Golfers making happy tracks to Birdsfoot
FREEPORT, Pa. -- Defying an industry trend toward ludicrously sinister-sounding names -- Satan's Fang at Hell Ridge! -- the Lindsay family of Freeport, Pa., went for whimsy and named their splendid new course Birdsfoot. The name connotes binocular-toting nature gnomes out to spy birdies, not score them. But golfers are finding Birdsfoot Golf Club is a course with teeth as well as talons.
A subtle links-style beauty, the Pittsburgh-area course opened in May 2003 and features more than 100 deceptively treacherous grass and sand bunkers between whisker-wide fairways. Seven two-tiered greens yield more than two tears for three-putters.
Designer Brian Ault says that "the diverse terrain -- rolling hills, subtle areas, open fields and wooded areas" are what attracted Ault, Clark & Associates to the project. "Birdsfoot has the ability to offer a fair challenge and interesting golf," says Ault. "It's a great, peaceful setting with no adjacent housing and tremendous vistas."
As the crow flies, it's about 50 minutes north of Pittsburgh, but only a bird could wing its way straight to Birdsfoot. Many a van load of golfers will question the driver's navigational skills before pulling up to the course's cinder driveway. Even then, the only reassuring evidence is a sign welcoming golfers. No fancy clubhouse is visible. Instead, there's a clapboard structure that is more clubhome than clubhouse and looks quaint enough to have been airlifted straight from Walton's Mountain. The old Lindsay family farm house sits at the base of a green hill that betrays just two golf holes.
It's not until you get to the second tee that you see a lovely bowl full of holes. The 602-yard par 5 kicks off a trio of holes that trumpets all the best of Birdsfoot. The lake-huggin dogleg right funnels to a large green wreathed by a gallery of pines. The 458-yard third hole is a deserving number one handicap. It's a 458-yard dogleg left cut into the side of a gentle hill that is pockmarked by lunar-looking depressions (truly depressing if your ball strays into them).
Look carefully upon exiting your cart. One of the beauties of Birdsfoot is the lack of homes, staring residents, patio people and barbecue chefs watching you shoot. With every scenic shot golfers are staring straight into nature, which is sometimes disconcertingly staring straight back. Near the cart path of No. 3's landing area, artist Paul Shutters carved glowering, bearded visages into six trees scattered along the meandering track.
Shutters still calls owner Travis Lindsay once in a while with the puckish request to be allowed to mingle among the golfers and "damage" another tree or two.
"A lot of golfers will play here once or twice before noticing the faces," Lindsay says. "Once you see one you start looking for the others and discovering another one in the trees usually brings a smile to a golfer' s face."
One marshall says they are the faces of the angry golf gods. Calling them "The Bogeymen of Birdsfoot" might be more accurate. Happily, the evident distemper is not infectious. All the golfers are smiling.
The green to the 172-yard par-3 fourth hole is set against a lake. Twin bunkers on the right side snag balls hit in that direction to avoid a rinsed tee shot.
Much is made of holes two through four, but spotlighting them unfairly slights the rest of an outstanding course. For instance, holes five and seven feature exhilarating green complexes with multi-tiered putting surfaces and penal bunkering. The brown sand in all the bunkers enhances the links-look.
Tee shots at the 215-yard par 3 ninth must clear a ravine steep enough and deep enough that golfers are warned not to enter to hunt lost balls. Par here and you'll sigh with satisfaction and mortal relief.
The eleventh is a 212-yard par 3 ringed almost entirely with sand. The 186-yard par-3 17th completes a Birdsfoot quartet of some of the finest par 3s in western Pennsylvania. The area surrounding the green at hole 17 has a baker's dozen of deep sand and grass bunkers.
The fifteenth hole is a dainty, uphill 373-yard par 4 with an elevated green that was scenic enough to earn a feature shot in Golf Magazine.
The problem child of the course is the 505-yard 13th. Uphill and narrow, the fairway falls away from right to left. Birdsfoot is trying to preserve the hole's hallway tightness but the left side is so thick with trees that keeping the fairway plush has been difficult. During our June visit a platoon of groundskeepers were feverishly working to sod some brown spots. One year after a mature-beyond-its-years Birdsfoot opened, this hole is still a work in progress.
For a course that is still in its infancy, Birdsfoot is attracting golfers with something that is too often overlooked in more established courses: old-fashioned friendly service. Clubhouse staffers smile sunshine, the amiable starters give insightful pointers, and attentive marshals offer to run back to the clubhouse for beers and sodas. For golfing customers used to surly and distant staffing, it's a welcome surprise. For the Lindsays, it must provide one monthly headache: How do you choose just one employee of the month when everyone seems deserving?
After just one year this much is clear: spider-spiked golfers will be making plenty of tracks to Birdsfoot.
A "foot" note: Birdsfoot has nothing to do with fowl. It is named for "birdsfoot trefoil," the yellow-flowered, clover-like ground cover that still accents the acreage where the Lindsays once farmed hay before deciding a true cash crop might involve harvesting golfers instead of grains.
Golfing at Birdsfoot is as satisfying a day of golf as you'll find anywhere. The service is superb, the course charmingly unique and in generally immaculate condition. Green fees are reasonable. The year-old course plays and feels like it's straight from the '50s.
Where to stay
Birdsfoot has developed a number of inviting packages that ought to attract golfers. Packages include two days of unlimited golf, cart and range, two nights at Holiday Inn or similarly priced accommodation; two buffet style breakfasts at Bonnello's Family Restaurant for $230, weekdays; $255 weekends.
Where to dine
Bonello's Family Restaurant 353 Butler Road, Kittanning, PA 16201. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Daily dinner buffet. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Birdsfoot is just 50 minutes from what ESPN Magazine says is the best baseball park in America. PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is a great place to spend a post-golf evening. If you don't enjoy watching millionaires play for pay, then Freeport has The Freeport International Baseball Invitational on July 19-24, 2004. There are no trophies, no awards, no MVPs and no All-Stars. Everyone who participates--from the coaches and the players, to the concession stand workers and all the folks in the bleachers--all join in simply for the love of the game.
June 17, 2004