Big-league universities should have big-league golf courses – at least they should if they dream of competing at the top level of college golf. Indiana University in Bloomington is a stalwart of the Big 10 Conference in many sports, but their men’s and women’s golf programs have historically lagged behind many of the conference peers. A handful of IU alums can be found on the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour, but none are currently on the LPGA or Symetra Tours. Perhaps one reason for this is that, prior to 2020, Indiana University’s home course was “tired.”
“The old course was extremely tight and tree lined with not a whole lot of trouble,”says Pete Nelson of Visit Bloomington. “But mainly it was tired – in desperate need of some attention, and upgrades.” So the choice was to “upgrade,” or to dig it up and start all over. IU chose the latter.
The sad state of the former “IU Championship Golf Course” was not due to the land it was on. Southern Indiana has rather magnificent topography for golf, reminiscent in some ways of Northern Michigan, with its mix of hardwoods and grassland, plentiful water, and rolling hills. The property on which The Pfau Course is now located is no exception.
Enter Steve Smyers and two-time major winner and Hoosier hero Fuzzy Zoeller. Thanks to generous gifts from alumni, especially the Pfau family, Smyers and Zoeller took the 265 acres that used to house the old IU course, a par-3 course, and the IU cross-country course and completely reimagined, reworked, and resurrected it. In 2020, The Pfau Course at Indiana University opened to rave reviews from college players, visitors, and golf media alike. It has already cracked the Golf Digest list of the “100 Greatest Public Courses,” debuting at #83 in 2022.
What qualifies The Pfau Course as one of the top 100 public courses in America? Smyers has been at the golf course architecture business for over 40 years, so a great deal of his work has been done on relatively flat land. Being of the “natural design” school, Smyers has become a master at tricking players’ eyes and manipulating angles so that power and precision cannot by themselves unlock a low score; strategy and course knowledge are also required. On numerous holes, you think your range finder must be wrong – the target looks so much closer or farther than the laser says. And many of the lines that look appealing are, in fact, not the ones you should take.
As Nelson, a proficient stick and regular at The Pfau, says, “If you’re playing a tournament here and you’re not playing a practice round, you’re in trouble.” In fact, high school and college coaches are generally required to schedule practice rounds for their players before tournaments, or the pace of play would grind to a near halt.
From the tournament tees, The Pfau plays 7,908 yards, with a par of 71 and a rating/slope of 80.2/155. Hoosier Daddy, indeed. Fortunately for mere mortals, there are seven sets of tees, ranging all the way down to 4,648 yards. The zoysia fairways are relatively generous where less-skilled players tend to land their tee shots, but fine ribbons where better players would prefer to be. The bluegrass rough is juicy, and the plentiful fescue beyond the rough is wispy enough to usually find your ball, and wiry enough to grab your hosel. Fairways are often sloped toward woodsy trouble, and the 147 “eyebrow” bunkers – circled with that same fescue – are ingeniously positioned for both strategic and visual effect. Despite the rising and falling landscape, the course is walkable, perfect for college and, maybe someday, professional tournaments.
Playing The Pfau Course
The Pfau Course honestly has 18 great holes, so choosing a few to highlight is a daunting task that I will shy from in admitted defeat. Instead, I’ll focus on the many brilliant intrinsic traits that make each hole so great.
Aside from the flash-faced eyebrow bunkering, fist-time visitors will discern the subtly unique playing characteristics of the zoysia fairways. Zoysia is a firm, dense grass that sort of tees the ball up for you, promoting good contact with your irons. The imaginatively contoured bentgrass greens run around 11 on the Stimp meter, and although still young, they roll smoothly. Many pin positions require you to be on the proper side of the hole, or even short putts become testers.
Throughout, the combination of topography and architectural flourishes calls to mind features of a couple of famous courses about 60 minutes away – The Dye Course and The Ross Course at French Lick Resort and Spa. Similarities to The Dye Course include infinity greens and ridge-back fairways that funnel into trouble. Similarities to The Ross Course include elevated greens and some geometrical greens – rectangular, triangular, and square. Nelson pointed out to me that the rectangular green of the 615-yard, par-5 1st hole is just five feet longer than a regulation basketball court. I personally would shorten it by that amount to pay homage to IU’s rich roundball tradition.
If there’s another weakness to the design, it’s the large gaps between yardages from the tees – about 600 yards between each set. The 6,153 yards of the middle tees (still with a slope of 140) prods the egos of many first-timers to jump up to the 6,736 back tees. But these play more like 7,000 yards, according to Nelson, when you take angles and elevation into consideration – a recipe for a lot of 15-handicappers having long days. The solution here is simple, though: rate the course for some combined tees.
Wherever you play from, when you get to the 517-yard, par-4 18th, you’ll experience one of the best closers in a golf-rich state. Although it plays downhill, even a big power fade must carry a long way over scrub from the tips. From the middle tees, that same power fade still leaves a demanding uphill approach to a mostly blind putting surface over a sea of fescue dotted with a dozen bunkers. I could have broken 40 on the backside, if not for a deflating double-bogey here.
Take a Hoosier Golf Swing
In sum, The Pfau Course, with rates that topped out in 2022 at $95 riding holidays and weekends, is a spectacular playing experience at a spectacular price. If you want to try to score well—and to really appreciate the architectural brilliance—play it more than once. And if you want to dive deeper into the world-class golf that the Hoosier State has to offer, Nelson and his staff have a golf trip for you:
Fly into Louisville, KY, and drive about an hour north to French Lick, IN. Stay at the French Lick Resort and Spa or West Baden Hotel and Spa (same ownership) and play The Dye Course (#19 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Public list), and The Ross Course (see link above). Enjoy the fine dining and casino at French Lick Resort, and peruse the astounding history of the place. If you want a bonus round, take a 20-minute side-trip to Jasper, IN, to play Sultan’s Run, which also ranks annually on the list of the state’s best courses.
Then drive a little over an hour north to Bloomington to play The Pfau. Stay over in one of the many affordable hotels in Downtown Bloomington (which are extremely reasonable if there is not an event in town)—Spring Hill Suites and Graduate Bloomington are both highly recommended. Walk around the charming Fountain Square area and enjoy a meal at the upscale Uptown Café (literally the classiest upscale “café” you’ve ever seen) or grab a brew and a delectable smoked pork chop at Upland Brewing Co.—all within walking distance.
If you want another bonus round, drive about 25 minutes to The Golf Club at Eagle Pointe, a 1970s-era golf-community design with some quirky, memorable, remarkably fun holes. The 207-yard, par-3 10th hole is worth the visit alone, with its uphill tee shot over a multi-tiered waterfall.
From Bloomington, head about another 90 minutes north to Indianapolis, and choose from famous tracks like Brickyard Crossing – the Pete Dye track with four holes inside the track of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – The Fort, Purgatory, and The Trophy Club. Seriously, Indianapolis might offer the best selection, quality, and affordability of golf of any urban area in America.
Then fly back out of the Indianapolis International Airport. Of course, you can fly into Indy and out of Louisville, too. Either direction, it’s win-win-win-win-win… Well, you get the idea.