If you’re seeking a favorable first impression infused with early Americana on your fall golf getaway, step into the lobby of the Omni Bedford Springs Resort in the Allegheny Mountains of south central Pennsylvania. Framed behind the front desk of this National Historic Landmark is a large American flag circa 1865 that would quicken the pulse of anyone who enjoys watching Antiques Roadshow. In a corner of the lobby of the white-columned hotel is a modest but graceful Sheraton desk favored by President James Buchanan, who used the resort as his summer White House and was one of the few sitting presidents to decline a run for a second term.
Maybe it was something in the water.
The resort dates to 1796 and was first built by a doctor who strongly believed, as did the region’s Native Americans, in the healing power of the valley’s mineral springs. Guests today can follow marked hiking trails to all eight of the springs that issue forth from the side of a mountain on the 2,200-acre property. If the thought of donning bright colors to ensure safety during the fall hunting season does not appeal, there is golf. Naturally, the Old Course at Bedford Springs has a story to tell.
Like other grande dame resorts that sprang up around healing springs—think the Homestead and the Greenbrier—Bedford Springs was an early proponent of golf. In 1895, Spencer Oldham, a Baltimore club pro, was brought in to stake out 18 holes on the floor of a narrow, wooded valley adjacent to the hotel. A.W. Tillinghast arrived in 1912 to revise and condense the layout into a 9-holer. In 1923, Donald Ross, then at the top of his game, reconstructed and expanded the course to 18 holes. Treated to an extensive restoration by Pennsylvania-based Ron Forse, who reintroduced indigenous plants along the margins of Shobers Run creek, a trout stream that weaves through the valley’s meadows and marshes, the course, reopened in 2007, encompasses three distinct eras of golf architecture.
Despite some hilly terrain in places, the Old Course is eminently walkable. But with water or wetlands in play at 13 holes, this old charmer is no creaky antique. From the Medal tees at 6,785 yards (par 72), the course and slope rating is 73.4/140. Factor in swirling mountain breezes that funnel through the valley, and the layout is more sturdy oak than delicate blossom.
Among the feature holes is the first, a short par four attributed to Oldham. Four deep bunkers cut into a ridge dare players to carry the ball 230 yards to reach a fairway that rises sharply to a squared-off, hilltop green tipped up at the corners. A lay-up off the tee leaves only a wedge to the green, but the heroic tee shot is very tempting.
The par-five 3rd, called “Steeplechase,” derives its name from Oldham’s set of arcane bunkers up the left side (there’s also a whimsical donut bunker in play), but the game is on at the 4th, the first of 11 Ross-designed holes in the routing. Named “Volcano,” this daunting par three, listed at 223 yards from the tips, demands a steep uphill shot to a blind green that drops off on all sides to deep bunkers and tangled rough. It’s the No. 1 handicap hole at Bedford Springs and gets my vote as one of the most treacherous par threes in the nation.
Far more negotiable is the 6th, a mid-length par 4 encased in a thick forest of oaks, maples, hickories, and sycamores. The drive must carry a branch of the creek, while the approach is played to a classic two-tiered Ross green laid across a ridge. This is the only completely tree-lined hole on the course. At the height of autumn, it is spectacular.
One of the highlights on the incoming nine is “Tiny Tim,” a short par three by Tillinghast that appears in Gleanings from the Wayside, his book of architectural recollections. “The shot which it calls for is a delicate pitch—the wrist shot,” Tillinghast wrote. And so it remains today. The elevated tee offers a clear view of a creek-fed lagoon fronting a kidney bean-shaped green divided in two sections by a subtle ridge. The putting surface is well-defended by five bunkers and a range of gumdrop mounds known as the “alps.”
The Old Course at Bedford Springs concludes at the rebuilt 18th, a 367-yard par four with an “S” curve fairway staked out on both sides by enormous bunkers. Over the final 50 yards, the landing area climbs uphill to a hilltop green pitched from left to right and fronted by a pair of cross bunkers that bear the mark of Donald Ross.
Back at the hotel, it’s hard to believe this landmark property, shuttered in 1986, stood in shambles for over 20 years before reopening six years ago following a $120 million refurbishment. Returned to its original splendor, the Georgian-style hotel, once again a “palace in the wilderness,” offers 216 spacious guest rooms in four wings. Many of the rooms open onto large porches set with rocking chairs. In addition to therapeutic massages, the 30,000-square-foot Springs Eternal Spa is one of the few in the nation to pipe in natural spring waters for its bathing rituals and hydrotherapy treatments. Mineral springs are also used to fill the hotel’s indoor Olympic-size pool, which dates to 1905.
As in the 19th century, the resort specializes in farm-to-table cuisine, only the preparations today are decidedly modern. The Crystal Room, lit by sparkling chandeliers and graced by vintage photos of early guests, offers fortifying breakfasts and delectable haute cuisine at dinner. The intimate 1796 Room, which occupies one of the oldest portions of the hotel, is a casual steak and chophouse set above the Frontier Tavern, a popular gathering spot with a fine selection of regional beers and ales. Outside the tavern is a fire pit, a wonderful gathering spot where you can also roast marshmallows and make s’mores.
Other activities at the resort include lawn games, carriage rides, horseback riding, river rafting, mountain and road biking, and guided hiking tours. These tours take note of the fact that each natural spring on site has a different mineral composition.
Historic tours of the hotel cover over two centuries of regional American history, from George Washington’s resolution of the Whiskey Rebellion to defining battles of the French and Indian War waged in the valley. Golfers can take it on good faith that the resort, patronized by 11 U.S. presidents, has proper provenance, leaving them more time to tee it up on a time capsule intended to provide a firm but fair tussle in the spruce-scented valley.
Omni Bedford Springs Resort is located within a two-hour drive of airports in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.