A dead-flat cornfield in southeast Indiana bisected by a two-lane highway? Probably not the best site Tom Fazio’s ever been handed. But 10 years ago, the designer who once said the site for a course really doesn’t matter reached deep into his bag of tricks to manufacture a classic parkland spread an hour’s drive from Cincinnati. Even in the annals of Fazio’s numerous sleight-of-hand creations, Belterra Golf Club, attached to an eponymous casino resort, qualifies as a textbook transformation.
The fifth and final casino permitted under Indiana law for the Ohio River, the $240 million Belterra complex, the state’s largest, boasts an imposing 15-story hotel as well as a 100-foot wide, 370-foot long riverboat casino patterned after the region’s historic paddle-wheelers. Enter Fazio, who was asked to create a course every bit as diverting as Blackjack, Caribbean Stud and the other games of chance available in the resort’s huge gaming arena.
After moving 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt to create 65 feet of elevation change and mimic a ridge on the Kentucky side of the river, Fazio set to work crafting holes, using man-made berms, dry-laid rock walls and 2,200 transplanted native trees to frame his handiwork. The first three holes, routed on the hotel side of the road, are a nice warm-up for the next 14 holes, many of which were carved deep into the earth. So deep, in fact, that the water table was exposed, allowing Fazio to create five lakes and numerous marshy areas evocative of a Lowcountry spread in the Carolinas.
With four sets of tees ranging from 6,925 to 5,102 yards (par 71), Belterra offers plenty of choice for high rollers, modest speculators and everyone in between. Most of the medium-size, well-contoured greens are only bunkered to one side, offering sufficient bail-out room for those averse to risk. With water in play at 12 holes, however, thoughtful shot-making is required to score. Especially from the tips, where the 136/73.3 slope and course ratings are deserved.
The fifth hole, a beastly par four that skirts a pond and leads to a green fronted by a flashed-face bunker, is rated the toughest on the course, but most of the holes are attainable from the Resort tees, which measure a shade under 6,000 yards. Several holes in the middle of the round depart the dune-like berms for mature woodlands. The entire right side of the par-five 11th, for example, is lined with mature hardwoods, the fairway indented by a ravine in the lay-up zone and backdropped in the distance by rolling hills. The par-four 13th is a classic two-shotter, the rising fairway hinged on a giant old oak, the raised bunkerless green a tip of the hat to Donald Ross. The 14th, the shortest of Belterra’s par threes, is set in a wooded hollow and calls for an accurate shot to avoid deep bunkers terraced into the side of a hill.
Players pass through a tunnel under the highway to reach the 18th hole, an excellent risk-reward par five that proceeds to the hotel tower. Better players who opt to go for the green in two must negotiate a pond that guards the right side of the green.
Now that the shrubs and wildflowers planted a decade ago have matured, Belterra—“beautiful land” in Portuguese—fits its name. As is true at many well-capitalized casinos resorts throughout the land, course conditions are excellent: Fairways are plush, greens are smooth and the bluegrass rough is thick. Like the gaming tables aboard the riverboat, there’s just enough promise of a payoff to keep players coming back for more.
Centrally located, the resort is within a two-hour drive of Louisville, Lexington, Dayton and Indianapolis. Belterra’s golf packages, including unlimited practice balls, represent excellent value. Walkers are welcome, a rarity at most casino resorts. Details: www.belterracasino.com.