BY MIKE FIELDS
When Tom Heilbron first met Arthur Hills in 1986, he was impressed by the accomplished golf course architect’s unassuming manner.
“He wasn’t all about himself. He was just very calm, very casual,” Heilbron recalled. “And he was very much a naturalist. That fit our plan to embellish what God created.”
Heilbron wanted Hills to transform an expanse of rolling, tree-lined Jessamine County farmland into a championship-caliber golf course.
It didn’t take much convincing to get Hills on board.
“Tom was a charming gentleman,” Hills said recently. “And he had an absolutely beautiful piece of property.
“As it turned out, I felt the routing we were able to put together fit the land pretty nicely.”
Pretty nicely, indeed.
Thirty years after it opened, Champions at Keene Trace (originally called The Champions) is still regarded as one of the most challenging and most beautiful golf tracks in Kentucky.
The world will get to see it this summer when the Barbasol Championship comes to town. The Golf Channel will televise all four rounds of the $3.5 million PGA TOUR event July 19-22. The tournament is committed here for four years.
“I think that’s really wonderful for the community,” Hills said. “I like the course quite a lot, although it’s probably not quite difficult enough for the TOUR players. They’ll probably shoot some pretty low scores.”
Champions at Keene Trace will have a different look for the Barbasol Championship. The nines will be flipped to better accommodate spectators and corporate tents.
Hills has no problem with that, although he thinks the original 18th (a par 4 bordered by water) provides a tougher finishing hole than the 9th (a par 3 over water).
Nevertheless, “Everybody’s competing on the same golf course,” Hills said, “and the guy playing the best that week is the guy who’s going to win.”
Les Claytor, who heads the PGA TOUR’s Design Services, thinks the undulating green complexes that Hills designed for Champions at Keene Trace could be problematic for the pros.
“There’s a lot of pretty intricate contouring, and fairly strong contouring overall, and some challenging pin placements,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a huge defense mechanism for the course. It may take the players a couple years to learn the greens.”
Hills isn’t so sure.
“Will the greens be the resistance to scoring?” he said. “I don’t know. I guess it depends on where they put the cups, because most of the TOUR players are such excellent putters that they can do quite well on any greens.
“I do know they’ll find out the strengths and shortcomings of the golf course over a four-day tournament.”
Claytor, who has been helping Champions at Keene Trace get ready for the PGA TOUR event, said the “feel of the course is really good. It feels like the rolling landscape of all those horse farms.”
He also noted that weather will be the X-factor come tournament time. If the course is wet and the greens become dart boards, scores will likely be really low. If the course is firm and fast, and the wind kicks up, scores may be higher.
Whatever Mother Nature’s mood, Claytor expects a lot of guys will have a chance to win.
“It will be a good venue because it doesn’t favor one type of player,” he said. “A guy who’s shorter, more accurate off the tee and is a good putter will compete right along with the bombers, so I think everyone will get a fair test. And that’s really the measure of a good tournament.
“I think its going to surprise a lot of people.”
Heilbron won’t be surprised. When he enlisted Hills, he knew he was getting a genius.
Heilbron remembers watching Hills lather up with sunscreen before walking the property, envisioning the layout, and getting a feel for the rhythm of the golf course he was designing.
“He was very quiet about what he was doing,” Heilbron said. “He would just stand there and look at things. You knew not to chatter, not to talk, and let him be who he was and be creative.”
Hills, who has designed award-winning courses around the world, said his goal when building Champions at Keene Trace was to provide members with a fun and challenging place to play.
He succeeded at that.
Now the PGA TOUR players will be introduced to the beautiful piece of land that Heilbron entrusted to Hills, who did what he was asked and embellished what God created.