SHANOR-NORTHVUE, Pa. — You can’t miss the sign.
As you round the corner from the parking lot to the clubhouse at Stoughton Acres, situated on the northern outskirts of Butler, the ground rules are made clear on an impressively-crafted wooden bulletin board.
Most of what’s painted on those slats is pretty boilerplate stuff for a golf course — keep carts off tees and greens, no starting on the back nine without permission, each golfer must have his/her own set of clubs, etc.
But there’s one bullet point that’ll stop you in your tracks, if you’re at all familiar with the world of recreational golf.
NO ALCOHOL: If you take alcohol of any kind on this golf course, you’ll be asked to leave.
Also, on the scorecard, there’s an admonition against profanity and “damaging the course because of your poor round.”
Yeah, this is a different kind of place. Or, as our PGN photographer Mike Darnay told me after stepping out of the tchotchke-filled clubhouse: “It’s like Mayberry in there.”
No doubt. There’s no Andy Griffith to be found, but Stoughton Acres is the most stubbornly old-school golf facility I’ve experienced.
“This is the American dream,” Debbie Loughry told our group, pulling up to the seventh tee in her ranger cart.
Loughry is the daughter of the course co-founders, Van and Jeanne Smith, who bought this former dairy farm in the early 1960s and eventually opened all 18 holes by 1973.
Despite having no education or background in agronomy or golf management, the Smiths established a facility that’s now in its sixth decade, still boasting a reliable customer base and an atmosphere that’s as family-friendly as you can find.
Which makes sense, considering the Smiths built their house on the property. As the scorecard reminds you, this is someone’s home.
“We grew up here,” said the 51-year-old Loughry, who also helps run the front desk and snack bar. “Of course, my mom didn’t want us listening to guys swear and you know how people act when they’ve had too much (to drink).
“This and their home was one and the same. What would you allow in your home with your children present?”
While Van passed away in his 80s two years ago, Jeanne still plays a guiding role at Stoughton Acres. In fact, she was the one who signed me in upon arrival.
When I say that, I mean it literally. Jeanne wrote my name and greens fee on the small notebook that serves as the course’s tee sheet.
No electronic record keeping. No cash register. No credit-card reader. Not even an answering machine.
“They’ve done it their way they’ve done it since 1964 and it’s worked,” Loughry said. “So it’s like, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. My mom is very much into the personal touch. … She has no interest in computerizing things.”
For all the throwbacks at Stoughton Acres, though, there’s one that really hits home. I paid $26 for 18 holes and a cart. Jeanne gently chastised me for not giving her $31, so she could just give me a $5 bill in return out of the wooden till.
This isn’t one of the most impressive or challenging layouts in the area, but that’s plenty of golf for your buck. And that’s all part of the plan, as Loughry told me after the round while simultaneously helping a steady stream of customers.
When family runs the course and the handful of non-kin employees are loyal, the savings can be passed to the golfers.
“Golf can be an expensive game to play,” Loughry said. “It’s a small family business. We have employees out on the course, but most of them become like family. They stay for a long time.”
What about, you know, the actual golf?
The fairways are slightly furry and the greens are bumpy in spots, but Van Smith did an admirable job using the natural contours of the land. That old Seneca Valley phys ed teacher built a pretty damn (sorry, I mean darn!) interesting golf course.
Stoughton Acres clocks in at 6,246 yards from the back tees, with a max course rating of 68.5 on a par of 72, but even the ‘easy’ holes have some risk-reward aspect to them. The place is scoreable, not boring.
As far as blemishes go, a handful of trees are definitely a little too close to the line of play — I’m looking at you, No. 11 — and longer hitters will find a few of the landing areas to be amusingly cramped. (Actually, I wasn’t laughing when I had to pitch out from under a tree on No. 15 … from the fairway.)
If you accept the place for what it is, though, you’ll have a good time. The greens are well-defended by undulation and some strategic bunkering, and while some par 4s get a bit gimmicky, the 3s and 5s are fair tests.
That goes double for the course’s self-proclaimed signature hole, the par-5 13th. I’d agree with that designation, as a well-placed drive favoring the right side gives an opportunity to reach a shallow green in two, if you have the nerve to carve a longer club off a downhill lie over a pond.
Or, if you’re like me, you pull one into the left rough, but still have just enough room between the pines to poke a second shot into a humpback fairway, preserving your scoring opportunity.
As our group made its way to the clubhouse, I couldn’t help but put myself into the Smiths’ shoes. To take out a loan on a whim, to build a golf course from scratch, that took gumption.
And to add a little serendipity to the formula: The property that was only available to them because Van was a direct descendant of the Stoughton family. Otherwise, the space was earmarked to become a housing development.
What a waste that would’ve been.
“My parents were driving by the property,” Loughry said. “And my dad was like, ‘Oh, that would make a great golf course.’ He screwed up a lot … but he learned by making mistakes.”
She’s referring more to the conditioning of the course than anything else. More importantly, there’s some real artistry in the layout, particularly a back nine that weaves among streams, hollows and hills.
As for the literal family atmosphere, well, it’s definitely not aligned with the bro culture that’s sprouted in the sport. But for those who play it clean and sober, Stoughton Acres is worth your time, if only to experience this wholesome hacker’s haven.
For what it’s worth, there’s no rule against cursing under your breath, either. Not that I would do such a thing.
“Sometimes we get new people and they don’t get it,” Loughry said. “It’s not for them and that’s OK.”
PGN VALUE RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS
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