Co-owner gives golf course a woman’s touch: Multiple tees and restrooms make the Purgatory Club in Noblesville one of the best in the country for females

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Purgatory isn’t just for women.

Purgatory Golf Club in Noblesville, that is.

True, you can buy pink hooded sweatshirts, pink-and-white golf shoes and scented candles in the Pro Shop. And one night a month is designated Ladies Night, where women can play a round of golf, enjoy food and wine and win prizes.

But don’t be fooled. Purgatory isn’t some cookie-cutter golf course. When played from the back tees, it’s one of the longest courses east of the Mississippi-nearly 7,800 yards. More than 120 bunkers filled with crushed limestone can make golfers feel they are indeed paying for their sins.

The course has earned much acclaim from local and national media, including Golf Digest, which named the course one of “America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses” in its May 2005 issue.

Tenna Merchent, Purgatory’s co-owner, along with her husband, Mike, played a large role in making the course appealing to women as well as first-time visitors. Mike, a Professional Golf Association professional, had the initial idea of building a course, although it appealed to Tenna as well, she said.

“It was a fit for me because I always wanted to do something like this,” said Tenna, 44, who is the mother of two boys and has an economics degree from DePauw University.

From playing courses such as Pinehurst in North Carolina and Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, Tenna got an idea of what to include on Purgatory’s course, which opened in 2000.

“At those courses, they had women’s tees that were as nice as the men’s tees,” Tenna said. “I really liked [that] they have bathrooms out on the courses. I told the guys, ‘I want nice tees for the women, and we absolutely have to have bathrooms out on the course.’ As a result, those two things really put us on the map.”

During the initial planning, “I was a pain in the neck,” Tenna said. “There were some things I wouldn’t budge on. It needed to be friendly for golfers like me. Although [Mike and course architect Ron Kern] wanted to appeal to the sophisticated golfer, it needed to appeal to new golfers.”

Tenna also named each hole. After reading “Purgatorio” by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, Tenna wanted to incorporate elements from the book into the names of the holes. For example, the 12th hole is named Valley of the Kings, appropriate since the hole runs over a valley. In the book, Tenna explained, Valley of the Kings is a place where rulers who neglected their religious obligations pay for their sins.

But Tenna’s work didn’t end when the course was completed. While Mike, 41, oversees the daily running of the course, Tenna is more involved with the creative side of the operation.

“I do the Web site,” she said. “I’m the company photographer. I talk to reporters. I also do [public relations], advertising and the finances. I go around and pick up trash in the parking lot. When you see a Coke can in the parking lot, you can’t help but pick it up.”

In addition to having three restrooms available on the course, Purgatory has other women-friendly features. The Pro Shop offers multiple lines of women’s clothing, including Lilly Pulitzer and Ralph Lauren, and five lines of women’s clubs. Each hole has at least six tees, allowing the course to accommodate all skill levels. When played from the far-forward tees, the course is 4,562 yards, a distance appropriate for most women golfers.

“It makes the course much more flexible,” Tenna said.

Perhaps testament to Purgatory’s women-friendly atmosphere is the success of the Ladies Night events Tenna helps organize. One Tuesday a month, women can play a round of golf, participate in clinics and contests, receive a Pro Shop discount and enjoy food and wine, all for $19. The event draws an average of 38 people per night.

“It’s been a really pleasant experience for everyone,” Tenna said. “It’s been so much more successful than we ever envisioned. We thought we would have it once; we’ve had it 14 times.”

Jenny Kronenberg of Noblesville, who attended the July 12 Ladies Night, said the course caters very nicely at those events. “It’s an inexpensive way to play. Women need to play with women sometimes.”

Purgatory was the only course in Indiana to make Golf for Women magazine’s biennial “50 Best Courses for Women” list this year.

“It’s a huge honor just to be nominated. I was so excited,” Tenna said. “They mentioned the restrooms and the women’s clothing, but they focused on the design-what real golfers care about.”

Stina Sternberg, senior editor at Golf for Women and director of the “Top 50” project, said the magazine looked at several features when choosing courses, such as layout, playability, treatment of women and number of women employees.

Purgatory made the list for several reasons, Sternberg said. “It has a lot of things, layout wise, that we would love to see at other golf courses around the country.

“What we’re trying to find are courses that are great for women of all playing abilities, and that involves having a lot of tee options. Also, [we look] at the design of the course and how the designers have kept women in mind. What we saw in Purgatory was a very well-thought-out layout for players of all abilities.

“You can get massages, and you can walk the course, which we think is a great thing,” Sternberg added. “You can go out and play nine holes, which is good for women who may not always have time to play the whole round.”

Tenna would like to eventually host a PGA and a Ladies Professional Golf Association event. She also plans to expand the activities at Ladies Night with a goal of routinely selling out the event, which would mean attracting 144 people.

So what advice do the Merchents have for couples who want to follow in their footsteps?

“Don’t cut corners,” Tenna said. “Get a good advertising firm, attorney, accountant. Hire a good architect. Hire a good staff; give them guidance, but stay out of the way when they’re doing a good job.”

You don’t want both people working on the same things, Mike said. “[Tenna and I] have things we work on individually. Then we get together as a team, decide on goals and divide and conquer.”

He credits Tenna with his own success.

“I couldn’t have done this on my own,” he said. “Tenna made it really easy for me to jump into the construction side of the golf course, while she handled the advertising, PR and finances. It made my life much easier.”

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