6,831 yards, 139 slope from the Blues
In Farmington, Pennsylvania, the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is in the south eastern part of the Commonwealth, just above West Virginia and Maryland. An upscale resort owned by the 84 Lumber family, Mystic Rock was built by Pete Dye and opened in 1995. The course hosted a PGA tournament from 2003 – 06, aptly called the, “84 Lumber Classic.”
Mystic Rock sits on expansive hilly terrain. Dye coagulated the land with massive hazards and large sweeping fairways. The large bunkers have a Sahara feel to them while some of the geometric shaping give off template vibes. Fitting right in with the large scale are Dye’s smaller distinctive features, like the well placed pot bunkers and mounds. Sculptures are also strewn about throughout the round, adding to the ambiance.
There’s a quote from Pete Dye on the score card that reads, “A very special course – it could be my best – time will tell.” That’s quite a quote from Pete, especially considering he had already built Kiawah, Harbour Town, TPC Sawgrass and Crooked Stick among a bevy of others, but it certainly shows his ambition here. It also signifies he did things here that he had not done before, or he felt he did them better here than else where. I feel that angles were more emphasized, options pronounced off the tee and blind shots used playfully and cleverly. Dye had ideal terrain to work with here, so was likely able to do things he couldn’t on all the sites where he needed to shape and build for the interest. Each hole is distinct and there is a good mixture of classic tenets in Dye’s vision, making it unique and rich with character. It is ranked as the best public course in Pennsylvania by Golfweek. With the recently opened Shepherd’s Rock, Nemacolin has the only two Pete Dye designed courses in Pennsylvania.
I have been meaning to get to this public course stalwart for some time, as it always fascinated me how there could be public courses in the state better than Glen Mills. I finally grasped the oportunity and as I pulled up to the impressive hotel, a man in what appeared to be a tuxedo came from a kiosk to assist me, giving me directions to the golf course. About a half mile away, I arrived at another impressive complex, this one the clubhouse, which was adjoined with lodging and a pool area just outside, overlooking the Eighteenth. A fantastic setting and as I strolled up to the First, was happy to finally experience another well regarded Dye course, who is among my favorite designers.
The First is a 368 yard par 4 (from the Blues). I’ve written about it before, years ago, how the ride to the course could be my favorite part of the round. Really, that extends right up to the First tee. The adventure is about to begin and there are infinite possibilities about what is about to happen, but the best part is you’ll become wiser, at least in some small way, after each stroke out there. And it’s all enjoyable, even if it takes you a while to realize it. Some times even a few days later, because you’re stil brooding on how you missed that many short putts and think your putter may be defective, so you start looking at new putters . . . you get the point.
The First tee here embodies all of that anticipation and freedom. The fairway, large and inviting, just ready to give you a big old bear hug, set against the light blue sky. Nodding towards the green and what can only be called a bunker chasm to the right of the fairway, it’s all suggesting to you, swing away and come what may.
The fairway then funnels down towards the green, with a large collection area in front of it. Get your ball moving with the land, right into the hole.
The Second is a 442 yard par 4. A dog leg right with a risk reward option off the tee, taking off as much as you want from the water on that side. The fairway keeps moving right to the green. The angle into the green depends on the tee shot but certainly complicates the hole more than it seems at first blush.
The Third is a 211 yard par 3. The green is only slightly uphill but the sides fall off dramatically into steep rigid bunkers. The bail out room is off to the left, but make sure you’re more left of the bunkers on that side. And remember, nothing wrong with the big short if you feel the need to chunk it.
The Fourth is a 344 yard par 4. A forced carry over water off the tee to a twisting fairway that tilts from right to left, moving towards a long Sahara bunker that runs the entire length of the fairway. There are rocks and stones off to the right, above the green. More of a visual than anything else, I suppose they come into play with more severe misses on that side. I’d say the rocks are a good aiming point off the tee to have your ball run from the high side to the low side, getting some roll towards the green in the process.
The Fifth is a 504 yard par 5. The fairway moves downhill and right to left. The fairway bunkers collect errant shots more than anything else and there’s more room off the left than appears from the tee. There’s an alternative fairway above the green, for those that don’t want to flirt with the water on the left side. Just realize that the shot to the green from that alternate position means the green moves away from you, with the water beyond, so it comes into play anyways. There are a lot of different approach shots into the green and lots of different places to end up around it.
The Sixth is a 396 yard par 4. The fairway is inviting and I don’t think the bunkers are reachable from the tee, so lash away but get it in the fairway. The approach is much more interesting. The green is tucked away off the left side, well guarded on all sides by various defenses; the tree line on the rear; the slopes and pot bunker on the front and front left, respectively; and the larger bunker on the right. There is bail out room short of the green for those wanting to punt on the effort altogether, but the shot from that area is tricky with the upslope and movement of the green.
The Seventh is a 170 yard par 3. The green is below the tee, mostly hidden from the hill upon which the tee is set. In terms of angles, the green is off at a diagonal, so setting up the shot with the limited view of the green is a matter of trusting your shot shape and settling on where you’re ok with a miss ending up. A large bunker complex is off to the left of the green as well that should be accounted for. Dye could have easily placed this green to the right of the tee or straight out, which would have been more away from the next tee and been more practical, but my take is Dye wanted this green to be blind and used the rock hill to his advantage. It makes this par 3 infinitely more unique and one of my favorite holes on the course.
The Eighth is a 496 yard par 5. A deceptively challenging tee shot that appears easy enough, yet just like the Seventh, when actually deciding on a line, things get more complicated. Veering away from the desert bunker on the left means bringing the hillside and rock wall into play. Taking on the bunker to hit the fairway comes with its own risks and trying to play it safe and tee off short means two long healthy shots to the green. I envisioned a majestic draw starting at the rock wall that careened gently to the fairway, than rolled towards the green above the bunker. Instead, I ended up near the rock wall, my ball forgetting all about the majestic draw thing it was supposed to do. After a couple turns, the green appears off to the left, above the fairway on a plateau. There’s lots of room on the right for a lay up, but again it means asking for a tough pitch to the green that could end up way below the green on the other side. Bold and daring, taking the hazards head on first and foremost seems to take the day here.
The Ninth is a 444 yard par 4. That’s a lot of 4’s. A dog leg left that gently rises from the tee, then gently falls to the green. Feel free to cut the dog leg but anything too far left will end up in water, which cannot be seen from the tee and otherwise you won’t know about unless you’ve played the course before, or are reading this. Such is life, since my tee shot ended up in it, but just felt a little sadistic. I’ll just call it Sour Grape Lake. As the fairway turns and starts downhill, it feeds right into the green, with a collection area off to the right and rear sides. Bump out areas, or spaces where the fairway widens around a hazards or off to the side, seem to be in places to use for recovery shots, and the green site in this natural depression is a good one.
The front nine makes its way to the heart of the property, with very good holes of every par. Dye utilizes the natural landscape with his own style and shaping, dancing between strategy and challenge. I would rank them 1, 7, 4, 5, 9, 2, 8, 6, 3.
The back nine starts with the 390 yard par 4 Tenth. First, a word about the halfway house. The purists among us will scoff with the drive through window for carts (even though Pasatiempo has a similar set up), its outdoor seating overlooking the water and Tenth/Eleventh holes is worth checking out. Something to be said for some where to enjoy the break in nines, take in lunch or a drink and get back at it. This is right up there.
As for the Tenth, the tee is set at an angle from the fairway, which moves from 7:00 to 2:00 uphill to the green. The fairway cants from the high right side to the lower left side, with a long fairway bunker running along the left side, similar to what we saw at the Fourth. Staying high and right is the order of the day, which remains constant on the green. The most devious tiny pot bunker is to the right of the green. I like to think Pete was looking at the green from that side when he felt something was missing and came up with that bunker then and there.
The Eleventh is a 534 yard par 5. Returning in the direction of the halfway house that I quickly became obssessed with, the tee shot is blind as the fairway shoots downhill over a crest. The water that was next to you on the Tenth tee now comes into play for those who drift too far to the right off this tee, but the pain of this is some what dulled since you won’t see it splash down. Stay left off the tee and you’re met with a wide swath of fairway turning and climbing to the green, which creates a blind approach for most. The green is large and heaving, yet with a scenic panoramic backdrop, any unwantd scores quickly fade.
The Twelfth is a 181 yard par 3. A forced carry over marsh and water, the deep and narrow green forgives the short and long while those shots exponentially horizontal will not fare as well. The green moves towards the water, so accuracy is really preferred here since those who take to much club to get over the water then have to deal with delicate shots and putts towards the water.
The Thirteenth is a 360 yard par 4. Generally a dog leg right with a subtle challenge of a tee shot because favoring the left side away from all the trouble could leave you far from the green or worse, with a terrible lie and/or blocked out by the trees. The fairway has big sideways bunkers while the green is very wide, moving from back to front. Water and a bunker are on the rear side of the green, again hidden and unbeknownst to anyone playing the course for the first time. Now you know.
The Fourteenth is a 388 yard par 4. Decisions decisions off the tee. Do you take on the Mojave Desert off the right side or hedge to the left of it. The bunker off the left side is likewise expansive and off the tee, it looks like there’s not much room over on the left side before it but there is. Moving uphill and turning left, the green is at the top with no hazards to speak of, just short and long grass and contours. A bit of a respite after battling to get there.
The Fifteenth is a 433 yard par 4. A straight hole with bunkers left and trees right, a larger swale in the fairway sets the green a bit uphill and creates a large collection area off to the right of the green.
The Sixteenth is a 521 yard par 5. The march home starts here. A sculpture of who I believe is Chief Nemacolin is on this tee to show you the way, posing very similar to how I look after I miss every single three footer. The tee shot is a carry over a rock-filled ravine and one can’t help but think the namesake mystic rock is among them. The fairway on the other side is rather generous up until the bunker on the right side, then narrows as it begins turning left around the water. Thinking of placement towards the green on each shot is a ponder and you quickly realize there’s no where to run and hide here; execute the shot or suffer the consequences. The green seemingly sits on the water where only exacting aerial approach shots need apply. A spectacular scenic hole that blinds you as to just how tough it is.
The Seventeenth is a 181 yard par 3. More water on the left alarm bells ringing while there’s plenty of room off the right. As we’ve seen time and again, what appears to be the easy way out usually ends up being the tougher route than the way of braving the hazards in the first place, since they have a way of showing up anyways. The green is deep and water is close at hand on the left. Pete is no doubt turning the screws on this final stretch, making you earn that 19th hole drink.
The Eighteenth is a 468 yard par 4. Going back over the road to where the First is, we now head uphill to the finish. The fairway ascends with bunkers on each side. Those on the left are well below the fairway while those on the right are more reasonable. The fairway turns right to the green after the bunker ordeal with as much room as can be fathomed. A large hill wraps around the green from the left, creating the visual of the largest punch bowl in the universe while a couple deep set bunkers are on the right side. It’s a dramatic finish, and one that works.
The back nine has two very strong par 5’s and a few par 4’s of similar regard, while the par 3’s were a little too similar as forced carries for my taste. The closing stretch is one to be reckoned with and Dye certainly created a cadence here that ebbs and flows through the round and countryside. I’d rank them 18, 11, 14, 16, 10, 13, 17, 12, 15.
Generally, Mystic Rock is a very good Dye course that takes advantage of some intrinsically fantastic natural features and terrain. He had a very large canvas and the great big hazard is very much alive and well here. There’s a lot to enjoy, from the strategic decisions and using the ground in spots, but there were several situations where you simply needed to confide in your game and leave the rest to fate. There were times I questioned the placement of water but fairness has never been an aspect of golf Dye has striven for, nor is it necessary in golf. You can tell that each hole have unique character traits and that was achieved well for the most part. A rolling, sweeping expanse of a course that flows well and asks some interesting questions, even if some of them can be answered the same, Mystic Rock is indeed one of the better public options in the Commonwelath and a fine example of Dye’s artistry.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Elaborate. The clubhouse is large and there’s an outdoor bar next to a pool that takes advantage of the views of the Eighteenth. The attached lodging is upscale and nice, yet is separate and apart from the main resort.
The locker room here is bigger than many clubhouses. Televisions every where, a bar and even an indoor hitting bay, I could have spent the morning at the halfway house and the rest of the day here without ever going out on the course and been a happy man none the wiser.
Practice area: A grass range, short game area and putting green. Or just warm up in the locker room’s indoor bay.
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