1495 Mercer Rd, Ellwood City, PA 16117
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Olde Stonewall is a golf writer’s worst nightmare. Much like a lengthy uphill putt, chances are you’ll come up woefully short in your attempt to describe it with paper and pen. The course really is that damn good.
Rising from the banks of Connoquenessing Creek about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh, PA, the 7,100-yard magnum opus designed by world-renowned architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry has captured honor upon honor since debuting in 1999, including being ranked the #1 Public Golf Course in the Keystone State. Olde Stonewall doesn’t just storm the castle when it comes to defining upscale daily-fee play, it catapults over it.
Which makes now as good a time as any to address the elephant in the gallery. Your introduction to Olde Stonewall doesn’t begin when you step up to the first tee. It commences, instead when you approach the 33,000-sq.-ft. medieval fortress that serves as the clubhouse. With its tall turrets and massive 800-pound, 11 feet high, four inches thick solid oak doors, it’s an imposing sight that would make even King Arthur and Sir Lancelot seethe with envy. But you didn’t drive all this way out to the Western PA countryside (Ellwood City) to joust around with your friends. You came here to slay a dragon.
From the Epic tees, Olde Stonewall boasts a beastly 74.3/149 course and slope rating. In comparison, the average slope for layouts in the United States is 120. Move up to the middle markers that measure 6,200 yards and you’re still looking at a 143 rating. Too bad those replicas of armor, swords and shields you saw hanging on the walls in Shakespeare’s Restaurant and Pub earlier won’t fit into your golf bag. After all, an adventure of mythical proportions awaits.
Olde Stonewall occupies 269 acres of open farmland and wooded hills along the Connoquenessing, a tributary of the Beaver River. During the preplanning and construction phase, Hurdzan and Fry encountered huge blocks of granite which they used throughout the layout to line tee boxes, fairways and water hazards. As its name applies, roughly 750,000 tons of formidable stones were unearthed. The two sides are laid out in contrasting circuits with a more typical low country front nine and a much more hilly back with spectacular elevation changes. What all 18 holes share in common is total seclusion. Even on the busiest of days, you’ll think it’s only you and your playing partners riding into battle.
As a reminder that chivalry isn’t completely dead, the fairways are more generous than they appear from the tee and wide enough to forgive minor swing transgressions. Hurdzan and Fry were also careful to avoid uphill holes and blind shots when possible, a major victory given the rugged terrain. What the layout won’t tolerate is a lack of patience and accuracy, especially on the approaches. Trees, water, limestone, steep drop-offs, a minefield of deep fairway and greenside bunkers, and uneven lies call for a more nuanced method of attack.
As suggested, the outward and inward nines are very different. The front plays like a fine-tuned orchestra… the back more like a heavy metal band. So much so that the first nine holes are sometimes overlooked when it comes to picking and choosing favorite holes. It really is a case of Olde Stonewall suffering from its own success when the curtain opens for its second act. In fact, the layout throws down the gauntlet on the very first hole, a 518-yard, slight dogleg left par 5 with menacing bunkers strategically placed on both sides of the fairway. Golfers would also be hard-pressed not to consider the 375-yard No. 4 as being one of the best par 4s on the course. Protected on the left by tall hardwoods, the tee shot is played to a diagonally-cut fairway with the creek lining the entire right side. The approach is to a peninsula-style, rock-encased green protected by sand on the front right and water on three sides. Still, the hole might be forgotten or dismissed in light of what comes later in the round.
In truth, any one of Olde Stonewall’s 18 holes would raise the signature banner at most mortal courses. Whether you prefer drivable par 4s, long par 3s, or heroic par 5s, there’ll be holes and design elements that will remain etched in your mind long after your round is over. However, one particular stretch of three holes will no doubt leave an indelible mark on your golf psyche. The first two are rare back-to-back par 3s. Number 14 measures 202 yards from the back tees and is played from six different terraced tee boxes to a shallow green fronted by manmade waterfalls and framed by the course’s ever-present stone wall slabs. Number 15 can play as long as 241 yards and begins from elevated, rock-supported tee boxes. Golfers face a forced carry over a valley down to a kidney-shaped green which sits in a “bowl.” There’s a fairway run-up area in front for shots that come up short and three deep bunkers on either side and in back.
The third hole is the par-4 No. 16, which is played from the property’s highest vantage point. Even if you have no intention of teeing off from the Epic tees (474 yards), you owe it to yourself to at least take a drive up there to admire the breathtaking view. The hole features an 80-foot drop, two forced ravine carries and a pair of nasty, oversized mid-fairway bunkers. But that’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to launch what could be a career-long drive.
Olde Stonewall is not for the weak-kneed or faint-hearted. It was purposely designed to test a golfer’s mettle and produce an adrenaline rush from the second you pull into the parking lot. And while the layout can and probably will humble you at some point, the indignation of carding an occasional double or triple bogey is nothing but a flesh wound when compared to the unique opportunity to“squire” off against an opponent more than worthy of its ranking as one of the top 100 public courses in the United States.
Rates at Olde Stonewall are on the high side compared to other daily-fee courses in the greater Pittsburgh area. However, the cost is reflective of the world-class amenities and TOUR-quality course conditions you’ll enjoy there. The staff also does an excellent job of making everyone feel like a professional golfer both on and off the course, no matter their handicap or nobility. It truly is an experience unrivaled this side of Camelot.