In most recent years, this would have been a golf trip I probably couldn’t have pulled off in the middle of summer. With school-aged kids, June through August moves like lightning and gets booked-up just as fast, so a five-day guys’ trip to Pittsburgh in the heart of beach-pool-and-amusement park season could have easily gotten the kibosh by either work or family commitments.
This PA adventure had a trump card, though. My longtime friend and golfing buddy won a silent auction prize to play storied Oakmont Country Club (host of nine U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, five U.S. Amateurs and two U.S. Women’s Opens) with two guests. He chose his brother and me and our quest became building the ultimate golf trip in a destination none of us really knew much about.
Through some serendipitous connections, we landed tee times at two sublime private clubs, Weirton, West Virginia’s Williams Country Club (a 1932 gem framed in the dramatic hills along the Ohio River) and the exquisite and brilliantly-routed Pittsburgh Field Club, which dates back to 1882 when the grounds were first used as the original Pittsburgh Cricket Club. Both rounds were unforgettable and splendid journeys back in time courtesy of the preserved course architecture as well as timeless grounds and clubhouses. We also had the chance to play two of Pennsylvania’s top public-access courses, Olde Stonewall Golf Club in Ellwood City and a resort destination with a fascinating history, the Omni Bedford Springs Resort in idyllic Bedford Springs, Pa.
Omni Bedford Springs Resort is cozily situated in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains less than two hours east of Pittsburgh. The region has been a tourist destination since it was built in 1796 by Dr. John Anderson soon after the discovery of roaring mineral springs said to have curing and restorative powers. The spot became one of the northeast’s leading attractions for relaxation and wellness. No fewer than 12 U.S. presidents have spent time at the resort, including the 15th president, James Buchanan who made Bedford Springs the summer White House in his term prior to the Civil War.
The historic white-columned Georgian-style hotel, which is listed as a National Historic Landmark, pays caring homage to the period décor and focus on relaxation and social gathering. From lawn games and the groomed outdoor grounds, nature hikes to discover all eight of the native springs that flow from the side of a nearby mountain, this 2,200-acre property will have you thrilled to be a part of its timeless legacy.
The expansive Springs Eternal Spa is one of the few in North America to channel in pure spring water for hydrotherapy treatments. Mineral springs are also used in the hotel’s walk-back-in-time indoor Olympic-size pool, which first opened in 1905. It’s always fun to see a healthy percentage of guests walking thr resort grounds comfortably adorned in spa robes. Dining options abound, from the acclaimed farm-to-table fair in the museum-like Crystal Room (heavily-yet-tastefully adorned with photos of guests from the past, dating back many, many decades) to steaks and chops in the exclusive 1796 Room and satisfying pub fare with a local flare and a chef’s touch in the wonderfully cozy and preserved Frontier Tavern.
The Old Course at the Omni Bedford Springs Resort, originally designed by Spencer Oldham in 1895 as one of the first 18-hole courses to exceed 6,00 yards, was famously re-worked by two legendary architects at two key points in its history. A.W. Tillinghast did redesign work there in 1912, cutting the course back to nine holes, and Donald Ross completed work on the 18-hole layout in the 1923.
In 2007 Pennsylvania-based architect Ron Forse took on the challenge of paying tribute to three distinct eras of golf architecture while making the course enjoyable and playable for today’s golfers. Forse brought back some indigenous plant species along to accent the shores of Shobers Run Creek, a trout stream that meanders along the mountain valley’s meadows and marshes.
The serene mountain valley setting alone makes the Old Course a must-play but the character of the individual holes, including five par-5 holes and five par-3s, stays with you long after you play the course.
“Spencer”, the par-3 second hole named after its original architect, is the first one-shotter you come to and plays over a persistent border of wetlands. The iconic and often-confounding fourth hole is named and “Volcano” because of its green’s unique shape and epic false front. The hole requires a demanding tee shot of more than 200 yards to a two-tier green perched atop a hill that falls off dramatically on all sides. The 14th hole, coined “Tiny Tim,” is the shortest par-3 and plays from an elevated which offers a clear view of the winding creek short of the two-tiered that is well-protected by a series of sand traps and a mini mountain range of small mounds Tillinghast called “alps.”
The influence of Donald Ross in undeniable at the shortish par-4 sixth, the only hole on the course enveloped by tall trees on either side. A tee shot should easily clear an inlet of creek, while the approach is must reach classic two-tiered Ross green laid across a ridge. Nothing is overstated or gimmicky here. It’s pure Ross in a pure setting.
The golf course derives a good chunk of its yardage from its quintet of par fives, which clock in at 589, 611, 525, 615 and 593 yards, respectively.
The 615-yard 13th hole plays a seemingly-never-ending 615 yards from the tips while the 595-yard 16th can play equally brutish as shots must be well-shaped to avoid fairway bunkers. The Old Course at Omni Bedford Springs with winding 367-yard par four where tee shots must stay between fairway bunkers on either side of the landing area. The approach plays uphill to a tabletop green that trails off from left to right. In a final act of trademark Ross deception, two cross bunkers sit 50 yards short of the green, so be double certain of this last yardage from the fairway.
The current clubhouse opened two seasons ago and houses the attractive Tillie’s, which features a full bar and fine take on “upscale-casual” dining. Back at the resort, enjoy exquisite gardens, an indoor spring-fed pool, a $1.5 million outdoor pool area and 20,000 square-foot meeting and events center, plus all the great choices for dining and cocktails.
Omni Bedford Springs Resort can be reached by a less-than-two-hour drive from the Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore airports.
Back closer to Pittsburgh, we had our expectations exceeded by Ellwood City’s superb daily-fee wonder, Olde Stonewall Golf Club, a 20-year-old 7,103, par-70 design created by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. Olde Stonewall, in addition to a clubhouse fashioned (inside and out) like a centuries’-old castle, features two distinct topographies. The opening holes play through a rugged, beautiful valley famed by the rushing Connoquenessing Creek. This rolling valley is accented by native grasses and fescue but the lush fairway conditions call to mind some of the finer courses in Colorado’s Vail Valley. Holes four through six make dramatic use of an interior lake that sits right and short of the 434-yard fourth’s fairway, creating one of the toughest approach shots on the opening side. On the 188-yard, par-3 fifth, the pond must be cleared and shots drifting too short or too far right on the scenic par-5 sixth risk taking on the lake.
Playing these valley holes were perfectly satisfying but we had to wonder if the holes on the second nine would climb the dramatic peaks we saw in the distance. Sure enough, the early part of the second nine does trek hundreds of feet higher than the lower holes. Back-to-back long, dramatic all-carry par threes at holes 14 and 15 make for memorable shots along Olde Stonewall’s highest ridge while the tee shot on the 474-yard par-4 16th drops nearly 100 yards to the fairway below. This course yields view after view of picturesque scenery and the shot values match the panoramas. While there are no par-5s on the par-34 second nine, the golf course’s opening hole and the reachable ninth are both noteworthy and strategic holes that crank up the pace of play at critical times in the round.
Due to the short overall length of the second nine, there isn’t a true drivable par-4 on this course, but the third, which plays 399 yards from the back tees, and the beautiful uphill 400-yard 13th (with 13 bunkers in play) make for fun “short” challenges.
“You’re never going to get bored with these golf holes,” says general manager Sean Swidzinski. “Everyone comments at the great variety and a collection of memorable holes here and the conditions our staff keeps this course in are as good as any private club or resort.”
Inside that cool-looking 33,000-square-foot castle, you’ll find a pro shop and full-service clubhouse, locker rooms and Shakespeare’s Restaurant and Pub where you’ll find culinary delights that are an elevation of pub fare. The French Onion Soup and Chicken Salad Sandwich were outstanding and everyone in the packed bar area seemed to have a favorite sandwich. More often that not, it was the Castle Burger.
It would be easy to see this property adding golf villas to create destination-resort opportunities. Considering the quality of the golf course and the social experience, along with the world-class practice facilities, it’s easy to see people traveling here from out-of-market to play this course multiple times.
Playing these excellent courses were a great way to prepare for Oakmont as both Olde Stonewall and the Old Course at Omni Bedford Spring both were challenging off the tee and had beautifully-rolling greens. The day at Oakmont– walking with a caddie, exploring the legendary clubhouse and playing shots from the same ground trod by Jones, Sarazen, Armour, Hogan, Nicklaus and (famously) Johnny Miller—was beyond bucket list. That experience was once in a lifetime but was definitely amplified by the great golf way played leading into this anticipated round.
Pittsburgh, a city that’s been going through numerous phases of rebirth was a revelation in terms of fun activities, food and architecture. Reminiscing over our six rounds in five days at the Church Brew Works, a craft brewery fashioned inside the walls of a renovated former Roman Catholic church building, we couldn’t think of many ways to improve on the experience we’d had in Western and Central Pennsylvania. The bigger challenge is going to be finding a future week to revisit the city and play all the outstanding courses we might have missed on this trip.