By the time I was driving along the cedar tree lined entrance to Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, I’d already had an amazing couple of days of golf. I’d played Merion East two days earlier and the Lower and Upper Courses at Baltusrol just the day before. I walked in the footprints of legends and stood in the shadow of giants. Now on this bright morning, I was now coming to play at Arnie’s Place.
I’d made the five hours drive on the evening before, through the beautiful mountains of Central Pennsylvania. It had been at least a decade since I’d driven through central Pennsylvania. I had forgotten how beautiful the scenery was. On the drive, I watched the sun set over the mountains. The only thing that would have made it better would have been to have my family with me in a convertible with the top down and the wind blowing through my…. oh, that doesn’t work anymore…across my head.
I had not made hotel arrangements prior to my arrival in Ligonier. I wasn’t sure if I’d have the stamina to make a five-hour drive after 36 holes of golf. Walking the 36 holes with Beau and Brian had been so pleasant, that I was still somewhat energized as I made the drive. The real problem once I got to Ligonier was there were not many options for hotel accommodations. I ended up in a Ramada Inn whose better days were clearly behind it. I slept on the bed rather than in the bed, thinking that might keep the bed bugs from biting. I did eventually fall asleep and felt well rested as I arose the next morning.
As I arrived at Laurel Valley, the large and numerous trees that framed the property were the first things to catch my attention. The course is in a gorgeous natural setting. It lies between the Chestnut Ridge Mountains and Laurel Ridge Mountains. I made my way down Palmer Drive and through the giant cedar trees to the Clubhouse. I parked my car, ventured through the club house to find the Pro Shop. I introduced myself and learned that there would be a shotgun start for my round and that I’d be starting on the 13th hole. I would be playing alone with my caddie, Adam.
Adam was a local who had caddied at Laurel Valley for several years. He was also the grandson of a photographer. He was very comfortable with a camera. He took some great photographs during the round. Adam also knew the course very well and its history. He told me that Laurel Valley was something of a sister course to Augusta National. He said it opened when Augusta closed and closed when Augusta opened. He said August members came up to play there in the Summers and play at Augusta National in the Winters. He pointed out several cabins at the base of Mountain. These cabins were where the members would stay during the visits up North.
Adam and I headed to the range to hit balls and loosen up for my round. My body felt rested, even though I had played 36 holes on the day before and driven five hours on the evening before. Following our warmup, we headed to the thirteenth hole to start my round.
The 13th tee box is about as far from as you can get from the clubhouse and still be on the course. I chose to play the blue tees. They measured close to 6800 yards with a 73.6 rating and a 136 slope. The thirteenth hole is a straight par 4 that plays 410 yards. The fairway is narrow but open with a cluster of bunkers down the right side that start at about 220 yards out from the tee box.
I hit my drive into one of the bunkers in the cluster. I hit out of the bunker into a tree to the right. The ball dropped straight down. I hit a low six iron to get under the tree. The shot landed in the middle of the green but rolled just off the back of the green. I chipped on to 15 feet, made the putt to open my round with a scrabbling bogey.
The fourteenth hole is 165 yard par three with a water carry from the tee box to the front of the green. I hit about as pure of a 6 iron as I had ever hit. The ball landed and on the green midway between the pin and the water and rolled back toward the water. A small strip of rough between the green and the water saved it.
I chipped on to within four feet of the pin and made the putt for my first par.
The fifteenth hole is a 370 yard par four with a slight dogleg to the left. It has a narrow fairway with water along the left side and trees and bunkers along the right side. Adam convinced me to hit a three wood on my tee shot to increase the odds of landing in the fairway. There was no safe place to land but the fairway. I hit a pop up but got good distance and landed in the fairway about 180 yards from the hole. My approach shot landed just short of the green. I chipped on and one putted for my second par of the round.
I’d made a good start with a bogey and two pars. That good start took a break on the 16th hole after I hit a tree on my drive. The hole plays 420 yards, has a pond just past the tree that I hit and one bunker on the left as the fairway bends to the right. After hitting the tree, I was still 300 yards out. I laid up to the middle on the fairway. I hit my third shot to the middle of the green, but it rolled just off the back edge. I putted out of the rough to six feet from the pin, but then left my bogey putt right on the edge of the cup. This was my only double bogey on the back nine holes of Laurel Valley.
The seventeenth hole is a 190 yard par three with a green guarded by four bunkers. The two front bunkers wrap around from the front of the green to the left side and to the right side leaving only a narrow strip of fairway between them at the front of the green.
I came across the ball with my tee shot and landed the ball short of the green and to the right of the front right bunker. I pitched over the bunker but the ball rolled across the green away from the hole. I two putted for a bogey.
As Adam and I walked toward the 18th green, he pointed out that Ben Hogan made the same walk in 1965 for his last hole of a PGA Championship. The 1965 PGA Championship was held at Laurel Valley after Arnold Palmer convinced the leaders there to apply after another club backed out. The King played in the Championship and but did not fair well. He finished 14 strokes off the lead. Ben Hogan faired better than Mr. Palmer, but still finished nine strokes behind Dave Marr, the eventual winner. In three days, I’d played on three courses steeped in golf history. I felt humbled to have had the privilege to do so. I also felt inspired.
The 18th hole is a beautiful finishing hole. As you stand on the tee box, you see the clubhouse and the cabins at the base of the mountains. The hole is a 515 yard par five. It is way open with only one bunker along the left side of the fairway and several bunkers along the right side. There is a pond at the end of the fairway on the right side. This pond must be carried to get to the green. To get an understanding of the layout of the hold, imagine an alligator with it’s tail slightly bent to the right and it head turned completely to the right staring straight at you. The tail is where the tee boxes are and you would be standing on the green about to get eaten. That’s how the hole is laid out.
I hit my drive right at a lone tree on the left side of the fairway. The ball clipped the top of the tree, but still faded back into the fairway. I laid up on my second shot which left me in the fairway about 145 yards from the pin. To reach the flag, I had to carry the pond that the imaginary alligator’s body was wrapped around. To ensure I cleared the pond I hit a 7 iron. The ball carried to the back of the green. From there I two putted for par and headed to the first tee.
I’d played the first six holes of the back nine with three pars and only one double bogey. I was looking forward to playing the remaining three holes to see if I could shoot below 40 on the back nine. That’s what I was thinking about as I approached the first tee. I should have been thinking more about my tee shot.
I did not get off with a good start on the front nine. The first hole is a par 4 that plays 380 yards from the blue tees. The hole plays straight but has very little room on the right side of the fairway. There is lots of room on the left side of the fairway before there is tree trouble. Most of that room is deep rough. I aimed left with my drive expecting a fade to the middle of the fairway. The ball went straight and settled in the left rough. I hit to just off the right side of the fairway, then put my third shot over the green, pitched on and two putted for my second double bogey of the round.
I made a quick recovery on the short second hole. The hole plays just 350 yards. I hit my drive to the right edge of the fairway. I hit my approach shot over the pond guarding the green and onto the putting surface. As Adam and I, me with putter in hand, walked to the green, he said this was going to be a fun putt. It was. I had good speed on the putt, but left it four feet to the right of the hole as the ball didn’t come down to the hole like we thought. Fortunately, I made the four foot putt for par.
On the par 5 third hole, I drove my ball into the woods and had to chip out. I then hit my third shoot into one of the fairway bunkers short of the green. This hole probably had more bunkers than any other hole on the course. I hit out of the bunker to the right of the green, chipped on and two putted for a double bogey.
At 425 yards, the fourth hole is the longest par four on the course. It has a tight fairway that starts with water along the right side and continues with trees and bunkers along the left and right side all the way up to the green. The green is guarded by four bunkers along its sides, but is open on the front.
I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway, leaving 175 to the green. I then hit my approach shot to the front edge of the green and two putted for a par.
I also made par on the 195 yard par three fifth hole. It is a straight forward hole with no water to carry. It is protected only by distance, the undulation of the green and four well place bunkers. I took dead aim at the flag but my ball flight had a slight fade and landed pin high in the right greenside bunker.
I kept my head down on the bunker shot but knew it was good when Adam yelled “go in”. I looked up and the ball was right at the hole about to drop in. That’s where it stayed, right on the edge of the up. I waited for 10 seconds, but to no avail. I tap in for par.
My final double bogey of the round came on the second par five on the front nine. The sixth hole only plays 510 yards, but this is what led me to a poor decision. I had made par on three of the last four holes and was feeling good about my swing. However, I didn’t allow that to lead me to a smooth swing on this hole. My ambitions were greater than my skills. With this being a short par five, I thought about reaching the green in two and over swung on my drive. That led to what always happens when I over swing, a slice rather than a fade. The ball sliced way right. On any other course, it probably would have been out of play.
My second shot was limited by the trees. I needed to hit a club that would clear the trees and reach the fairway. I say needed to, but this was my second bad decision on the hole. I could have punched out sideways, but the pin was in front of me, not beside me. I attempted to advance the ball so that I could still reach the green in regulation.
I cleared the tree, but didn’t have enough distance to reach the fairway. My ball landed in one of the fifteen bunkers on this hole. I went on to make a three putt double bogey on the hole after needing two more shots to get to the green.
The seventh hole was 370 yards of absolute pleasure. The hole has a narrow tree lined fairway that ends at a set of back to back ponds between it and the green. The second of the two ponds guards the front left side of the green. There are also bunkers on the right side of the green and on the back left and back right of the green. For the faint at heart, there is a bail out area to the right of the ponds that leave a straight third shot to the green. But this is a par four, designed to be reached in two shots not three.
I went straight for the pin with my approach shot. The ball cleared the first pond, then the second pond and land on the green just five feet to the left of the flag. I took that nice long walk in the short grass with my putter in hand to the even shorter grass.
Both Adam and I did our jobs and the five foot putt dropped in the cup for my only birdie of the round. That helped clean up the two double bogeys that I’d made on the two par fives on the front nine.
The par 3 eighth hole is very similar to the par three fifth hole. The holes are about the same length. There is no water carry and the greens are protected by undulation and four bunkers. My shot on the hole was also similar to my tee shot on the fifth hole, but just a little shorter.
The ball hit short of the front right of the green and hopped into the front right bunker. With these similarities, I was hoping for one more. I was hoping that his time I could hole out for a birdie from the sand. With the vision of the shot out of the bunker on the fifth hole still fresh in my mind, I hit another nice sand shot. This one was not as nice as the one on the fifth hole. I had to make a one foot putt to save par on this hole.
On the 410 yard par four ninth hole, I had to grind it out for a bogey. My drive hit the trees on the left side of the fairway. That took the speed off the ball and it landed 270 yards from the green. I laid up with my second shot and was very lucky not go into the creek that crossed the fairway at about 140 yards out. I was trying to layup to my pitching wedge distance. I hit my third shot to 25 feet past the flag and two putted for a bogey. It would have been a better performance had I not played the par fives so poorly, but I was still pleased with shooting a 42 on the front nine thanks to the birdie on the seventh hole.
Now it was time to complete the final three holes on the back nine. I was hopeful that I could make a couple of pars and avoid any double bogeys to finish the round near 80. The 10th hole plays 415 yards. Like with most of the holes on the course, it has a narrow fairway that is lined with trees. There are a couple of bunkers on the left side of the fairway as it makes a slight dogleg to the right. There is water that runs along the right side of the fairway from about 100 yards to and along the right side of the green. The left side of the green has on solitary bunker.
I hit the big green ball before hitting the little white ball, so my drive didn’t go very far and landed in the right rough. I laid up with my second shot and then hit my third shot to within five feet of the pin. Unfortunately, I missed my par putt and settled for a bogey.
As I stood on the tee box of the par five 11th hole, looking out at the beautiful scenery that was interrupted by several bunkers staring me in the face, I thought about how poorly I had played the last two par fives. I committed to making better decisions on this final par five.
The hole started out well as I hit my drive down the right side of the fairway. It rolled off the fairway just into the first cut of rough to the left of those fairway bunkers that interrupted the beautiful scenery on the hole. I then laid up in the middle of the fairway to 120 yards out. I hit my five iron about 10 yards farther than normal. I was again attempting to lay up to 130 yards, which is perfect pitching wedge distance for me.
I choked down about an inch on my pitching wedge and hit the ball to 12 feet to the right of the flag. I’d finally played a par five smartly. I headed toward the green with my putter in hand.
Adam did his job and gave me another good read for my putt. I didn’t do my job. I push my putt to the right and had to settle for a tap in par.
As I approached my final hole, there was a little fatigue finally starting to set in. My gait was a little slower, the shoulders were starting to droop and the head wasn’t held as high. My shirt was also getting more and more untucked. I was ready to finish the round.
My final hole of the round was the 405 yard par four twelfth hole. The hole plays down hill to a fairway with two bunkers on each side in the landing zone. None of this was an issue for me as I lifted my head during my drive and came across the ball sending it slicing to the trees way right of the fairway. Since I’d hit so far right, Adam knew that I didn’t have bunker problems. I was hopeful that I still had a shot to the green.
My heart dropped as we found my ball resting on the mulch underneath a tiny tree. USGA rule 13 says play the ball as it lies. The only way for me to do that was to use my putter to hit the ball back to the fairway.
I then hit my third shot to the left of the green.
As Adam and I made the walk to where my ball was resting in the rough several yards from the green, he pointed out a building with six seals on it. Five of the seal were related to Quakers. The sixth seal had the names of the original founders of the Laurel Valley Golf Club. Among those founders was Arnold Palmer. Adam also told me that the other founders attempted to convince Mr. Palmer to leave the PGA tour and become the Head Pro at the club. Mr. Palmer declined and became the club’s Touring Pro.
Could you imagine what Professional Golf would have been like had Mr. Palmer chosen to leave the tour to become head professional at the club. His legacy is that we all felt like we lost a friend when he passed away. He connected with people and he connect people with the game of golf. I thought it very fitting that I ended my swing through three historical clubs in the Northeast at the place that was home to the King.
I finished my round with a pitch to the 12th green and a one putt bogey for a total score of 84. Following my round, I snapped a picture with Adam and headed to the clubhouse for a picture with the stature of Arnold Palmer that was dedicated on his 80th birthday. I also made one final swing through the clubhouse to look at the numerous photographs of Mr. Palmer’s life and history. I notice more than anyone else, he seemed to have a very special friendship with the Golden Bear. There were more pictures with him and Jack Nicklaus than any other person. Long live “The King!”
I’d like to thank the Will Bartram at Cherokee for working with the staff at Laurel Valley to schedule my round and I’d like to thank the staff at Laurel Valley for hosting me.
During my drive from Ligonier to Washington Dulles airport, I stopped off at the memorial in Shanksville, PA commemorating the courage of the passenger how on 9/11 prevented the plane from reaching its intended target.
It’s time for a little time off before I head of to the great Northwest to play the course at Bandon and to play at Sahalee.