At a dinner with legendary golf course critic Ran Morrissett, we got on the topic of Moraine. Effusive praise from each of us led to a natural question, “Is Moraine the best course in Ohio?” Neither of us was quite bold enough to answer in the affirmative, but we also didn’t say no.
Dayton’s Moraine Country Club is one of the most overlooked golf courses in America, even in its hometown. Its neighbor NCR Country Club tends to grab the acclaim and recognition, making Moraine the quintessential “course next door.” The secret that we want to share…Moraine is the jewel in that town.
Perhaps it flies under the radar because it was designed by little-known architect Alex “Nipper” Campbell and not Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast or another golden age great. Nipper was a club professional who hailed from Scotland and came over to the States and became the head pro at The Country Club of Brookline. He spent years there and was an accomplished player before deciding to live in Dayton, Ohio.
In Dayton, he served as the head pro at a few clubs including the Donald Ross-designed Miami Valley. During this time he also got the opportunity to design courses around the area, including Meadowbrook Country Club, Madden Park, Miamisburg, Eaton and Moraine, his masterpiece.
Moraine has a spectacular property for golf. It’s rolling topography gave Campbell a beautiful canvas over which to paint his holes. He embraced the principles of design brought over from his home country of Scotland. At Moraine he used inspiration from the designs of Troon, Prestwick and the Old Course. The land and Campbell’s principles to produce a course that is immense fun for the average player, while concurrently providing a championship test. Shortly after opening in 1930, Moraine attracted the 1945 PGA Championship, won by Byron Nelson.
Moraine before & after
Over time the course fell victim to massive tree plantings and the shrinkage of fairways and greens. This slow decay compromised the design and strategy of the holes and hid the spectacular property.
A 2000 aerial of Moraine shows the abundance of trees littering the property.
In 2007, the club set out on a 10-year plan to restore their course back to its original glory. They hired Keith Foster to create a master plan and carry out the work with the help of talented Superintendent Jason Mahl and his staff.
The work at Moraine is unbelievable. It has brought the course back into the conversation as one of the best in the country. A far better golf course than the majority of those found on typical top 100 in America lists.
Foster’s work had impacts at both the macro and micro levels. He returned the grand scale of the course and players are now treated to a series of dramatic reveals as they make their way up and down the ridge that cuts across the property. He also added fine details with shaping and different turf types that adds character and contrast to the design. Moraine is drop dead gorgeous.
The course today
The four aspects of Moraine’s design that stuck out to me are:
- Campbell’s minimalist approach that uses the land to defend par
- The terrific green complexes
- The playability the course offers to average and beginning players
- Greens on longer holes had wide openings that allow for the ground game to be used
We’ll examine these themes work our way through the holes.
HOLE #1 – 415 yards – par 4
Foster added a tee box to modernize the strategic intent of the 1st that’s an extension of the putting green. The back tee brings the left fairway bunker back into play which is the preferred line. Playing aggressive and taking on the trap which is 270 yards to carry is rewarded with a downslope that kicks balls down to a wedge shot. Laying back short of the bunker leaves players a mid-iron shot into a tricky green.
The green which slopes severely from back to front is guarded by the front right bunker and a bunker on the left. The green complex is magnificent because of a subtle knob in the front center. This knob creates interest and difficult putts when on the wrong side of it or above it.
HOLE #2 – 221 yards – par 3
Moraine has a couple of brawny par-3s, and the second is the first of them. Guarding the green are bunkers short right and along the left side. With long irons in hand, the front right trap can come into play for players trying to run the ball up.
The severe back to front slope creates unique challenges for both front and back pins. Hitting shots to front flags, it is difficult to keep a long-iron approach below the hole and avoid a slick birdie putt. With back pins, it is challenging to get shots to chase to the back shelf and close enough to have a realistic birdie putt.
HOLE #3 – 419 yards – par 4
The 3rd continues the course’s outward adventure toward the more dramatic landforms. This par-4 is a spectacular example of Campbell’s minimalist approach to Moraine. From the tee, the 3rd’s hazard is the sloping land. It naturally moves severely to the right, feeding any shot right of the centerline into the right rough. The slope forces cheating up the left edge of the fairway where out of bounds lurks. To gain the advantage of a shot from the center of the fairway, Campbell forces the player to take on risk.
The green sits perched at the top of a hill and is guarded by deep bunkers on the left and front right side. Along with the severe left to right slope, the 3rd fairway also has a series of natural rolls that can lead to slight uphill or downhill lies.
Finding the fairway means approaching an uphill green from an awkward lie. Missing the fairway right will find flatter ground but the loss of spin control from the rough. Each subtle and natural ways to defend par.
The green slopes from back to front and has a spine that separates the left third from the right section. A pin on the left side is particularly difficult; it forces players to take on the left bunker to avoid a tough putt across the spine.
HOLE #4 – 539 yards – par 5
The first of three par-5s at Moraine stretches across the most severe terrain on the property. Campbell forces players to make a decision off the tee – take on the hill for a chance at getting home in two, or lay back. Playing aggressively requires a 270-yard carry into the most narrow corridor on the course. Laying back yields a blind second shot from a severe uphill lie.
After scaling the large hill, the 4th moves downhill to the green which sits below the 5th tee. The green has bunkers on the front right and left sides, and its wide opening is friendly to low running shots. Unlike the first three greens, this one is much flatter with subtle breaks.
HOLE #5 – 154 yards – par 3
Hit it or else is the motto on the short par three 5th. Surrounded by bunkers on all sides, the undulating green requires a precise shot from the slightly elevated tee. The 5th plays particularly tough when the wind kicks up and makes it difficult to judge distances. Behind the 5th green players get a peak at Moraine’s high profile neighbor NCR C.C.
HOLE #6 – 362 yards – par 4
Campbell forces a decision from the player with a fairway bunker on the left and the left to right slope of the land. The 45-yard wide fairway narrows at 250 yards from the tee due to that trap which cuts in to the ideal line of play. Past the bunker, the fairway shrinks as it approaches the green set on the hill. An aggressive play with driver can yield a short pitch shot in while the safe play leaves a full wedge shot to a semi-blind green.
Deep bunkers guard the green on the left, right and back sides and make for tough up and downs. The green slopes from back to front and has a small ridge that runs through the middle of the back section.
HOLE #7 – 326 yards – par 4
The 7th brings players back to the dramatic part of Moraine’s property where Campbell places a thrilling short par-4. The hole plays down a massive hill and is reachable for long players. The green is long and narrow and protected by deep bunkers and long grass on both sides. The decision on the tee is whether to go for it or lay up with a mid to long iron short of the left fairway bunker.
Going for the green can yield a potential eagle or easy birdie, but the penalty for missing can be quite severe and make saving par a tough task. A narrow miss will find one of the deep greenside bunkers. A wide miss will find the fescue grasses or a long bunker shot. Laying up will leave a short wedge shot from a flat lie to a nerve-rackingly narrow green.
HOLE #8 – 638 yards – par 5
The downhill jaunt back to the clubhouse continues with the lengthy par five 8th. The hole measures well over 600 yards but is reachable for long players because of the downhill tee shot. For mere mortals, finding the fairway at the 8th is key to be able to advance the second shot far enough to find the flat area inside 100 yards. Players who can’t get the ball close enough to the green are left with an awkward lie for their third due to the fairway undulation.
The second shot is made difficult by the fairway slope that moves from right to left. This slope is the same grade as the slope of the 3rd which runs alongside the 8th. The slope forces balls left on the second which leads to the less ideal angle of approach to the complex green. A front left bunker guards the left side of the putting surface which has three distinct tiers – a back section, front right plateau and a front left bowl which sits over the bunker.
HOLE #9 – 473 yards – par 4
Playing back to the clubhouse, the front nine comes to a close with a challenging par-4. The hole plays long because of a large ridge in the fairway which stops drives dead in their tracks. To carry the ridge and catch the downslope requires a 310-yard carry and is feasible for only a few golfers. Driving it into the ridge also adds a subtle challenge to the approach because of the uphill lie. The slope can add a little confusion and awkwardness to the approach, especially when the wind blows.
The green complex shares a large bunker on the left side with the 18th and has a deep front right bunker. It has a subtle false front and a backstop on the back portion that gives the green a slight bowl effect.
HOLE #10 – 441 yards – par 4
Holes 10-12 are on the least interesting piece of the property. To combat this, Campbell created three stellar green complexes. The 10th, in particular, is one of the most unique and subtly challenging greens to be found anywhere.
This lengthy par-4 has a creek that runs through the hole 100 yards from the green which could force a layup from a bad tee shot. Two fairway bunkers guard the right side of the fairway which is the preferred angle to attack.
The green is raised on all sides and cants from right to left and back to front. The deceptive front to back slope makes mid-iron approach shots tougher to get close. A unique grass trough surrounds the putting surface and collects slightly missed shots.
HOLE #11 – par 4 – 428 yards
The 11th plays back uphill towards the clubhouse. The ideal line for the tee shot is towards the fairway bunkers that cut into the right side. This line opens up a better angle to the left portion of the green but runs the risk of finding the well-placed bunkers.
The approach shot to the elevated green is challenging because of the severity of the putting surface. The back to front slope makes any putt that is pin high or past the flag a nightmare.
HOLE #12 – 229 yards – par 3
The final hole on the flat portion of the property is the long par three 12th. This ball-buster is a par 3.5 and requires an excellent long-iron or fairway wood shot to a big back to front sloping green. The green is guarded by deep bunkers on either side, and the wise miss is short.
HOLE #13 – 566 yards – par 5
The reachable 13th returns players to the rolling landscape. The tee shot plays to a reverse camber fairway. A reverse camber is a hole which doglegs the opposite way of the fairway slope. In the case of the 13th, the hole doglegs to the right but the fairway slopes left. The ideal tee shot is a slight fade up the right side of the fairway. Fairway slope defends the second and promotes a right to left shot.
125 yards from the green the fairway has a small distinct upper left tier that is the ideal place to hit a wedge. Anything right of it kicks further right and leaves an uphill semi-blind shot to the green. From the fairway, the green looks benign, but it slopes severely from back to front and right to left.
HOLE #14 – 445 yards – par 4
One of the strongest par-4s in golf, the 14th requires spectacular golf shots to score well. The tee shot is daunting up a hill with bunkers on the left, and a right side that gobbles any miss. A tee shot that threads the fairway leaves a mid to long-iron approach to a small green which perched on a natural ledge.
The green slopes from left to right with the land movement and has a deep bunker guarding the right. The beautiful rolling nature of the property is on full display at the 14th.
HOLE #15 – 147 yards – par 3
The final par three on the course gives a beautiful look out across the course in all directions from its elevated tee. The downhill shot is to a green which narrows toward the front half and with the property line on the right and a bunker on the left.
HOLE #16 – 408 yards – par 4
A strong contender for Moraine’s most memorable hole is the par four 16th. The tee shot calls for a decision – hit driver and attempt to get down the hill or lay up short and leave a mid-iron shot to a small, well-protected green. Either choice requires finding the fairway to score.
Laying up with a long-iron or hybrid leaves a severe downhill mid-iron shot to a narrow and long green guarded by deep bunkers on either side. It’s a shot that strikes fear in players of all skill levels.
Going for it requires players to thread a driver down the hill and will leave an awkward half wedge shot to the elevated green. The 16th is a hole that’s dictated by the decision made from the tee box.
HOLE #17 – 458 yards – par 4/5
The 17th plays as a par four on the championship course and a par-5 for the members. Much like the 9th hole, a ridge in the fairway stunts long drives and leaves a blind approach shot with treacherously deep bunkers on either side. Missing the fairway on the 17th almost guarantees bogey. The green complex slopes from left to right and slightly from back to front. An approach shot that misses right is death.
HOLE #18 – 441 yards – par 4
Moraine’s closer traverses uphill toward the clubhouse and moves to the right. Taking it up the right side will dramatically shorten the hole but brings in the risk of the elm trees on that side. The left side has bunkers which can eat up a pulled tee shot or one that takes too safe of a line.
The green is unique, with a severe false front that rejects weak shots. Guarding the putting surface to the right is an expansive bunker which it shares with the 9th green. The mounding in front of the green generates interest for players who would like to play the ground game. It’s a fitting challenge to close out Campbell’s masterful design.
Moraine is a stout championship test that remains exceptionally playable for the regular golfer. I played the course in competition for a U.S. Amateur qualifier; the field comprised of top amateurs and collegiate players. Despite soft conditions, the course proved quite challenging. Over the course of two rounds, only one player in the field recorded an 18-hole score under par. Moraine deserves a championship; it would be a tremendous site for a U.S. Senior Open, a Senior Players or a U.S. Am or Mid-Am.
With or without championship fame, Moraine never fails to blow away first time visitors, leaving them wanting more. I went into the experience expecting a good course and found an exceptional one. Campbell might not have been the most prolific architect of his day, but Moraine proves that his skills were on par with the greats of the golden age.