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Cleveland's 'Big Three': Classics by Donald Ross and Stanley Thompson you can play

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WILLOUGHBY HILLS, Ohio – Cleveland rocks when it comes to classic public golf.

Only the Sandhills of North Carolina offers more pristine public courses designed by Donald Ross than Cleveland. The Manakiki Golf Course in Willoughby Hills and the Hawthorne Valley Golf Club in Solon are both former private courses preserved today as Ross museums of golden age architecture. The Sleepy Hollow Golf Course in Brecksville, America’s best public Stanley Thompson design, affords architecture aficionados a great trio of classic courses to play in greater Cleveland. The Cleveland Metroparks own and operate both Manakiki and Sleepy Hollow.

Tom Kochensparger, the manager/club professional at Manakiki, pointed to his 18th hole as a quintessential Ross closing hole, a par-4 that climbs to an elevated green in the shadow of a magnificent clubhouse. “Donald Ross, what a following he has,” Kochensparger said.

Hawthorne Valley Country Club

A struggling country club got a second chance when Hawthorne Valley opened to the public in 2010. The 6,533-yard par-70 course, established in 1926, has survived the passage of time in remarkable shape. Golfweek ranked Hawthorne Valley fourth among the state’s top public courses for 2013.

“It is this great old course that’s been preserved,” said Shaker Heights resident George Shapiro, sitting at the bar before a recent round. “You can see how it fits into the contours of the land.”

Much of the original Ross routing is still intact, except for a few new tees, new fairway bunkers and ponds on holes 11 and 15 added over the years. Assistant Golf Professional Robert Jersan said the many doglegs make the course play longer.

“A lot of people come here just because it’s a Donald Ross course in good condition,” he said. “It's challenging. I can’t think of another course anywhere with greens this small. You've got to have a solid short game because everybody misses greens out here.”

Manakiki Golf Course

Manikiki Golf Course

The name ‘Manakiki’ is believed to be a Native American word for 'maple forest.' The 6,641-yard Manakiki Golf Course, dating to 1928, used to be a private club before opening for public play as part of the Cleveland Metroparks in 1961.

In 1990, a master plan was developed to renovate the golf course and restore much of its original Ross character. The plan included installing water and irrigation systems, building a pond on the third hole and restoring a pond at no. 15.

Manakiki’s up-and-down terrain and awkward lies terrorize good players during qualifiers and tournaments. “For a short course, it beats people up and eats them alive when it’s firm and fast,” Kochensparger said.

Sleepy Hollow Golf Course

Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow Golf Course gracefully follows the rolling hills of the scenic Cuyahoga River Valley, originally opening as a country club in 1925 on land leased from the Cleveland Metroparks before turning public in 1963.

Thompson, a Canadian highly regarded for his work at Banff Springs and Jasper Park in the Canadian Rockies, cofounded the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He once had an office in Cleveland, according to Kochensparger.

The 6,723-yard par-71 Sleepy Hollow remains the best of the 27 U.S. courses he’s credited with designing. Its greens are fantastic and the forested land still looks as it did when the layout opened without a house or road in sight. Golfweek ranks Sleepy Hollow no. 2 among the state’s top public courses and no. 15 among the country’s top municipal courses in 2013.

“It’s got a nice combination of forced carries over valleys, but golfers can still bounce the ball in to the greens,” said John Fiander, Sleepy Hollow’s head golf professional. “The tees are close to the greens. That’s classic design.”

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