With Hidden Valley, Nemacolin resort and more, the Laurel Highlands are Mr. Palmer's Neighborhood

By Chris Rodell, Contributor

LATROBE, Pa. - When beloved children's TV host Fred Rogers died, many reports cited his Latrobe birthplace in the scenic Laurel Highlands as Mr. Rogers "Real Neighborhood." It's where he grew up and many of the places and characters that made their way on to his show were inspired by events and people from his hometown. But the name Latrobe resonates with golfers for reasons that have nothing to do with puppets, sweaters and kind-hearted gentility.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's Mystic Rock golf course
Mystic Rock golf course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is a Pete Dye design.
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's Mystic Rock golf courseChestnut Ridge Golf Club in Blairsville
If you go

As any golf fan knows, Latrobe is Mr. Palmer's Neighborhood. The golf legend still lives half-a-year on Arnold Palmer Drive, just a half-mile from Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, and a well-struck three wood from Arnold Palmer Motors. Yep, this is Mr. Palmer's Neighborhood, all right.

Western Pennsylvania is renowned as the birthplace of some of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks - Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Joe Namath - but PGA Tour veteran Rocco Mediate says the hilly terrain makes it ideally suited for producing professional golfers with grit and daring.

"Anyone who grew up golfing in the Laurel Highlands knows how to hit shots you just never see golfing in other places," Mediate reflected during the 2001 Pennsylvania Classic at Laurel Valley Golf Club, a Laurel Highlands championship course long associated with Palmer. "The area has hills, trees, dramatic elevation changes. The courses here can make you or break you."

Here are some of the rollicking Laurel Highlands golf courses that offer challenge, beauty and Rolling Rock (by local sudsmaker Latrobe Brewing Company) draft beers in every golf club grille room or snack bar.

Champion Lakes Golf Club in Bolivar

The word "legend" usually implies a certain aloofness, but Champion Lakes Golf Club is a legendary course with a legendary owner and a friendly atmosphere that has for 37 years made it a Laurel Highlands favorite. Co-owner Dick Groat was a four-time All-American in basketball and baseball from Duke University. He won the MVP for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, the year the Bucs beat the Yankees in one of the most memorable series ever. He won a second championship ring in 1964 with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Groat is an eight-time all-star, but he's as ready to recollect memories from baseball's golden era as he is to hear memories from your round at Champion Lakes, a course that's been named one of Golf Digest's top 50 public places to play.

The knock on Champion has always been that it's too hard. The same has been said about places like Pine Valley, St. Andrews and Augusta - so the course is in good company. The thing is, it is hard. Many of the holes offer inviting landing areas for tee shots, but then trees constrict the fairways to areas no wider than a snake's belly before breakfast. The course is tighter than the skin on a sausage. Overhanging branches require a cerebral skill in shotmaking not often needed at wide-open public courses.

Play Champion regularly and your game will either improve dramatically - especially at less challenging venues - or you'll probably decide to take up bowling. The lanes at the local alley will seem inviting compared to many shots at Champion Lakes.

Hidden Valley Golf Club in Hidden Valley

For a place so gloriously situated in the great outdoors, Hidden Valley Golf Club has a way of making golfers feel downright claustrophobic. The fairways are densely lined with skyscraper oaks, maples and other leafy sentinels. Standing at the base of them - even safely in the middle of the fairway - can leave you feeling like you're standing in a long, green hallway with no exits. Located on the top of the 3,000-foot summit, the course that designer Russell Roberts built assumes golfers will want to see spectacular views, not other golfers. You're likely to spy more deer than people. Only two holes run parallel to one another, and many tee shots feature dramatic elevation changes and panoramic vistas of more than 20 miles across the mountain range.

Not overly difficult, this is a fine resort course where a round of golf will decrease stress, not cause it. It's particularly enjoyable after an invigorating round to sit and sip at the picnic tables outside Mulligan's Bar & Grille overlooking the putting green and driving range. The second story patio, too, is among the branches and feels like a kid's treehouse.

Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Champion

The site of the grim-faced grounds crew coming over the hill on blowers, mowers and various nature tamers looks like the chopper scene from Apocalypse Now. Clearly, these guys mean business. It may not be the most immaculate course in Western Pennsylvania - Oakmont and the fine new Totteridge G.C. are just down the Pennsylvania Turnpike - but Seven Springs Mountain Resort may be the only course where grounds crew seem determined to incarcerate every falling leaf before it hits the ground.

Head Professional Matt Trimbur laments that if the course were just 400 feet lower in elevation, his mountain course would enjoy 30 more days of golfing weather each season. Alas, the primary mission of Seven Springs is the ski resort next door. As a rule, skiing, not golf, is the mountain money maker.

But the golf course follows suit in one regard: the greens are as slick as any black diamond run on the slopes. The course is more accommodating than its Laurel Highland neighbors and stray tee shots don't usually lead to doom. Like other area courses, keeping your head down at Seven Springs is difficult. The scenery's a constant and delightful distraction.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington

To call Nemacolin Woodlands Resort the jewel of the Laurel Highlands is an injustice to jewels everywhere. It's the Hope Diamond of the Laurel Highlands. It's so much bigger and gaudier than other attractions that it's in an entirely different category. Joe Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber and owner of Nemacolin with daughter Maggie, wouldn't have it any other way.

Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the top 10 golf resorts in the U.S., and that's based on the strength of one truly championship golf course, Pete Dye's fabulous Mystic Rock Golf Course. (Nemacolin's Links Course, the resort's original course before Hardy infused the land with his Midas Touch, is an ordinary companion golf course and in no way compares to Mystic Rock.)

Like other Dye courses, Mystic Rock is a rollicking test with thrills and dismay awaiting on every shot. And everywhere are audacious touches of Hardy. The fifth hole features an out-of-play $600,000 waterfall that befuddles and amuses golfers who wonder about the worth of such an extravagant amusement. Who cares? The course and the wonderful environs - the "halfway" houses at both courses are elegant enough to host pricey wedding receptions - are enough to tickle the fancy of even the most competitively engaged golfers. In addition, Nemacolin is home to the $2 million John Daly Learning Center, a Taj Mahal for hackers and one of the finest teaching facilities in America. State-of-the-art equipment will shave strokes off your score and add smile lines to your face.

Chestnut Ridge Golf Club in Blairsville

Chestnut Ridge Golf Club had always enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest golf courses in the Laurel Highlands. Then, in 1993 the owners decided to take a risky shot at improving it. Not only did they improve it, they wove an entirely new course around and, at times, within the original without changing the stellar character of course, which, remarkably, came out even better.

Think that's easy? In the interest of revenue, lots of fine courses have turned great 18-hole courses into lousy 36 hole ones. Most weave parallel fairways where rough used to be and the result is a shooting gallery where "Fore!" is heard so often it sounds like the course is overrun by barbershop quartets. The Tom's Run Course at Chestnut Ridge borrows some from the old and adds new ones of its own. The result is 36 great holes of golf at one of the top facilities in western Pennsylvania. The Inn on the Green has great food, too, particularly its Sunday brunch. And, man, the halfway house might have the best hot dogs in golf. Worth the trip.

Laurel Highlands lodging

Ligonier on U.S. Route 30 is a good central location for golf in the Laurel Highlands, an area chockful of charming bed & breakfasts. For those with less idiosyncratic lodging tastes, the Ramada Historic Ligonier (216 W. Loyalhanna St., 724 238-9545) is convenient and full of standard amenities.

Laurel Highlands dining

The Ligonier Tavern (137 W. Main St., 724 238-4831) has good upscale menu items at family-affordable prices. Great soups and chilis, too, to fend off those late fall post-round chills. More pricey and refined is the nearby Colonial Inn (724 238-6604) on U.S. Route 30 two miles west of Ligonier. And you can find good Mexican at the Casa Chapala (122 N. Market St., 724 238-7399).

Off course

The Laurel Highlands is dotted with historic spots, both tragic and heroic. It was at the Quecreek Mine near Jennerstown in Somerset County that nine men dug out of hazard most bunker-bound golfers can't envision. The August 2002 rescue of the nine miners was carried live around the world and the spot where the miracle rescue happened still draws visitors from all over.

A more poignant memorial is just eight miles from Quecreek at the lonely field near the town of Shanksville where Americans first struck back in the War on Terror. Shanksville was where passengers rushed the cockpit of hijacked Flight 93 and sacrificially brought it down to spare other innocents on September 11, 2001.

Hiking, biking and some of the best whitewater rafting in the East can be enjoyed at Ohiopyle State Park. The scenic wonderland is also home to Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural masterpiece that's naturally air-conditioned by the waterfall over which the terraced home is built.

Chris RodellChris Rodell, Contributor

Chris Rodell may not be the best golf writer, the most productive or the best informed, but he is the only golf writer who lives on Arnold Palmer Drive one half mile from Latrobe Country Club and The King himself.

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