6,347 yards, 133 slope from the Blues
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone from Pittsburgh I didn’t like instantly. Easy to talk to, sense of humor and a healthy dose of self deprecation I relate to. I always have a great time when I’m there. The golf is also very good. While Oakmont and Fox Chapel are the names most might mention, there are clubs beyond those are two that are outstanding in their own right.
Pittsburgh Field Club is among these, a course initially designed by Alex Findlay and opening in 1915. A number of notable architects have come through since the opening and performed work to the course, including Ross, Tillinghast, Park, Jr., RTJ, Hills and Foster. There is some original work that is no more but a lot of it is still intact. The finishing hole used to be more in the hillside than atop of it, something Hills changed during his work. There’s no denying, however, that the club embraces change and has evolved, with some of the legendary talents in the field involved in crafting away at those hills and ridges.
The course is very direct in confronting you with its elevation, which dominates play as early as the opening tee shot. The configuration of ridges, green edges and contours with bunkering changes constantly yet the lines are always sharp, ensuring clear definition in the features. The faces of the bunkers are usually steep and carved into the hillsides, adding to the sharp ridge lines of the fairway or green above. Most bunkers are well sized with flat bottoms. There is varying steepness of the lips yet all add to the unique look of the course. Its chief advantage, however, is a general recognition of the exciting terrain it is on and highlighting it as much as possible throughout the round. The elevation differences and turns and tilts flow nicely. Then towards the end of the round, to climb the sheer face upon which the clubhouse and Eighteenth is perched, there is an fully enclosed elevator to take you up. The club claims it is the only such elevator on a golf course. I have a thing with elevators in general, so I took the long way up.
Another impressive characteristic of the course is its ability to navigate the jaunty terrain without needing to resort to a lot of forced carries or penal chasms. The measured recoveries in bunkers or out of the roughed hillsides may occasionally make you wish you lost your ball instead but it’s rare that courses on such steepness are able to maintain such structure. Yet another way in which the terrain remains the focal point and can be used several ways, even in calculating possible misses.
There’s a unique character here. A classic structure yet more modern shaping is prevalent throughout, blending together in harmony. The interaction with the terrain is fun and those out of position will work hard to save their score. The ground game is alive and well in many places while the strategy of the place is relatively straightforward. With the charm of the clubhouse and membership, PFC certainly plays an influential role in the Pittsburgh golf scene.
I was in town for a couple days and this was my first visit to the course. Driving up, the clubhouse set on the hillside overlooking all of the other hills and valleys, it was a stark contrast to what I was expecting from the field club name. I repelled down to the driving range, warmed up and was off, an early summer time round with the shank of the weekend ahead. True to my experience of Pittsburgh and Pittsburghians, I made about 20 new best friends over the couple days I was in town. The membership and staff made quite an impression and it was easy to feel at home amongst the splendid course.
The First is a 467 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The opening tee shot is one of the bigger drops to the fairway I can think of. The fairway crooks to the right a bit as a utility road bisects the hole at the second shot. The approach is a great introduction to what the golfer will face throughout the round. An inviting pathway to the green is after the road while the green itself is nice and large. Three bunkers line the right side and are below the fairway and green, making shots from that area precarious and most often blind to the green. Likewise, the sole bunker short left of the green confounds the golfer with a longer shot than it first appears and with pin positions to the right fo the green, brings those right bunkers into play. The golfer keeping things straight on the short grass, however, are blissfully unaware of all the trouble lurking, especially since it’s hiding from plain sight a lot of the time.
The Second is a 312 yard par 4. This may be one of the longest short par 4’s I have played. A bit downhill from the tee and the fairway tilting from right to left, it’s all out in front of you. Yet the tee shots didn’t seem to go as far as it seemed they should and if you get caught in the rough, good luck. With bunkers on both sides leading up to the green and also surrounding it, there’s little tolerance for poorly executed shots.
The Third is a 487 yard par 5. Straight out with an elevated tee shot that needs to carry long grass, the climb to the green makes some shots blind as the fairway narrows and widens depending on where the bunkers are. The narrowness really only starts closer to the green, so those easing up on their second shots won’t have to deal with it and in exchange for a longer approach will enjoy a wide landing area on the other side of the utility road.
The Fourth is a 131 yard par 3. The sequencing of the Third through the Sixth is 5-3-5-3 (which I always notice and enjoy, likely for the contrast in shots) and the first par 3 is a shorter one to a raised green, bunkers at the front and sides. Very similar to a Short template here and comes at the right time of the round.
The Fifth is a 480 yard par 5. Stretching out yet again back in the direction of the clubhouse, the hole dog legs left, crosses the utility road, then ramps a bit uphill to the green. Bunkers at both sides pinch the green at the front while the bunker walls of grass give the green a some what impenetrable look. It’s a bellowing shot up there, make sure you account for enough club.
The Sixth is a 197 yard par 3. A longer par 3 than the Fourth, but the green is downhill and the bunkering around the green is not as dominant. The green also moves stronger here, right to left. Miss it short if you must but the surrounding trees start to come into play if your tee shot gets too sideways.
The Seventh is a 372 yard par 4. Heading straight out, the features here are all sunken, below the fairway. A fairway bunker on either side, narrowing a little at that point, then heading up to the green where the bunkers pinch the entry point a bit. Simplistic in presentation and probably the flattest hole of the course.
The Eighth is a 428 yard par 4. The tee shot carries over a larger ravine, the fairway tumbling downhill on the other side. There are no fairway bunkers; the blind tee shot over the ravine is enough while the approach is another carry over a ravine to the green. The green is wide and is sitting along the bank of the ravine with two large flat bunkers on either side.
The Ninth is a 410 yard par 4. The front nine ends with a bang as the fairway disappears from the tee as it plunges down and to the right, a tree line on that side helping obscure things. The golfer playing the hole for the first time may not realize it, but the fairway also cants considerably from left to right so even the well hit tee shots on that side may bounce and roll off the fairway, closer to the trees. Those who manage to keep left and on the fairway will see the green down below, an imposing affair with bravado. The large green side bunkers are deeper on the right than left while the green itself seems to dog leg right. It’s a hole that takes utmost advantage of the terrain, instills strategy into the shots as the terrain dictates, as well as a sense of spirit.
The front nine loiters around the area of the clubhouse before coming into the interior of the property at its closing chapter. A consistent theme with variety in line with the terrain changes. I would rank them 9, 5, 1, 2, 4, 8, 3, 7, 6.
The halfway house is now at hand. A slight back up at the next tee prompted my meeting the married couple playing in front of me. After talking for a bit, the gentleman suggested I play through, then offered I have anything inside the halfway house on him. Only knowing that I was a guest and it was my first time playing the course, the generous hospitality reminded me of the unusually magnificent camaraderie among the fellow golfer.
The back nine starts with the 375 yard par 4 Tenth. Moving uphill to a blind fairway from the tee, our experience at the hole prior helps here, as the fairway cants towards the ravine off to the right. That lateral movement must be considered off the tee, especially since a well hit tee shot is vital for the approach, which is to an uphill blind green with bunkers guarding the front from below. It’s of moderate size and has some quickness to it, so consider laying up if there’s any hesitancy of the approach.
The Eleventh is a 499 yard par 5. We enter another part of the property and this long dog leg left does well to take us there. There is width, with trees far over to the left and a ridge line on the right, which falls off precipitously, the severity of which is not all that evident from the tee. The fairway sweeps to the left before narrowing closer to the green where the bunkers do their work to guard the surrounds from below.
The Twelfth is a 430 yard par 4. Heading straight out yet the fairway swerving a bit around the bunkers on either side, there is ample room in front of the green for the golfer to use as he wishes. The rear, however, does fall off abruptly, into a pit of long grass, while the sides of the green have the trademark feature of banking down into bunkers, all of it signaling that those angling for the pin must be accurate while the more cautious can use all that room in front of the green to hedge up a bit and take the trouble out of play.
The Thirteenth is a 320 yard par 4. A short par 4 running across a right to left hillside with some nice architecture in its own right of an adjacent residence off to the right. Fairway bunkers on both sides keep the tee shot honest and impart some thought into it, accounting for the hazards and terrain tilt. The green has the same movement, with bunkers on the low left side always willing to collect those shots that either land or roll in. Using the terrain from the high right side is smart, as the ball will roll down and left, strongly.
The Fourteenth is a 191 yard par 3. Downhill from the tee, the raised green has those bunkers around it below while the entry point comes in from the left. Whether the golfer goes for the green and carries the bunker at the front left or tries to use the entry point, the downhill movement should be considered and some of us will actually be thankful that the bunker catches their shot, instead of it being lost tumbling down into the woods beyond.
The Fifteenth is a 538 yard par 5. The downhill through the trees did much in my disbelief that this is actually a par 5. Indeed, a nicely hit tee shot can hit the downhill slope and move the ball significantly forward, which then forces the decision whether to make a go for the green with a longer shot to the green or take advantage of the proximity to the hole with two shorter shots. Once again, the bunkers cut into the sides of the green valiantly stand at defense, at wait.
The Sixteenth is a 178 yard par 3. A similar structure to the Fourteenth in that the green is below from the tee, the green is raised and moves from back to front and bunkers are well around, but here water is short and there is less room to miss. It is either the green or trouble and nothing else.
The Seventeenth is a 349 yard par 4. A fairly level par 4 yet the fairway has a good amount of left to right tilt. As we’ve grown accustomed, bunkers are on the low side of the terrain movement, waiting to gather shots that did not account for the pull. The entry point to the green ramps uphill before widening towards the back. A manmade structure some what blends into the background beside the green. This is the elevator, fully functioning and enclosed. I found it a good aiming point off the tee, using the high left side to my advantage. With the Eighteenth at the top of the hill, the elevator allows groups the benefit of avoiding the longer climb to the tee. It’s the secondary logo of the club (which I thought was pretty cool) and as mentioned above, is the only fully functioning enclosed elevator on a golf course in the country. The views from the top of it are worth taking in as we’re on the cusp of closing the round out.
Now we climb.
The Eighteenth is a 183 yard par 3. Not an original hole but a fitting finish nonetheless, high atop the landscape overlooking the country side from which we just came, the clubhouse close by yet still lording over us. A very strong right to left movement pervades, with the entry point on the right signaling as much and serving as a pretty good aiming point. I would venture that anything hit straight out or left of center risks rolling off the left side altogether, while any hook or pull to the left from the tee leaves the golfer comically below the green. With the vast sky beyond in clear view, hit one last tee shot with the terrain well accounted for. Once the ball rests inside the cup, take one last look at the hills and valleys below, a tremendous sight.
The back nine continues the sequencing idiosyncrasies of the front, with its inclination towards par 3’s and 5’s. The routing covers more area, climbing at first before lingering at the plateau of a ridge, then moving down to the valley and finally climbing back to the top near the clubhouse. It’s a nice journey while the holes embrace the terrain consistently. I would rank them 15, 10, 13, 12, 11, 18, 14, 17, 16.
Generally, the Pittsburgh Field Club is a great example of how to use strong and steep terrain in an engaging manner that avoids the pitfalls of too many forced carries and penal chasms. The pull of the terrain is used wisely, many times bunkers meant to meet those balls that fall victim to the accompanying rolls and bounces that the golfer fails to adequately appreciate. The approach shots are challenging with the tilt, rises and drops, while there are ground game options on a good number of holes. It’s a consistent theme and a lot of the options and decisions during the round focus on how best to negotiate them and stay on the greens, instead of either landing or falling into the bunkers. The views inspire and further demonstrate the soul of the course is within the hills, in structure, presentation and aura.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: An impressive sprawling Colonial style high atop the hill with views for miles. The pro shop is within it and as mentioned, that secondary logo is fire.
Practice area: The driving range is a cart ride down the hill while the putting green is next to the clubhouse on the other side. A short game area is on the hillside near the First tee and Eighteenth green.
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