Trip report to Pennsylvania's Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

The Allegheny and the ecstasy at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

FARMINGTON, Pa. - What's so interesting about Nemacolin Woodlands Resort?

It's complicated.

I haven’t been everywhere (yet), but after spending a few days there and barely feeling like I scratched the surface, I’m confident in saying there is more to do, see and appreciate at this 2,000-acre southwest Pennsylvania estate-resort than just about any other resort anywhere.

The term “estate-resort” is an odd one, but ever since buying it in 1987, timber baron Joe Hardy has lived on property, just a few hundred yards from where his guests lay their heads at night. His daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, too; with Joe a still-spry 95 years old, Maggie is the day-to-day ruler of this delightfully quirky kingdom now. Her house overlooks the seventh green of the year-old Shepherd’s Rock golf course.

As for the resort itself, “eccentric” is the perfect single descriptor. Some resorts feel meticulously put-together to the point where they feel sterile. By contrast, Nemacolin has no single aesthetic theme other than themelessness itself. Because of this, exploring the resort – home to more art than I’ve seen outside of a dedicated art museum – is a key part of truly taking it in.

Down one hallway, signed Norman Rockwell prints. Down another, framed silk Hermes scarves. Around the corner, there are a couple Alexander Calder gouaches and one of his famous hanging “mobile” sculptures. In a nearby reading room, about a dozen Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps, some valued at a $1 million or more.

And on and on. For a resort with just 320 rooms, suites and townhomes, Nemacolin’s ecstatic personality is engagingly oversized. The Allegheny Mountain region is quite pleasant but far from the most visually breathtaking you’ll ever visit; Nemacolin is an oasis of chaotic energy surrounded by merely nice-looking country.

Nemacolin courses rock

Who better to design the golf courses at such an eclectic place than Pete Dye? His Mystic Rock Course opened in 1995 and hosted a PGA Tour event, the 84 Lumber Classic, for four years, with Vijay Singh (during Singh’s nine-win 2004 season) and Ben Curtis (2006) its best-known winners.

Mystic Rock sits squarely among Dye’s major works. There is a level of sophistication to the shaping and bunkering that sets his best courses apart from the rest, a cheeky playfulness mixed in with serious demands of the golfer. For example, two holes at Mystic Rock have two separate greens, with hole locations alternating between them regularly. The par-5 fifth’s left green is wedged against a pond, with the right-hand one elevated up to the right. Though there’s no water by this elevated putting surface, it is the tougher one to approach, because it sits at an angle to the line of play, is tough to see because of its perch and it sheds marginal shots while its counterpart is shaper more to gather them. One would normally think this is the "breather" green between the two. It's not. Dye’s brilliance lies as much in his powers of psychological misdirection as his visual gifts of golf-craft.

Still, there is eye-candy galore at Mystic Rock, too. Outcroppings accent vistas throughout the course and line the water hazards, a constant reminder that the golfer is playing in the mountains.

But Mystic Rock resists many of the negative stereotypes of mountain golf. Fairways are mostly generous, the routing is quite walkable and any golfer playing the appropriate set of tees will find it eminently playable because there is always a safe play, try (and succeed) though Pete Dye might to coax more out of the player than he or she can handle. The first hole is a perfect example, where the shortest route to the hole, down the right side of the fairway, sits at the edge of a steep hill where bunkers and other nastiness awaits a failed attempt at heroism. Meanwhile, you can hit it safely left all day, but you’ll have to give up a couple clubs on the approach shot to do so. This type of risk-reward proposition is the essence of compelling golf, and Mystic Rock is a compelling course.

Though it sits adjacent to its older sibling and many holes from each course are visible from the other, Shepherd’s Rock is a bit of a different animal, owing primarily to the more severe and, in places, awkward piece of land on which it sits. Also, longtime Dye associate Tim Liddy had a more significant role in its design, giving it a subtly different feel in places while retaining the telltale Dye look. I would personally rate it second on the property (and split 10 rounds 6 to 4 in favor of Mystic Rock), but it is a worthy course in its own right, and a big improvement over the former second-fiddle Hill Course it replaced.

Though it has its idiosyncrasies, the dynamic land Shepherd’s Rock uses does supply Nemacolin’s most memorable golf-based views. The tee shot that plunges into a valley on the par-5 fourth is one you’ll wish you could hit ten times just to bask in the pleasure of seeing some extra hangtime on your tee shot. Five holes later, the par-5 ninth offers something completely different: an uphill climb to a skyline green. The stark simplicity of this view is no less endearing.

My favorite hole on the course is the brilliant par-4 11th. It’s a classic Dye proposition: hit it safely up the right side of the huge fairway and leave a long, exacting approach to the green, or cowboy up and look as much as 60 yards left, forcing a longer carry over wetlands but with the prospect of a much shorter approach. The green falls away subtly toward the back, making it all the more important to hit a high approach.

More than just 36 holes

Beyond just its courses, Nemacolin had elevated the complete resort golf experience in the last year and looks to keep that momentum going, thanks in large part to Eric Johnson. A Western Pennsylvania native who previously taught for 14 years at Oakmont Country Club under the legendary Bob Ford, Johnson has been a GOLF Magazine “Top 100 Teacher” since 2011. If he’s not especially familiar to you, that may be because touring pros are not the core of his stable of students. Yes, he works with a couple Tour players and some current and aspiring collegians, but he focuses on the 99% of golfers who are just trying to break 80, 90 or 100 on a regular basis.

It’s evident from his no-nonsense teaching style, as well as his fun and informative group clinics, which usually include their fair share of trick shots. But these aren’t for show: each swing he takes, be it from his knees or to a ball teed up three feet off the ground, serves to illustrate something about the golf swing that any golfer can absorb.

Johnson has a secret weapon, too, in his assistant Patrick Kane, whom Johnson refers to as a “unicorn.” Kane spent a few years with the Jim McLean Golf Schools before venturing up to Nemacolin, and is not only an excellent up-and-coming teacher in his own right, but a master clubfitter, too – the “unicorn” designation refers to the fact that most young golf industry upstarts tend to follow one track or the other, not both. This equipment expertise comes in especially handy in light of Nemacolin’s year-old, state-of-the-art custom club fitting setup, complete with TrackMan for full-swing equipment assessments and a SAM Putt Lab for putting instruction and fitting.

The icing on the cake: Johnson and Kane have a full dedicated practice facility with its own range, putting green and short-game area. With this dedicated facility, and the collective ability to use it fully, Kane and Johnson can pursue all avenues of improvement that their students could want. It shows that Nemacolin is all-in on offering this level of service to its golfing clientele.

Speaking of service…

Nemacolin isn’t just about art, and it isn’t just about golf. It’s one of those resorts that seems to be built to make any visitor happy. And while this directive stretches other properties thin, it works well here. The glue that ties “The Nemacolin Experience” (also the name of the incredibly fast wifi on property) together is the staff. While visiting a couple weeks ago, I stayed at Falling Rock, the resort’s boutique-style, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lodgings, complete with butler service and nightly milk-and-cookies turndown service. The golf shop and staging area for the courses, as well as a fantastic locker room, is located here. Every staffer I encountered at Falling Rock – which has its own logo emblazoned on napkins, linens and bathroom towels – was helpful and willing without being effusive or annoying. The same went for the wait staff at Aqueous, Falling Rock’s farm-to-table eatery. (The beef tartare appetizer I had for dinner here one night was one of the best things I’ve eaten this year.)

Other points

Not just one place to stay. Another lodging option at Nemacolin is the Chateau Lafayette, modeled after the Ritz Hotel in Paris and affecting a European elegance with its share of Hardy family touches. Butler service is available on the concierge floor of this building as well. Connected to the Chateau, the Lodge is Nemacolin’s original accommodations space. It’s more understated and lower-frills than the Chateau and Falling Rock, but its cozy charms and location at the main hub of activity make it popular in its own right. Nemacolin’s two-bedroom Townhomes offer a more private stay experience, and there are even some on-site vacation homes for rent, too.

Culinary focus. Nemacolin’s range of dining options for its size is very impressive. At one end of the Chateau’s ground floor is Lautrec, the resort’s Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond restaurant, helmed by chef Kristen Butterworth. The farm-to-table, French-influenced menu has been lauded as one of the best in the state, and it receives considerable special-occasion traffic from Pittsburgh and beyond. Nearby, at the lodge, is Rockwell’s, the resort’s steakhouse, which also features game like pheasant, rabbit and elk on its menu. A more casual Tavern (with a couple TopGolf “swing suites” coming soon), a dedicated ice cream shop and a range of bars and other casual spots complement the upscale offerings. Nemacolin even has its own food truck, and I can vouch for the pleasure of enjoying its signature cheeseburger soup. Yes, you read that right.

So much to do. Seriously, you won’t run out of activities at Nemacolin, which makes it as good a spot for the golf-all-the-time crowd as the one-round-a-day’s-enough crowd, couples, families, etc. Nemacolin’s Shooting Academy is the centerpiece of the resort’s Field Club, and guided fly-fishing tours are popular as well.

Matt Ginella and Ben Roethlisberger tackle Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

Your head is probably spinning by now. Bottom line: there’s a ton to do (and see, and eat) at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. I’ve probably omitted 20 interesting points; if you visit, check back with me and fill me in on what I overlooked. It’s the type of place where everyone’s experience will be unique.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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The Allegheny and the ecstasy at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort