What do you get when you cross an extremely rugged part of the country, a drainage basin and one of the best course architect's in the world? You get Wasioto Winds and a lot of accolades for a golf course. The course is celebrating its 18th birthday this year, but is it showing it's age more than one would expect from a top-5 course you can play in Kentucky?
The list of accolades this course has collected are really impressive. It was a few years old by the time I first got wind of it (see what I did there? please don't leave!). Some of the photos of this place early on were striking (we'll show you some then and now's in a little bit), so much so that I had I not been a broke graduate student at the time, a 3+ hour trip may have been more realistically considered.
Needless to say its been on the list of courses to play a long time.
I had driven about ninety minutes out before dawn to get in a morning round at Woodlake Resort in New Tazewell, TN. After a quick 2.5 hour circuit, it wasn't even 9:30am yet. Being only about a half hour south of Wasioto and seeing a deal online, my impulses got the better of me and off to play 36 we (and by we, I mean me) go.
When on the road to 'BFE', Pineville, Kentucky would be the last exit before you reach your destination. While the course sits right next to a 4-lane highway, it sits down in a valley so well that you will miss it if you don't know where to look. Once you get parked and proceed to the back deck of the clubhouse, you see why they chose this spot for a golf course.
Don't let the mountains fool you though. If you stripped away the hills and looked only at the course, you'd think beach instead of coal country.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop/Practice Facilities
I know it had those things, but didn't look around much or use them. Its a state park, so the bells and whistles aren't obvious.
I must say, having now played all three of the Kentucky State Parks courses in the Eastern part of the state, they have some great layouts that are all really fun to play. This one gets the publicity more so that the other two (Hidden Cove at Grayson Lake and Eagle Ridge at Yatesville Lake). I could see why in the early days perhaps, but I'm not sure why that's still the case (cue suspenseful foreshadowing music...)?
The course has two distinctive areas - one that plays around the two large lakes and the other plays over and along a creek. As mentioned, the course is about as flat as they come. The only true elevation (that you think you'd see more of being surrounded by hills) comes on the 12th tee.
I'm not sure if they have rerouted this course over the years. Maybe they broke up the lake holes to be nice to the high handicapper or speed up play, but I'd like to have seen the front side as 'The Creek' and the backside play as 'The Lakes'. However, as my colleague says,
"They wisely did not consult me during the design phase."
Crusader Tip: Get warmed up fast. The pro shop attendant and the ranger that rode by me both warned about the three-hole gauntlet beginning at the 5th tee box. The ranger even said making it out of there at bogey golf is win. Since I was playing so well at that moment (sarcasm) I was really excited now... That said, let's go to the 5th!
I don't know if they have a name for this stretch of holes, but I'm calling it 'The Bluegrass Boneyard'. This is why you make the trip to play here. You've got to be precise with your irons if you want to keep the snowman at bay. The 5th is a long par-5 that is hugged the entire left side by the largest of the three lakes. Get used to seeing that water - you will see a lot of the rest of your round.
While playing at 500 yards from the tips, the forward tees are considerably shorter but this hole is T-I-G-H-T. Hit your best/straightest club off the tee no matter the length and go from there. The long narrow green looks intimidating since it sits between an exposed cliff face and the lake. This is one of those chances to make a memory if its your only trip here, so fire away and pray. It worked for this guy! RESULT: Birdie (-1 thru 1 on Bluegrass Boneyard).
The 6th is a nice medium-length par-3 across the lake with a forced carry all the way. About this point in my round is when I really started to notice that the brush growing along the shorelines really takes away not just the aesthetic value, but makes it much harder to gauge distance or even create some blind shots. See the view below of the 13th tee. It's not the best photo I've ever taken, but you can barely see the green - and this is from the forward tees. I somehow landed it on the upper ledge of the bunker on the right and two putted. RESULT: Par (Bluegrass Boneyard score: -1 with 1 to go)
Closing this murderer's row is another par-5. You've seen all the Jaws movies right? The first one is a classic. The second one is good enough. But the third one had that 3D shark thing and you kind of laughed at it? Well, you might laugh at the third hole in this stretch too because it looks ridiculous(ly hard).
It is really hard to capture how difficult this hole is in a photo because the land is so flat. You really need an aerial view. Here's the view behind the green looking back at the hole that essentially goes from island fairway to peninsula fairway connected only by an isthmus the width of the cart path.
Now here's the Google Earth view:
It's just a good golf hole with a lot of challenges (that I did not overcome). Congrats Dr. Hurdzan, you win this hole. The Boneyard claimed my tee shot. For some odd reason, I did not expect the edges of the fairways in Kentucky to feed towards the water like they do everywhere else. RESULT: Double Bogey to finish the gauntlet at +1. Since my ranger friend said +3 was a win, I'll be expecting a plaque or something in the mail any day.
The rest of the course - as you can see from the rest of the partial map above - doesn't get much kinder. When named 4th Best New Affordable Course by Golf Digest back in 2003, they exclaimed Wasioto was, "a difficult course but friendly to the high handicapper." I agree with the first part. I don't think 'friendly' is the word I'd use to describe it.
I'm not a high handicapper, but a course like this can make you one - and fast.
The final four holes are every bit as daunting as the Bluegrass Boneyard. Water is in play on every shot, just what you want to see after a challenging round. The 17th isn't too difficult except perhaps from the tips, but the 18th (first photo in this post) is a monster. You're looking at a 639-yard par five from the back tees and 512+ from all but the most forward position. If you are a slicer, I'm really sorry since water runs up the right side for your first two shots. That's before you play over the creek that feeds the lake and runs up the rest of the left side. Regardless, be happy with a bogey, shake hands with your imaginary caddie, then have a beer because its Miller Time!
Might get a little more recap here than usual, but analysis is what you're not paying for, right? I'm sure because I had wanted to play this course for so long, that I had unreasonable expectations. In golf, those two things rarely match up. I also realize maintaining a course such as this is a great challenge and takes a lot of resources - capital and human alike.
The design is strong. The turf was in pretty good shape as well, but the shorelines and shrubs really took away from the playing experience. It had rained a little the night before and it was very humid in the middle of summer, but the bunkers looked like they hadn't had new sand in a long time, maybe since they built it. Of course the photographer side of me wants the great shot too, but the golfer in me comes first. Here's what I mean...
One of the first golf blogs I followed (and were a bit of inspiration for our site so a tip of the hat to them) was golfkentuckylinks.com. They played all over Kentucky and this was one of their favorite courses. Here is what it looked like when they played back in 2003 (their photo first) vs. virtually the same shot in 2017.
In the 2003 photo, you see clean (or at least cared for) shorelines, turf differential and collars around the bunker in the foreground. You can see no less than 6 holes and 5 water hazards (7 if you look hard enough) from this spot too. Most clearly seen is the contrast between the fairways/rough. Super nice place with great lines that looks tremendously conditioned. Fast forward now to 2017:
Now, I know their shot was early morning and mine was midday - there is certainly a lot I could critique about my own photo - but look past that for a second if you care more about lighting and aperture than the golf.
Start with the bunker in the foreground. It's shape has been lost, the fairway moved to the side and the collar eliminated. Aside from the bunker and tee boxes, what can you see that even looks like a golf course? The shrubs and trees have overgrown the shorelines and the cattails and weeds have engulfed the water hazards to the point only one is even visible.
Again, I have no idea how the state operates their parks and who gets what money for standard operations or capital improvements. It's been 12+ years since I played Hidden Cove and nine since I played Eagle Ridge, but those courses were in tremendous shape. Wasioto continues to rake in accolades - as evidenced by the #3 ranking of best courses you can play in state by GolfWeek (2018). However, we all know if you start in the top 25 at the beginning of the football season, its a lot easier to stay there than it is to break in if you're not highly touted from the start.
None of this is to say the course isn't worth playing or the money you pay to do it (considered a bargain by anyone at less than $40). It really is a nice place, but just don't buy into the rankings hype. I did a little (or a lot) - but I'm a golf nerd who's wife makes fun of him for creating a golf website. If you go just to play a round of golf, it'll be a really good round.
CRUSADER RATING: 3.5 STARS as a Destination, 4 STARS if you're local.
Last Played: 2017
Tee Times Online/Deals: GolfNow.com or call 606-337-1066
GPS: 114 State Hwy 190, Pineville, KY 40977