Olde Stonewall Golf Course: Simply the Best for Pennsylvania Golfers
ELLWOOD CITY, PA -- Rick Hvizdak is a self-styled man, a person who built his own company, his own golf course, his own castle. Twelve years ago, he was unable to pay his bills. His financial standing was so shoddy his house went to sheriff's sale.
Now he buys iron gargoyles for $40,000 to place on the entrance to the castle that serves as the clubhouse and restaurant for his creation, Olde Stonewall Golf Club, an 18-hole jewel in Ellwood City, PA, about 50 minutes outside Pittsburgh.
Now he can import $2 million worth of giant limestone boulders to accent his golf course the way a baroque pearl flatters a chiffon gown.
Now he can build a $12 million golf course that is the rage of Western Pennsylvania, create a restaurant with a medieval theme that, on occasion, has a two-hour wait list, and have plans to build an inn to house overnight guests who can't seem to get enough of the darn place. Not that it's easy to find, either.
"I'm this way in business - when I get involved in something I want it to be the best," Hvizdak said. "I don't want it to be second best."
There is little about Olde Stonewall, designed by Columbus, Ohio-based architect Michael Hurdzan and associate Dana Frye, that is second best. Already it has been acclaimed as one of the best daily-fee facilities in the state and one of the best in the country.
It was recently selected among the top 10 public courses by Golf Magazine and rated the best daily-access course in Pennsylvania by Golfweek. And the spell-binding 16th hole, a 479-yard par 4 with a dramatic elevated tee that sits 80 feet above the fairway, was selected among America's top 18 holes to play by Athlon Sports Golf.
All this, with 50-feet turrets and even a knight in shining armor at the entrance to the clubhouse, breathlessly awaiting travelers to a countryside area of Western Pennsylvania, less than 20 miles from the eastern Ohio border.
What began as an attempt to build one of the best daily-fee facilities in the tri-state area has sprouted into that and more. People don't just come to Olde Stonewall to play on the 6,944-yard, par-70 layout that has been ranked as the best public course in Western Pennsylvania by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. They come to see the castle, the gargoyles, the armored knight and sample the menu that features such items as Othello (pan-seared chicken breast), Excalibur (pan-seared filet) and the always tender Sir Lancelot (New Zealand lamb chops). All items, of course, to be washed down with one of the many selections from Shakespeare's dungeon (wine cellar).
The restaurant is called Shakespeare's.
The golf course is pure Camelot.
There is everything a player desires. Holes with rock formations, holes with bunker complexes, holes with water hazards, holes with pot bunkers. There are wooden bridges, waterfalls and cascading ponds. There are even enough changes in elevation to satisfy a roller-coaster junkie. Fortunately, though, the elevation changes are limited mostly to the ride from greens to tee.
However, there is the small matter of the back tee at No. 16, cut into a steep hillside and framed with limestone boulders. The tee is visible from the second-story balcony of the clubhouse, looking like a perch for a bald eagle. It is not a tee for the timid, or faint of heart.
The fairway sits 80 feet below the tee, on the other side on a rock-infested ravine. To the left is more limestone boulders and another steep ravine. To the right, back-to-back sand bunkers stretching 60 yards in length. But, if you come to Olde Stonewall, you play the back tee. Even if you're a high handicapper. It's like sitting next to Brittany Spears on the plane. You ask her for a date because you're never going to get another chance
And yet, this spectacular hole isn't even the best at Olde Stonewall. That would be No. 4, a 434 par-4 with an elevated tee, water running along the right side of the hole and a green framed in stonework. Or No. 11, a 436-yard par-4 that snakes into the trees, all ending at a narrow, sloping green with the sound of the rushing waterfall sounding like the ocean. Or even No. 18, the majestic 464-yard, par-4 finishing hole where the castle sits behind the green, looking as daunting as the sword of Pericles.
Exactly what Hvizdak (pronounced VIZ-dack) wanted to create.
The demand to play Olde Stonewall is such that the daily fee has already been hiked from $105 to $135 for individuals ($125 if you're part of a foursome). The price, though, includes range balls, divot-repair tool, yardage book and use of the locker room.
Hvizdak is owner of a company called National Real Estate Information Services, which does title searches, credit checks and the like for prospective home buyers. His growing company has more than 160 employees. Just 12 years after he was unable to pay his bills, he is a multi-millionaire.
Hvizdak got the idea to build Olde Stonewall because he is a member at Pete Dye Golf Club in Bridegport, WV, a course so remote and with such natural beauty that Hvizdak thought something similar deserved to be in the Pittsburgh area.
"I enjoy playing golf on a great course," said Hvizdak, 44. "I can play every day on a great course. I thought I could bring something like that a lot closer to Pittsburgh. I thought I had a unique piece of property."
A mid- to high-handicapper, Hvizdak is capable of shooting in the low 80s when everything is going right. Originally, his plan was to build 240 homes on his property, which sits across a remote country highway from Connoquenessing Country Club. Hvizdak would give the club $175,000 to build a pedestrian bridge across Route 65, linking the course with the home sites.
But, when the country club rejected his offer, he decided to build his own course. What started out as a $4 million project kept growing, and the meter ran out to three times the original amount.
Part of the price tag is because of a 29,000-square-foot clubhouse that was built to resemble a castle. Inside, 20-foot-high ceilings, lined with wood beams, accent a medieval theme that starts when you walk through a pair of 15-foot-high oak doors. The doors, flanked by those expensive gargoyles, capture the essence of what Hvizdak is trying to accomplish with his restaurant.
That, and the, uh, moat and miniature draw bridge.
"I didn't build this because I was a [golf] fanatic," Hvizdak said. "I did it because I have a vision. I don't know if the term is artistry or visionary, but when I get involved in something I want it to be the best. I don't want it to be second-best."
His next order of business: To build a 40-room inn, overlooking the course, to house overnight guests. The idea seems golden because Olde Stonewall is located a hour from downtown Pittsburgh, 45 minutes from Pittsburgh International Airport, and has few accessible hotels. The closest and best is the Sheraton in Warrendale, PA, approximately 30 minutes away, located off Interstate 79.
There are plenty of chain restaurants around the hotel, plenty of places to satisfy a hunger. But if it's golf or food you crave, both can be placated at Olde Stonewall.