WESTFIELD, Ind. -- The U.S. economy is unquestionably better than it was after the real estate bubble burst, but the golf economy is still struggling. High-profile course openings within the U.S. are still only a trickle compared to the flood of the 1990s and early 2000s, but a few beacons of hope are beginning to cast their light across the land.
In Westfield, Ind. -- the "Crossroads of America" -- one of these bulbs was just lit. The Club at Chatham Hills is a private, 7,215-yard Pete Dye design that weaves through upscale residential plots and over an idyllic landscape, too.
The land upon which the entire complex was built had been owned by the same family for eight generations and was originally purchased as part of the Northwest Territory.
The Club at Chatham Hills has a lot going for it: plum location just north of Indianapolis, beautiful topography and the legendary name Pete Dye.
Nevertheless, it took more than five years to get the course built and opened, having just finished seeding in early July 2016.
The week I visited was the first, in fact, that all areas of every hole were in play. Remarkably, despite their youth, the greens were already running 11-plus on the Stimp meter and were incredibly true.
With approximately 250 members so far, the "high-end private" club is still fleshing out a number of details, including the construction of a 65,000-square-foot clubhouse with extensive fitness facilities and a nine-hole executive par-3 course (also designed by Dye).
The turf in the rough and around some tee boxes is still a bit uneven (like where I twisted my ankle stepping off the very first tee), and a few fairways need time to grow in completely.
Even so, The Club at Chatham Hills -- with a slope of 146 from the tips -- is both a challenge and a joy to play already.
The Club at Chatham Hills: The golf course
Head Professional Kyle Cramer succinctly captures the brilliance of Chatham Hills' design, saying, "Mr. Dye really plays with your eyes. There are lots of places where you think the line is obvious, but you have no business going there, because it's a lot farther than it looks."
Conversely, some of the fairways, especially on the front side, look much narrower than they really are. Take the 405-yard first hole, for example. From the elevated tees, the fairway seems like a mere ribbon of safety between the houses, OB to the left and the woods the right. In fact, the fairway is quite generous once you're out there. The 380-yard third hole looks even tighter. And it actually is pretty tight, but not as bad as you think it is from the tee box.
This visual trickery is integral to the design philosophy, because Chatham Hills has five different tee boxes -- ranging all the way down to 5,039 yards -- and seven different combinations of tee boxes. The fairways and approaches all look remarkably different from each of these options. This flexibility allows players of all levels to enjoy the course, but only if they choose the appropriate tee box.
I have first-hand experience of how important it is to play from the right tees. On my visit, I was paired with a member and his two guests, and the member opted to play from the gold tees (6,789 yards), which had been moved back on many holes because the black tees were not out. So the golds were playing around 7,000 yards. Although the member was quite a good golfer, his guests were less so. To make a very long story short, we played a 5.5-hour round on a nearly empty course.
The moral of the story is that Chatham Hills is a nice balance of brawn and charm -- but only if you play it at an appropriate length.
In particular, the combination of par 3s -- with two measuring 150-165 yards and two 215-226 yards -- is truly artful. Each of the four short holes is memorable in its own way.
The long holes are also strong, with the 554-yard seventh being my favorite. Because it plays downhill, a good drive to the right-hand side of the fairway will give you a chance to go for it in two shots, but the approach is over a pond, so you have to muster up your courage.
On the back nine, the 397-yard 10th, 438-yard 12th and 446-yard 15th are all challenging yet inspiring tee shots requiring power and accuracy to avoid various water hazards. And the uphill, 448-yard 18th is a brute of a closer, especially if you're playing into the wind. On some days, you might even have to sweat the 150-200 yard carry off the tee over a creek.
If asked to find a weak hole, the 520-yard 17th would be my pick. The tee box is the longest and narrowest I've ever seen, and it's on low ground immediately adjacent to the cart path. OB is hard left, and a pond lies out of sight but within driving range on the right. This is the only hole where the visual trickery reaches an uncomfortable level (for first-timers, anyway -- maybe members see it differently).
The Club at Chatham Hills: The verdict
I've always been curious as to the allure of private clubs in places such as the Indianapolis area, given that Indiana in general -- and Indianapolis in particular -- is chock-full of quality public golf at every price-point. The Club at Chatham Hills goes some ways toward satisfying that curiosity.
It is laid out on a unique parcel of land by a singular golf course architect. It is in turns bruising and artistic, and, if you can afford it, I can think of few courses that would offer more variety of shots and challenges from day to day, even if you do play it every day. And playing it every day would certainly help you learn to navigate the deceiving tee shots and putt the lightning-fast greens.
In short, if you can finagle an invitation from a member to play the Club at Chatham Hills, do so without hesitation. It is truly a bright spot in American golf.