Cranberry Highlands is breaking all the rules
CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- The word "cranberry" always has been rather appealing. For one, it describes one of the richest colors in the Crayola box. Second, it's the kind of fruity juice you need for making a snappy summer drink. And you can't forget how it simply isn't Thanksgiving without that sauce. Put a little of it right on your slice of turkey, you'll love it.
And now cranberry is also a word that celebrates golf.
In the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh, is a new public golf course that is turning heads and redefining municipal golf in this part of the Keystone State -- Cranberry Highlands in Cranberry Township, Pa.
Just as cranberry sauce adds both a little tradition and some flavor to a holiday meal, Cranberry Highlands also adds tradition and flavor to the mix of public layouts in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and, here's the big catch, it does it with an affordable green fee.
Feels like Pennsylvania
Cranberry Highlands had its beginnings in March of 2001 when construction started on the site of a 313-acre farm in the northwest quadrant of the Township. On 186-acres of that land sits Cranberry Highlands - 18 holes, 6,400 yards, par 70, and no tricks. This is a straightforward golf course on relatively open, yet dramatic land. The fairways roll and tumble, but the holes always lay out before you with few surprises. And although many golfers not schooled in golf design would call many of the holes "links-like," don't say that to the course architect, Bill Love.
"It is not a links golf course," Love said. "The course moves with the land that was given to me. It's natural."
"Yeah, links is not the right description," adds Jon Shuster, Cranberry's Manager of Golf Operations, "but to paint a picture for the average golfer, it's got links elements."
Of course there is no ocean in Pennsylvania. So no, it's not a links golf course, technically. But it has some mounding in the fairways, some wind-whipped fescue grass, and few trees actually come into play -- giving Cranberry Highlands that so-called linksy feel.
In true Western Pennsylvania fashion, mature trees and ravines surround the course, giving Cranberry a "sitting on top of the world" experience. If you haven't played on the hills in this part of the state, the topography is as picturesque as it is mountainous.
Cranberry Highlands truly is a satisfying, comfortable place to play golf. The landing areas are hard to miss, there's nowhere on the course where you have to punish the ball to get over a cliff or water to make the short grass, and the entire layout has not a single blind shot. You can play it from the tips or from the forward tees and get a different day of golf, yet nothing about the length of the course makes you feel as if you have been cracked in the head with a long iron.
But don't let the playability fool you. Cranberry is not a pushover.
Cranberry's postcard exterior cloaks a challenging track stocked with 80 bunkers, two sneaky ponds and tiered greens that force strategy on approach shots through their variety of hole cuts.
One of the many memorable aspects of the design at Cranberry is the set of short, strategic par-4s. These are some of the finest around the Pittsburgh area.
The fifth hole is just 341 yards from the middle tees but includes more bunkers than the opening four holes. Moreover, one trap has been placed smack-dab in the middle of the fairway just about where a big drive would land. Think before you hit this tee shot.
The ninth hole is an uphill par-4 that moves slightly to the right and leads to one of the most interesting green complexes on the course. To the left, a big mound protects the putting surface and in the middle of the green someone buried the Steelers' front four. The big hump gives the single green an almost double-green design. Do not be above the hole.
The final two short par-4s are the 11th and 12th holes and they are quite different. The 11th runs just 304 yards and is loaded with bunkers around the green. The 12th is a dogleg right with a dangerous pond moving with the fairway on the right side and closing in tight with the green. Pick your optimum approach before you hit the tee shot, otherwise you could have an awkward, even scary second stroke to the green.
Yes, Cranberry Highlands has good short par-4s, but they are not meant to overshadow the marvelous par-3s. You'll love holes three, six and especially 13; they are three of the most camera-friendly at Cranberry, in addition to being solid golf holes. Don't brush these off as simple one-shotters.
Price is Right
Cranberry Highlands is owned and operated by Cranberry Township, but this is far from your typical public municipal. It is not only a meticulously maintained, bentgrass golf course, but it's also a tremendous buy. Many courses with this caliber of conditioning and design easily command $75-$100. Cranberry's greens fee during the week is $42 with cart. If you live in the Township, it's $35 with a cart.
It's also important to note that Cranberry Township had been planning for this golf course for as long as 10 years. It was part of the park system master plan and the Township leaders were committed to doing it right. No shortcuts.
It's clear Cranberry Highlands was built with quality in mind. But they also had the smarts to keep the course affordable for their residents and for golfers all over the hills of Western Pennsylvania.
From the Route 19 exit of the Turnpike, move north to Rochester Road. Make a left onto Rochester and follow about two miles to Powell Road. Turn right onto Powell, which then becomes Freshcorn Road. The club entrance is on the left.
Where to dine
The nationally acclaimed Clark Bar and Grill, Pittsburgh's original sports café, is housed in the historic Clark Candy Factory across from Three Rivers Stadium. It's worth the trip downtown. Address: 503 Martendale St. Phone: (412) 231-5720.
Located in the historic Eberhardt and Ober Brewery (ca.1883) in the Troy Hill section of Pittsburgh, Penn Brewery is an authentic German microbrewery and pub house serving German cuisine. Address: 800 Vinial St. Phone: (412) 237-9402.
Where to Stay
Holiday Inn Pittsburgh-North Hills
4859 Mcknight Rd.
It's close, comfortable and affordable.
Head for Pittsburgh, one of the most under-rated cities in America. There's lots to do, including taking in a Steelers or Pirates game, visiting the Andy Warhol Museum or the world-famous Carnegie Museum, relaxing in Point State Park, or experiencing the magnificent view (especially at night) from Mount Washington. The panorama was recently ranked as the second most beautiful view in America, right behind Red Rock Country in Sedona, Arizona.
Cranberry Highlands is just 10 minutes from the Pennsylvania Turnpike and easily accessible from the Ohio border, just about 40 minutes away. It is 30 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh.
December 19, 2003