Eighty-five years after legendary golf architect Donald Ross built the Volcano a.k.a. the 4th hole of the Old course at Bedford Springs Resort in sleepy Bedford, Pa. the 217-yard par-3 still kicks butt.
The last time I visited the resort, I played the Volcano from the tips simply to get the full effect. You're faced with an intimidating uphill shot to a green that's perched atop a steeply sloped hill. (It's like hitting to the top of a volcano, hence the name.)
On the left, a bunker is cut into the base of the hill. You're dead if you go in there. I can't imagine how players escaped that trap in 1923, when Ross redesigned the Old course almost five decades before the invention of the 60-degree wedge.
Then there's the green, which is no bargain either. A sharp slope splits the putting surface into front and back tiers, so good luck finding the correct level with a long club. Clearly the Volcano is a big-boy hole.
My first attempt began promisingly. There was a stiff breeze in my face, and the pin was all the way back, so I'm not too proud to admit that I choked down on a driver, which I hit pretty solidly. My ball landed on the lower tier and kicked into the back fringe. Not bad. I was paired with Ron Leporati, the head pro at the Old course, and he played a superlative driver to 15 feet.
The hole was cut precariously just above the crest of the slope leading to the top tier, so I applied the touch of a surgeon on my downhill putt, which trickled to a stop two feet above the cup. Hmm, make that the touch of a sturgeon. Ron did a double take when my ball suddenly unstopped (there's no other way to describe it) and shamelessly rolled 25 feet onto the lower tier.
Ron made his par. Put me down for a double bogey.
I got a rematch with the Volcano the next day, playing in fog so thick that I couldn't see the green from the tee. But I was on a roll, having blindly birdied two of the first three holes. My good fortune ran out at the Volcano, where I snap-hooked a three-wood into the rough below the green. I pitched onto the back of the green, then blew my downhill putt eight feet past and missed the comebacker.
The Volcano is without a doubt the meanest par-3 without a water hazard you'll ever screw up. And it has always been thus.
"Since 1923 the Volcano has been the hole people talk about," says Ron Forse of Forse Design, who along with Jim Nagle and Frontier Construction resurrected the Old course last year. "Supposedly a retired doctor used to sit at the hole and watch players go through, rewarding them with cash if they made a birdie."
Forse has a passion for the game's history, and before working on the Old course, he had updated Ross classics such as Salem (Mass.) and Wannamoisett (Rumford, R.I.) country clubs, as well as A.W. Tillinghast gems Newport (R.I.), Brooklawn (Fairfield, Conn.) and Sunnehanna (Johnstown, Pa.).
Forse was a good choice for a step-into-the- past project like the Old course, because to understand the course's significance, you first have to understand how deep into our heritage the resort reaches.
History runs thicker than honey in Bedford, which is nestled in the Allegheny Mountains of south-central Pennsylvania. Fort Bedford, captured in 1769 from the British in a sunrise raid by James Smith and his Black Boys (so named for their painted faces), still stands on the banks of the serene Juniata River.