The Harvester in Rhodes, IA
Tee Time: July 6 2014, 12:00, 86F, breezy
Designer: Keith Foster (2000)
Playing Partners: Greg Ryan
Tees: Blue, Par 72 (73.1 rating/132 slope/6,840 yards)
Course Handicap: 9 (7.9 index)
Stats: 91 (42-49); 40 putts; 8/14 fairways; 7/18 greens; 4 penalty strokes
“Is this heaven?
I could’ve sworn this was heaven.”
I wonder how many sports related posts by sports related blogs talking about something sports-related in Iowa start with that Field of Dreams quote. Well, in the interest of being original, I’ll try something else.
Oops, wrong sport.
There, that fits.
The Harvester is the unanimous choice across every list published for the best course in Iowa. You’d think, well, it’s Iowa, how many golf courses can they really have? Being named the #1 golf course in Iowa seems like it would be like being the MLB All-Star from the 2014 Padres. You’re only there because someone had to be. I was a little excited to come, because my only other visit to the Hawkeye State was a fun afternoon at the Field of Dreams a few years ago. Just stepping out of the car I was instantly amazed at how awesome The Harvester is. It’s not just the best course in Iowa, it immediately took a spot in my top 5 golf courses period. Under the overcast skies of a muggy day, the lush green hills seemed to extend infinitely into the distance. A condo complex and a few houses dotted the landscape, dominated by the massive plantation clubhouse overlooking the entire course. But aside from that and some barbed wire fencing, this place is pure nature.
Rolling corn fields (it is Iowa…), rows of other crops and even a herd of cattle (serving as a hard-to-impress gallery on a few holes on the front nine, especially your opening drive.) It felt to me like being somewhere in the United Kingdom. I don’t have much foreign travel under my belt, but Greg does, especially in England and he had the same thoughts. But just as I start to get lost in the atmosphere of Old World golf, a majestic bald eagle soared out of one of the trees along Lake Harvester and reminded me that this is still America. I spent almost ten minutes just watching it glide from tree to tree, spying its next meal. It has to be far and away the coolest animal I’ve seen while golfing. It’s a beautiful bird that I really wish I could’ve gotten a better picture of, but this blown up Bigfoot-quality footage will have to do.
At a place that is all about the golf (even weddings are no longer offered here, which I am more than okay with), we teed off on the uphill, 390-yard first hole with a half-dozen cows watching my perfectly struck 5-wood. Under the gray skies, the brown fescue lining the rolling fairways only added to that Old World feel. Right away at the 2nd you get a chance to blow up your round. A dogleg-right par 4, there’s a safe route to the left that leaves a 150-yard shot uphill to a shallow green. Or you can take the shortcut, needing at least 240 yards of carry to get to the upper tier and an easier play at the green. Then there’s the gorgeous par-3 third, which carries almost all of its 165 yards over a large pond that’s surprisingly easy to hit into. At The Harvester, the front side par 5s are much easier than those on the back nine, so remember that when you hit a blind shot to the fairway at the 545-yard 4th, which is the easiest of them all, relatively. The 5th is the shortest par 4 on the course, at 335 yards and uphill again.
The best view of the first nine is from the tee at the par-5 6th. With corn flooding your view behind the tee, you can look ahead and see nearly the whole expanse of the course, with the clubhouse acting as a reference point. It’s also a tough hole, requiring three shots and a final carry over water. Also, the cows will be watching again. You play uphill again on the par-4 7th, the fourth consecutive par 4 that has an incline, this one more severe than the others with a dogleg right to a slick green. The par-3 8th is much easier than the 3rd, because this time all the water is way behind the green instead of in front of it. It’s a long one, downhill at 180 yards and whatever wind is swirling around.
Before the turn, the 9th is the flattest par 4, but also the toughest. Long, at 430 yards, the fairway is cut in half by a creek that should be just past your longest drives, hopefully. It’s also home to that bald eagle, who was flying between trees on either side of the hole over that creek. I started getting nervous, because what happens if you hit our national bird with a tee shot? What if he goes down and the next thing I know there’s a black FBI helicopter coming in low over the horizon and I’m being detained at Guantanamo for assaulting freedom? In fact, Greg was so scared of this scenario that it took him 5 tries to get a tee shot past the ladies tees. True story.
On the other side of the clubhouse is the 10th, and the rest of the back nine. It’s 450 yards but not even the longest par 4. At least it’s not uphill. The 11th is a pretty dogleg-left par 4. It snakes around a shallow swale of rough (and, on this day, mud) before getting to a well-protected green with bunkers flanking the sides. It’s also the architect’s favorite hole on the course, and I can see why. The uphill par-4 theme at The Harvester takes it to the extreme with the 12th, 390 yards almost straight up. Even treadmills don’t have an incline setting this steep. It also played into a stiff wind this day, effectively making it a three shot hole. The 355-yard 13th plays much shorter, being atop that hill you climbed earlier and enjoying all the benefits of the gale winds. It’s still probably best to go short off the tee though, because from off the fairway the approach isn’t easy. The par-3 14th kicks off a run of three holes that are long even by pro standards. 205 yards and downhill to a large green, the hole isn’t too dangerous, just long.
But then you come to the 600-yard par-5 15th (and uphill). The course named it “Big Hog”. I dubbed it The Murderhorn. Even from the tee it looks like you might never make it up to the finish. There’s a fairway bunker cutting across about 200 yards from the green. This is where we made base camp for the night before trying for the summit in the morning, aided by Powersauce bars.
Once you get there, and finally hole out on that carnival green that is almost a guaranteed three-putt, take a look back and enjoy the view. I imagine climbers of Everest feel the same rush I did looking down from atop Big Hog.
The 480-yard par-4 16th goes as far downhill as the 16th went up. It is fun crushing that drive into the great beyond, but there is a hazard in play if you really catch it on the screws. The 17th is the last par 3, at 165 yards to a green hugged on the right by water. The postage stamp-looking green juts out into the lake, making back pin positions pretty risky.
You’d think Iowa is just a land of corn. That’s true, very true. And I can’t promise it’s a fun place to visit in February. But it really is in the summer. Obviously, the Field of Dreams is to baseball fans what the Haight-Ashbury district is to hipsters. But don’t ignore this great golf course just 45 minutes from the capital of Des Moines. Even on a Sunday in July the course was practically empty, somehow. Maybe the previous day’s downpour kept some people at home. The staff did say they are usually very packed on the weekends. But if you get lucky and find yourself all alone for a few hours in one of the Midwest’s prettiest spots, soak every minute of it in. There are no throwaway holes here. Every tee is another picturesque view of a well-designed course. By the time I got to hole 13, I was already telling Greg how this course is definitely one of the top 5 I’ve ever golfed. He agreed, even though he was suffering through miserable allergies.
The secluded atmosphere, there are just a few homes visible from the course and none are in the line of fire, of the pleasant Lake Harvester and surrounding hills is exactly what I needed. It was a rushed 48-hour trip, with a 4am post-Independence Day wakeup call directly to golf in Nebraska and then a nearly three hour drive from Omaha the next day to The Harvester followed by another early morning flight straight to work on Monday. But those 3.5 hours playing golf here were worth every bit of stress I put on myself with such a tight schedule. If I ever find myself somewhere in Iowa again, and that’s no guarantee, I’ll be back. Everyone should go once and see for themselves. Iowans seem to do a great job creating sports destinations out of fields of corn.
#18, Par 5, 540 yards, 5-handicap, My Score: 8
Layout: A; one of my favorite courses to date.
Amenities: B; the snack bar looks more like the inside of a Shell station, but they make a good sandwich
Staff: A; it was a skeleton crew today, but the two employees I met were very welcoming
Difficulty: B; that back nine really comes with some teeth.
Scenery: A-; I’ve mentioned how much I loved the scenery about 50 times already, but it’s some of the best.
Value: A; $129 for a course that could charge twice as much, not bad
Overall GPA: 3.61 (A-); one more Field of Dreams quote: if you build it, they will come. People will come Ray…