Springs Eternal

Two centuries since it first opened on the nation's western frontier, and after two decades of neglect, history-rich Bedford Springs Resort and its pedigreed Old course are once again the jewel of the Alleghenies
May 11, 2008

EIGHTY-FIVE yearsafter legendary golf architect Donald Ross built the Volcano—a.k.a. the 4thhole of the Old course at Bedford Springs Resort in sleepy Bedford, Pa.—the217-yard par-3 still kicks butt. The last time I visited the resort, I playedthe Volcano from the tips simply to get the full effect. You're faced with anintimidating 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, abunker is cut into the base of the hill. You're dead if you go in there. Ican't imagine how players escaped that trap in 1923, when Ross redesigned theOld 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 theputting surface into front and back tiers, so good luck finding the correctlevel with a long club. Clearly the Volcano is a big-boy hole. ¬∂ My firstattempt began promisingly. There was a stiff breeze in my face, and the pin wasall 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 intothe back fringe. Not bad. I was paired with Ron Leporati, the head pro at theOld course, and he played a superlative driver to 15 feet.

The hole was cutprecariously just above the crest of the slope leading to the top tier, so Iapplied the touch of a surgeon on my downhill putt, which trickled to a stoptwo feet above the cup. Hmm, make that the touch of a sturgeon. Ron did adouble take when my ball suddenly unstopped (there's no other way to describeit) and shamelessly rolled 25 feet onto the lower tier. Ron made his par. Putme down for a double bogey.

I got a rematchwith the Volcano the next day, playing in fog so thick that I couldn't see thegreen from the tee. But I was on a roll, having blindly birdied two of thefirst three holes. My good fortune ran out at the Volcano, where I snap-hookeda three-wood into the rough below the green. I pitched onto the back of thegreen, then blew my downhill putt eight feet past and missed the comebacker.Another double.

The Volcano iswithout 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 holepeople talk about," says Ron Forse of Forse Design, who along with JimNagle and Frontier Construction resurrected the Old course last year."Supposedly a retired doctor used to sit at the hole and watch players gothrough, rewarding them with cash if they made a birdie."

Forse has apassion for the game's history, and before working on the Old course, he hadupdated 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 goodchoice for a step-into-the-past project like the Old course, because tounderstand the course's significance, you first have to understand how deepinto our heritage the resort reaches.

HISTORY RUNSthicker than honey in Bedford, which is nestled in the Allegheny Mountains ofsouth-central Pennsylvania. Fort Bedford, captured in 1769 from the British ina sunrise raid by James Smith and his Black Boys (so named for their paintedfaces), still stands on the banks of the serene Juniata River. President GeorgeWashington, commanding 12,000 militiamen, came to town in 1794 and stayed twonights at the Espy House (also still standing) while putting down the WhiskeyRebellion.

In 1806 Dr. JohnAnderson built a small stone hotel in Bedford to take advantage of the allegedrestorative powers of the many mineral springs in the area. As the reputationof the springs grew, so did Anderson's hotel, and by the middle of the 19thcentury Bedford Springs Resort was one of the world's most renowned spas, itsfinely decorated hallways running longer than a filibuster.

For more than acentury the posh resort was the place to summer. The U.S. Supreme Court sat onthe grand veranda one hot August day in 1855 to deliberate over the Dred Scottcase, one of the few times the justices ever met in session outside Washington,D.C. Three years later President James Buchanan received the firsttransatlantic 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 hadwaned, and in 1986 Bedford Springs Resort was closed and abandoned, althoughthe golf course remained open. Enter, in 1998, Bedford Resort Partners, Ltd.,with a bold restoration plan. At $90 million, the partners' proposal was nomere face-lift. It was a total reinvention (with a price tag that eventuallyrose to $120 million). The project took almost two years to complete, and whenthe hotel grandly reopened last July, it featured long white balconies,timeless decor and a rare 39-star (circa 1865) American flag behind the frontdesk.

"I like tocall the hotel a retro rebuild," says Keith Evans, managing partner of thedevelopment group. "We were shooting for 1905 style with modernfunctionality. We wanted to embrace history."

The new resortpays homage to its past by surrounding you with it, which leads us back to thegolf. When the Old course closed for reconstruction, in November 2005, thefollowing summer was the first in 111 years that the game was not played at theresort.

Spencer Oldhambuilt the original layout in 1895. It was 6,000 yards long and included a605-yard par-5, pretty daunting in the age of hickory shafts. "That's amonstrously long hole given the equipment of that era," Forse says. "A6,000-yard course was huge in those days."

Maybe it was toodaunting. By 1912, when Tillinghast worked on the course, it had been scaledback 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 changesincluded the creation of the Tiny Tim par-3 (now the 14th hole), which hediagrammed in his book Gleanings from the Wayside: My Recollections As a GolfArchitect. "It's a neat little drop shot from a precipice over a lagoon anda creek," says Forse. "It's simply fun."

To the left ofthe green Tillinghast sculpted the Alps, a group of modest (by today'ssupersized standards) mounds meant to penalize wayward shots. The hole is 135yards from the back tee. Ross rerouted the course in 1923 and restored it to 18holes. It has remained largely unchanged since. That's right—the existingcourse is a combo of Ross and Tillinghast holes, with only slight tinkering. Goahead, pinch yourself.

"Like thehotel, we had to pick a period for the course and went for 1923," Forsesays. "We didn't put in 18 holes exactly as they were, although wemaintained the Ross routing. We ended up, in a sense, with a living golfmuseum."

TheRoss-Tillinghast quirks are delicious. There are five par-5s, four of which (at589, 611, 615 and 593 yards) aren't reachable in two. Those are long holes fora 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, the10th, is only 124 yards across a valley to a shallow heart-shaped green with asteep tier in the middle.

The 17thepitomizes the what's-new-is-old theme. The original 17th was long lost, butForse 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 alarge bunker—on that spot. Ronnie, as the hole is called, holds its own withTiny Tim, the Volcano and Gulley. "The name wasn't my doing," Forsesays. "The owner thought Ronnie sounded Scottish, like bonnie orsomething."

Mysecond-favorite hole—I think you know what's No. 1—is the 6th, labeled Ross'sCathedral. This short (361 yards) par-4 requires a drive over a creek to afairway flanked by bunkers. From there, it's uphill to the green. The hole isbeautifully framed by hardwood trees.

On the fun scale,the Old course is a 10.

BUSY AS I havebeen describing my misadventures, I haven't told you what happened on the 2ndhole during my first round. Leporati launched a bullet of a five-wood shot thatlanded just short of this par-3 green, 205 yards from the tee. "Give him abounce!" I yelled. His ball bounded onto the putting surface and beganrunning toward the pin in the back of the green. "Anybody ever make a holein one here?" I asked, finishing my question a split second before his balldisappeared into the cup.

"It wentin!" Ron shouted. He flipped his club into the air and held up his arms indisbelief. "That's my first one!" I high-fived him, and in a moment ofexuberance he hugged me. We whooped it up for several more moments, then Ronsaid sheepishly, "Sorry about the hug, man."

Not at all. I'vewitnessed a dozen aces, but none ever felt this big—at a resort that spans 200years in a town where "George Washington slept here" is no idleboast.

When the valetbrought my car around to the front of the hotel after the round, I imaginedthat long-ago day when a fancy sedan pulled up to the entrance and acharismatic man wearing a fur coat stepped out and asked a young bellman fordirections to Cumberland, Md. Satisfied with the answer, the fellowtheatrically flipped a coin to the bellman. "Someday," the strangersaid, "you can tell your grandkids you got a $20 gold piece from JohnDillinger." Then Public Enemy No. 1 climbed into the sedan and droveaway.

At that moment Iunderstood what Forse had told me earlier. "This place puts you back intime," he said. "Instead of simply looking at history, you're init."

The morning foghad burned away. I squinted into the sun for a last glance at the restoredresort before I, too, drove away. I wondered why I had goose bumps.

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"A doctor used to sit at the [Volcano] and watchthe players," says Forse, "REWARDING THEM WITH CASH if they made abirdie."

"I like to call the hotel a retro rebuild,"says Evans. "We were shooting for 1905 style with MODERNFUNCTIONALITY."

PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichNEW OLD LOOK The decaying (opposite) resort was modernized and made to appear as it did in 1905. PHOTOPhotograph by Fred Vuich[See caption above] MAPSLIM FILMS (MAP) PHOTOPhotograph by Fred Vuich TILLY-ROSS COMBO The Volcano (top left) and Tiny Tim par-3s were restored, aswas a staircase to hiking trails. THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred Vuich[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichLIQUID HISTORY The spa's indoor pool circa 1905 (upper left) and now (bottom right), after the two-year rebuilding. FIVE PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred Vuich[See caption above] PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichBUCHANAN SLEPT HERE The 15th U.S. president, a Pennsylvanian, used the resort as his summer White House.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)