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Course Review: ‘Hidden’ or Not, Ligonier CC a Highlands Haven

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Ligonier CC's nearly century-old layout weaves through the stately pines of the Laurel Highlands. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

LIGONIER, Pa. — On old Ligonier Country Club marketing campaign used to refer to the place as a “hidden gem.”

Being more of a city boy myself, I’d agree with that, considering I hadn’t heard of it prior to getting the invite to play a couple months back.

But upon a visit to this Laurel Highlands charmer on a brilliant early-August afternoon, there’s little doubt Ligonier CC’s secret status should be cancelled.

Before you ask, yes, the club is fully private and financially healthy despite this season of COVID-19, but it’s not opposed to adding more members. That’s good, because more western Pennsylvania golfers should have the chance to give this tidy track a once-over.

The communal feel of Ligonier CC is evident from the moment you step out of your car. Actually, that moment arrived a little earlier for me, as I cruised past a foursome haggling over a borderline gimme on the 17th green before pulling into the parking lot.

Within a couple-hundred-foot radius, you have the clubhouse, the locker-room facility, an eye-catching al fresco dining pavilion, the putting green and the first tee. It’s a much more intimate feel that is rather uncommon at some sprawling, upscale clubs I’ve visited.

However, lest you think you’re in for a nice, cushy trip around the property, you’d be mistaken. (That’s not to say it’s not playable. Even at the end of an unusually dry summer, Ligonier’s brown spots are limited to the rough.)

It starts at No. 1, which until recently was the 10th. I always appreciate an opening par 5 for the extra wiggle room, but at 585 undulating yards, this is no warmup hole, featuring a cascading fairway that bottoms out past the landing area and rolls back up to a multi-tiered green.

So, Ligonier CC gets your attention from the start, requiring three high-quality full shots for most golfers to get home.

Make sure your game is ready for a testing start to the back nine. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

Moving on from there, five of the six par 4s on the front are under 400 yards, but the par 3s add some variety to an inward nine that measures just over 3,200 from the back tees — and that’s the long nine.

The 200-plus-yard fourth curls around a pond to the left, although there’s a generous bail-out/chipping area right that provides some creative options. The 150-yard seventh seems innocent enough, but an L-shaped green slopes heavily from back to front, requiring distance control and accuracy to leave yourself a decent look at birdie, or at least to avoid a three-putt scare.

Challenge picks up at No. 9, a meaty par 4 that doglegs right and ends with another pitched putting surface. Trust me on this one: Don’t end up above the hole.

Actually, that’s pretty sound advice regardless of the green at Ligonier CC. I was guilty of not taking that warning very seriously; that cavalier attitude cost me at least a couple of strokes during my maiden voyage.

The stretch from No. 10 through No. 14 are exacting of a ball-striking test as you’ll find, particularly for a course that measures in the neighborhood of 6,200 yards.

There’s a premium on the tee shot especially during this run, which includes four of the eight toughest holes on the course, by handicap. The one that isn’t is the 200-yard par-3 11th, so make sure to be fully engaged by the turn.

But before you’re tempted to throw a club in frustration, the conclusion adds intrigue and excitement. The 15th is a very reachable, straightforward par 5, followed by a pair of tantalizing risk-reward par 4s at Nos. 16 and 18.

Looking across the well-protected 18th green and toward the clubhouse and dining area. (MIKE DARNAY/PGN)

Thread the needle with the driver on those, or you’ll have to tangle with large green-guarding bunkers in front. Laying up still leaves an exacting target to shoot at, so maybe the ‘riskier’ play is the safer one here? You be the judge.

Oh, and don’t forget No. 17, which runs along the road to the entrance and plays every bit of the 220 yards on the card, if you’re hitting from the blues. These par 3s will take a bite out of you if you’re not careful.

My first thought when I finished was that I want another crack at it. That part is complicated, since I’d have to join and the ride to Ligonier CC from my house just north of Downtown is about an hour and 15 minutes.

If you’re located anywhere east of the city, though, the pastoral allure of this club might be awfully difficult to resist. Fortunately, Ligonier CC is open to host outings and contains that ideal-for-2020 open-air restaurant, so you don’t have to know somebody to get a sample.

Speaking of which … a special thanks to head pro Sean Knaus and assistant pro Jesse Cantley, who welcomed me and our photographer Mike Darnay with open arms. Their (unsolicited) recognition of Pittsburgh Golf Now in this way is appreciated.

And personally, after a solid month of low-sleep nights with the new baby at home, an afternoon excursion into the Appalachian foothills was just the tonic for this Very Tired Dad.

Maybe that 75-minute drive isn’t so bad after all. Heck, it’s mostly highway.

PGN’S ON COURSE

Another distinguishing feature of Ligonier CC is that both of its PGA professionals are under the age of 30. Way to make me feel old, guys!

While the Penn State-educated Cantlay gave the 18-hole tour, Cal U’s Knaus also played several holes with us and then spared a few more minutes to chat with me near the putting green.

Enjoy the conversation, interspersed with Darnay’s trademark drone footage:

PGN Value Rating: N/A

Ligonier Country Club
Country Club Road
Ligonier, PA 15658
(724) 238-7620
60 miles from Downtown via Parkway East, Pennsylvania Turnpike and PA Route 711 N

Scorecard (All tees are par 70 except red, which is 71)
Blue – 6,214 yards, 70.7 rating, 125 slope
Silver – 5,954 yards, 69.8 rating, 122 slope
Gold – 5,294 yards, 66.2 rating, 116 slope
Red — 5,086 yards, 69.7 rating, 121 slope

Read our other PGN Course Reviews, including Butler’s Course, Totteridge, Moon, Frosty Valley, Murrysville and Grand View!

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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