When Cummins donated Otter Creek Golf Course to Columbus in 1964, it was envisioned as a first-class facility that would improve the quality of life for the city’s residents.
J. Irwin Miller, chairman of what was then Cummins Engine Co. Inc., said in his dedication speech that the company’s goal was to help Columbus become the best city of its size in America.
“Cummins is not for cheap education, or inadequate, poorly paid government, or low taxes just for the sake of low taxes,” Miller said. “Our concern is to help get the most for our dollar, to help build this community into the best in the nation. And we are happy to pay our share, whether in work or in taxes or in gifts like this one.”
As Otter Creek prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that $1.5 million gift on June 21, PGA Head Golf Pro Chad Cockerham said the city-owned, not-for-profit course run by a board and staff tries to remain true to that vision.
“We want to make sure the people of Columbus and this area have access to this world-class facility,” Cockerham said. “We have tried to keep it extremely affordable for the local player.”
Rates are as low as $24 for 18 holes after 2 p.m. weekdays with the purchase of a $250 player’s card and $89 for a round on weekends. There also are discounts for seniors, juniors, active military and rounds that start after noon on weekends.
The plan to develop a world-class golf course in Columbus took root in 1956, according to golf course records.
Cummins wrote a letter to the U.S. Golf Association and other groups asking for a list of the top golf course designers in the world. Robert Trent Jones Sr. topped all of the lists.
Jones designed more than 500 courses in 36 countries in a career that spanned seven decades and spawned the phrase “The sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.”
Memorable course designs include Spyglass Hill at Pebble Beach, Hazeltine National Golf Course in Minnesota, Peachtee Golf Club in Georgia and Valderamma Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain.
His redesigns include Augusta (Georgia) National Golf Course, home of the Masters, and the Firestone Country Club South Course in Akron, Ohio.
Cummins reached out to Jones, and despite a busy schedule that saw him complete at least 10 other designs around this time, including the iconic Mauna Kea Beach course in Hawaii, he agreed to take the job.
Jones began scouting locations; and in a story that has become Otter Creek lore, Jones reportedly chose the location because of his affinity for what is now the course’s signature 13th hole.
Cockerham recounted the story as it has been related to him on several occasions.
“As the legend goes, they took a helicopter and looked at various tracts of Cummins land around Columbus,” Cockerham said. “When Jones saw a particular plot of land he said, ‘That’s going to be a par 3, and this is where we are going to put the golf course,’ and the rest is history.”
Jones later said the 13th hole, which is nicknamed “Alcatraz” because it is surrounded by water, is one of the best holes he has ever designed.
“It’s a short par 3, and it’s not that difficult, but the way it plays against the creek and it’s got the huge towering sycamore trees behind it, it’s a very memorable shot,” Cockerham said.
Setting new standards
Alcatraz was not the only memorable hole incorporated into the course design. At 7,100 yards when it opened, and with a par 5 of more than 600 yards, the course set new standards for length in that era.
“It’s safe to say that with the equipment available then, there weren’t a lot of eagles, or even birdies, on that par 5,” Cockerham said.
The course now plays at 7,400 yards, and there is room to move holes back, if necessary. That is critical because advances in equipment have allowed golfers to tame some previously challenging courses that do not have room to expand.
“We’ve got five sets of tees, so it’s as challenging as you want to make it, but it’s a very fair golf course,” Cockerham said. “We always tell people that the fairway bunkers should be where your drives land. So if you are not reaching the bunkers, you should move up a tee.”
Otter Creek is distinguishable from a lot of recently designed courses in that it was designed, not created.
“With so many golf courses today, even our East Course, they go in with earth movers and put a hill here and a lake there, and none of that happened here,” Cockerham said. “They kind of took what was here and moved around it. Now they manufacture the conditions, and there are some great golf courses that do that, but there is something special about doing it this way.”
Rees Jones, the son of Robert Trent Jones Sr., designed the East Course, which was added in 1995 and brought the number of holes at the facility to 27.
When it came time to design the clubhouse at Otter Creek, the same high standard that was set for the course was again the goal. With the city’s reputation in the architectural community, a standard clubhouse was not an option.
World-renowned architect Harry Weese, who designed several signature buildings in Columbus, including what’s now the Hamilton Center Ice Arena and the First Baptist Church, was chosen.
The glass-walled clubhouse building that overlooks the course remains an iconic feature to this day.
Over the years, the historic course has become a source of pride in the community and has gained a reputation as one of the best in America.
PGA Tour Player Jeff Overton, who has won more than $11 million on tour, holds the course record at Otter Creek with a round of 64. The Under Armour/Jeff Overton American Junior Golf Association tournament returned to Otter Creek last year after a hiatus of more than 20 years by the organization.
Tournaments hosted by the facility include the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship (the Publinx), the Indiana Amateur Championship, which it has hosted 31 times, and numerous other events.