History-rich Bedford Springs Resort and its pedigreed Old course are once again the jewel of the Alleghenies

History-rich Bedford Springs Resort and its pedigreed Old course are once again the jewel of the Alleghenies

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The decaying resort was modernized and made to appear as it did in 1905.
Fred Vuich/SI

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.

Another double.

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.