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Mt. Lebanon Municipal Golf Course: A slice of history for 9-holes

Pittsburgh Post Gazette100th anniversary to be celebrated July 7

Tuesday, May 01, 2007
By Gerry Dulac,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It will never hold a U.S. Open, not like the more famous Western Pennsylvania course that happens to have one of the same founding fathers. Nor will it be able to list a course-record score for 18 holes — at least, not anymore.

But there is a celebration going on this summer at Mt. Lebanon Municipal Golf Course, and it shares a slice of history with another local club planning a big summer celebration — Oakmont.

Mt. Lebanon will celebrate its 100th anniversary July 7, commemorating the history and origin of a course that began as a private 18-hole layout known as Castle Shannon Golf Club and was built by an erudite Scotsman named George Ormiston, one of the original members at Oakmont. What’s more, eight of the original greens remain at the municipal course — greens that appear to have been influenced by the great Scottish designer, Donald Ross.

“A lot of people have cut a lot of balata balls and lost a lot of balls there,” said Tom Butcher, a member of the golf committee appointed by Mt. Lebanon commissioners to oversee a five-year course renovation.

Appropriately, the course’s centennial anniversary will nearly coincide with the U.S. Open, which will be staged just three weeks earlier at Oakmont.

And, like Oakmont, the nine-hole golf course has been designated an historical Western Pennsylvania landmark through the Pittsburgh History & Landmark Foundation.

Mt. Lebanon Golf Course is something of an anomaly because it has lasted a century in one of the most desirable areas to live in Western Pennsylvania.

Built on 99 acres less than a mile from Castle Shannon Boulevard, it has avoided the real-estate or commercial development that has swallowed a number of public and private courses around the country.

Butcher said real-estate developers have estimated the value of the property site between $10 million and $17 million.

“It’s amazing we’ve lasted 100 years,” Butcher said.

But, it has, generating somewhere between an estimated 1 million to 1.4 million rounds of golf and employing only four head golf professionals in the course’s 100-year history.

The latest is Matt Kluck, a master PGA professional and one of the top instructors in the country.

He has been at Mt. Lebanon since 1983.

“Public golf courses have really been on the rise, particularly those that keep developing them and keep them up to snuff,” Mt. Lebanon councilman Dale Colby said. “With the cost of gasoline these days and people struggling to find time to play, it doesn’t pay in many respects to drive great distances to the golf course anymore.”

Mt. Lebanon was built by Ormiston, a former accomplished amateur player and first winner of the West Penn Amateur championship in 1899 when it was played at Schenley Park Golf Course, then known as the Pittsburgh Golf Club.

He was also president of the West Penn Golf Association from 1914 until his death in 1940.

Ormiston was born in Haddingtonshire, Scotland, in 1874 and migrated in 1888 to the Pittsburgh area, where his father owned a law firm and printing company. He was a close friend and associate of Oakmont founder Henry C. Fownes, who built the course that would go on to host 17 national championships in 1903.

Ormiston played at Oakmont and, along with Fownes, dominated amateur golf in Western Pennsylvania for much of the early 1900s. He also was on the committee for the first U.S. Open that was held at Oakmont in 1927. There is a picture in the Oakmont guesthouse of the first Oakmont golf team, and Fownes and Ormiston are seated next to each other.

It is not known how much input, if any, Ormiston had in the construction of Oakmont. But, in 1908, he was contracted to build an 18-hole golf course on a portion of farmland owned by William Smith, who bought the property located near the Pittsburgh & Castle Shannon Railroad in 1846.

Smith was the first to begin construction on the course, building three holes in the summer of 1907 before Ormiston was hired to lay out the course on paper.

Castle Shannon Golf Club opened nine holes on July 4, 1908 and expanded to 18 holes in 1910, according to documents contained in the club’s application for landmark status. Membership was $25.

“The railroad came right down here in Castle Shannon,” Kluck said, sitting inside the Mt. Lebanon clubhouse that was built in 1961. “People would get off the train and take buggies to the golf course.”

But here’s another twist:

Ormiston and Fownes spent winter months in Pinehurst, N.C., and Ormiston would often take his friend to visit another Scotsman who lived there, Donald Ross. The three would play golf together, and it is widely believed Ross, who would become one of America’s leading course architects, had an influence on the design of Oakmont’s world-famous greens because they bore similarities to the crowned surfaces at Pinehurst No. 2, a Ross masterpiece.

There has never been any documentation to suggest Ross helped Ormiston with the design of Castle Shannon’s greens. But, Kluck said, “I guess it’s possible.”

Indeed, when Craig Schreiner, a Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based architect, was retained by the municipality to oversee the course renovation, he detected more than a trace of Ross’s influence when he toured the nine-hole layout. Schreiner, a native of Akron, Ohio, who designs courses for The First Tee, specializes in restoring Ross designs.

“He said, ‘Someone was copying his philosophy,’ ” Butcher said.

Castle Shannon was reduced to nine holes in 1919 after a two-year period in which the club was inactive because of World War I and also lost members to the newly formed St. Clair Country Club.

It stayed that way till 1947, when Mt. Lebanon purchased the course and opened it to the public.

The golf professional at the time was Wally Grant, who was hired in 1937. He remained in that position until he died in January 1983.

Mt. Lebanon, which recently received landmark status, will have a July 7 celebration that will include family and sponsor tournaments, cocktail reception and entertainment.

Meantime, the course has just embarked on a five-year renovation plan that, if funding is appropriated, will ultimately include a new clubhouse, indoor learning center and outdoor practice range by 2010.

A new double-row irrigation system was installed in the fall. Construction will begin shortly on multiple tees on every hole, as well as all sand bunkers and greens complexes, a project Kluck hopes will be completed by June 1. Colby said the municipality has budgeted approximately $400,000 this year for the course renovation.

A new clubhouse is essential because Mt. Lebanon does not serve food or drinks, except from a vending machine. That prevents the course from holding outings, typically a great source of revenue.

“We want the kind of improvements that will make it more profitable and more of a broad facility, not just for Mt. Lebanon residents but South Hills residents, as well,” Butcher said. “With Baldwin, Bethel Park, Peters Township, Scott, you have a tremendous demographic with all kinds of people.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633