015 and with the might of Culver Academies and its alumni now fully behind the course, few courses – nine or eighteen – can compete with it for fun and fascination.
The story begins in 1922 when the prestigious Culver Academies contacted the firm of Langford & Moreau to inspect 250 acres near their campus. The property was a mix of woodlands, orchards and pasture. Dramatic in parts, the property also afforded views over Lake Maxinkuckee, the second largest lake in Indiana. Such were the tumbling landforms and their potential, Langford & Moreau came back with a plan of 27 holes, linked with a nearby inn. Though this was the roaring twenties and though the owners of the Academy, Edwin and Bertram Culver, wanted first class golf brought to this area, the Culver family decided to take a measured approach. For the time being, they asked Langford & Moreau to forgo a link with the inn and to focus first on nine holes.
Construction began in the fall of 1922 on the nine holes that were at the center of the property and the holes opened for play in the late spring of 1924. Eight years later, the Culver family earnestly considered pursuing the construction of a second nine holes from Langford & Moreau’s original 27 hole routing. However, the breadth and depth of the Great Depression ended such hopes. Then came World War II, during which time the bunkers were never tended, which ultimately led to all the bunkers being grassed in. Also, at that time, mowing restrictions were implemented and the size of the putting surfaces gradually was reduced.
As enormous fans of the C.B. Macdonald school of architecture and all his disciples including Langford & Moreau, Ted Sturges and I toured Culver in 2006. Even without sand in the bunkers and with the greens drastically reduced in size (and therefore interest), the merits of Langford & Moreau’s bold architecture shined through. Two people tended the course back then under the general grounds maintenance budget of the Academy. Given that the course had no irrigation, maintenance consisted primarily of mowing the playing areas and hand watering the tees/greens. The greens stimped around 6. Regardless, Ted and I left mesmerized by what we had seen and I wrote at the time in the GCA profile, ‘The Culver Family and Langford & Moreau did their part in building one of the great courses and bringing golf to this part of the country. Hopefully consideration will be given to restoring some or all of the features to this marvelous nine hole course. Just as the Academy itself is one of the great institutions in education, so too this golf course is one of the great designs and deserves to be acknowledged and treated accordingly.’
WELL! That could have been that. Happily, it wasn’t. A few years later, a man named Jim Henderson rang me from southern Indiana. Unfailingly polite, he nonetheless asked a series of pointed questions about the profile and points raised in it. Additional phone calls took place over the next two years from which I gleaned that Jim had established genuine interest on the school’s behalf in seeing this 80 acre work of art restored to the caliber of all of the other school’s facilities. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was who Jim Henderson was and
Langford & Moreau spread 29 bunkers across the original nine holes. Today, the formations of the bunker walls are very much in evidence, alas still with no sand in what was the bottom of the bunker. Langford was famous for building deep bunkers (i.e. true hazards) and to be in a bunker depression today still requires much talent and thought on one’s recovery due to the invariably steep grass wall. Thus, though the sand is long gone, the placement where the bunkers once occupied remains hazardous and the golfer of today does well to avoid these locations. A greater loss to the integrity of this first rate Langford design is the loss in putting surface size, as we see below.
As part of the restoration, the original sequence of the holes was mercifully restored. Beforehand, for a period of several decades, golfers teed off on what is today’s fifth hole. Not surprisingly, the Langford & Moreau sequence is better, as we see below. Reference is also made as to where these nine holes fitted in Langford’s original 27 hole routing.
Holes to Note
First hole, 505 yards, (10th); The property that the golf course occupies can be accurately termed ‘rambunctious’. Yet so skillful is Langford’s routing that every hole fits in well without a single one fighting the terrain. No telling the routing a lesser architect may have devised. On the most abrupt piece of the property, Langford positioned the tee exhilaratingly right before a sharp sixty foot drop-off with magnificent views of Lake Maxinkuckee, just three hundreds away, originally afforded the golfer when the course opened. Now glimpses of the lake are still obtained through the trees but the golfer’s focus is fully captured by the task at hand. The hallmark of the design is that every shot (save for perhaps one) is challenged in some appealing manner. In this case, the crescent shaped fairway bends left past two formidable bunkers, the second of which protects the best/shortest angle toward the green. If the golfer can carry this feature, it is downhill the last 100 yards to the open green – a classic risk-reward conundrum.
Second hole, 180 yards (11th); A stunningly manufactured green site, most of the great Redan characteristics are present including the high slope on the right front and the angle of the green from front right to back left. A unique twist occurs within the putting surface where a central mound actually diverts balls back right as opposed to back left. The fronting bunker is nearly eight feet deep and back and right bunkers are deeper (!), a frightening thought when one remembers that the sand wedge was yet invented when the course opened. Golfers of the day laid open the face of their niblick to get the required height for their recovery shot. Still, the chance for a successful up and down from any of the X bunkers was remote, especially considering that most often these recovery shots fall in the awkward distance between 20 and 50 yards. Golf was treated far more as an adventure back in the roaring 1920s, an attribute sorely missing from many modern courses that lack similar inspiration.
Third hole, 140 yards (8th); This one shotter embodies the two most obvious underpinnings to the Weed restoration, namely restoring the sand to the bunkers and expanding the putting surfaces back to their full, glorious dimensions. The prospect of restoring greens to their full size can be a daunting task at most courses as it involves moving sprinkler heads and/or reseeding, sometimes necessitating that the greens/course be closed. Such is not the case at Culver as there are no sprinkle heads on the entire course – only the greens and tees are watered and that is done by hand. The type of grass that was once putting surface has never been altered – it has been simply allowed to grow taller as the putting surfaces shrunk in size by approximately 35%. Thus, though not inconsequential, the ‘only’ work required to expand a green like the third is to change gradually the mowing pattern and slowly expand the green back out to its original size. Also, as the putting greens are presently maintained at around a’6′ on the stimp meter, the recaptured putting areas would quickly play at the pace of the existing greens.