Fast times on the horse track, on the basketball court and the 19th hole with plenty of the local Bourbon product have always defined a good time at this Bluegrass outpost in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
It’s always been the home of champions, both the four-legged variety at nearby Kenneland Race Park, the two-legged kind at the home of the powerhouse University of Kentucky men’s basketball team, and the two-finger kind of the various whiskeys that are made in the area.
But some recent renovations at local favorite golf course, Griffin Gate, plus other fine local choices, have added some championship golf to the full travel and sports menu in Lexington.
Griffin Gate Golf Club, part of the popular Griffin Gate Marriott and Spa Resort, near the Gateway to Horse Country, recently called on Rees Jones, the son of original architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., to execute a million-dollar bunker and course renovation program, lifting the golfing options here on par with other local sport and travel offerings.
Central Kentucky has plenty of top golf options, including Lexington’s Kearney Hills, a former Champions Tour site, and Valhalla Golf Course in nearby Louisville, the home of the most recent U.S. Ryder Cup victory and several PGA Championships. Both used the new Better Billy Bunker system in its renovations, as did Griffin Gate.
“It’s been a rewarding expense upgrading Griffin Gate,” said Jones, known as “The Open Doctor,” for his major championship work nationwide. “The Rees Jones team and Marriott golf has brought this golf course into the 21st Century.”
Griffin Gate was opened in 1981 and has matured into one of the most popular resort courses in the area, with plenty of water on the front nine and parts of the back, along with dozens of mature hardwoods on the back with chances for glory – or perhaps gore – on almost every hole on the par-72 layout.
What Jones and his team did was install the acclaimed Better Billy Bunker method to all of the bunkers that were also replaced, reshaped or reduced to fit the modern players’ game at Griffin Gate. As a result, the total square footage of bunkers was reduced from 133,000 square feet to 80,000, and the traps that remained were toughened and enhanced.
“This area has always known great golf, great views and great history,” he added.
In addition to the extensive project, the Griffin Gate golf renovations include eliminating encroaching grasses around the greens, redefining fairway lines and creating chipping areas around several greens.
Thankfully, Jones’ work didn’t change many of the challenging and interesting holes at Griffin Gate, most notably the par-5 10th hole. It features water cutting across the fairway off the tee and continuing up the left side of the fairway all the way to the green, which forces a scary and watery approach shot.
The par-4 16th hole has a double fairway with trees along the left side with a chance for a shortcut and more trees and a longer distance to the right.
Griffin Gate is already ranked as the No. 2 course in the Marriott System in course conditions, and this latest improvement will only push it higher. Colin Gooch was recently named Director of Golf at the newly renovated facility.
The Lexington “Metroplex” itself boosts 23 golf courses in the Lexington-Frankfort area, and with an agreeable climate, you can play much of the year. Among the most notable is the Gay Brewer, Jr. course, named for the famous professional golfer with Kentucky roots who won the 1967 Masters Tournament and attended the University of Kentucky.
Formerly known as the Campbell House Country Club, it was originally built in 1927 as the first public golf course in Central Kentucky. It is located within the central city near the University of Kentucky and offers a challenging, yet convenient golf get-away. The course is old-style with small undulating greens and tree-lined fairways with tight landing areas. The facility also features a swimming pool, pro shop, grill and banquet room. It also offers Lexington’s only Footgolf course allowing younger players to play golf solely with their feet and a larger hole.
Also popular is the University Club, which is home to the powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats golf program and allows outside public play, UK fan or not.
The University Club, which features a blue UK flag in the middle of its logo, offers 36 holes of great golf in the rolling Bluegrass terrain. The two courses, both designed by architect Arthur Hills, feature pure Bentgrass greens, plush fairways, sculpted bunkers, challenging water carries and multiple tee boxes with professionally maintained courses.
The practice area features two putting greens, an expansive practice tee with target greens with a short game and a practice bunker area. Hills built both the championship courses, which measure 7,013 yards on the Big Blue Course and 6,680 on the Wildcat course.
When golf is finished for the day, there are the three most famous B’s the Lexington area is known for: Bluegrass bloodlines, Bourbon and Basketball.
Keeneland Track, located 15 minutes from Griffin Gate, hosted the prestigious Breeders Cup in 2015. It’s a living horse history museum, and the walls in the massive facility are filled with dozens of old photos and cartoons featuring the many famous horses, jockeys and owners who have visited this bluegrass, blue blood racing temple.
You can spend a few bucks to enjoy the scenery in the grandstands – and much more for a private box with lunches and drinks – as the so-called Sport of Kings passes by. You can certainly win or lose plenty at the pay windows here, but it’s a rich experience just wandering around the various sections of this vast facility. On a sunny spring or fall session day, there are few better places to spend the afternoon.
Of course, the American temple of horse racing is a little over an hour away: triple spire Churchill Downs, the home of racing’s first and most prestigious Triple Crown race, the Kentucky Derby, is in nearby Louisville.
Bourbon has been around these parts as long as Kentucky has been producing the hard adult drinks. Famous distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark have interesting and fact-filled tours at their facilities, which, of course, include a free sample at the end of the tour.
It’s amazing to see the old wooden buildings at the factories and learn the labor-filled process, passed down decade by decade, to make the drinks, and of course, all of that walking and learning can make a person powerful thirsty.
If you’re here in the late fall, winter or early spring, then the hottest ticket in town is to see the eight-time National Champion Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. Known as the Baron of the Bluegrass, Adolph Rupp built the Kentucky basketball program over several decades.
While the players and coaches have changed from year to year, the success ratio and national championships never seems to, much to the delight of a packed arena of 20,000 blue-clad faithful, known as Big Blue Nation, who hang on every basket and win.
You can come for the drinks, stay for the horses, swing by the gym and tee it up on the links. A weekend won’t be nearly enough in Lexington, but it’s a pleasant surprise worth finding for travelers looking for the next hidden gem.
For more information, go to www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lexky-griffin-gate-marriott-resort-and-spa/ or call 859-288-6193 or try www.vistlex.com for an overall view of the region.