6,681 yards, 144 Slope from the Blacks

Course:  Just west of Pittsburgh in Ellwood City, PA is Olde Stonewall, a Hurdzan/Fry design from 1999.  Stonewall is consistently ranked as one of the top public courses in the state and regarded as one of the top 50 public courses in the country.  It’s the premier public course in the area, which is reflected in the green fees, but also the terrific conditions.  The natural landscape is outstanding for a course, set right at a series of foothills, with a river adjacent on one side and a few creeks splintering the topography.  The front nine loops around the bottom of the foothills while the back nine goes right into the heart of them.  Hurdzan and Fry weaved a great collection of holes through this setting and created a daunting yet visually striking play.

I couldn’t help but notice the overarching attempt to establish a medieval theme, with the enormous castle that serves as the clubhouse/pro shop, every sign with words ending in an “e” and the clubhouse itself, with displays of knights in armor and the large drawbridge-esque doors at the entrance.  Some times I forgot I was at a golf course and thought I was at Disneyland or Medieval Times.  Love it, hate or don’t care, you have to admire the bold move, although I think it’s there more to attract the wedding and dining set instead of the golfers.

Despite the medieval hoopla, the course is a very good play.  The front nine is a more open design, inviting different styles of play and full of thought provoking holes with several different features.  The back nine tightens up considerably and demands precision, with severe elevation changes, very nasty rough and small, quick greens.  The Eleventh through Sixteenth are particularly difficult and serve as severe of a test of golf as I have found in Pennsylvania public golf.  The setting and views, while spectacular and boost the course to another level, serve as a distraction to the task at hand, which requires every ounce of focus you can muster.

I was able to play a couple rounds at Olde Stonewall last month, after many years of trying to get out that far west.  I was there for a tournament and was able to get a practice round in the day before, until a storm cut the round short around the Fifteenth.  Regardless, two gorgeous days of golf were had and at the end of it, I was glad to have finally played here.

The First is a 546 yard par 5.  The wide fairway bends slightly to the left while scattered bunkers are on either side.  The green is some what tucked to the left in a knoll, with a ridge running left to the right that blocks out the left side of the green complex from most approach shots and obscuring the fairly big false front.  It’s a nice opener, but hopefully you’re warmed up because anything too far sideways gets problematic very quickly.

The First

Second shot territory

The Second is a 392 yard par 4.  The tee shot is elevated and the entire hole runs downhill to the green. Club selection off the tee is important, as bunkers towards the center of the fairway come into play with longer clubs, so many may opt for a shorter club, which still leaves a short approach shot.  The approach shot is tricky because of the large false front, ensuring proper distance so you don’t go off the far side (which is death) and avoiding the large cross bunkers.  It’s a nice short par 4 that does provoke some thought.

The Second

The Third is a 365 yard par 4.  The hole climbs back uphill in the direction you came from the Second.  The tee shot features many bunkers coming into play, while a large tree on the right blocks out shots hit too far to that side.  The green is expansive though.  This hole is the first of many that gave me flashes of Broad Run.  This hole reminds me of the Fourth at Broad Run, without the elevated tee.  It’s a much tougher par 4 that it appears.

The Third

Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 414 yard par 4.  Back down the hill with water along the right side and while the green is at a straight angle from the tee, the water cuts into the fairway enough to break up the hole into an “S” shape.  Water is also long of the green, so precision is impliedly demanded here, while the a large bunker in the front left collects those shots that go for the pin and end up short.

The Fourth

Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 174 yard par 3.  Water encroaches the entire right side while cross bunkers at the front of the green narrow the opening at the front.  Trees on the left block out those who want to fade it in.  It is a nice sized green though, so just hit it straight!

The Fifth

The Sixth is a 436 yard par 4.  Water continues to harass on the right while trees intrude on the left, but there’s no hiding from this tee shot, which needs to get long and straight to set up your approach shot, which is a forced carry over wetlands, to get to the green.  The green is also semi-blind, so trying to figure out where your ball lands is always an adventure.  Some how, I parred this hole both times I played it.

The Sixth

Approach shot, which is a forced carry to the green

The Seventh is a 162 par 3.  Kind of a standard par 3, but the undulations in the green are interesting and there isn’t a whole lot of generosity with poorly struck tee shots.  Get your par here and move on.

The Seventh

The Eighth is a 374 yard par 4.  From the elevated tee, the fairway below dog legs left before long grass flows on the hillside between the end of the fairway and the green, which is on the hillside, while bunkers essentially line the entire right side.  While the the shot allows for creativity and forgiveness, the approach shot is demanding and be wary of the large false front when deciding on what club to use for the approach.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 502 yard par 5.  While the hole is generally straight and gradually downhill, there are a parade of hazards to make sure it lives up to its slope rating.  Bunkers on either side of the fairway collect errant tee shots while the green itself is some what of an island, with the hillsides on both sides dropping out, making any approach shot too far to one side or the other virtually OB.  While you want to move up the hole from center to left center, the sloping of the fairways makes it difficult to maintain that line while it’s tough to tell how little room there is off green from the fairway.  It’s a nice little par 5.

The Ninth, looking back at the tee from the beginning of the fairway

Moving down the fairway

Getting closer to the green

The front nine generally features many interesting and challenging holes, with creative forced carries, strategic tee and approach shots and a variety of distances.  I enjoyed the Fourth through Eighth, which were located close to the river and were routed nicely back up the hills to the Ninth.  You could see much of the course, but were always positioned so you couldn’t hear any of the other groups and their shots really couldn’t come into play.  It was a nice setting for sure.  I’d rank them 8, 4, 7, 1, 9, 2, 5, 3, 6.

The back nine starts with the 445 yard par 4 Tenth.  The Tenth runs parallel with the First, but goes uphill instead of down and the fairway is narrower.  The green is surrounded by bunkers, but the surroundings give it an amphitheater feel.  The green runs from back to front and left to right.  A tough long par 4.

The Tenth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 412 yard par 4.  And the screws start to tighten.  The tee shot is elevated and it’s almost mandatory to hit the fairway, as anything left will end up in impossible rough and/or be blocked out by trees while anything to the right is off fairway, rolling down to the Sixteenth.  The approach shot is the same.  There is no room off green and any shot too far to the right or long is almost guaranteed to be a penalty.  So it comes down to hitting two outstanding shots just to avoid a big number here.

On the fairway

The Twelfth is a 406 par 4.  The elevated tee shot makes it tough to hit driver here because of the bisected fairway, but longer hitters may be tempted to try and carry the ravine for a shorter approach shot.  The approach is tough regardless of where you are, because the green is small and there is simply no tolerance for any shot that doesn’t hit the green.

The Twelfth

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 374 yard par 4.  The entire hole is in front of you in one of the better looking holes on the course.  Bunkers line each side of the fairway, which narrows as you get closer to the green.  While the tee shot is terrific, hitting almost horizontally to the fairway that’s rather wide, the green is again fairly demanding with no room for error.  It’s a great hole.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 180 yard par 3.  The tee shot is again elevated to a wide yet shallow green that is a forced carry.  It’s an easier hole and the first of back-to-back par 3’s.

The Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 217 yard par 3.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of this hole.  My first round here, a storm came over the hillside as soon as we putted out on the Fourteenth and was such a strong storm that we had to move large limbs off the cart path as we tried to get back to the clubhouse.  During the second round, I was playing badly in a tournament I was in and even though we waited on this hole for at least 10 minutes, it never occurred to me to take a photograph.  At any rate, the Fifteenth is similar to the Fourteenth in that it’s an elevated tee shot forced carry to the green, but the green is deep and narrow and there is a massive bunker on the left side while there is no room off to the right of the green, so if the tee is in the back, you’re either going for broke or aiming for the wider front section of it.  It’s a tough par 3.

The Sixteenth is a 447 yard par 4.  A very picturesque hole at the elevated tee, you should favor the right side to ensure you’re not block out on your approach shot by the trees on the left.  Of course, the fairway cants from left to right and there are bunkers on that side as well, making you think twice about your aiming point.  The approach shot is a forced carry to the green with probably the biggest false fronts on the course, starting even before the bunkers in front of the green.  It’s a hole that again reminds me of Broad Run, and/or White Clay Creek to some extent.

The Sixteenth

Second shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 371 yard par 4.  Ending the streak of elevated tee shots, this hole actually dog legs left to an elevated green while bunkers on either side ensure that accuracy remains at a premium, although you’ll at least have a chance to recover from poor shots.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 464 yard par 4.  Wow bland routing for the back nine as well; all par 4’s and two back to back par 3’s.  The hole is straight off and after peaking around the tee shot landing area, it descends to the green and is fairly generous the whole way, providing a reprieve from the challenging prior holes.  The “castle” awaits in the background.

The Eighteenth

The back nine jaunts through the foothills and features penal holes that demand precision.  While was a great deal of nice visuals, the routing and challenge are enough to make it seem like one continual beating until you reach the Eighteenth.  Ranking them, I’d go 13, 16, 12, 15, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18.

Generally, Olde Stonewall is a nice play, but a little Jekyll and Hyde for me.  The front nine is challenging and excellent visually, but promotes strategy and recovery shots keep things interesting, all while maintaining a nice routing.  On the back nine, I’d guess the designers were some what contained on what they could because of environmental regulations, but the routing is flatlined and the course because essentially long and hard.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it certainly doesn’t flow with the front nine and becomes less interesting.  The scenery is terrific, however, and if you’re playing really good golf, that sense of accomplishment after the round is well earned.  I enjoyed the course and would play it again, but I’d give a little pause considering the amount of the green fee.  It may do fine in this area wit enough folks willing to pay those rates, but value wise I don’t think it worth those fees.  Regardless, there’s no denying Olde Stonewall is one of the great public courses in Pennsylvania and is worth playing at least once.

Gripes:  I wasn’t feeling the clubhouse.  To me, the clubhouse architecture should compliment the course architecture, with both co-existing to provide an overall experience.  Here, it’s almost the opposite, where I was trying to block it out as I was playing up the Eighteenth.  I’m sure it fascinates and attracts non-golfers to the facility for nights out, birthday parties, etc., but it was a little garish for my taste and clashed badly with the course.

Bar/Grill:  A large indoor and outdoor facility, but I didn’t see a grill or bar where you could sit for a quick beer and burger.  Everything was sit down service and took forever.

Practice area:  A full grass driving range and short game area, along with a putting green.  Very nice.

Nearby:  It’s mostly rural and residential, but is about 15 minutes away from a small town.

Getting there:  It’s northwest of Pittsburgh, off the PA turnpike.