Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's Mystic Rock golf course: Quite an experience, and plenty satisfying

By Chris Rodell, Contributor

FARMINGTON, Pa. -- The name's about the only thing they got wrong at Mystic Rock Golf Course. Mystic Rock is too singular a description for a course that features more impressive stones than a rock concert showcasing Mick, Keith and the boys performing at the base of the Great Pyramids.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's Mystic Rock course
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa owner Joe Hardy maintains that "everything about Nemacolin and Mystic Rock will be the very best. ... I'm all about people having fun."
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's Mystic Rock courseNemacolin Woodlands Resort's Mystic Rock G.C.Mystic Rock at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
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Mystic Rock Course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

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Nestled in the Laurel Highlands of southwest Pennsylvania Nemacolin Woodlands Resort sprawls across over 2,000 wooded acres. The resort offers 36 holes of championship golf, Mystic Rock and the Links. Pete Dye added the Mystic Rock Course 25 years after the original Links opened in 1970. Both golf courses offer a strikingly different character as well as unique challenges.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 7526 yards | ... details »

The centerpiece of the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa in Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands should be called Mystic Rocks. The refurbished 7,032-yard golf course is one of Pete's most Dye-abolical designs. Nearly every tee provokes the feeling a passenger gets riding shotgun for a lead-footed 16-year-old with his beginner's license and the keys to the 'vette.

You'd better hold on, because you're in for a wild ride.

The rollicking tone of the resort is set by peripatetic owner Joe Hardy, a Pittsburgh alchemist who turned lumber into gold. He's a self-made man and, with his daughter Maggie Hardy Magerko, owns the 84 Lumber Company chain.

The income from the family business allowed the Hardys to purchase the old hunting lodge and property at Nemacolin in 1987. The year-round resort that grew from those rude beginnings is about 90 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh.

Hardy, a vigorous 80-year-old, is estimated to be worth $1 billion and announces he intends to die broke. Evidence of his intentions is everywhere at Mystic Rock. In May 2003, the Hardys unveiled the state-of-the-art $2 million John Daly Learning Center. Next May will bring the groundbreaking of the new $40 million, 40-room lodge and clubhouse that will overlook the 18th green. The building is being modeled after the lodge at the Cloister in Sea Island, Ga.

"I'm committed that everything about Nemacolin and Mystic Rock will be the very best for ... our resort guests and for people who want to come out and enjoy the tournament," Hardy says. "I'm all about people having fun. I want to see people smiling when they're out here."

The fun is evident from the start. Most golf driving ranges are cloaked in funereal silence. Not at Nemacolin. Along with other golfers, we really loosened up as a loud speaker played "China Grove," "Black Water" and other hits by the Doobie Brothers, a '70s band that must have been otherwise occupied or Joe Billionaire certainly would have had them out there playing live.

The only stress results from trying to achieve par on a course (rating, 75/slope, 146) that is as thrill-packed as any Dye design. Just a few blades of grass usually mean the difference between doom and delight, a fact that becomes evident from the first hole, a 322-yard, par-4 that doglegs right around a fairway-to-green cuddling strip of bunker that is an almost sheer 10-feet below the safe surface.

The monstrosities of Mystic Rock Golf Course

The monstrosities of Mystic Rock Golf Course become apparent at the second tee. A string of tee boxes to the 435-yard, par-4 stretch along an narrow isthmus of land that rises between a lake on the left and a cascading rubble of rocks on the right that falls from the edge of the fairway down nearly 100 feet before terminating in a bass lake. A fairway bunker snags balls struck by sissies too timid to aim over the rocks. From the distant blues, the safe landing area seems as confining as a Hula Hoop.

Rocks become visual and physical obstructions on nearly every shot from then on. Number four, a 382-yard, par-4, requires a drive over water to an elevated fairway. The green slopes severely right-to-left and a huge pile of exposed rocks will ping-pong balls into oblivion for any golfer who tries to get too close to a right-side pin placement. The wise player will always aim for the left, leaving an uphill putt and a reasonable hope for a satisfying par. Three-putts here are as common as the cursing they provoke.

A $600,000 waterfall, part of the recent facelift, sits out of play far to the left of the fifth green. It would look entirely out of place at resorts where belly laughs are frowned upon, but its audacity is a perfect fit at Nemacolin, an elegant resort where the only thing casual is the friendly attitudes. It brings a playful element of goofy golf to a championship resort course, and a timely reminder that -- despite your escalating score -- you're here to have fun.

Holes 11, 12, 16, and 17 all feature the spectacular best and most challenging of Dye and Mystic Rock Golf Course. In fact, they have so many of the same elements that, like the Stallone original and its sequels, they could be called Rocky I, II, III, and IV. Each is an invigorating challenge with lots of water, rocks and sand and the kind of shot-making possibilities that allow even high handicappers to walk away with some magic memories.

Mystic Rock Golf Course's 385-yard 18th is a bit of a disappointment, especially following two great holes leading to the closer. There isn't a single hazard that should strike fear in the heart of any golfer, especially the pros, who ought to eat it up. There is no water, no dangerous-looking bunker (the hole's short enough that a left-side green bunker can be easily avoided) and, strangely, no rocks. That's key, because rocks may be golf's most stubbornly confounding hazard. A ball lands in the water and is gone. Finis. But a thousand different eventualities can result from a ball striking a rock. It can kick into the water or it can roll into the fairway. It can spike down or kangaroo kick right onto the green. A ball striking odd-faced rock is the game of golf in a nutshell.

No. 7 is a dandy little downhill 173-yard, par-3, with a large, rollicking green. A field of rocks stretches tee to green and still more rocks bracket the cart path on the right. My opponent skulled a 5-iron that went an 50 yards before nosediving. With a firecracker click, it ricocheted on a right angle straight to the wrong side of the cart path, then bounded off another rock and straight onto the green 50 feet from the cup.

In those eight or so seconds all observers agreed to feeling emotions that included joy, agony, chagrin, bemusement and, finally -- after he sank a six-footer for par -- a primordial rage. How could his terrible shot wind up a par? How fair is it that his score counted the same as our deftly struck regulation pars? What kind of luck or demonic genie would a golfer have to conjure to get a ball so poorly struck to hit not one, but two wayward rocks and still wind up safely on the green?

Mystic Rocks, indeed.

Nemacolin has another 18-hole course, The Links at Nemacolin, which provides a tune-up prior to tackling Mystic Rock. It suffers in comparison to Mystic Rock, but is a well-groomed course with some nice views.

Lodging at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort features a full range of accommodations from luxurious suites in the Chateau Lafayette to even more luxurious private homes for those seeking a little posh privacy. Golfing buddies can shack in spacious townhouses available on the property.

Where to dine

The "halfway" houses -- Mulligan's at Mystic Rock, and Caddy Shack at The Links -- are luxurious enough to host wedding receptions. Nemacolin's on-site dining opportunities range from the kid-friendly P.J.'s Ice Cream and Pizza Parlor to the splendid Lautrec for fine dining and sumptuous Sunday brunch.

Off course

In the heart of the Laurel Highlands, Nemacolin is just 11 miles from Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous architectural masterpiece. It is also just five miles from Ohiopile falls and the Youghiogheny River, site of some of the finest, most scenic whitewater rafting in the East.

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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