Royal Oaks Golf Club

Terrific public course makes the trip worthwhile

Conventional wisdom has it that two hours is about as far as most golfers will drive to play a round of golf - and it had better be a special course.

Royal Oaks Golf Club in Lebanon, Pa., 15 miles east of Hershey, just barely makes it under the two-hour wire for most golfers in the Philadelphia area.

As for being special, Golf Digest magazine in January 1996 ranked Royal Oaks as the fifth-best public course in Pennsylvania. More recently, in that magazine's Places to Play book, the four-year-old links-style course was one of only four within two hours of Billy Penn's hat that rated four stars for ``outstanding.''

``Best-kept secret in eastern Pennsylvania,'' says one player comment in Places to Play. ``Excellent value,'' says another. ``Still needs to mature,'' says another.

All three are true. Because it's so far off the beaten path - in the ``boonies,'' head professional Stu Hanford Jr. readily concedes - Royal Oaks isn't exactly Topic A among Philadelphia golfers. But given the paucity of top-drawer public courses in this area, if it were closer, weekends would find Royal Oaks as crowded as the restrooms in the third quarter of an Eagles game.

Great value? Royal Oaks is $31 to ride on weekends and $25 to walk. You can walk anytime.

As for maturity, true again. For a mere babe of a golf course, Royal Oaks' fairways and greens are well on the way to excellence. But the course is built on a former cattle farm - i.e., few trees - and the many saplings planted to enhance the layout have yet to fully develop.

Because the course is wide-open and windblown in places, it has a definite links-style feel, especially on the front side, akin to Wyncote Golf Club.

Indeed, a common piece of advice to newcomers at Royal Oaks is, ``Aim for that silo off in the distance.''

But on other holes - particularly on the back nine - several creeks and ponds give Royal Oaks a look and feel more like a course in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

If you can keep the ball on the short grass, Royal Oaks is not a killer. It is relatively flat overall, although it does feature a few holes with rolling terrain. The fairways are generous for the most part, and the greens sizable, though not as big as those on many new courses. From the blue tees, it measures 6,555 yards, and has a slope rating of 121 and a par rating of 71.4.

But on almost every hole, a golfer confronts a problem and a risk/reward decision. And that really is the essence of Royal Oaks. There are no holes that are so breathtaking that you're left standing on the tee, marveling. But there also are no boring or tricked-up holes - the kind that leave you shaking your head in dismay while walking off a green. It is a modern and well-designed golf course.

Consider the first hole, a 544-yard, par-5 double dogleg. On your second shot, do you play it safe up the left side to avoid the three fairway bunkers on the right? Or are you enough of a gambler to go for the birdie by trying to chew off the second half of the dogleg?

Then there's the 496-yard, par-5 12th, where you lay up to a creek, then face the choice of powering it 230 yards over a small lake onto the green for the 2-putt birdie or taking the conservative route up the right side.

Until a few years ago, Royal Oaks - named for its location at the intersection of Royal Road and Oak Street - was just a rolling pasture that was home to the Hanford family's cattle and horse farm.

Stu Hanford was a pretty fair golfer, as were his sons, especially Stu Jr. They both honed their games across the street at Lebanon Country Club. When farming eventually lost its appeal, the elder Hanford decided to build a golf course.

He brought in the bank, then architect Ron Forse, a devotee of the Donald Ross school. Now, with Stu Jr., 26, as head pro and manager, they're bringing in golfers from all over eastern Pennsylvania.

Originally published Oct. 20, 1996