Oakland Beach Golf Club
May 28, 2012
All I really want to do when I’m on vacation is relax, eat as much as possible, and perhaps sneak in a round of golf. For the past several years, my family and I have spent Memorial Day weekend – and various other weekends throughout the summer whenever a mini-trip is possible – at Conneaut Lake. It is tucked in Pennsylvania’s northwestern corner, roughly 40 miles south of Erie, and it is the commonwealth’s largest natural lake (for you geography buffs). I wouldn’t call it a golf destination, but there is a great public course on the eastern shore that I love to play whenever I’m in town: Oakland Beach Golf Club.
According to the course’s website, which features an outstanding hole-by-hole video description narrated by the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bill Hillgrove, it was opened in 1927 and served as the resort course for the old Oakland Beach Hotel. The hotel is long-gone, but the course remains for those who wish to do something other than water ski, fish, or fall asleep on the lake’s shore.
Also found on its website is an article from 1999 that states that the course was designed by “Paul McGuire,” and this is the best part, “…of whom little is known.” Mysterious.
I showed up at the course at 6:25am for my 6:54am tee time. I couldn’t convince my brother to get up that early to play with me, so I reserved a spot for one. I knew this could go one of two horrible ways: a) I would get thrown in with another group (not so bad, I guess); or b) I would remain a single but get stuck behind a foursome, thus defeating the purpose of trying to be the first guy out that day. At check-in, my fate appeared to be the latter.
When I dare to ask if my 6:54am tee time is indeed the first of the day, I am told, rather sharply, “You’ll have to wait until that group is ready to go,” pointing to four guys through the window. “They are always the first ones out,” she adds. “Thank you,” I say with my tail between my legs. Geesh.
I carefully grab my cart key off the counter, back away slowly, and walk outside. I mosie on down to the row of parked carts, past the practice green where the Honorary Starters are having a confab, and place my clubs on the back of one of the carts. Knowing darn well that the group is watching me, I make a great show of putting my valuables in one of the pockets of my bag, checking my watch, lacing up my shoes, opening up a new sleeve of balls, getting my marker out to mark them, checking my watch, moving my Gatorade from one cup holder to another, and then another, etc. My final act is to stand next to the cart, with my arms folded, staring reflectively out toward the first hole, which is half obscured by the morning fog.
I have to say it is one of my strongest performances. Sure enough I hear, “Uh, you can go ahead. Yeah, go on. Go!”
“Oh. Are you sure?” I say in fake surprise. “Great. I promise not to hold you up!” I am in the cart and halfway down the path before I finish my reply. I roll up to the first tee, pull out my Diablo driver, and run to the blue tees back near the roadway entrance to the parking lot. By the time I push the tee in the ground, place the ball on top, and step to the back of the tee box to size up the hole, four carts full of dudes roll up behind me.
You better make this tee shot count.
Through the fog I can make out a few trees along the right side of the dogleg left hole. Thankfully, I remember (this time) that the main road is on the other side of those trees and much closer than one might think. So I line up over the left edge of the fairway and swing away. I absolutely murder the ball and briefly admire it as it flies right over my target, with a little bit of draw, before disappearing into the thick water vapor.
To these eight men, I am a playa. I thank them again and breathe a sigh of relief as I motor down the fairway toward my ball. Once I get over the hill and around the corner of the fairway, the fog oddly dissipates and I can see just how good my drive is. From the blue tees the hole is only 347 yards long, and I’ve got no more than 80 to go to the green. I hop out, take one quick practice swing with my Vokey sand wedge, aim for the flag, and swing away. I make one of my signature foot-long divots through the moist, dewy sod (after making contact with the ball, so it’s okay) and look up in time to see the ball tracking right for my target. It lands on the right edge, bounces twice, and rolls up to about 9 feet below the hole.
The best kept secret about this course is the condition of the greens, and I am pleasantly reminded of this fact every time I approach that first putt on the opening hole. The first thing you notice is how tiny they are, and it’s probably the course’s number one defense against overconfident golfers (see next hole) expecting to tear up this 6,783-yard track. While not super fast, they are as smooth and true as any country club’s greens in the area, which is quite an accomplishment for the amount of traffic the course can get.
Now out of range from the foursomes waiting to tee off behind me, I relax a bit and take my time marking and cleaning my ball, removing the flagstick from the hole, and studying the break in the green. I’m feeling good this morning and I want get off to solid start. The 9-footer is uphill and appears to break about a cup to the left. I place the ball in front of the mark pointing the black arrow, conveniently printed on the side of my ProV1, toward the right edge of the cup, pick up my mark, check the line again, and step up to the putt. Two practice swings, one more glance at the hole, a perfect swing, ball rolling on line, little turn left, and down it goes for birdie.
“Nice,” I say to no one.
To get to No. 2 you must cross the street – exactly like Oakland Beach’s sister to the south Oakmont C.C. (coincidence?) – and as I dodge cars emerging from a new patch of fog, I am feeling pumped. One-under par after one hole and I’m already thinking about where I’m going to frame this scorecard after my sub-70 round. It’s just a question of how low I’m going to go.
At 449 yards, the second hole is the longest par 4 on the course and requires a poke off the tee to have a decent shot at hitting the green. The fairway is wide open with only a few shrubs and trees to worry about along the left side near the landing area. Though there is out-of-bounds to the right, the hole points away from it and should not be an issue. I hit my drive well, but into the right rough.
Still more than 200 yards away from the green, I can’t quite bring myself to hit the hybrid. I try to muscle a 3 iron out of the thick, wet rough, but come up way short of the green. With a large bunker guarding the entire left side, and the pin in the back left corner, I don’t mind being right where I am.
Always loving the chance to hit a pitch shot from 30 to 40 yards off a perfect fairway lie, I take dead aim at a spot 10 feet in front of the cup and hit down sharply into the ball. I completely misjudge the power required to get the ball back to the pin. It flies the cup and checks up just in time to stay on the back fringe. My chip from there ends up well past the hole, down the hill, and a two-putt for double-bogey follows.
Well that was a kick in the face. Perhaps I should tone down the swagger a bit.
No. 3 is a 393-yard par 4 with a tee shot through a narrow shoot of trees to a fairway turning right and up the hill. There is absolutely no trouble on this wide-open hole – no bunkers, no trees within 20 yards of the fairway, no crazy undulations on the green – but for the first 50 yards of branches hanging over the tee boxes. There is out-of-bounds all along the right, but it would take a serious slice to come into play. If you are experiencing any accuracy issues with your driver before approaching this tee, it could become a long hole very quickly.
Still in denial over my double-bogey on the previous hole, I shuffle out of the cart and up to the tee. I shake it off, take dead aim at the lone pine tree between the third and fourth fairways, and swing for the fences. The ball misses the last branch on the right by less than a foot and disappears into the morning mist.
Knowing it is a great hit, and seeing it clear that last branch, I instinctively turn away from the ball and reach over to grab my tee. But then I remember that I’m alone and I’ve twice lost balls on this hole after hitting “perfect” drives, so I quickly look back toward the flight of my drive and into the bright haze. I see nothing. Did I draw that a little, or was it a fade? I think I hit it hard, but maybe I didn’t. Oh great.
I drive up the middle of the fairway, seeing nothing. I roll over toward that one pine tree on the left side, squinting to see a little white ball in a sea of thick, green, wet rough. Nothing. So I go up a little farther, pushing the limits of how hard I think I can hit a golf ball. Still nothing. Back on the second hole I can see the group behind me approaching the green and looking in my direction as I drive my cart around in circles.
I guess I have to end this and just drop a ball. Son.of.a… Wait! What is that? Okay, okay, I’m fine. I’m right in the middle of the fairway. Good. You need to chill out, yo.
The yardage is 138, and I choose to hit a ¾ 8 iron. The pin is on the back right corner, again with no danger anywhere in sight, and I hit a decent shot to 15 feet below the hole. My birdie effort is mediocre, and I tap in for par.
The fourth hole is No. 3 in reverse. It runs parallel to the previous hole, doglegs left, is flat off the tee shot but slightly downhill to the green, guarded by a row of tall trees along the left side, and has no bunkers. It’s longer – 433 yards – and it plays as the No. 1 handicap hole, mostly because of the small green with a fast right-to-left and back-to-front tilt.
I’m so glad I hit my drive well into the right rough, leaving myself very little opportunity to hit this green. With 208 yards left in the thick, wet stuff, I select a 3 iron to get the ball down the fairway as far as possible to present myself with a manageable pitch to the far left pin placement. The plan works, and I pitch on from less than 20 yards away. But I miss my 10-foot par putt and force myself to make a 6-foot comebacker to save bogey.
The next hole, No. 5, can be confusing the first time you play here (and the second time if your short-term memory sucks), because the blue tees are about 20 yards in front of the white tees. My brother and I played our inaugural round here last summer and I almost teed off toward No. 2 – and the road – before I realized the hole was behind me. The hole is a par 5 for golfers playing from the whites and reds, but a par 4 from the blues. (Though clearly marked on the scorecard we didn’t truly understand the bizarre tee marker configuration until we were sitting on No. 10 tee trying to figure out why our numbers weren’t matching up with par.)
So from where I’m standing the hole is 438 yards long, a dogleg left, and uphill on the second shot. The round green is isolated on top of the hill, with the fairway ending about 90 yards shy of the fringe. It is also tilted severely from back-to-front and right-to-left. Hitting the fairway is crucial if one is to have any chance of putting for birdie. Knowing this, I aim for the middle of the fairway, focus on making a nice and easy swing, and then hook it maybe five yards into the rough on the left.
Despite being offline, the drive was well struck and I walk off my second shot to 186 yards. The ball is sitting up nicely on top of the rough and the grain of the grass is with the hole. All signs point to a nice 3 iron getting me to the putting surface, but I pull it slightly and miss the green left.
On my way toward the green I notice something out of the corner of my eye. Being on the course this early in the morning, the slightest disturbance of dew anywhere on the empty property is glaringly obvious – quite helpful when looking for golf balls. Throughout the morning so far I’ve seen all of two sets of tire tracks, presumably from maintenance workers moving mowers from one green to another.
Is that….one tire track…?
I inch up a little farther to investigate, and realize what it is: a turtle slowly making his way to the lake!
Feeling one with nature – as well as relieved that I spotted the turtle before rolling right over him – I finish off the hole with a decent chip to 8 feet, but a poor missed putt on the low side. Another bogey.
No. 6 is the first par 3 on the course and another sneaky tough hole. The tee shot is all uphill to a small green with one lone bunker tucked between it and the out-of-bounds markers along the right side. Shots missing on the left side will bounce down a steep hill, leaving all sorts of fun scenarios for chipping back up onto the green. And not only is the putting surface not visible from the tee, neither is the pond that stealthily sits between you and the flagstick.
The pin is in the very back portion of the green and I hit the front right edge with my 6 iron. I know, it’s sad that I can’t get a 6 iron all the way to the pin on a 150-yard hole, but these are the facts. Still perplexed by the speed of these greens, I three-putt for a bogey.
I am now four-over-par after six holes. That birdie on No. 1 feels like it was another day.
No. 7 is a long, straight par 5 back down the hill. Though I miss the fairway to the right with my tee ball, I give myself a great chance for birdie by leaving my third shot just 13 feet below the hole. The putt looked to me like a right-to-left breaker, but it stayed dead straight. Tap in for par.
The next hole is a 349-yard par 4, with nothing standing in your way but a large oak tree to the left of the landing area. Tee balls will land beyond the horizon, as the fairway dips down toward the green. I smoke the Diablo and stand on the tee admiring my first really good drive since the opening hole. The ball draws nicely and disappears right over the left edge of the fairway.
I’m left with 73 yards to the middle of the green. It looks harmless enough, but the green is sloped from back-to-front and it is wicked fast. My approach shot lands pin high but rolls up the slope about 20 feet or so. The break is at least a foot from right-to-left, but speed is of the utmost importance here. Not wanting to leave myself another putt above the hole, I give it – perhaps – a little more than I should. It sails right by the edge of the cup and keeps going until it rolls off the front of the green.
One really nice thing about playing solo this early in the morning is that no one is around to see you making an a** of yourself. I leave the green with another bogey.
I close out the front nine by bogeying the 232-yard par 3 for a spectacular 41. The only impressive thing about my opening nine holes is the pace: 1 hour and 13 minutes.
I waste no time rolling up to the tenth tee and jumping out of the cart with the Diablo ready to go. I’ve made it this far this quickly and I don’t want the pro shop to send someone off the back side right ahead of me. The coast is clear on the 431-yard par 4, and I shove my tee in the ground and place the well-worn Pro-V1 on top. The hole is pretty straight but it runs along a steep hillside, and tee shots can very easily end up at the bottom of the slope in the left rough. I aim for the right edge of the fairway and connect on another very solid drive. The ball lands just inside the fairway and kicks a few yards left toward the middle.
One-hundred-and-sixty-three yards is the estimated distance to the green, but the ball is slightly above my feet and a very large cherry tree blocks the right side of the hole. This lie and my natural draw are not a good mix for this approach shot, so I attempt to cut it into the green and fail miserably. The ball is left the whole way and lands about 10 yards short of the green and several paces into the rough.
The green is – again – small and the pin is tucked on the right edge, but it’s plenty of green to work with from this position. I hit down into the ball, but the rough is thicker than I anticipate and it squirts out to the right, missing the green by a few feet. Sigh. I chip it up to tap-in range and leave with a bogey.
Then I bogey the par 4 eleventh hole with an errant tee shot into the left rough. But, gees, I didn’t miss by much. The fairway might be 15 yards wide.
No. 12 is the course monster. It is a 598-yard beast (yes, that’s six feet shy of 600 yards) that slowly climbs the same hill where I saw my new buddy Mr. Turtle. The tee shot from the blue tees is over a small pond, but the true test off this drive is the carry. To reach the fairway you must hit it at least 210 yards. Honestly, that’s not that big of a deal, but visually a fairway that far away on a hole this long can screw with the mind. A weak mind, perhaps. Not mine.
I smack a powerful drive, but barely miss the fairway to the right. Clearly a three-shot hole, all I need to do is get this ball back into the fairway and far up enough to give myself a mid-iron into the green. Naturally this would be the perfect time to hit my hybrid fat, which is exactly what I do, and leave myself about 175 yards, from the rough, and over a nasty, flat, barely-filled sand bunker about 20 yards short of the green.
Yup, I then hit a 3 iron fat and directly into said bunker. My recovery shot clears the edge of the hazard by two feet. My fifth shot flies the green. My sixth shot rolls past the flag to about 18 feet. I sink this downhill, double-breaker for seven.
Four-over after three holes on the back nine.
No. 13 heads back down the hill along the northern edge of the property and doglegs right, into a tiny corner. It’s only 370 yards long and there is absolutely no trouble of the tee, but the green could not be smaller. Nor could it be closer to the out-of-bounds markers and tall trees. A perfect drive sets up a perfect 100-yard gap wedge to 15 feet. I will take my first par in six holes, thank you very much.
There is only one thought in my head whenever I step up to the fourteenth tee: “Do not miss this fairway to the right.” Sports psychologists consistently tell golfers to think negative thoughts because that will motivate them to do the opposite. (Do I have that right?) The only possible way to make this a difficult hole is to miss the fairway to the right. With out-of-bounds and tall trees fencing in the right side, the hole makes a sharp right turn around those trees toward the green, making any second shot from this part of the hole dead. The left side is wide open, and I aim for the left edge of the fairway…
…but I push it straight down the right side, and then verbally abuse myself for the next several minutes.
I compose myself and select a 6 iron to attempt a punch-cut around the edge of the last overhanging tree. This turns out to be the prettiest – or at least the best executed – shot of the day. I’m left with only 40 yards to the green, and I expertly pitch it to pin high on the left side. Desperately needing a par, I take my sweet time reading the break on this one. Twenty-two feet, slightly downhill, and roughly two cups outside left. I place the ball in front of my mark and stand over the ball. Just then, the gentleman cutting the rough near the green throws the mower in neutral and shuts off the blades for me. I reward his kindness by rolling the ball into the heart of the cup for par.
I look up to thank him for pausing during my putt – and half-hoping for a thumbs-up or some other acknowledgement of my awesome save – but his hands are already on the throttle again and he spins around to finish his business. I wave anyway.
Two pars in a row. It’s time to finish strong!
But I bogey No. 15, a 352-yard par 4. I usually blame the trees on this hole because of the narrow shoot and blind tee shot, but my bogey was a result of my missing the wide open green from 143 yards in the middle of the fairway.
And then I bogey the 290-yard par 4 sixteenth. I don’t…the reason…because you…ah, forget it.
I think No. 17 is the hardest hole on the course, despite what the scorecard might say (#10). From the blues, the hole measures 181 yards. Once again, thick, overgrown trees crowd the out-of-bounds on the right, while a smaller grouping of trees takes away your view of the left half of the green. The green itself is 90 percent of the difficulty on this little bear of a hole. It is very wide, but elevated and ridiculously sloped from back-to-front. Any balls landing on the front third of the green will roll off and down the hill, and, depending upon where the pin is, you could have a 70-foot putt that might have yards of break. There are times when missing the green might feel like the right option.
I take out the 4 iron and aim for the middle of the green. The pin today is nestled on the back left corner, but there is no compelling reason to try to hit a miracle shot at this point in the round. With a great swing I produce a beautiful, high, drawing shot just left of my target that hits the green and bounces left and toward the hole. I read too much break in my 14-footer up the hill for birdie, and leave it on the high side. Tap in for par.
The home hole is a dead straight 388-yard par 4. Only now does it occur to me that the final six holes on this course all have out-of-bounds to contend with, and all along the right hand side. What that means…I don’t know. But that is the genius of Mr. Paul “of whom little is known” McGuire.
The tee shot is uphill to a slightly left-to-right sloped fairway. Trees line the left side of the landing area and a mere ten yards of rough and cart path lie between the fairway and the out-of-bounds on the right. I hit my drive directly toward the cart path and sigh with relief when I see it land to the left of the gravel and kick straight, not right.
The rough drops off a few feet on the right and back edges of the green, and a bunker snakes all along the left side. I hit a smooth 8 iron from a decent lie in the rough that travels 12 feet short of the 148-yard distance to the pin. The putt is absolutely flat and break-less. I drain it for a bookending birdie – my first since No. 1.
For a course that plays all of 6,800 yards from the tips, with very little water in play and eight total bunkers (there are two on No. 16), Oakland Beach should not be taken lightly. After my birdie on the opening hole I approached the rest of the course as an inferior opponent, and it sent me home with a humbling 82. Of course, no matter where you play, hitting five fairways will do little to help you go low.
So, if this little post didn’t sell you on how worthy of your time Oakland Beach Golf Club is, perhaps this will: for 18 holes on the weekend (or holiday, as was the case on this day) the price is $36.00. That includes the cart. AND, in what I believe may be the deal of the decade, on Monday through Thursday you can participate in “Golf-O-Rama.” For $39.00 you get: 36 holes with a cart; one hotdog; and one beverage of your choice.
If you leave this place disappointed, it’s your own fault.
Closing thought (only one today because it’s so wonderful):
- I played in 2 hours and 35 minutes.