I’ve been lucky to play some amazing golf courses in my life in some picturesque places. Ireland, Scotland, The Hamptons, California its all been what most people would cut out a kidney for. And I am grateful for every experience and all those walks I have been able to enjoy.
But it seems sometimes the unexpected things in life turn out the most impactful. As goes the story of “The Dell”, Conocodell Golf Club tucked off I-81 in Pennsylvania is a 9 hole course loaded with scruff and possibilities. Off Coldspring Road you’ll find an old house turned “clubhouse” and a few red dots in the distance marking greens. The crooked sign out front would probably turn most away in search for manicured greens. For some of us its like a beacon drawing us in with the potential promise of a hidden great.
As I pulled up I noticed a few friendly faces and a few new but everyone looked filled with genuine excitement. Typically when Ian from Sugarloaf Social Club throws out his bat signal people show up. And true to form a group posted at this little unknown 9 hole layout with the promise of interesting golf, discussion, beers and uncrustables. As I walked into plop down my $16 down the old hickories and dusty cobwebs made me grin ear to ear. The clubs steward, Jim Gordon, looks slightly unsettled as our eightsome starts checking in. From what I can tell he doesn’t get this much traffic on a cold Fall afternoon. But as often times with golfers the conversations start taking over about courses played and comparing notes.
Jim warmly greeted our merry band of misfits and chatted us up about the course, its origins and where he envisioned it going. We hadn’t even teed off and already this course was driving as much excitement as any I’d played. As we huddled around the first tee, just steps from the counter, one of the guys in our group made a discovery. His father used to build clubs in the area and as it turns out Jim’s last persimmon driver he ever used was made by his dad. It wasn’t moments later that a red logo’d Balata showed up and the ceremonial first tee shot was struck.
The Dell isnt mowed to perfection and the drainage in spots isn’t the best. Bunkering isn’t plentiful but the ones we encountered truly acted as hazards. Objects to be avoided at all costs much like those you find in Scotland or Ireland. There is no pretension or worry as we took off as 8 we played that way the entire day. Most courses, even horrific bland public tracks, would shuttle you off the course so fast your tee shot would still be in the air. Not at The Dell. Its not because the course isnt busy but rather guys like Jim get it. He and his friend Mike Davis, yes that one, had a dream and saw the potential in this flat piece of land. Trying to pay the note on the place and keep in golfing shape is a fools errand to some.
For me the fact they bust it trying to make a course they’d want to play despite all the odds is something I’ll support as long as I can. Its these little gems that Ian has a knack for finding that grow my love of golf more than the Top 100s of the world. By no means are we playing the mot architecturally significant course yet to be uncovered. Its just one of the most fun days I have ever had on a golf course.
As we walked the course it dawned on me how lucky I was to be able to see people experiencing their first eight-some on a golf course. The initial trepidation as you wonder if you are making a mistake playing out of turn. Are you standing in the right spot? Is that even my ball? After two holes the worry wears and the fun of playing golf with your gang sets in. Not every round can, or should be, this way but damn if we shouldn’t do it a few times a year at least.
Our talks circled around how cool a tee box would be over there. If we put a bunker in here or teed off a towards that pin or the other. Creativity is the life of golf - not competition. Eight adults playing in their big sandbox with their toys making it up as they went. I know we are nerds and I am fine with that. I love golf what its given me and to spend a day with friends and dream up a golf course is memorable.
I think we as golfers seek out an experience more than anything. We want stories to tell, inspiration to waft over us and memories to hold us through the winter months. The Dell provided that for me. I’ve sketched over the holes time and time again thinking about what could be. I’ve found myself staring at an empty field in my town wondering “how much is that? wonder how many holes I can fit on it?”.
So next time you see that crooked worn out old sign for some golf course out of the way maybe take a minute and stop in. You might meet a guy like Jim who ends up running to the store to grab hamburgers and beers for your group because he knows you all are the same after all. Or maybe you’ll remember what it is to day dream, laugh and enjoy your walks.
Whatever you find out there I promise it wont be expected.
Conocodell Golf Club is in Fayetteville, Pa and if you are ever driving past on your way north or south take a little detour and thank me later. For more gems check out the handy dandy Sugarloaf Social Club Hidden Gem Map - a list worth completing.