FARMINGTON, Pa. -- New Director of Golf Mike Jones shifts his new jeep into four-wheel drive.
The off-road ride gets rough. The Jeep bounces up and down like a bobber in rough seas. Land that will someday be a smooth fairway on a future Pete Dye-designed golf course at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is currently just a bumpy mess of muddy tire tracks, rocks, grassy humps and old bunkers.
When the new course does open -- one nine in 2017 and one in 2018 -- it will signal a renewed commitment to the game for Nemacolin, a 2,000-acre mountain playground 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.
The magnificent resort took a step out of the golf limelight when the plug was pulled on its popular PGA Tour event, the 84 Lumber Classic, in 2006. Nemacolin is ready to reclaim its rightful place among the country's best golf resorts.
The resort hired Jones away from Kapalua in Maui to run its courses, and poached new Director of Instruction Eric Johnson from the prestigious Oakmont Country Club. Johnson, a top-100 teacher, will revamp the resort's golf academy once the 2016 U.S. Open is over.
Eventually, the new Dye course -- which will replace the old Links Course -- and the always spectacular Mystic Rock Course, host of the 84 Lumber Classic, will team up to be a 1-2 punch as strong as any 36-hole resort in the Midwest and upper East Coast.
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
Joe Hardy, the founder of 84 Lumber, virtually blasted Nemacolin from the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountains starting in 1986. His version of fantasy land, now run by his daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, dazzles every demographic -- couples, families, golfers, adventure seekers, buddies weekends -- with a unique, almost whimsical, collection of facilities, all connected by resort shuttles.
Guests can stay at the Chateau Lafayette, the Lodge (the original Inn on the property) or Falling Rock, the AAA Five Diamond boutique hotel (where I crashed) that was added in 2004. A butler watched over my every need. Every night, two chocolate chip cookies the size of Frisbees showed up just in case my sugar craze kicked in after dark. I dined at Aqueous, the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired steakhouse downstairs. Next time, I hope to experience Lautrec, a Forbes Five-Star, AAA Five Diamond award winner.
Adults can seek out action at the Lady Luck casino, zone out at the Woodlands spa or head outdoors to fish and shoot targets at The Field Club. Wine tasting and touring Hardy's $45 million collection are other popular pursuits.
The kids will go bonkers over the activities at the adventure center -- putt-putt, rock-wall climbing, a ropes course, paintball and zip-lining the Fatbird Superflyer. A free zoo called the Wildlife Academy houses everything a large city zoo would have -- wolves, tigers, zebras, bison, bears and more. Even your favorite pet will get the five-star treatment. The Nemacolin Wooflands Pet Care Center, a pet hotel adjacent to the resort, will pamper Fido, too.
Golf at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
The tournament history of Mystic Rock, which opened in 1995, is on display just outside the pro shop inside Falling Rock. Each winner of the 84 Lumber Classic -- J.L. Lewis (2003), Vijay Singh (2004), Jason Gore (2005) and Ben Curtis (2006) -- is celebrated with his own display case.
Low scores during the 2003 tournament forced Dye to tinker with the layout three straight years to sharpen its teeth, but I actually found it to be among the most playable and enjoyable Dye courses I've come across in all my travels. My recent Golf Advisor story ranked Mystic Rock among the 10 best casino courses in the country.
Every time I didn't feel confident taking on a hazard -- a bunker or a pond -- Dye offered up a less heroic road. He built two greens on the par-5 fifth hole and again on the par-3 12th to add new attack angles when necessary.
Both greens on the fifth hole sit near a cascading manmade waterfall feature with a statue of John Daly on an island. No. 11 is another glorious par 5 that follows a rock-lined pond. True to most tournament venues, its three-hole finishing stretch is a real gut-buster. As if the mountain scenery wasn't enough, various statues and sculptures further decorate the design.
A few golfers might miss the old Links Course, but all indications are the new course will be a significant upgrade. Architect Tim Liddy is handling construction. Dye's routing will rise and fall naturally with the land. It will likely feel similar to Mystic Rock, being built on the same rocky, rolling terrain. Considering the other resorts and clubs that feature multiple Dye designs -- The American Club in Wisconsin, Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic and Las Vegas Pauite -- Nemacolin will certainly be in good company.