Jim Herman was standing on the 10th tee when it hit him. Well, a lot of things hit the PGA Tour vet that August afternoon, as they do when you take a trip in a time machine. Herman's took him home to Shawnee Lookout, a golf course that resides on the outskirts of Cincinnati. A place that charged $3 to play, that was so out of the way that Herman usually had the property to himself. A course whose fairways were rough, with greens that weren't, built on an incline so severe that it was better suited for skiing.
"It wasn't much," Herman says, "but it was ours."
Herman kept afloat through the memories of his youth that cascaded back that day, until he reached the 10th. That was the hole, Herman says, where golf hooked him. Driver, 3-wood, two-putt for a 4, from just over 300 yards, when he was no older than a fourth-grader.
He took a moment, realizing what has transpired since that moment nearly 30 years ago.
"I've played them all—Augusta, St. Andrews, Pine Valley—and it started there, with that par," Herman says.
If you're wondering why Herman sounds melancholy, he was back for his first round in two decades at Shawnee. It would also be his last.
Shawnee Lookout opened in the shadow of power stacks in 1979, overlooking the Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky tripoint valley. The Hamilton Country Park District believed golf would be a serviceable attraction to Shawnee's myriad hiking trails and archeological sites for the Shawnee and Hopewell tribes. In spite of its remoteness, the course's debut was a star-studded celebration, highlighted by astronaut Neil Armstrong striking the ceremonial first shot.
However, what Shawnee needed was not Armstrong's swing, but his engineering background. The pump house shut down within hours, leaving the clubhouse without running water. The electricity followed suit. Moreover the course's cart paths weren't ready, an issue given the drastic elevation changes.
"You always hear how Augusta National is hilly," Herman says. "People have no idea what hilly is unless you've played Shawnee."
These opening-day tales, or woes, were passed down through the regulars, an omen that Shawnee was doomed from the start.
Out of the park district's seven courses, Shawnee was the black sheep. Tipping out at 6,016 yards, the architects shoehorned 18 holes in a space for 14, yielding an eccentric routing. A lot of holes banked against, not with, the terrain. Laying up was futile, because there was no such thing as a flat lie. There was a z-shaped par 5 that required a 200-yard drive, a 200-yard second up a mountain, followed by a 130-yard (minimum) approach. One par 4 resembled a boomerang, with a landing area the size of a laptop. Another par 5 went 300 yards straight down a hill and 240 yards up another.
That could explain why Shawnee routinely had the fewest customers of the district's properties. Due to the unmanageable terrain, its conditioning was volatile (usually good in the spring, a superfund site by the summer), and when paved paths were installed, the slopes were so sharp and serpentine that many a cart ended overturned. Power lines from the plant were omnipresent.
"Let's be honest: Shawnee was short, hilly, dangerous and often in terrible shape," Herman says.
But for all that it wasn't, Shawnee was still a hell of a lot.
The district used it as its training ground for fledgling PGA professionals, churning out regional pillars like Randy Neufarth and Harry Alexander, and the staff instilled a welcoming vibe. Its accessible pricing spoke to the surrounding blue-collar towns, and those goofy shots and angles taught a creativity other courses did not know existed.
Most importantly, by virtue of overcrowding at the other public tracks on the western side of the city, Shawnee became a refuge for kids, where they could learn the game without hassle.
That was the conduit for Herman, whose dad worked at the neighboring Fort Miami Power Station. Herman would be dropped off in the morning by his mom, with his dad joining him in the afternoon after his shift.
"We could play as much as we wanted," Herman says. "Shawnee has a bad reputation, but we didn't know any better as kids. And looking back, you learned how to deal with uneven, uphill and downhill lies ... you never had a straight putt, either."
Fitting, because Herman's career never followed a straight trajectory. After graduating the University of Cincinnati in 2000, he headed south for the Golden Bear mini-tours, trying to work his way up the ranks for four years. That endeavor was unsuccessful, as Herman eventually left to become a PGA club pro. Yet the dream still beckoned, and goaded by Donald Trump (Herman was an assistant at Trump's Bedminster course), Herman returned to the minors, eventually earning his PGA Tour card in 2011. But retaining his card proved to be a yearly struggle, and it wasn't until a win at the 2016 Houston Open that he finally achieved a sense of security.
That grit was imparted in no small way by Shawnee. For no matter how well you played, the rugged contours, choppy shape or odd design would put you in trouble. "It could do a number on you, that's for sure," Herman says. Shooting a good score was simply out of the question, which is why 65 on the par 70 was the course record in its 40-year existence.
An existence that is nearing its end. Last January, the park district announced it was closing the course after September. Upon decommissioning, Shawnee will be re-purposed into a wildlife habitat, with cart paths left as a nature trail for guests.
“This decision has not come without careful consideration,” said Jack Sutton, CEO of Great Parks of Hamilton County. “The golf industry nationwide has experienced a reduction in participation over the past decade, and the Ohio golf market has seen similar trends. In spite of our recent efforts to interject new concepts and ideas at Shawnee Lookout, our rounds of play have remained flat and at times even declined.”
When Herman got word that Shawnee was shutting down, he knew he had to make a final visit. Yet scheduling was problematic. His two-year exemption was up from the Houston Open, and his game was a mess, missing 16 of his first 19 cuts on tour this year.
Providence intervened in July; just down the road from Shawnee in Nicholasville, Ky., Herman outlasted Kelly Kraft at the Barbasol Championship for his second career tour victory. The win didn't gain him entry into the FedEx Cup Playoffs, but it did bring another two-year tour blanket. With his August now free, Herman could say goodbye to an old friend.
Herman's final go-around Shawnee was on Aug. 21, playing with his brother and former mentor, Alexander. Touring the course as a pro was a slightly different trek. On the first hole, a 350-yard dogleg left where players desperately try to keep a long iron on a fairway that slopes into a creek, Alexander prodded Herman to just take a driver over the trees. "I was on the tee box still looking at things like a teenager," Herman admits. His drive found the green, and he two-putted for birdie.
That would be the common theme; unfamiliarity at a course that was once so familiar. The conditioning was slightly worse than he remembered, the holes shorter, too. "Funny how the mind recalls things," Herman says. "But when I was that young, those holes were long."
Conversely, it was still tough. The angles remained demanding, the greens unrelenting. And his mind remembered the experiences that made him fall in love with the game.
The rounds and shots, yes, but also working on his craft in solitude. Even the notion of carrying his bag up golf's Mt. Everest was a reminder of what people will do for their passion.
Herman was a prisoner to nostalgia that afternoon, those trappings ending the round as soon as it began. But as Herman walked off the final hole, his brother noted he shot a 64. A new course record.
"I mean I've been to so many great golf courses in my time playing golf, and I've been so fortunate to make a living at this," Herman said. "But to have [the record], it's right up there."
It is too late to save Shawnee; the lights turn out in weeks. However, it has inspired Herman, who wants to make sure other courses that fit its profile don't suffer a similar fate.
"There needs to be affordable options out there, where kids can be kids," he says. "To go out and enjoy yourself and have fun with your buddies."
Before those battles are fought, it's worth remembering those that have already fallen. Herman got a tattoo of Shawnee's logo on his ankle. But its memories, he says, are forever stamped inside.