During the 2007 U.S. Open, one of the world’s greatest courses was occupied, wearing down the best players in the world. But savvy visitors to Pittsburgh were able to enjoy a round at Pittsburgh Field Club just a few miles from Oakmont, across the Allegheny River. While it doesn’t have nearly the bite of its fearsome neighbor, the Field Club rounds out an impressive trio of courses in the suburbs northeast of Pittsburgh, along with Oakmont and the Seth Raynor-designed Fox Chapel Golf Club.
Originally designed by Alexander Findlay in 1915, the 6,636-yard Field Club layout is a quintessential Eastern design with small, undulating greens and plenty of elevation changes. But two of the course’s most memorable features are reminiscent of two great Los Angeles courses.
Players take an elevator from the 17th green to the 18th tee, like they do at Bel-Air Country Club to tee off on the 10th. And the 1st tee next to the clubhouse sits high above the fairway, as at Riviera Country Club.
And what a view it is: Save for the par-3 18th to the left, the rest of the layout lies in a verdant valley, 12 stories below.
Despite the hilly site, only a few holes play uphill. There are many more confidence-inspiring downhill shots, most notably off the 1st tee. Reachable par 5s like the 491-yard 3rd and 509-yard 5th, as well as two drivable par 4s, the 2nd and 13th, make the Field Club terrific for match play, leading to some exciting contests in the annual Diebold Cup with Oakmont, Fox Chapel and Longue Vue Club.
“The course doesn’t play very hilly for Pittsburgh,” says Dave Martin, Pittsburgh Field Club’s head pro for 26 years. “There are plenty of birdie holes. You see a lot of people coming off the course with smiles, but it will eat you up if you’re hitting it sideways.”
Although the course came a dozen years later, the club itself is older than Oakmont, having celebrated its 125th anniversary last summer. In fact, Henry Fownes was a member before establishing Oakmont in 1903.
The club’s first sport was cricket, which turned out be far less popular than another import, golf. By 1901, the club had a nine-hole layout at its original location in Pittsburgh. Thirteen years later the club bought 171 acres “away from the maddening crowd” for a proper 18-hole layout. The dominant feature of the mostly treeless canvas with which Findlay worked was the hill known as “Pike’s Peak,” the highest point in Fox Chapel and the obvious place for the original clubhouse, which burnt to the ground in 1924.
Members were about as enthusiastic about Findlay’s effort as they were about cricket. Most approach shots played uphill, and members wanted to change the layout from the outset. Over the next 13 years, the course underwent constant modification.
Changes have continued over the years, and the current layout is an amalgam of the efforts of Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast, Emil “Dutch” Loeffler, Arthur Hills and Craig Schreiner. “We’re lucky the course is as good as it is considering all the chefs that have stirred the pot,” says Martin.
Although there is no official record of Ross’ work, which began in 1917, the presumption is that he redesigned holes 2 through 6, mainly by reversing them. Similarly, there are only references to Tillinghast’s input and indicate he may have worked on the bunkers, which do bear his trademark depth and lips.
In 1922 the club purchased 23 adjoining acres for $23,000 and hired Willie Park Jr. to create a new back nine. Despite Park’s credentials (Sunningdale, Maidstone, Olympia Fields), members didn’t approve his plan.
They did endorse a redesign by Loeffler, Oakmont’s longtime pro and greenkeeper. After the new holes opened in 1928, there remained just one more design hill to climb, so to speak. Before the age of carts, the hike up to the 18th tee, especially at the end of a round on a hot, humid day, was quite literally a killer. More than one member died of a heart attack either during the 100-foot climb from the 17th green or later in the clubhouse, leading the club to install golf’s first elevator in 1938. (For a time, members could play the 18th hole as a 277-yard par 4 or 168-yard par 3; now it’s just the latter.)
The previous year, the club held its first big tournament, the PGA Championship. Some doubted that the course would provide enough of a test, but the Field Club staged a memorable event. Byron Nelson was the stroke play medalist with rounds of 68 and 71, and a score of 156 qualified for match play. Defending champion Denny Shute defeated Harold “Jug” McSpaden on the 37th hole of the championship match.
The club also hosted the 1959 Western Open as part of Pittsburgh’s bicentennial celebration. Western Pennsylvania’s favorite son Arnold Palmer was in peak form and led at the end of two rounds, while 19-year-old Jack Nicklaus topped the amateur field. Mike Souchak ended up winning after the King missed a three-foot putt on the 72nd hole.
More recently, after Schreiner rebuilt the bunkers in 2000 and removed about 100 trees, the club was the second stroke-play course for the 2003 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont. Ryan Moore tied for low round at the Field Club with a 65, but lost out on medalist honors to J.B. Holmes.
Despite its illustrious golf history, the club remains at heart a family club, faithful to its original charter with a variety of “field” activities for members, including skeet and trap shooting, fishing (the pond is stocked each April with 800 trout and bass), tennis and swimming in a new aquatic center (and poolside pub) that opened last summer. Still no cricket, however.
Part of the emphasis on family is a popular junior golf program, with more than 150 participants. “It’s a great environment for kids to grow up in,” says Martin. “It’s just as much a quality club as it is a quality course.”
Clearly, it’s a club where everybody has a Field day.