A Sunny Day at Sunnehanna

· Golf,Pennsylvania

About an hour and a half east of Pittsburgh, in Johnstown, PA, lies Sunnehanna Country Club. It's not a particularly easy place to travel to; there isn't a major airport in the vicinity, and it's a solid 40 minutes from the nearest interstate highway. Still, the club and its Tillinghast-designed golf course has been a destination that for decades has attracted the greatest amateur golfers in the country to compete in the annual Sunnehanna Amateur championship. Golfers who have gone on to great professional careers, including Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, have trekked to Johnstown to play in the prestigious tournament. And well-known golfers inclusing Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Collin Morikawa and Webb Simpson have hoisted the trophy before they began their illustrious professional careers. 

I was supposed to play the course for the first time a month or so ago, but a Pennsylvania June monsoon (that arrived a few days early in late May) canceled my hopes to get out that day. So I was thankful for a makeup opportunity recently on what turned out to be a gorgeous, sunny summer's day. 

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Upon my arrival, I was immediately taken with the beauty of the clubhouse, perched on a hill overlooking much of the golf course, with its manicured flowerbeds. The staff was incredibly welcoming and friendly at the bag drop, and the ladies in the pro shop were quick to offer some tips for a first-time visitor. Chief among them ... keep it in the fairway.  As it turned out, I was visiting only a few days after the 2021 Sunnehanna Amateur, and the course was still in championship condition ... and the club prides itself on championship conditions that rival those of the U.S. Open ... but with slightly wider fairways.

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The first hole is a straightaway 439-yard par-4 that invites players to take a big swing on the first tee. A drive in the fairway sets up a mid- to long-iron into a large, receptive green. But a drive that misses the fairway and finds either of the fairway bunkers or the rough sets the player up for a certain bogey ... or worse.

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No. 2 is a pretty, uphill 430-yard par-4 that plays back to the clubhouse. As I discovered after hitting what I was sure was a terrific little fade from the tee ... cutting the dogleg is not as easy as it looks.

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The third hole is perhaps the least interesting hole on the course from an architectural perspective, but the panoramic view of the surrounding Laurel Highlands could easily cause a player to break concentration and lose a stroke or more in a hurry.

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At 403 yards, the downhill 4th hole presents a solid birdie opportunity for the golfer who finds the fairway off the tee, but it demands a precise second shot as left is wet and long is an almost certain bogey.

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No. 4 from the fairway.

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The par-3 5th hole is a challenging 205-yard test of nerves. Long is in the woods. And with a small pond that stretches most of the length of the hole, short is Natalie Wood. (Too soon?)

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Ironically, the view from the tee on No. 6 may be my favorite on the course. There's just something about the way the hole stretches into the distance and the way the high grass short left and to the right frame the hole that creates an aesthetic that I like. What you can't see in this picture is the series of bunkers in the crook of the dogleg, which is where my ball seemed to want to take up permanent residence during the course of play. And so what may have been my favorite hole is also the hole on which I posted my worst score of the day.

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The 7th is a 241-yard par-3 that requires about a 210-yard tee shot that will land short and run up into the middle of the green. This was my first good look at birdie, and I was happy to walk away with a par.

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No. 8 is a short par-4, and I really like the look of this hole. With trees lining both sides, it feels almost like you've found a secluded spot on a golf course that, at times, can feel wide open. Much like hole 6, though, my appreciation for the aesthetics did not translate into great play as I topped a tee shot that disappeared into the high junk on the right and counted myself lucky to escape with a double-bogey after I re-teed.

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Stretching 617 yards and playing uphill, the par-5 9th is pretty much all the golf you could want in one hole. And the pitch of the fairway is more pronounced than it appears from the tee. A long drive or a second shot to the middle of the fairway or right will roll down to the right until it reaches at least the first cut of rough and likely into the second cut. To this point, I'd counted myself lucky that balls I hit in the rough seemed to find just the right spot to sit up in playable positions. My luck was about to run out on No. 9, when I hit my third shot to the green, came up short and just right of the fairway.

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This was my lie just about two feet into the primary cut of rough and maybe 10 yards short of the green. Can't see my ball? Let me zoom in for you ...

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This was the state of the rough all over the course. A couple of my playing partners had been hacking out of it all morning, but this was my first real battle with the deep stuff, and the course won. While I was able to barely get the ball from here onto the green, taking the shot tweaked a chronic back injury that rears its head from time to time. I was in serious pain, and a smarter man would probably have quit. But I've got Irish blood, and I was still on the right side of the dirt, so I played on.

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And strange as it may be ... with my back aching something fierce, I began posting pars, starting with the 175-yard par-3 10th. 

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The par-5 11th requires a tee shot in the fairway. If you can keep it in the short grass off the tee, this hole is a definite birdie opportunity.

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At 427 yards, the slightly uphill 12th hole is a stout test of your game following the brief respite that was the 11th hold. The fairway bunker on the right gobbles up golf balls like the maw of a hungry, hungry hippo. But failing to challenge the bunker with a drive out to the left can leave the player with a dangerously long second shot.

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If you can get your approach to stay on the 12th green, you just might have a birdie opportunity ... but don't get your hopes up. The green is sloped and fast.

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The 13th green, like all of the greens at Sunnehanna, was undulating and fast. Not quite Oakmont or Augusta fast, but stil very fast. There were three legitimate birdie opportunities from the players in my group, and none of us could manage to hole the putt. Two of us three-putted from inside 10 feet.

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No. 14 -- the third par-3 that stretches to more than 200 yards -- may be my favorite par-3 on the course. Doesn't hurt that I made an excellent lag putt from the left side of the green to just about two feet and carded a very satisfying par.

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The 15th is a terrific par-5 with a blind second shot up and over the crest of the hill. This was also probably the most complete hole I played during my round with a good drive down the fairway, a very well struck 3-wood for my second shot, and then a drawing pitching wedge that bent around some overhanging trees from the left side of the fairway, leaving myself this for birdie:

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You just mind your business about whether or not I made the putt!

I did not. The putt was quick and curling and lipped out, leaving me a testy comebacker for par, which I did sink.

Moving on!

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At just 182 yards, the 16th hole plays uphill to a green hidden behind a wall of bunkers. Players can be fooled into believing the pin is tucked when really it could be 30 yards deep on the green with plenty of room to land the ball short and run it up to the hole. Pushing a 6-iron right off the tee, I made a mess of this hole, and it was my only bad hole on the back nine.

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No. 17 was one of those holes where I could just see the shot I was going to hit as soon as I stepped to the tee box. I just knew I was going to hit a blasted draw over the fairway bunker on the left and cut the dogleg to leave myself a mid- or short-iron into the green. I was 100% sure of it. And that's exactly what I did. It was my best drive of the day and felt terrific. Unfortunately, I followed that up by dumping a pushed pitching wedge into a greenside bunker and barely escaping with a bogey.

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The finishing hole at Sunnehanna is a challenging uphill par-4. Measuing just 373 yards, players may be tempted to try bombing a ball to the top of the hill. But be warned; the fairway starts to tighten up there. Anything in the direction of the bunkers will have tree trouble with a pin tucked on the right-hand side of the green. And anything left runs the risk of being lost in the rough ... as one of my playing partners discovered.

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The approach shot on 18 doesn't offer much of an opportunity to view the green, forcing a golfer to trust his yardage and his swing. There are birdies to be had on the home hole at Sunnehanna, but the course doesn't just give them away; they must be earned.

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I really can't say enough just how much I enjoyed my experience playing at Sunnehanna. Ironically, I played better on the back nine after hurting my back than I did on the front nine, going out in 46 and coming home in 39 for a final score of 85. I'm not sure what that says about my game, but finishing well always elevates a course in any golfer's mind.

Truly, though, Sunnehanna is a fantastic course, and it's easy to see why it's been ranked among the top 100 classic courses in America. The members should be proud, as should the staff. And I look forward to the next opportunity I get to visit and play this Western Pennsylvania gem so close to home.

 

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