FARMINGTON, Pa. — The list of brave souls who continue to expand in the face of America’s golf recession / slump / downtick / depression (pick one) is short.
There’s Donald Trump, whose portfolio reached 18 golf properties before he became Emperor — err, President. There’s Mike Keiser, who founded Oregon’s ever-growing Bandon Dunes Resort and is busy creating something special with Sand Valley and Mammoth Dunes in central Wisconsin.
And there’s Joe Hardy, the 95-year-old retired 84 Lumber founder, and his daughter, Maggie Hardy-Magerko. Hardy created the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in the mountains south of Pittsburgh that features Mystic Rock, a Pete Dye design that hosted a PGA Tour event for five years in the early 2000s.
Recent trends show that a golf course closes in America on the average of every other day, so it is big news on the rare occasion that a new course opens. It qualifies as even bigger news when it’s a big-deal course at a high-end, big-deal resort.
The Hardys know they’re going against the grain.
That’s the kind of thing Joe Hardy routinely did while building 84 Lumber into a lucrative empire. Hardy-Magerko has that same chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that her dad used so effectively, too. At the June grand opening of Shepherd’s Rock, a new course designed by Tim Liddy of Pete Dye’s design team, she made a point of saying how the Hardys had spent more than $250 million in the last three and a half years to boost Nemacolin Woodlands into the best-in-class category as a national resort destination.
When asked why she’d risk that kind of money in this economy, she answered, “Because we can.”
That’s the Hardy way. Go big or go home. Which explains why the gala grand opening party last month featured ballroom performances by comedian Frank Caliendo, Huey Lewis and The News, enough flowers for a Rose Bowl float and, of course, a banquet with an open bar.
Shepherd’s Rock, Hardy-Magerko said, “is the cherry on top of our resort.” The new course is far more user-friendly and fun than Mystic Rock, which is long and probably a little too challenging for some resort guests. Shepherd’s Rock traverses hills, woods and meadows, some complete with a herd of bleating sheep.
While the new course is a little less spectacular than Mystic Rock, there will be no shortage of resort guests who will actually prefer Shepherd’s Rock, which plays 7,151 from the back tees — if anyone uses them. If you want to be a golf destination, two courses are better than one.
Shepherd’s Rock has its moments. The 18th will be the photo-op signature hole, a lengthy par 4 that winds through a valley in front of a man-made waterfall. The ninth is also memorable. It’s an uphill slog out of the valley to a green on a barren, windswept crest with a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. It’s a three-shot par 5 — at least, you hope it’s only three shots to get home.
There are two truths at the core of Pennsylvania’s newest course. One, the Hardys have made a big bet here. It’s a calculated bet … up to a point.
“We don’t do much thinking,” Hardy-Magerko said. “We don’t do a lot of analysis-paralysis around here. We just do it.”
Consider it one benefit of having almost unlimited resources.
The second truth is, you’ve got to do more to win the customer than ever before. The Hardys are aiming high.
That’s why the list of amenities at this five-star resort is absurdly long. Nemacolin Woodlands includes a world-class spa and holistic healing center; tennis courts; a Jeep off-road driving academy; a gymnastics gym; zip-line courses; mountain biking; shooting academy; fly-fishing; a wildlife zoo with more than 100 species of animals, including a white tiger; a multimillion-dollar art collection; collections of rare cars and airplanes; 15 restaurants; an exhibition and conference hall; its own airfield; and, oh yeah, the Lady Luck Casino.
Five years shy of the century mark, Hardy still has his wits and his famous wit. At the grand opening press conference, he said, “I think Maggie is right, you’ve got to have all this other entertainment nowadays. Everyone came come and enjoy these and maybe they’ll play golf, too. All this other alien stuff is wonderful. I hope you enjoy it and come back and help pay for all this madness.”
He got a good laugh from the gathering. The Hardys hope a second star-spangled course attracts more golfers to the resort and the wild lineup of other activities attracts more resort guests to the golf courses.
Either way, the Hardys believe in golf. That’s the kind of optimism the game needs.
The resort’s signature Chateau Lafayette lit up. (Photo: Nemacolin Woodlands Resort)
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.