First opened for play in 1999, the course at Old Stonewall Golf Club is a joint Hurdzan/Fry production, where fairways are set out in two distinct circuits: a typical low country front nine and a more undulating back nine that exhibits a number of spectacular elevation changes.
Former owner Rick Hvizdak developed the course, along with the somewhat surreal castle-themed restaurant/clubhouse that adjoins it, before selling the complete facility on to Sewickley entrepreneur Joe Nocito in 2012.
Level lies are hard to come by on a course that’s laid out on such rugged terrain, where enormous limestone blocks are found all over the place; lining cart paths, supporting elevated tee boxes and underpinning hillside greensites.The sensational 474-yard 16th is undoubtedly the signature hole on the property, playing as it does to a fairway that lies 80 feet below an elevated tee position, which allows the average golfer to experience a satisfying five second hang time for their 300+ yard drive. It’s always nice to feel like a pro out on the course, even if it’s just for one shot.
The tandem of Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry produced a quality array of courses during their efforts together. The issue with Olde Stonewall was how to handle the diversity of the terrain because, as others have pointed out, the outward side and inward side are vastly different.
To use a movie analogy -- there are those enamored with loud explosions, car chase scenes with a hint of meaningful dialogue. Then you have real cinema -- with well-developed storylines, characters one cares about and a plot that keeps you riveted. Olde Stonewall is the former. Architectural mavens will play it one time than wonder why the visit happened when such treasured western PA layouts such as Fox Chapel, Pittsburgh Field Club, Oakmont, are in the immediate area. Yes, I am aware all the aforementioned are private and that Olde Stonewall is a daily fee facility. The issue for Olde Stonewall is that the Keystone State lacks superior public courses of note and given the dearth of options, the Ellwood City layout being near to Pittsburgh gets the nod. Candidly, I believe a visit to Freeport and Birdsfoot would showcase a layout hardly mentioned by those not from that part of the State.
Olde Stonewall also overdoses on the number of bunkers on the property. Candidly, when you abrupt terrain changes one doesn't need a minefield of bunkers that only clutter up the landscape. In my mind, a less is more approach on that aspect would have worked even better.
In my estimation -- only New York has a greater disparity between the top tier private and the best open to the public. Pennsylvania has Mystic Rock and Bedford Springs but the overall cupboard is quite thin throughout the Commonwealth.
Olde Stonewall provides enough fun shots on the back nine to enthrall the masses and when you add in quality turf to enjoy the round you can have a grand time. Architecturally, Hurdzan and Fry did far better work in a range of settings and course types and I can say that after having played a healthy number of them. Olde Stonewall just happens to look good because the depth of the competition in Pennsy is rather limited.
M. James Ward
Perhaps ownership actually decided to build the castle-themed clubhouse after seeing the completed golf course; after all...that sort of excess wasn't a far-cry from the routing Michael Hurdzan & Dana Fry planned for the back nine. The course's signature stretch (if you will) from Nos. 12-16 will probably alienate two sets of golfers. Both will acknowledge the first 12 were well-maintained, with several bits of excitement (nos. 2-4 are often overlooked in light of what comes later) but from there, Player A will drool at the degree of heroism presented to him...while the more conservative design advocate will shake his head in disgust. Both are correct; but this reviewer tends to get giddy when playing such exotic fare in the Midwest. Among the highlights for the heroic will be No. 14, a Par 3 raining down from a turret of a tee box to a green surrounded by manmade waterfalls, framed by the course's signature "stone wall" slabs. No. 16 takes the cake, however, with forced ravine carries upon both drive and approach (and a nasty mid-fairway bunker to contend with on the latter). It's a hole would make for a striking closer, but unfortunately the plot Hurdzan was given simply didn't allow for it. This makes the closing stretch back to the clubhouse a bit of a drag, even with as stiff as No. 18 plays. The mountainous terrain on the back nine also means you'll play the course's only two Par 5s on the front. Ultimately, Olde Stonewall is very much aimed at certain course personalities, and not the others.
One will find Old Stonewall in the Borough of Ellwood City which sits on the western edge of Pennsylvania near the Ohio boarder. The 8,000 residents of Ellwood City are indeed lucky to have a course of this caliber in their backyard. The other two public courses in Pennsylvania I would put in the top 3, Bedford Springs and Mystic Rock, are both part of a resort but not so here. The course conditions were excellent when I played, rivaling what one would expect at any private country club. The two nine are different in character and both are very good. The front nine is more traditional with two par 5’s and two par 3’s. The back nine is quite dramatic with some significant elevation changes. One of the things I liked was that the architects let the land dictate the back nine. There are no par 5’s and the two par 3’s are back to back. That’s what the site dictates. The routing could be confusing but the signage does a great job of getting you to the right spot. It reminded me a bit of another great course, Greywalls in Marquette, Michigan in that respect. The par 4’s on the course are the real stars. Lots of risk and reward and you need to think about your second shot when hitting your first. People will disagree about which hole should be the signature hole on the course which is a pleasant problem to have. I found the fairways to have adequate width even when they looked more narrow at the tee. The course may not be for everyone. If you only like to walk when you play the back nine’s elevation change is probably too much to make that a rational decision. Having played many courses in this region of the country, if you drew a 75 mile circle around Old Stonewall, I doubt you would find a more exciting venue open to the public.