Cheap golf reigns: Introduce yourself to golf in Butler County

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

HARMONY, Pa. -- Butler County isn't found in the golf-guide books. In fact, it's so far off the golf map that its courses' most consistent out-of-the-region business comes from Buffalo and Toronto-area hackers who stumbled across the area and kept coming back year after year, bringing more and more friends.

Conley Resort golf course
The golf course at Conley Resort showcases Pennsylvania's rolling hills.
Conley Resort golf courseAubreys Dubbs Dred golf courseStrawberry Ridge Golf Club
If you go

For most of its existence, Butler never thought of itself as a golf vacation destination.

That's probably why it's one of the least pretentious, inexpensive golf spots you'll ever find. Located just north of Pittsburgh (about half an hour away), surrounded by other high-priced East Coast golf havens, Butler boasts almost 20 golf courses, most priced under $40 with cart.

Spending a few days playing golf here is like falling into an alternate universe where $100 courses are as ridiculous a notion as $25 movie tickets and $4 gallons of gas (okay, bad example). But you get the idea.

"The rates are cheap," said Conley Resort owner Wayne Conley, who often shakes his head at just low his Butler brethren go. "Not reasonable. Cheap."

These shrunken green fees are available not that far from the beaten path. Butler is close enough for an easy Pittsburgh commute, right off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Most of its courses are family owned, many tied to a former farm in this heavy agricultural area.

"You're getting courses that aren't trying to rip off anyone around here," said Greg Holler, a golfer from nearby Benton. "Some of the courses might not have all the bells and whistles, but you do get some challenging layouts."

Butler County isn't the place to go to get an army of attendants swooning over you from the time you pull up in the parking lot. In a full week here, no one offered a post-round club cleaning or to carry my bag to the car. Butler is a place to go for incredibly reasonable, solid, and in a few cases, spectacularly interesting golf.

You may hope it ends up staying your secret.

Must-play golf courses in Butler County

Conley Resort: The whole purpose of this setup seems to be to make sure golfers enjoy a fun day. Sounds basic. But any experienced hacker knows that basic often gets lost. Owner Wayne Conley ensures it doesn't here with his hands-on approach. Conley Resort isn't too difficult and that's the way Wayne Conley wants it. The back-to-back water finish of No. 17 and No. 18 earns its own respect, though.

Aubrey's Dubbs Dred Golf Course: The back nine is downright wicked. Some holes seem designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the average duffer. And you know what? That's a big part of the fun. The other is the incredibly low green fees.

Strawberry Ridge Golf Club: Its parking lot is a gravel lot right next to an old barn. You might find the owner himself working on a tractor right by a beat-up shed. Strawberry may be the most unusual golf experience you ever have and one of the most exhilarating.

First-time owner Tim McNulty studied golf books, drew up his own design and moved much of the earth himself, pulling off an incredibly inventive fun play. Some of the holes will downright wow you.

Golf snobs should go elsewhere. The golf course isn't in good shape. McNulty is making improvements as he goes and the money comes in, but there are plenty of rough spots.

But none of that matters if you get into the spirit of the course (it costs less than $30 after all). Strawberry Ridge Golf Club stands some fairway improvements away from being touted by major golf magazines. Until (or if) that happens, you can enjoy the wonder with a few buddies. By the time you get to No. 13, you're liable to feel like lucky golf pioneers.

Cranberry Highlands: This four-year, county-owned, par-70 golf course is the most polished golf operation in Butler. It was in great shape even when many other western Pennsylvania golf courses were showing the wear of an extra hot summer.

You'll have fun as you enjoy those great fairway lies, getting challenged to shoot at targets rather than just bomb away on this 6,403-yarder. The tall, swaying fescue and dramatically placed bunkers draw most of the attention, but it's the thick green rough that is most liable to impact your score.

Cranberry Highlands' greens are large and forgivingly fun to putt. If you're ever going to drain a 50-footer, it might be here.

Buffalo Golf Course: This family-owned track lets you grip it and rip it on some wide open fairways and feel very at home doing it. A purely relaxed atmosphere put on by a staff that clearly loves golf.

Butler off course

Butler County has an interesting museum of Chinese and Japanese art and culture, The Maridon Museum. It has a town named Mars with a hokey "flying saucer" parked in a square. Its town of Harmony is a National Historic Landmark that has ties to George Washington and the first shot of the French and Indian War, one that's actually fun and interesting to walk.

But the biggest thing Butler has going for it is it's only 30- 45 minutes away from downtown Pittsburgh depending where you are in the county. If you like baseball at all, make sure to check a game at PNC Park, one of the most underrated MLB parks.

As for Butler nightlife, well, this is the kind of place where you want to play 36 holes a day. You will have a blast for little cash on the course and still find time to get in your rest. You come here for the golf, period.

Stay and play

If you want to stay on a golf course, Conley Resort (800-344-7303) in Butler fits the bill. Its rooms are very 1970s-ish, large and clean but old fashioned. Conley will soon be converting to city water, but until it does, make sure you're comfortable with well water for bathing.

Bed-and-breakfast types would enjoy a stay at the Inn on Grandview (888-544-3481). It's within walking distance of the quaint downtown of Zelienople and its largest room includes a nice outdoor balcony. For the pet allergic, who are often wary of B&Bs, there are no cats or dogs parading about. As an added bonus, innkeeper Juanita Epinger cooks what just may be the best breakfast you've ever had.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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