– Reviewed by John Dudley on Aug. 3, 2010
You know how there are places from your youth that always provide a sense of comfort and nostalgia? Maybe the ice cream stand you visited after Little League games? Or the beach house your family rented every summer?
For me, one of those places is Venango Valley Inn and Golf Course. I grew up in Crawford County and spent my formative golf years slashing around Venango Valley back when it was a cheap, accessible dog track whose promise was concealed by overgrown flora, shaggy trees and bumpy greens.
The good news is that Venango is still cheap. But aside from the hole routing and the name, it’s nothing like the course I played as a teenager spraying tee shots all over the lot with my old Taylor Made Burner.
Unlike that dairy isle you might remember or the summer rental that has fallen into disrepair, Venango Valley has gotten better with age. Much better.
Most of the credit goes to owner Durbin Loreno, who also serves as superintendent. Under Loreno’s meticulous hand, Venango Valley has undergone a stunning transformation into a first-rate public course.
Those snarled, low-hanging pine boughs that used to cling to the ground and snag shots that trickled off the fairway? Gone, along with several overgrown, neglected areas that did little more than catch wayward drives and grind play to a near standstill at times.
For the tightwad in me, though, the most refreshing part of Venango Valley is the price. I played the course last week with my 14-year-old son Austin. We were straight from a vacation on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where we managed to sneak away from the beach house one morning for a round at The Currituck Club, a links-style Golf Digest North Carolina Top 25 course tucked alongside Currituck Sound.
Venango Valley is by no means The Currituck Club, nor does it claim to be an elite course. But for $20 — the Tuesday special rate for 18 holes with a cart — it’s a fraction of the price of a resort course and significantly cheaper than many comparable layouts in northwest Pennsylvania.
And for me there’s also that sentimental thing. My friends still crush me over the time I missed a short putt on the par-4 sixth and blamed it on a bug that decided to burrow into my ear canal during my backstroke.
As kids we would walk nine holes at Venango Valley after football practice, then spend our leftover change on candy at Jimmy Howles’ produce stand. Life didn’t get much better than that.
We played Venango Valley on a warm, misty morning last week, and I have never seen the course in better shape. Since the last time I played there, Loreno and his staff had spruced up the par-3 second hole with several sprigs of pampas grass and built a new tee on the par-5 18th.
They were working that morning on clearing brush and second growth from one of the few remaining thick areas between holes five and 12.
Austin and I both played from the white tees, since the course plays only about 250 yards longer from the blues with little appreciable difference on most tee shots.
No. 1 at Venango Valley has length (396 from the whites) and carries the No. 1 handicap but always has been driver-friendly. The wide fairway without much trouble is a welcome sight for the player who didn’t have a chance to get loose on the range. I hit my drive down the middle to set up what should have been an easy par. Then I lost my mind. From a perfect fairway lie, I chili-dipped a nine-iron into the right greenside trap that represents the only real trouble on the hole. I blasted out and three-putted for six.
The course begins to show its character on No. 2, a mid-length par three to a slightly elevated green sloping back to front. Traps protect both sides of the green, although the greenside pond that once slurped up more of my tee shots than I care to remember is gone, replaced by a much larger supply pond farther from the hole which doesn’t really come into play. The hole played 156 yards from the whites, and I hit a seven-iron that flew the trap on the left and landed in the first cut of rough on the backside of the green. I chipped on and two-putted for bogey.
No 3 is a fairly nondescript par-4 that plays 349 from the whites and features an uphill fairway that begins the gradual climb up the hill on which Venango Valley was built in 1968 by Paul Erath, the construction supervisor for Arnold Palmer’s Laurel Valley Golf Course in Latrobe. The hole seemed much more difficult before the new owners cleared out and drained a thick, marshy area that caught nearly any pushed drive. Now the play on 3 is straight down the middle or just left of center to create an angle to the green. The toughest part of the hole is clubbing correctly on the blind approach shot. If you have time, spin up to get a look at the depth of the green and the pin placement along with the location of the trap that protects the front right of the green. I ripped a drive on this hole and had about 80 yards let for my approach, but I got cocky and didn’t check out the location of the hole. My knockdown wedge came up short and I chipped on and missed a five-footer for par.
No. 4 continues the ascent with another uphill fairway on what is a much tighter hole. The best bet is to leave the driver in the bag and hit a hybrid or long iron. I don’t have a hybrid so I went with a five-wood and proceeded to hit my worst shot of the round, a low burner that ended up barely reaching the fairway. I could have wedged it to the same spot and spared myslf a blow to the ego. I left a seven-iron short on my approach, chipped and on and two-putted for another bogey. At five over after four, it was starting to feel like a long day. But I couldn’t blame the course. As they have been for several years now, the greens were smooth and true and had decent speed, and the fairways provided very consistent lies.
No. 5 is an intriguing little par-4 with a stand of trees on the right that sets up well for a player who can hit a controlled fade. I am not that player. The hole is one of several that have benefitted from some massive efforts to clear out the course, and there isn’t nearly as much trouble off the tee as there once was. Still, with a downhill tee shot that feeds into a few tough, wooded areas along the fairways, there is opportunity to make a big score. I tried to hit the aforementioned controlled fade and blocked my drive long and right, although it did manage to catch the rightmost portion of the fairway. I dumped a wedge to about 10 feet, keeping the ball below the cup on a green that slopes from back to front and two-putted for my first par.
No. 6 has always been one of my favorites. Part of the appeal is emerging from the wooded half of the course back out into the open and onto an elevated tee. From there, the hole falls away to a gentle dogleg right with a wide fairway dotted on both sides by a thin row of trees. It always feels like you can just rip it on this hole and let the ball go where it may. From the whites, which play 355, I hit by far my longest drive of the day and had about a 50-yard pitch left to the green, which is tucked into a corner with a front-left trap and a large hemlock on the right. I let the 10-foot birdie putt on the lip and walked away with par and the sense that I finally had something going.
No. 7 heads back up the hill and is a lot like No. 3, a par-4 that plays 351 from the whites to an elevated green with a largely blind approach to a green that is fairly large and vulnerable. No traps, no water, no real trouble at all unless you pull it into the trees next to the tee on No. 8. I hit another solid drive and had about 75 yards to the pin, but as had been the case all day, I couldn’t get my approach close enough for an easy birdie chance and wound up with a third straight par. I was sitting at five-over after seven and staring at a mid-40s front side.
Next up was the par-4 eighth, a hole that used to give me fits as a kid because I routinely dumped by drive into the creek that crosses the fairway about 200 yards from the tee. I’ve finally managed to block out the creek and focus instead on trying to draw the ball to shorten up the approach on a short hole that doglegs left around a line of trees that prevent most attempts at driving the green. From the whites the eighth plays 311, but a very high, long tee shot can get you home. Most players, though, opt to target one of the handful of tall trees across the creek that serve as good aiming points. A bit of a fade is okay off the tee at the eighth, but beware that it lengthens the approach to what is one of the course’s trickiest greens. I hit a decent drive that leaked a little and went through the fairway and landed beside a tree. I carved a wedge around the overhanging branches, but the shot came up short and I chipped on from the front apron. The probem with the eighth is the speed of the green, which falls away from the fairway and makes it very difficult to control pitches, chips and even long putts from the front. I demonstrated this by chipping past the hole and needing to sink a five-footer for bogey that left me seven over after eight.
Even as a kid, one of my favorite things about Venango Valley was the length of the par-5s that finish each side. They were fairly short, wide-open and birdie-friendly, the perfect feel-good finish if you happened to be having a so-so round. Not much has changed. No. 9 plays 466 from the whites (and only 14 yards longer from the blues) and, if you have some frustration to burn, there isn’t much to prevent you from letting the shaft out. I tried to do just that but wound up dipping just a little and hitting a tee shot that was almost a pop-up and went only about 240 yards. That’s when my fortunes turned. I followed that with a pure 3-wood that leaked just a little bit and was heading for the greenside trap on the right when it caught the lip, popped left and settled onto the green six feet from the flagstick. Good? Debatable. Lucky? Damn right. I sank the putt for an eagle 3 that put put some life back in my round and washed away some of the blood from the front side, sending me to the turn at four-over 40. Austin checked in with a 48 highlighted by a chip-in from about 30 yards on No. 4 to save bogey and a par on the sixth.
Thanks to its sheer length — 434 from the blues and 419 from the whites — No. 1 is one of the tougher holes on the course and worthy of its No. 2 handicap rating. There isn’t any real trouble, but the hole demands an accurate approach because the green is tiered and fairly unforgiving on long putts. I hit an average drive that trickled into the right rough, then absolutely killed a five-wood from about 205 that bounced on the green pin high and ran off the back. I couldn’t get the chip close and two-putted for bogey. So much for that eagle mojo.
No. 11 is a par-3 that plays 180 from the whites and emerges through a little neck of trees to a wide, unprotected green. It’s a very straightforward hole that always seems to give me trouble. For some reason I never club myself correctly on the hole. So I wasn’t shocked when my four-iron went right and landed against the edge of the tee box on 11, leading to another chip, another two-putt and another bogey.
The par-4 12th is one of those unique little holes that absolutely should not be tough in any way yet throws up just enough trouble to make you wonder how you can make anything but a routine par. A small stand of trees flanks the left side of the fairway with a larger stand to the right. The hole is not quite a dogleg, but it bends right to left enough to create problems for those who fade it off the tee, and there is a huge, old tree that can come into play if you push a drive too far left. The test comes at the green, which slopes left to right and back to front and is tough to figure out unless you are very good at reading unfamiliar greens or have played a dozen or rounds at Venango Valley. I was a bit charmed on the 12th, coming across a tee shot that looked like it was headed for the treetops on the left but somehow managed to miss them and swept back right and bounded into the left-center cut of fairway. I punched an eight iron to about 12 feet and was happy to escape with par on the hole, which plays 395 from the whites.
No. 13 is the course’s shortest hole and one of its easiest, a par-3 that plays 139 from the whites and demands little more than a pitch or a knockdown nine iron to a relatively flat green. I hit wedge and chunked it a little, leaving it on the front fringe. My chip rolled to two feet and I tapped in for par.
Venango Valley might not have a true signature hole, but the two-hole stretch that begins with the par-4 14th qualifies as the part of the course that can make or break your round. No. 14 is an intimidating, all-uphill hole that plays 393 from the whites to an elevated, severely-sloping green with a large trap that catches approach shots that miss right. Many players drive it up the left side, even into the left rough, to avoid the sloped fairway that feeds into a large swale and produces long, difficult approaches. Right on cue, I pushed my tee shot and needed two more shots — a seven-iron and a pitch — to reach the green. Fortunately I was able to hit a wedge to the top of the green and draw it back to pin high, about 12 feet left. I had a sidehill putt that caught the lip and spun away, and I tapped in for a could-have-been-better-but-could-have-been-much-worse bogey.
No. 15 has one of those tee shots I love. From the highest point on the course, you launch it back down the hill and watch the ball roll forever toward the green on a par-5 that plays 490 from the whites and can be shortened considerably with a great drive. Unless, of course, you experience a complete, temporary loss of muscle control, as I did during the few seconds that I took the clubhead back and brought it through, creating a low, ugly double down the left-field line that crossed back over the 14th fairway and stopped just short of the trees 1 1/2 holes away. Now I understand how Jake Delhomme threw all those interceptions. I recovered with a decent seven iron that I was just trying to get back into the correct fairway, and it trickled down the hill leaving me about 135 yards to a green nestled into a corner of trees with a small pond no bigger than my Honda Accord and a very small but rocky stream in front. It’s a pretty hole, one of the prettiest on the course, and the hole frames approach shots nicely. Unless you mis-club, which I did by choosing to hit a smooth nine from a downhill lie instead of a punched eight. I scooped it and watched in horror as the ball dunked into that dinky little pond. I dropped, chipped on and two-putted for seven.
Stinging from a rough turn through Venango Valley’s Amen Corner, I hit an angry 4-iron to about 25 feet on the par-3 16th, which plays 182 from the whites. A routine two-putt sent me to the finishing holes at 10 over.
N0. 17 has undergone one of the more radical makeovers among any hole at Venango Valley. Once cut around a dense, gnarly, tree-dotted field that ran the length of the left side of the hole, the 17th now is much more open and attractive. At 314 from the whites, it tempts you to drive the hole, which requires a bit of a draw around the few remaining trees hugging the fairway and a couple of good bounces up to the elevated green. I let it fly off the tee and actually hit a nice, gently draw that came to rest about 20 yards in front of the green, which is crowned and be a bear if you hit it past the flag. I chipped to about 10 feet below the cup and missed the birdie putt.
On to No. 18, where Loreno and his staff built a new hilltop tee on the right side of the 17th fairway, opposite the old tee that for years flanked the left side of No. 17. The new tee box sets up perfectly for a long, controlled fade and provides a dramatic view of the clubhouse and several holes. Block it off the tee, though, and you’ll find yourself in the thick stand of trees separating the 18th fairway from the driving range. From the whites, which join the blues on the new tee, the 18th plays 508, and I managed to hit a decent fade to the middle of the fairway. I tried to pull off a repeat of my miracle 3-wood on No. 9, but this time I left it out right and the ball landed beside one of the pine trees that protect both sides of the green along with twin traps. From there I pitched on and missed an eight-footer for birdie. Par left me with a 10-over 81, plenty of cash for lunch and the cool feeling of having played my childhood course for the first time with my oldest son.
Venango Valley Inn and Golf Course
21217 Route 19
Venango, PA 16440
Phone: (814) 398-4330
Par: 71 from four sets of tees (blue, white, gold, red)
Slope ratings: blue 112, white 109, gold/red 105
Course ratings: blue 68.7, white 67.6, gold/red 66.2
Rates: $25 with a cart, $20 special on Tuesdays before 2 p.m.; discounts for seniors; all-day rates available
Pace: USGA pace rating is 3 hours, 52 minutes. We played in 4 hours, 10 minutes on a busy morning. Owners have limited the annoying and once-routine practice of sending groups off the 1oth tee in front of morning play, although the course still tends to bog down on the back.