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.
President George Washington, commanding 12,000 militiamen, came to town in 1794 and stayed two nights at the Espy House (also still standing) while putting down the Whiskey Rebellion.
In 1806 Dr. John Anderson built a small stone hotel in Bedford to take advantage of the alleged restorative powers of the many mineral springs in the area. As the reputation of the springs grew, so did Anderson's hotel, and by the middle of the 19th century Bedford Springs Resort was one of the world's most renowned spas, its finely decorated hallways running longer than a filibuster.
For more than a century the posh resort was the place to summer. The U.S. Supreme Court sat on the grand veranda one hot August day in 1855 to deliberate over the Dred Scott case, one of the few times the justices ever met in session outside Washington, D.C. Three years later President James Buchanan received the first transatlantic telegram, from Queen Victoria, while staying at Bedford Springs, which he annually turned into his summer White House. Six other sitting U.S. presidents were guests at the resort.
By the mid-1900s, however, the popularity of sprawling summer resorts and mineral springs had waned, and in 1986 Bedford Springs Resort was closed and abandoned, although the golf course remained open.
Enter, in 1998, Bedford Resort Partners, Ltd., with a bold restoration plan. At $90 million, the partners' proposal was no mere face-lift. It was a total reinvention (with a price tag that eventually rose to $120 million). The project took almost two years to complete, and when the hotel grandly reopened last July, it featured long white balconies, timeless decor and a rare 39-star (circa 1865) American flag behind the front desk.
"I like to call the hotel a retro rebuild," says Keith Evans, managing partner of the development group. "We were shooting for 1905 style with modern functionality. We wanted to embrace history."
The new resort pays homage to its past by surrounding you with it, which leads us back to the golf. When the Old course closed for reconstruction, in November 2005, the following summer was the first in 111 years that the game was not played at the resort. Spencer Oldham built the original layout in 1895. It was 6,000 yards long and included a 605-yard par-5, pretty daunting in the age of hickory shafts.
"That's a monstrously long hole given the equipment of that era," Forse says. "A 6,000- yard course was huge in those days."
Maybe it was too daunting. By 1912, when Tillinghast worked on the course, it had been scaled back to nine holes. Did Tilly do that, or had the course already been reduced? The answer is lost to history. What is known is that Tillinghast's changes included the creation of the Tiny Tim par-3 (now the 14th hole), which he diagrammed in his book Gleanings from the Wayside: My Recollections As a Golf Architect.
"It's a neat little drop shot from a precipice over a lagoon and a creek," says Forse. "It's simply fun."
To the left of the green Tillinghast sculpted the Alps, a group of modest (by today's supersized standards) mounds meant to penalize wayward shots. The hole is 135 yards from the back tee. Ross rerouted the course in 1923 and restored it to 18 holes. It has remained largely unchanged since. That's right the existing course is a combo of Ross and Tillinghast holes, with only slight tinkering.
Go ahead, pinch yourself.
"Like the hotel, we had to pick a period for the course and went for 1923," Forse says. "We didn't put in 18 holes exactly as they were, although we maintained the Ross routing. We ended up, in a sense, with a living golf museum."
The Ross-Tillinghast quirks are delicious. There are five par-5s, four of which (at 589, 611, 615 and 593 yards) aren't reachable in two. Those are long holes for a course that is only 6,785 yards from the tips. There are also five par-3s, and these are the holes that give the course its unique character. Gulley, the 10th, is only 124 yards across a valley to a shallow heart-shaped green with a steep tier in the middle.
The 17th epitomizes the what's-new-is- old theme. The original 17th was long lost, but Forse and Nagle found a hint of it in the background of an old photograph.
Forse designed an entirely new Redan-style hole an angled green guarded by a large bunker on that spot. Ronnie, as the hole is called, holds its own with Tiny Tim, the Volcano and Gulley.
"The name wasn't my doing," Forse says. "The owner thought Ronnie sounded Scottish, like bonnie or something."
My second-favorite hole I think you know what's No. 1 is the 6th, labeled Ross's Cathedral. This short (361 yards) par-4 requires a drive over a creek to a fairway flanked by bunkers. From there, it's uphill to the green. The hole is beautifully framed by hardwood trees.
On the fun scale, the Old course is a 10. Busy as I have been describing my misadventures, I haven't told you what happened on the 2nd hole during my first round. Leporati launched a bullet of a five-wood shot that landed just short of this par-3 green, 205 yards from the tee.
"Give him a bounce!" I yelled. His ball bounded onto the putting surface and began running toward the pin in the back of the green.
"Anybody ever make a hole in one here?" I asked, finishing my question a split second before his ball disappeared into the cup.
"It went in!" Ron shouted. He flipped his club into the air and held up his arms in disbelief. "That's my first one!" I high-fived him, and in a moment of exuberance he hugged me. We whooped it up for several more moments, then Ron said sheepishly, "Sorry about the hug, man."
Not at all. I've witnessed a dozen aces, but none ever felt this big at a resort that spans 200 years in a town where "George Washington slept here" is no idle boast.
When the valet brought my car around to the front of the hotel after the round, I imagined that long-ago day when a fancy sedan pulled up to the entrance and a charismatic man wearing a fur coat stepped out and asked a young bellman for directions to Cumberland, Md. Satisfied with the answer, the fellow theatrically flipped a coin to the bellman. "Someday," the stranger said, "you can tell your grandkids you got a $20 gold piece from John Dillinger."
Then Public Enemy No. 1 climbed into the sedan and drove away.
At that moment I understood what Forse had told me earlier.
"This place puts you back in time," he said. "Instead of simply looking at history, you're in it."
The morning fog had burned away. I squinted into the sun for a last glance at the restored resort before I, too, drove away.
I wondered why I had goose bumps.