The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Golf Trip Experiment
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
We recently took the long way around the Bluegrass State in search of our bread and butter combination, golf and bourbon! The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become big tourism all across the state, yet outside of a heavenly championship venue, it's not really know for its golf pedigree. We set out to discover if the two could be combined.
Why? Good question...
Five plus years ago, my brother and I (Dooner) signed up for a program called Maker's Mark Ambassadors. A bourbon we had long sipped on socially (ok, maybe more than sipped on from time to time) and a brand I admired professionally, we took advantage of the cool perks of the program, like the fact they put your name on a barrel (i.e. 'your barrel') and receive updates to learn what's going on inside the barrel during the maturation process.
Aging takes anywhere between four to seven years, but they do a great job of keeping you invested in the journey. Fun fact: we signed up so long ago that The Golf Crusade hadn't even been born yet!
Along the way, you'll periodically receive some small, thoughtful and on-brand gifts to remind you that their craft is one you don't rush.
Then one day, like little Charlie opening that one magical Wonka Bar, your Golden Ticket finally arrives in the mail! Inside the packet lies an invitation to visit the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto to tour the grounds, peek behind the curtain, and of course, be able to purchase personalized bottles from your barrel - hand-dipping and stamping your own wax-capped seals in the process!
And, since you're a big-time ambassador, your experience is FREE. All you pay for is the bounty you choose to bring home afterward. Enjoy a few inside looks, also free of charge!
From the time we signed up and our barrel went in the rickhouse, we've been scouring and searching for the optimum route to squeeze a golf trip out of this and maybe even throw in a couple other visits to distilleries when we made our eventual pilgrimage to Loretto.
One thing we discovered very quickly, however; Loretto isn't near anything. The closest town (Lebanon) is at least 15-20 minutes away. The closest town you'd likely want to stay in (Bardstown), is 30-35 minutes away. The closest thing resembling a top state-level public course (Heritage Hill) is a shade under an hour. The two big cities where you might be able to string together a few decent courses - Louisville & Lexington - are a 90 minute drive.
We were either going to have to get creative to play some good golf or accept that we won't be wouldn't be writing much home about the courses.
Naturally, we got creative!
Initially, we wanted to take a southern route in order to hit The Club at Olde Stone in Bowling Green and the brand spanking new Park Mammoth in Park City. Olde Stone is the second ranked course in the state (and quite private, but an invitation had come along that we are still super excited to accept in the near future). You may have seen it hosting the US Girls Junior Amateur on GolfChannel this summer.
Park Mammoth was a complete redo of an old local course. One of the principal architects and Instagolf pals, Brian Ross, hails from a neighboring town near us, so naturally we were (and STILL ARE) super excited to get over there to see it first hand. It looks AMAZING! If you beat us there, you better share the love!
Unfortunately for us, a member-member at Olde Stone the weekend we'd planned to go took the route off the table (the two tracks are only 30 min apart. At 5 hours from home, we're saving them for a doubleheader when we have the time). We then considered a Lexington run, then a Louisville one, but with too much time to obsess, tinker and retool the trip, both were eventually ruled out.
When we plan a trip, we always try to add a theme to it. If you're a frequent viewer of the Kentucky Derby, you may recall the state song, "My Old Kentucky Home". Other than the obvious bourbon, we may have the beginnings of a theme... "Old Kentucky".
[Courses appear in the order in which they were planned]
First, we found that My Old Kentucky Home is also a state park in Bardstown - which is nicknamed the 'Bourbon Capital of the World'. Our decision on where to stay was made and since the state park had a golf course of the same name, things started lining up. Based on the other KY State Park courses we'd played, it was probably going to be a reliable option for a convenient morning round before the short drive to Loretto. We booked a room and a round and we were on our way! (This turned into Day Three on our trip)
My Old Kentucky Home State Park Golf Course | Bardstown, KY
Fun fact about MYOKHSPGC, Heaven Hill Distillery (Evan Williams, Elijah Craig among others) sits adjacent to the 5th hole. It provides a neat backdrop for a few holes at the high point of the property (see below).
After our AM round and early PM Maker's Mark tour (which took us in the direction of home), we moved our base of operations for the final night to Danville, KY to shorten the drive on getaway day. It wasn't accident we picked this lonely Central KY burgh however, as five miles up the road is - according to our findings - the only par three course in the state WITH LIGHTS!
Bright Leaf Golf Resort feels more like a truck stop motel combined with the vibe of a fraternity reunion retreat that, oh by the way, has 27 holes of regulation golf and the par 3 loop to boot.
We mean all of those things as compliments of course! If you have lights on your golf course, we appreciate more than you know!
Bright Leaf Golf Resort (Par 3 Course) | Harrodsburg, KY
Next, we looked to plan out the travel days (Days One and Four). We usually use these opportunities to play a 9-hole or a short course along the route - something that doesn't have to be great, just a place to get out and stretch the legs and swings (and collect a couple quick courses for the Crusade Course Counter in the upper right hand corner of this page).
Going with the 'Old Kentucky' theme, we found that the two oldest nine-hole courses in the state fell along two different routes that we could reasonably take to/from our destination.
We settled on Middlesboro Country Club (Middlesboro, KY) for our opening round of the trip. Not only is this the oldest course in Kentucky, it's the oldest nine hole course in the United States that is still operating in its original spot! Holy crap! Founded in 1889 by English immigrants, this course and town also lay unique claim to calling the center of an asteroid crater home! Can't make this stuff up.
The course and region had been inundated with heavy rain all summer. Just a few miles north and a couple weeks prior, massive flooding resulting in over 30 deaths, damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Clouds threatened us the entire round, but fortune shined on us and kept us dry (buckets of sweat notwithstanding!).
Middlesboro Country Club | Middlesboro, KY
Bookending the trip was going to be the second-oldest nine in the state, Stearns Heritage Golf Course. Stearns is an old coal company town off US Highway 27 down near the state's southern border, about ninety minutes north of Knoxville, TN. Founded in 1936, it's website boasted that the course had gone virtually unchanged that entire time. What few photos they had compared to Google Earth view seemed to back that up. By the time we arrived, it appeared they had begun some renovations (a couple new greens and a few new bunkers were evident), but that didn't change the charm one bit.
In time, those updates will only enhance this 49-acre tract that plays much bigger (wider) down the chute of the main layout.
To get a full nine into the small parcel, they not only capped it with a par three, but starts with back-to-back one-shotters too! Some good par fours and a pretty good par five rounds out this locally appreciated course. If you ever find yourself driving by, stop in for a go at it. It's not going to show up in major publications or Turf Aficionado Quarterly, but you won't regret it.
Stearns Heritage Golf Course | Stearns, KY
If you're keeping score at home, we've covered Days One, Three and Four so far. That leaves Day Two (our Sunday). We were planning a minimum of thirty-six holes and wanted to play the most premium places we could find and still be able to make it back to Bardstown for a late supper at the only restaurant in town open past 8:00pm on a Sunday (thank you La Herradura)!!!
Thankfully, we remembered the glowing recommendation of Chariot Run Golf Club by our friends @GolfOnAllTees. They played it on their way down from Chicago to our Iron Maverick II shindig last fall and raved about it for the couple of days we feasted on South Carolina Strantz courses! We remembered it being in the Louisville area - which we were at least in the ballpark of, being in Bardstown. Only problem was, it was on the Indiana side of the Ohio River and sadly we could not travel as the crows do.
But, when in Rome... (go on)… We did as the Romans do?
We rose with the sun, grabbed a biscuit from our free continental breakfast and made the hour and fifteen minute drive over to the Hoosier State. As you crest the final hill and the course comes into view, your first impression is a lasting one. White horse fencing surrounds the entire course, save for a gap for ingress/egress. Immediately, you know you've made the right choice to come here.
With old silos on the range, the farmhouse clubhouse/horse barn @golfbarns combo in the center of the property and the CR logo-branded water tower ever present in the southeast corner, your eyes can easily be drawn away from the task at hand, but why would you want to? Again, this course has it all. While it uses dynamic pricing for its tee times (SMART!!!), you can play here for under a C-note and feel like you should be paying a lot more!
Bill Bergin laid down a great routing to the property circa 2002. Just a few years later however, Randy Hoffacker's Lee-J Studio firm came into rework the bunkers to the course its signature rugged look. Hoffacker and Better Billy Bunker relined all the bunkers again in Fall '21 and this place looks brand new still to this day.
Chariot Run Golf Club | Laconia, Indiana
For our first course ever played in Indiana, Chariot Run set a very high bar for all other Hoosier courses that may follow on The Golf Crusade!
We mentioned Heritage Hill earlier being the closest 'ranked' course close to Makers. It also happens to be an exit or two up I-65 from Clermont (Jim Beam people know what we're talking about!). It's also a consensus top five public course in the state, though you'll find it top-2 in a lot of lists. We felt that for $45 in the late afternoon, we'd give it a go. Again, it was a good call.
Doug Beach - a former Jack Nicklaus design associate - laid out this SPRAWLING course on pretty exciting topography. Outside of a small three or four hole stretch on the back nine, the rest of the course is void of housing (and always will be), adding to the isolationist experience.
Lots of hero tee shots, drop shot par threes and one hell of a finisher left us thinking this course is way underpriced. We did deal with a few beginners unaware of some playing through etiquette, which you'd probably weed out if they charged a little more (they could easily tack on $20 a round and people should pay it). We're not advocating for that of course, just reiterating the value you get here.
If we ever update our 'Best 50 under $150' list, you can bet Heritage Hill is going to be on it.
Heritage Hill Golf Club | Shepherdsville, KY
Oh but wait, THERE'S MORE! For good measure, we found a little par three course on the route from Chariot Run to Heritage Hill that - at minimum - qualified for a drive-by to see how long the wait was to tee off. Lucky for us, it was 92 degrees (Reel Feel about 103) and the parking lot at Cherry Valley was pretty empty (lucky for 92?)!
Cherry Valley is a vibey little par 29 tract in New Albany, Indiana. It's tucked right beneath/beside the Sherman Minton Bridge that connects to downtown Louisville. Likely, it's not a Monday mid-day course. After work though, we're sure the place is packed! Our new friend Joe who runs the place is a trained GCA by trade, so he knows what the hell he's doing out there. The greens are great. The Routing is a half-mile out and a half-mile back over very gentle land, so walking is a breeze (again, when its not 103 in the sun).
We pushed our tee time at Heritage Hill back 30 minutes and carted around in about twenty-four minutes (again, 103 degree heat index people on a 45-hole day!!!). We asked Joe what the course speed record was, to which there was none. We hope that he starts a competition and you come give it a try!
Cherry Valley Golf Course | New Albany, Indiana
So, if this was an experiment to see if you could combine the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with a golf trip, what did we learn...
Take your time. We planned 50 pounds of crap in a 10 pound bag. We needed at least one other day, but when the wives' grant you three and you end up taking four, you don't press your luck.
You can make a golf trip out of the Bourbon Trial, but most would prefer to stay along the I-64 corridor between Louisville and Lexington. Most of the best golf is probably found along that route, as are plenty of great distilleries.
Maker's Mark more than lived up to the anticipation and expectations. It was a one-of-one experience and we'd do again in a heartbeat! Yes, there's a pretty lengthy waitlist we understand now for the Ambassador program, but that's because it's freaking awesome! Anything worth waiting seven years for probably is!
If you plan a trip that covers a Sunday and Monday night in a small town, pretty much all restaurants close early (Sunday) or don't open at all (Monday, maybe Tuesday too). We had eyes on fat steaks and bourbon samplers on Monday night at this cool looking pub in Danville. Closed. Not cool. Plan better next time Dooner!
That was a whirlwind few days! Here's some stats on our Old Kentucky Bourbon Banger golf trip (we never really settled on a name if you couldn't tell).
Chronological Order of trip
Saturday PM - depart/Middlesboro CC/travel to Bardstown
Sunday - Chariot Run/Cherry Valley/Heritage Hill
Monday - My Old Kentucky Home/Maker's Mark/Bright Leaf
Tuesday - Stearns/arrive back home
Courses played: 7
Holes played: 90
Miles Driven: ~735
Hours on Road: ~14
Total Hours on Trip: 96
We're sure this was a 1-of-1 type trip. That's the point of it though! Define your priorities for your crew and get it done. We sacrificed some bourbon spots for golf, but that's what we wanted to do. If we had a bigger group - or when we go back with a bigger group - bourbon will be a greater focus on the menu we're sure.
Hope you enjoy learning about our experiences and the courses we find!
Until next time...