Hardscrabble Country Club

6,396 yards, 137 slope from the Blues

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, Hardscrabble was designed by Perry Maxwell in 1926, with renovations by Jay and Carter Morrish in 1998. I am a big Perry Maxwell fan and having some time on my hands, managed to get a round in. In fact, it wasn’t all that hard. I was the only one out there.

Because it was the coldest day of their winter.

A mere few weeks removed from my jaunts in Southern California, I found myself in Arkansas in late February. It was supposed to be ten degrees warmer than it was, but a cold front came in . . . with 20 – 30 mph gusts. Driving south to the course, I irrationally rationalized that I was driving south so it would get warmer. That whole hour would surely take me to more temperate climates. Tropical even. I checked the car’s thermometer every minute. Um no. I was more than welcome to play the round; the course was wide open. With the greens crew as my gallery, definitely wondering why I was out there, I paraded around the course like it was any given Sunday. Frostbite settled in my hands. I couldn’t feel my ears after the Second. Yet no matter. There was golf to be played, another course to take in and, despite whatever was in my way, exhilaration.

The terrain rises and falls in spots, lakes and creeks cut in frequently and it’s very much in line with a parkland design, trees forming corridors most of the time to play within. The green complexes drive a lot of the character, especially how the bunkers are placed and shaped about them. Shallow, deep, many, few; there was a lot of diversity with those greenside bunkers, along with the greens themselves. It’s one of the things I enjoy about Maxwell’s courses and Hardscrabble was a terrific example of a thrilling set of greens that simply made the rest of the course features better just by association. While it’s my understanding those green complexes were part of the work by the Morrishes, they still effuse Maxwell character to me all the same. The closing holes include a peninsula green surrounded by a lake, then literally driving through the lake to get to the Eighteenth. The ridges and hillsides were used well and in all, this is a solid course that was worth the drive and cold to experience.

It was not lost on me that hardscrabble literally means hard work and struggle. That was certainly a good way to characterize that round. The wind was unforgiving, my heat packet things were pointless against the cold and while I had a few layers on, it felt like I was in a t-shirt and shorts. I was surprised at the terrain. Even on the way down, the mountainous terrain struck me. I had no idea of its scale and even as I got closer to the course, it was clear it was set in hilly country. I know many that only golf in certain weather or temperature ranges but I’m not one of those. I golf in anything. Just as I enjoy seeing different courses, I like playing in different conditions. It’s all part of how versatile this game can be, as is the test on you and how you respond. If I was to get more philosophical about it, in some strange way, I enjoy the strife. It builds character and once you’re in those perfect conditions and weather, you enjoy yourself that much more.

I’m also trying to golf in all 50 states and had yet to play in Arkansas. Not knowing the next time I would be in Arkansas, carpe diem. Of course, the whole COVID pandemic had become much more prevalent of a concern. Not knowing what would happen from week to week, the possibility that I’d stop traveling was remote yet something I was aware could happen. I remember being in a larger crowded room while I was down there and outright wondering just how safe that environment was. I washed my hands a lot more then since I understood it spread the same way as the flu, not through the air. The point is, change was coming. We were seeing the impact of the pandemic on places like Italy around this time and while we all hoped the situation here would be a lot different, the uncertainty was mounting. So carpe dime indeed. I was here, the golf course looked spectacular, to hell with the weather.

The First is a 364 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Trees on either side, the fairway a bit downhill to the green. A slight dog leg left, the bunkers narrow the entry point of the green while the movement makes the most of its width. Long and right of the green fall off considerably, so keep that in mind.

The First
Down the fairway
From left of the green, which is on the other side of the bunkers

The Second is a 160 yard par 3. A nice collection of par 3’s starts here, with the tee above the green and a forced carry over water and a greenside bunker to a kidney shaped green moving back to front and left to right. The start reminded of Jimmie Austin, which also began with 4-3, with the green on the First saving a more gentle fairway and the par 3 being very much aerial. Just like the last, right is no good, yet left offers little solace, especially if you miss. The right side of the green signals safety from the tee but again, missing means either water or out of bounds. Thinking back on it, landing in the bunker wasn’t all that bad of a play.

The Second
From the left

The Third is a 494 yard par 5.

The Third. Love the sky here.
Approach shot territory
From the right

The Fourth is a 180 yard par 3. A raised green and a creek running along the left side than appears from the tee, clearing the bunkers at the front is imperative and the green is deeper than it appears.

The Fourth
From the left side

The Fifth is a 407 yard par 4. The hole bends right from tee to green while trees line both sides of the fairway. While staying on the left side for a clear line to the green is vital, there is a lone fairway bunker on that side to keep you honest. The fairway also climbs uphill to the green, feeding directly into it yet its undulations and pin placement have a lot of say on your approach. No greenside bunkers; it’s all slopes and angles.

The Fifth
Moving up the fairway
The green

The Sixth is a 516 yard par 5. Turning around, we now turn to the left to the green, ending up close to the Fifth tee. Trees are on both sides off the tee and staying to the right is a good idea to clear them for the green. While the hole bends left, the green is tucked off to the right, running at an angle from the fairway and guarded by bunkers on either side. Angles are important here once again, as the configuration of the green to the fairway and the green’s movement dictate your plays into it.

The Sixth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green

The Seventh is a 437 yard par 4. Turning back once again, this is a dog leg right with the fairway bunkers on the right side to defend against those trying to cut the dog leg for a shorter approach in. The green is deep with bunkers on either side.

The Seventh
Longer approach shot territory
The green

The Eighth is a 168 yard par 3. Just in the nick of time, this par 3 with a large green moves from left to right with a couple bunkers at the front right. The width and slope of the green urge placement off to the left, no matter the pin placement, yet coming over the bunkers from right to left helps counteract the severity of that slope. A great par 3 that helps with a nice closing for the front.

The Eighth
The green

The Ninth is a 443 yard par 4. The Ninth serves as a prelude as to what to expect on the back nine in terms of the hillier area of the property, which makes the course play differently than what we’ve seen thus far. Here, the tee shot is a carry to a steeper hill, which turns right at the fairway bunkers on the left, then climbs some more to the green. The shaping of the green, area before it and bunkers conspire to create some intimidating visuals as most of it is above you on the approach, but favoring the left side helps, especially if you end up short. Back at the clubhouse, the first loop taken care of.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory
The green
From the right

The front nine covers the flatter part of the property and with a strong opening and closing, the greens save the middle holes that switchback in the middle. The par 3’s are solid and varied. I’d rank them 8, 9, 2, 5, 1, 3, 4, 6, 7.

The back nine starts with the 410 yard par 4 Tenth. Going back out towards the hill we encountered at the Ninth, here it’s a slight dog leg left where you need to consider placement of your tee shot at the top of the hill or have it advance down the hill yet risk a downhill lie if it stops some where in the middle. The fairway then immediately starts climbing as abruptly as it dropped down, all the way to the green, which is set off to the left. Approaching it from the right makes sense, since there’s a greenside bunker on the left and a significant drop off on that side, but a slope on the right side complicates things. If your ball ends up in that area, you have a very delicate shot to the pin, all while trying not to end up off the left side. A precarious green and challenging hole overall.

The Tenth
Long approach shot territory
The green, from the right side. Note the slope off
Off the left side

The Eleventh is a 495 yard par 5. Generally straight, the hilly terrain once again defines the hole. Tree lined on both sides, the fairway dives down before rising once again to the green, which again makes placement on the second shot important. How one negotiates the hills determines their lies and in turn, the ease of the approach. For example, I opted for two massive swipes at the ball to end up on the upslope before the green, while others may do well to be more conservative and take their approach from the top of the ridge. It’s a longer approach but will much less risk than the route I took. The hillside pulls from right left near the green, similar to the movement we saw at the Tenth.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 365 yard par 4. Be sure to go right of the green for the next hole; there are tees ahead but those are the Fourteenth. Using the same hills and ridges from the Eleventh, the tee placement and trees make this feel like a dog leg left even though it is fairly straight. The fairway bunkers on the right are almost hiding in the trees, yet are effective placement for those trying to optimize their angle into the green. The green is a fun one; well shaped, nice movement in conjunction with the fairway and devious bunkers on the left. A solid par 4.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Thirteenth is a 347 yard par 4. On the high side of the property, we cross over the hills and ridges to once again take advantage of the terrain and are met with an assortment of bunkers throughout. The centerline bunker is a great touch and appears much closer than it is from the tee. The bunkers on the left and right short of the tee serve their purpose of intimidating; you wouldn’t otherwise think of hitting in either spot until you notice those bunkers, which starts the whole inception process that it just might be possible. Why else would they put bunkers there? The approach must manage an entirely new set of bunkers to a blind green uphill. There’s a lot of room up there so clear the bunkers you see and deal with what may come from the landing. Another solid par 4.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory
From the left side

The Fourteenth is a 428 yard par 4. Now on the perimeter of the course, a strong dog leg left that turns and darts downhill to the green. The turn is vital here; once the fairway starts downhill, it narrows and twists to the water that’s along the left side of the green. The hillside on the right side likewise moves down to the green, while that greenside bunker is a tough one with the movement towards the water.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 173 yard par 3. As we’ve seen throughout the round and in particular the back nine, use of the hills and ridges is very good. Here, the green is set on a small terrace while the tee shot must carry a creek and bound over the hillside to the terrace, all while avoiding one of the five bunkers surrounding the green. No where to hide on this thrilling one shotter.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 417 yard par 4. More use of the hilly interior, the tee shot must carry that ridge and creek. At the crest, the fairway turns and moves downhill to the green, which happens to be just before a lake that is very much in play. The cart path before the green is not ideal; that entire hillside would do well to be unfettered and allow balls to roll towards the hole. As it is, those who end up short risk hitting the path which will probably end up in the water and those that want to roll it on will need to try and avoid it altogether. Otherwise, it’s an exciting approach. The bunkers at the front right goad you into considering an aerial shot yet those who are over on the left have a much better angle in and can consider the old running shot on, again just make sure it’s not overly ambitious or will meet the watery grave beyond.

The Sixteenth
Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 180 yard par 3. The lake now insists on being noticed. The tee shot is elevated and is a forced carry over the width of the lake to the green. A longer shot with bunkers blanketing the hillside to collect those shots off target, yet most will be satisfied with making it over. Be mindful of the wind that is known to blow along the lake that could complicate matters as well. A very striking and fitting penultimate hole.

The Seventeenth
Looking back

The Eighteenth is a 412 yard par 4. You actually drive through the lake to get to the Seventeenth green, then double back for the tee shot, which gets you out of the valley in which the lake is set to the hills where the clubhouse waits. The tee shot is blind but the treelines above offer guidance. The approach is slightly uphill to the green, bunkers on every side except the front. The clubhouse just paces away, just assume the membership is there watching you, seeing if you’re able to close out the round in the proper manner. For me, defrosting was top priority.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory

The back nine uses the hillier part of the property well, saving the lake and its surrounding hillsides for a dramatic closing sequence. I would rank them 16, 13, 15, 17, 14, 12, 10, 18, 11.

Generally, Hardscrabble was an enjoyable course even in the weather I found myself in while playing it. The greens, greenside bunkers and hills were a lot of fun and strategic in parts. The middle of the front nine might do well to remove most of those trees and open up that sprawling hillside but the trees worked much better on the back in conjunction with the hills. The dance between the aerial and ground game was likewise entertaining here, which added to its variety. A great set of par 3’s, some solid par 4’s yet wanting a bit more out of the par 5’s, the course is a very good play, especially from 150 yards in. I hope to find myself there again at some point, navigating those bunkers, running the ball down those hillsides and much, much, warmer.

It ended up being my last trip of the year. Dallas, Munich, Minneapolis and San Diego, all cancelled. The airways and roadways came to a halt, the offices virtually empty. City streets abandoned. I stayed at home, truly stopping. Last year I was at a hotel a total of a couple months while now, I’ve been at home longer than I have in the last 12 years. As winter turned to spring from my front windows, I remember taking a drive. It had been weeks since I left our house and that sense of adventure I get from travel needed . . . something. I eventually made my way to Merion. Perhaps I just felt like seeing a golf course in person again. With no one in sight, its famous awning tucked away and their famous wicker baskets likewise off the course, I couldn’t help but wonder. How would we come out of this? I think we’re still figuring that out but as the weeks went by at home, I appreciated the extra time with my family yet, usually when everyone had gone to bed and I remained downstairs, I’d reminisce about rounds like at Hardscrabble and couldn’t help but look forward to when I’ll be able to freeze my ass off on a golf course thousands of miles away from home again.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: They’re in separate structures, with the pro shop behind the driving range and clubhouse above near the Eighteenth green. The buildings sit on the hillside well, providing a nice background coming in on both sets of nine.

Practice area: A driving range, short game area and putting green.

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