There might be a few individuals who are more knowledgeable about the golf scene in Iowa than J.D. Turner, but it would be a short list. Born and raised in the little railroad burgh of Perry, a graduate of the University of Iowa and a five-time winner of the Iowa Open, Turner remembers when the Hawkeye State was peppered with simple nine-hole, mom-and-pop courses, built by the townsfolk who resided there.
“I’ve been to Scotland nearly two dozen times,” recalls the former head professional at the prestigious Des Moines Country Club, and a member of the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame. “I always enjoyed the out-of-the-way courses in the far corners of the country as much as the famous venues. Visitors were always welcome, and the locals were always proud of their town’s course. That’s how golf in Iowa used to be.”
Visitors are still welcome at Iowa’s public venues. However the game has changed over the decades, as some newer, larger, championship-caliber venues now dot the landscape. Here are a few examples:
The Harvester Golf Club, little more than thirty miles from Des Moines in the town of Rhodes, should be on the top of the list for any visiting golfer. Calling a golf course a cow pasture is normally a pejorative, but this was literally a cow pasture before architect Keith Foster transformed it into a top-quality daily fee facility. Foster has contributed work at some of the nation’s most iconic venues, including Augusta National, Southern Hills and Colonial. Here he’s incorporated some of the traditional farm equipment endemic to the area amidst a thoughtful routing taking full advantage of the topography. Golfers encounter a refurbished seeder, a manual plow, scythe, windmill, etc. as they make their way through the hills, valleys, ponds and streams. The par-3 holes are varied, the par-5 holes feature elevated tee boxes, and the pastoral feel (the course is surrounded by cornfields) makes it special. The short par-4 fifth hole and the long, downhill par-3 fourteenth are two highlights on a course with at least a dozen keepers.
Finkbine Golf Course in Iowa City is the University of Iowa’s championship golf course and home to the golf team. The strange moniker comes courtesy of W.O. Finkbine, who donated the land to the University. The rolling terrain is bereft of water hazards, save for the aqua-laden thirteenth, a par-3 with an honest-to-goodness island green. Anticipating the rigor of the tee shot won’t do players any good, as the hole prior, the hard dogleg twelfth, a par-4 with a large pine tree menacing the landing area, demands a player’s full attention. It’s always a good idea to stay below the hole at Finkbine because the greens tend to slope, sometimes severely, from back to front.
The Amana Colonies Golf Club is just one facet of a dizzying array of recreational options at this unique enclave. It’s comprised of seven different German-themed villages spread across a seventeen mile loop, equidistant from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Although the Amana Corporation (now known as Whirlpool) is the area’s largest employer, with some two thousand employees, many other residents make their living selling crafts, wine, meats, copper goods, quilts and gifts, among other items. There are inns, B&B’s, campgrounds, hotels and other lodging options to service the steady stream of visitors, many of whom take advantage of a full calendar of festivals scheduled throughout the year. There’s also an excellent golf course, winding through five hundred acres of stately white oak trees and forests. Meandering streams, rippling ponds and a preponderance of hardwoods are all features of Amana Colonies. Those who favor a draw will be more comfortable, fully half the holes bend, either sedately or severely, from right to left.
Finally, it’s worth the effort to tour the Tournament Club of Iowa, located in Polk City, some twenty miles from Des Moines. This Arnold Palmer design has a minimal housing presence. It offers a pleasant mixture of open space and forested areas highlighted by hills, bluffs, ravines, valleys, and mature hardwoods. Unlike some of the previous courses described, water is an ongoing factor here, influencing play on more than a dozen holes. The five par 3 holes are considered to be among the best, if not the best collection of one-shot holes in the state. Great separation affords the feeling of being alone on the course, and significant elevation changes provide both thrilling tee shots and majestic views throughout.
J.D. Turner, for many years one of GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 instructors, is one of Iowa’s most enduring golf figures. However he isn’t the most famous or accomplished native son. That would be Zach Johnson, the two-time Major champion, whose greatest victories were achieved on perhaps the two most iconic golf courses in the world—Augusta National and the Old Course at St. Andrews. “Playing in Iowa, whether at the small town, old-school venues or the modern championship courses, served Zach very well,” concludes Turner. “If the courses were good enough for him, they should be good enough for pretty much everyone else!’