Field Report:

Bedford Springs and Spa, Bedford, PA

By Michael J. Fay

Built in 1798 the Bedford Springs Hotel was once the Grand Dame of resort hotels in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Among many amenities it offered a golf course that was originally designed by Spencer Oldham in the early1896, reworked by A. W. Tillinghast around 1911 and then redesigned and finished by Donald Ross in 1923.

The resort and hotel flourished in the roaring 20’s, survived the Depression and continued to operate successfully through the 1990’s. By then the hotel showed many of the signs of age and use. The hotel had long lost its’ luster, the grounds became old and tired and the vaunted golf course became the victim of unchecked natural elements. A stream that runs through the course had taken the ground. Springtime floods assaulted the banks and spilled unto the playing field creating a situation whereby the maintenance of the course was beyond the budget and capacity of the income brought in by the facility.

By the mid 1990’s the Bedford Springs Hotel had become an untenable asset to the owners. The cost of reconditioning of the lodging and accessory facilities had become a number that defied any thought of a complete overhaul. The problem was the comparison of original investment added to the needed capital infusion equaled a number that could not be overcome by the projected income of the resort by a vast multiple. In other words, by conventional wisdom the hotel, the facility, the golf course made no economic sense. Lucky for the traveling and golfing genre today, conventional wisdom did not rule the day.

By 2002 the resort had hit very hard times. In stepped the new owners with the idea that a resort hotel and spa that had survived nearly every downturn and bump in the road over two hundred years could be revived and put on a profitable footing that could return this venerable Inn to its’ past glory.

The hotel was ramshackle and worn out. They answered with a plan to rebuild the facility with a capital infusion of $ 120,000,000.00. This was an investment sufficient to completely rebuild every aspect of the hotel, the rooms, the common areas, the parking facilities and all the other amenities. What remained was the golf course, with all of its’ attendant problems and disintegration of a hundred years.

Benchmark Golf was appointed as the manager of the property. Greg French, Vice President of the Benchmark Golf Group was put in charge of the rebuilding and reconditioning of the golf course. Benchmark manages many properties, old and new and understood the importance of the provenance of the Bedford Springs Golf Course. French and his cohorts figured that building a new facility was much more risky than taking the original venue and enhancing it in a fashion that would not only restore its’ original character but also march the bones of the Bedford Springs Golf Club into the 21st century.

To the benefit of all serious classic golf aficionados Benchmark hired Ron Forse of Forse Design to restore the old golf course. Ron and chief hand Jim Nagle set about to study the ground, the history and make a usable inventory of problems that had to be overcome.
The main problem was the creek. It had been altered some three hundred years earlier as a result of a dam that had been built to provide water and power to a long defunct manufacturing facility. The answer was to return the creek to its’ original bed and deepen and widen the waterway to provide an uncongested flow to aid in the drainage of the property. The dig began. 60,000 cubic yards of excavated fill later the serpentine creek was returned to its genesis and the water started to flow freely.

Now the rebirth of the golf course could begin. Working with all the historical data they could muster Forse and Nagle went about to restore the holes that were left by all three designers. The second hole, one of the few remaining Oldham holes was rebuilt using a green that was originally constructed in 1902 making it one of the longest serving putting surfaces in continual use in Western Pennsylvania. The Ross holes were molded in the Ross style, the Tillinghast holes were returned to the strategy and bunkering so well known to A.W.’s fans.

The 60,000 cubic yards of fill were employed to enhance some mounding, build some stream containment wall, raise ever so slightly some of the putting surfaces and addition of many tees for different levels of play.

The result is remarkable. The course is a delightful, flowing layout with all the appointments that one would expect on a “Classic Era” design. The holes fit together with little distance between greens and tees and a feel of a return to the 1920’s. New back tees make the course a little over 6,800 yards, a test stern enough for nearly all golfers. The forward tees allow the senior and women players a track that is challenging but not overwhelming. In all, the new course presents strategy and challenge to all levels of golfers without overtaxing their ability to hit the long bomb.

Superintendent David Swartzel whose resume includes a stint at the venerable Philadelphia Cricket Club has been on board since the beginning of the reconstruction. He is now overseeing the final grow in of the course which is scheduled to open in late June. The bent grass fairways and greens already look well established. The vast areas of fescue grasses that frame many of the golf holes look as if they have been there forever. In all, the course is very close to being ready for play.

A strong round of applause is offered to Greg French, Benchmark Golf, Ron Forse and Jim Nagle for their thoughtful and professional restoration of this American Classic.

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