LATROBE, Pa. -- Sitting in the grill room at Latrobe Country Club, I did what any savvy golfer would do. I ordered an Arnold Palmer.
My story assignment was to write about the best public courses around Pittsburgh in advance of the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, but how could I come all the way across country from California and not stop by Latrobe?
Latrobe, a last-minute add-on to my itinerary, should be considered one of the great landmarks of American golf. Arnold Palmer grew up playing the course partially built by his father, Deacon Palmer. He still maintains an office and home right across the street. Palmer is the common thread that holds the region's golf community together. Everybody in the industry has a personal story to share.
If Pinehurst, N.C., hadn't already claimed the "Home of American Golf" moniker, I'd bestow it upon Latrobe. Palmer's flamboyance, grace, style and charm grew the game immensely in the 1950s and 1960s before he handed the reins to Jack Nicklaus, who beat Palmer in a playoff for his first victory as a pro at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
When I shook Palmer's hand during a brief encounter in his office, I felt like just another fan, a dedicated foot soldier in "Arnie's Army." Palmer, 86, isn't making many public appearances these days, so it was a true highlight to meet the King on his home turf.
Oh, by the way, the golf on the trip was pretty good, too.
Day 1: Olde Stonewall
Driving through the beautiful countryside to reach the Olde Stonewall Golf Club north of Pittsburgh inspired me. It was reminiscent of northern Michigan -- quaint, bucolic, Midwestern Americana. Flags draped downtown main streets in preparation for Memorial Day parades.
Olde Stonewall caught me off-guard with its imposing castle clubhouse. With 50-foot turrets, it reminded me of a place I stayed years ago, the Dromoland Castle, a real 18th century castle in southwest Ireland.
Olde Stonewall, a course by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, unfurls along the Connoquenessing Creek on the front nine before climbing for a series of intimidating and special holes higher in the hills. Giant boulders transported in from a nearby quarry help the holes visually pop.
I love the concept of back-to-back par 3s -- they force architects to make both holes play complete different, something that doesn't always happen when they are spread throughout a layout. Olde Stonewall has a pair of par-3 keepers at nos. 14 and 15. They set up the biggest cliffhanger of the round -- the tee shot at no. 16. Head to the back tees with your camera, a couple spare balls and a confident driver. The thrilling tee shot must carry 240 yards to reach the fairway below. The ball sports some serious hang time before landing.
Pittsburgh's elite -- any number of Pirates, Penguins and Steelers -- have come by to experience the same views and to dine at the medieval-themed Shakespeare's Restaurant and Pub inside the clubhouse.
Driving by Oakmont along the Pennsylvania Turnpike after the round wasn't easy, but I was ready for some rest and relaxation, not getting pounded into submission by what Phil Mickelson recently called "the hardest golf course we've ever played."
Day 2: Omni Bedford Springs
The Omni Bedford Springs in tiny Bedford two hours east of Pittsburgh has been a haven for relaxation since the 1800s. Guests -- including 12 former presidents -- visited for the healing hot springs. The first building dates to 1804. President James Buchanan, a regular visitor, received the first Trans-Atlantic telegraph at Bedford Springs in 1858.
After falling into disrepair and closing in 1986 for two decades, Bedford Springs was restored roughly a decade ago. A $120 million investment modernized the hotel, while retaining its historic charms. The marble tile work near the indoor pool is simply exquisite.
The resort's resurgence continues today. Construction of a new golf clubhouse will be completed next year, adding another restaurant at the resort and giving golfers a true hangout. From 2005-07, the team of Ron Forse and Jim Nagle did impressive work renovating a golf course with roots to A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. Forse calls Bedford Springs a "museum" of golden-age architecture. It's got classic holes by Ross -- the epic "Volcano" par 3 at no. 4 -- and Tillinghast -- the fun par 3 at no. 14 named "Tiny Tim." The layout feels timeless like it could be around another century.
Between the excellent food and the world-class Eternal Springs Spa, the resort is certainly worth the drive to find. It's about three hours from Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and Baltimore.
Day 3: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort
After a second round at Bedford Springs in the morning, I trekked west through the Allegheny Mountains to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, a 2,000-acre mountain playground in the Laurel Highlands 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. After my butler checked me in at Falling Rock, a plush AAA Five Diamond boutique hotel, I went searching for adventure. There are lots of choices at this unique resort -- rock-climbing, shooting clays, fishing, trails for bikes and vehicles, zip-lining, etc.
At this age, though, my idea of an adrenaline rush involves touring a new Pete Dye-designed golf course that's under construction. New Director of Golf Mike Jones, Golf Operations Supervisor Zach Clabaugh and I went off-roading in a Jeep to catch up with lead architect Tim Liddy, who was staking out lines for a pond.
The course will occupy the footprint of the original Links Course that it is replacing and part of a Jeep park used for off-road rides. If it can live up to Mystic Rock, the other Dye course on property, then Nemacolin might become more a national draw instead of just a regional one. It will open nine holes next year with the final nine in 2018.
That night, the three of us dined at Aqueous, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired steakhouse in Falling Rock. I skipped the nightlife at the Lady Luck casino because the room felt too comfy to leave.
Day 4: Touring Palmer's Kingdom
I woke up to an early club-fitting session at the Nemacolin Golf Academy with a Trackman to get a new TaylorMade M1 driver dialed in. The world-class facility will get a major upgrade when Eric Johnson, a top-100 teacher from Oakmont Country Club, takes over as the new director of instruction later this month.
Like the rest of the resort, Mystic Rock, host of the 2003-06 84 Lumber Classic on the PGA Tour, delivers quirky fun. It's playable and yet Dye-hard at the same time. Tons of water and rock give it plenty of visual appeal and hints of intimidation -- two Dye specialties. The par-5 fifth and par-3 11th holes feature multiple greens that alternate use, depending on the day.
Joe Hardy, the founder of both the resort and the 84 Lumber company that owns it, brought his appreciation of fine art outside, decorating the course with sculptures and statues, one being John Daly. Mystic Rock deserves its place among the top 10 casino courses in the U.S. by Golf Advisor.
Touring Palmer's Kingdom almost didn't happen, but an old friend who has worked with Palmer over the years served as a worthy tour guide. We walked through the clubhouse, looking at old photographs and admiring trophies won by Palmer. We jumped in a cart and rode around the course, a hilly track that plays much tougher and tighter than the 6,517 yards on the scorecard would indicate.
Next stop was the SpringHill Suites Pittsburgh Latrobe less than a mile away that sells stay-and-play packages to Latrobe, which is a private club. The new hotel, which opened in 2012 as part of the Marriott chain, celebrates Palmer's golf and aviation career with displays and artwork throughout its lobby.
But the real treasure trove lies back in Palmer's office. I'm guessing some day this place becomes a museum of golf. His workshop is man-cave heaven, a disheveled collection of old clubs, golf balls and trinkets.
Every golfer should make a pilgrimage to play Latrobe someday to honor their King, whether Palmer is in town or not. It feels like a throwback in time to the 1950s when Palmer was stalking fairways and going for broke on every shot. I'm so glad I did.