Flourtown, Pennsylvania is the home to Philadelphia Cricket Club and its A.W. Tillinghast designed Wissahickon Course. Philly Cricket has recently served as host to two high profile events, the 2015 Club Professional Championship and the 2016 Constellation Senior Players Championship, drawing high praise from contestants in both. It will also test some of the country’s best college players when the Big Ten Men’s Championship arrives in the spring of 2019.
One of the first things one notices when arriving at the Cricket Club are the long views across the course, but those views had all but gone away until 2013. That was the year that the Club closed down the Wissahickon to do a restoration, with the goal to bring it back to A.W. Tillinghast’s original vision. Architect Keith Foster was commissioned and historian Phil Young consulted on how Tillinghast would have redone the course. Their collaboration was masterful, and the result is a course that is enjoyable for every day play, while being more than adequate to challenge top competitive players.
The Cricket Club is not short on history. Established in 1854, it holds the unique distinction of being America’s oldest country club. As the name would suggest, the club’s focus was originally cricket, not golf, but that all changed in the late 1800s with the popularity of golf exploding in the area. The Cricket Club moved its home to nearby St. Martins before acquiring a plot in Flourtown, PA in 1920. The land was selected with the help of Tillinghast who then went to work on building a great golf course, which he finished in 1922.
Tillinghast was a Philadelphia native and already known as a great architect having designed several outstanding courses including the Pittsburgh Field Club, Quaker Ridge Golf Club and North Hempstead C.C.. The Philadelphia Cricket Club was special to Tillinghast as he would call it his home course for the duration of his life. Tilly wasn’t the only notable architect that called Cricket home. The great George Thomas (responsible for LACC, Riviera and Bel-Air to name a few) was also a member.
The Tillinghast memorial stone rest near Wissahickon Creek
Over the years, The Cricket Club had fallen victim to the overgrowth of trees and agronomy that hid and diminished many of Tillinghast’s design features. The membership jumped headfirst into the restoration project that was led by Foster and head of grounds, Dan Meersman. After the completion of the 2013 U.S. Open at nearby Merion, the Cricket Club started fresh with the Wissahickon course, opting to rebuild every aspect of the course from scratch, leaving only a few landmark trees. The benefit of Foster and Meersman’s strategy was that they gained full control of every aspect of the course and were able to accomplish the task rather quickly, reopening on Memorial Day of 2014.
As the restored course has matured, an additional aspect of its greatness emerged. Tillinghast’s features and greens are visually impactful, but so too is the backdrop against which they sit. Throughout the changing seasons, Wissahickon Superintendent Robb Moulds and his crew present the course optimally to provide players with a spectacular show of colors and textures. The gallery below, featuring Jon Cavalier’s (@LinksGems) photos of the par-3 3rd illustrates the aesthetic cornucopia.
In the profile that follows, we have intentionally selected photos from all seasons to give you a feel for just how special this course is all year.
After the renovation, the Cricket Club regained its rightful place alongside Pine Valley, Merion and Aronimink – the elite courses in the Philadelphia metro area. It provides a challenging and fair test of golf for players of all skill levels and a historical architectural value that all can appreciate.
The property is bisected by a old rail platform which separates the upper from the lower section. Most of the front nine is in the lower half that Tillinghast routed to create an intimate feel. The back nine has a much more expansive feel as it makes its way out to the far corner and then back to the grand finish at the clubhouse.
My favorite aspect of the Cricket Club is how generous the driving areas are which gives golfers of all skill levels the feeling of having a chance on every hole. This plays into how the golden age architects liked to reward strategy and shotmaking skills. While a poor drive at the Wissahickon will rarely result in a penalty stroke, it will lead to an incredibly difficult shot due to angles and hazards around the green. In order to score well at this championship layout, a player must hit their shots in the right spots of the fairway in order to leave the correct angle of approach to the challenging and well protected green complexes. After a poor drive, there will still be a shot at recovery, albeit not an ideal one.
HOLE #1 – 424 yards – par 4
From the back tees, the first hole offers a unique and intimidating tee shot because the tee box is an extension of the putting green! A cool feature you don’t see at many courses which produces extra discomfort. The uphill dogleg right opener requires a tee shot that avoids the fairway bunker on the right side. The approach allows a player to hit any type of shot with no bunkers in front, but they must avoid a miss long, which will leave an extremely fast putt or chip.
HOLE #2 – 423 yards – par 4
One of the most picturesque holes at the Cricket Club, the 2nd is a downhill par-4 that runs back towards the men’s locker room with the green sitting just a few paces from it. A tee shot will stop short of the creek that runs 310 yards from the tee, leaving a player with a wedge into the elevated, well-protected green. A player’s second shot is challenged by bunkering on the right and left and the illusion of a back bunker which is actually on the 10th hole. During the restoration, significant shrubs and trees were removed restoring this visual trick Tillinghast created.
HOLE #3 – 122 yards – par 3
A terrific short hole that Tillie would call “Tiny Tim’s”, the 3rd provides an early birdie opportunity for players of all skill levels. This hole embodies the short hole mentality of hit it or pay the price, as the green is heavily protected with deep bunkering. The putting surface has heavy slope making longer putts a challenging.
HOLE #4 – 517 yards – par 4
A former par-5, the 4th hole is as tough of a par-4 as you will find. The strongest aspect of this hole is the “switchback” strategy that is employed. The tee shot calls for a draw around the bunkers, but the ideal second shot is a fade. This subtle design strategy is why Tillinghast was a championship course genius, as it tests the best of players by requiring them to move the ball both ways.
HOLE #5 – 215 yards – par 3
One of the strongest aspects of the Wissahickon course is the variety of shots the par-3s require. At the 5th, a player’s long-iron game is tested with a tough tee shot into this beautifully set green. The hole is reminiscent of St. Andrew’s 8th hole and Macdonald’s Eden template as the severely sloped green is flanked by right, left and back bunkering. A wise player will keep his approach shot below the hole to avoid a slippery downhill putt.
HOLE #6 – 498 yards – par 4
Another spectacular and challenging par-4, the 6th is another hole that underwent significant change with the restoration. Believe it or not, this hole was completely tree-lined down the right and left sides and is now opened up, giving players a beautiful vista and a look at the old Reading Railroad platform. A good tee shot will move left to right and avoid the right and left fairway bunkers that sit right in the landing area. The uphill approach plays about a club longer and requires a precise long iron to make a birdie.
HOLE #7 – 553 yards – par 5
Another hole that underwent significant change during the restoration was the 7th in an effort to bring back one of Tillinghast’s favorite designs, “the Great Hazard.” Tillinghast wanted to be able to replicate the impact that a water hazard has on play through mass bunkering. His intention was for the Great Hazard to come into play when a player misses either his drive or his second shot. Along with the 7th at Philadelphia Cricket Club, Tillinghast also used this design at Bethpage Black, Baltusrol and what many believe to be his design of the 7th at Pine Valley. A good tee shot on the 7th gives the long hitter a chance at hitting the green in two. However, it’s not an easy shot as the 7th green is guarded by deep bunkers in front, requiring players to hit a high, soft long iron in, which very few have in the bag. It’s a terrific par-5 design.
HOLE #8 – 365 yards – par 4
A player can finally sigh a breath of relief after the challenging stretch of #4-7, but this short par-4 will bite those who drop their guard. A drive down the left side of the fairway is preferred as everything on the 8th slopes right. From there, players are tested with a semi-blind uphill wedge shot to a green that slopes heavily from left to right. A miss in the bunkers is a big mistake, as they are extremely deep and make for a challenging up and down.
HOLE #9 – 373 yards – par 4
This short par-4 is an excellent example of how Tillinghast challenged players with angles. An ideal tee shot is down the left side of the fairway, but that route brings the out of bounds into play, leading the majority of players to bail to the right side of the fairway. From that side, you are forced to fly your approach over deep bunkers into the green, whereas the left side will allow a player to run the ball up to this green that slopes front to back.
HOLE #10 – 172 yards – par 3
The par-3 10th is set intimately against a road and the great backdrop of the men’s locker room. The infinity green complex makes the putting surface appear much smaller than it is. Protected by bunkers on the front, left and backside makes for a tough up and down for any miss.
HOLE #11 – 427 yards – par 4
This uphill par-4 provides players with a birdie opportunity if they are able to hit a good tee shot that avoids the tall grasses on the right and fairway bunker on the left. To spice things up, Tillinghast challenges players’ short-iron approach with a semi-blind uphill shot making distance control a taller task.
HOLE #12 – 546 yards – par 5
If players harbor any hope of posting a good score, picking up a shot at this short par-5 is an opportunity that cannot be squandered. The blind tee shot from the back tee requires picking the right target on the sharp dogleg. A good drive will lead to a go signal to get home in two as the front of the green allows for a shot to run up. A layup shot needs to be well placed to avoid the bunkers that lie on the right and left sides of the fairway about 125 yards out.
HOLE #13 – 447 yards – par 4
Among all of the great par-4s at Philadelphia Cricket Club, the 13th is often lost, but it is a spectacular two shot hole. This dogleg right requires a great tee shot to avoid the fairway bunker that cuts in at the turn of the dogleg. A player is then tested on their approach with deep bunkers on the right and left side that will catch any wayward shot.
HOLE #14 – 435 yards – par 4
Not to sound like a broken record, but the 14th is another great par-4. It offers players a wide driving area that narrows slightly on the right because of the tree which comes into play for long hitters. What makes this hole special is the downhill approach shot to the heavily bunkered green. During the restoration, several bunkers were added to match Tillinghast’s original design. The shot into the back left pin position is quite intimidating.
HOLE #15 – 240 yards – par 3
Who doesn’t love a great redan hole? The 15th at the Wissahickon fits that bill. Playing at 240 yards, this par-3 matches the original design intention which requires players to hit a long-iron or fairway wood approach that utilizes the slope to get the ball close.
HOLE #16 – 426 yards – par 4
The start of Philadelphia Cricket’s closing stretch of three tough par-4s, the 16th offers golfers a beautiful vista of the back nine. The terrific fairway bunkering forces players to hit a good tee shot down the right side to set up an approach to the green. Shots left leave an angle that makes for a tough approach as the deep bunker that guards the left side of the green is much more in play.
HOLE #17 – 449 yards – par 4
Players who move the ball right to left will find that this uphill dogleg left fits their eye. A good tee shot hugs the left side of the fairway, avoiding the bunker, and will set up a mid-iron approach. The 17th offers a spectacular second shot from one of the high points of the course. The approach to this green that seemingly floats in the air is guarded by bunkering that forces a player to hit a precise shot to have a good look at birdie. From the green, players are able to look back and reminisce on the great collection of holes that is the Wissahickon.
HOLE #18 – 487 yards – par 4
For those hoping to score well, the closer provides one of the course’s toughest tests as a finale. The 18th is a long downhill dogleg left. An ideal tee shot moves right to left and will leave a long-iron approach to a well guarded green. If a player doesn’t hit a good tee ball, they will be faced with the decision of laying up short of the Lorraine Run creek or trying to hit it over and leave a chip shot third. This routing is masterful as it forces a player to hit the fairway in order to have a legitimate shot at reaching the green in regulation.
After having time to digest my round at Philadelphia Cricket Club, I can’t think of many other courses I have played that have provided as fair and as strong of a test. There is not a weak hole on the Wissahickon – the short par-4s and par-3s present unique challenges for players whose games are even slightly off. Tillinghast’s design forces players to hit every club and shot shape in their bag well to have success. It stands as one of my favorite courses, and I believe it belongs in the top 50 courses in the United States.