Last fall I took an excursion to Eastern Pennsylvania. The trip itinerary included a few days at the BMW Championship at Aronimink and a heavy exploration of the area’s public golf offerings. We are going to focus on the latter portion of this article.
Philadelphia is one of the most revered golf cities in the world. Its roster includes the likes of Pine Valley, Merion, Philadelphia Cricket Club and Aronimink, to name a few. The city’s offering of private clubs is as deep as any and thrusts it into the conversation of best golf city in America. The high-profile private clubs do cast a large shadow over Philly’s strong public courses. As far as major cities go, Philadelphia is also one of the best for the public golfer. Within an hour drive of the city center, there are dozens of public golf courses worth playing.
Golfers know, sometimes you get lucky with the weather and other times conditions turn sour. The week of my visit was on the losing side of the ledger. After opening the week with upper 90s and humidity, it dumped rain for four straight days. It cut into the golf on TV and hindered my ability to fully explore all of the spots on my hit list. Although what follows is not full coverage of the area, this collection of courses should give you plenty for a road trip around Philly.
Lulu Country Club – Donald Ross – Glenside, PA
Peak Walking Rate: $79
Lulu is a private club that allows for public play. The Donald Ross design is quirky and fun. New ownership has taken down trees, reopening some long views and bringing back Lulu’s charm. Limekiln Pike divides the course with 1-7 playing on one side of the road and the closing 11 on the main parcel. Lulu’s strength is its wonderful rolling land, good variety and a splendid set of Ross greens. A few of the course’s most notable holes include the short par-3 4th (one of the many great shorties in Philly), the punchbowl par-4 8th and the short par-4 16th. It’s unclear how long Lulu will accept public play, so I advise getting out on this gem sooner rather than later. Full profile
Jeffersonville Golf Course – Donald Ross – Jeffersonville, PA
Peak walking rate: $45
Philadelphia is bless with not only one but two Donald Ross designs that the public can play. 15 minutes from Lulu is municipally owned Jeffersonville Golf Course. Unlike Lulu, Jeffersonville’s land is far flatter which led to Ross building bold greens. The course has improved considerably over the past 15 years thanks to the help of architects Ron Prichard and Tyler Rae as well as superintendent Rich Shilling. Jeffersonville is a model municipal – the course handles over 40,000 rounds per year and management understands the value of investing in their most valuable asset, the golf course.
The tenth green at Jeffersonville Golf Course
Inniscrone Golf Club – Gil Hanse – Avondale, PA
Peak walking rate: $55
It’s always fun to see an architect’s first design. Gil Hanse got his start at Inniscrone building a high-end private facility which never took off as the owner expected. The course turned public and since has had houses built on it and a few holes changed to “accommodate” the public golfer. Inniscrone is bittersweet – it offers an excellent experience for the price, but it’s hard not to notice that the course is 15 years into a 50 year slide that happens at many municipal courses. Fairways and greens are shrinking every year, with the original bentgrass fairway lines now in the rough. The 16th hole has houses that encroach on what used to be a split fairway. I wish I had seen Inniscrone shortly after opening. There are a few head scratching holes but 14 of them are spectacular. Philly is lucky to have an affordable design by one of golf architecture’s best.
Cobbs Creek Golf Course – Hugh Wilson – Philadelphia, PA
Peak walking rate: $30
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was a cold, rainy morning at Cobbs Creek Golf Course. I met Joe Bausch, Mike Cirba and Matt Frey to walk the original Hugh Wilson routing at Cobbs Creek and record a podcast about their renovation efforts. For those not familiar with the story of Cobbs’ here’s a quick rundown.
In 1916, Philadelphia opened a municipal course for the city designed by Hugh Wilson. Wilson only designed two courses in his career, Merion and Cobbs Creek. The goal was to build a course as good as any private facility in the area. Wilson who enlisted the help of his fellow Philadelphia School of Architecture friends, did just that and Cobbs Creek became an iconic public design.
Over the years, Cobbs has fallen into disrepair, operators changing the routing and covering up many of the dramatic holes. The unbelievable rolling Philadelphia topography makes possible what could be a world class public course on par with New York’s Bethpage State Park. Thanks to Cirba and Bausch’s tireless work, Cobbs will see a renovation in the near future. A private – public partnership deal was struck and The Friends of Cobbs Creek will run the facility moving forward. The plans call for a Gil Hanse led restoration of the course, recapturing the lost holes on the original routing.
Paxon Hollow Country Club – J. Franklin Meehan – Marple Township, PA
Peak walking rate: $69
Inspired by the visit to Cobb’s Creek I went over to Paxon Hollow despite a deluge of rain. In the end, I was thankful to make the trip because Paxon Hollow blew away my expectations. The quaint 5,700 yard course won’t wow any player looking at the scorecard but thanks to the wonderful rolling land, it holds remarkable interest. The course has a number of short par-4s that force players to make decisions and weigh risks, and the bunkering is beautiful. Following the round I learned that Paxon Hollow’s pro is high school friends with Gil Hanse’s design partner Jim Wagner. Over the years, Wagner has done pro bono work on the muni. His artistry is evident in the bunkers. The back nine has the all-world stretch of 11-13 where the land and the course are at their best. Paxon Hollow is a course that I can’t wait to return and play on a sunny day.
The rain-soaked 1st green at Paxon Hollow
Galen Hall Golf Course – Alex Findlay, A.W. Tillinghast & William Gordon – Wernersville, PA
Peak walking rate: $40
One of the courses I was most keen to see was Galen Hall. It is home to one of golf’s first island greens, the moat hole and a few A.W. Tillinghast holes. It was a brutal year of weather for Eastern Pennsylvania, with record rainfalls and oppressive heat making maintenance a challenge. I met golf architect Jaeger Kovich for an early morning walk of Galen Hall. Set in the foothills of the South Mountains, the course traverses a dramatic terrain. The par-5 second falls nearly 200 feet in elevation. It’s quite the hole and gets players from the high ground into the valley where the majority of the golf course sits. The effects of the weather had taken a toll on Galen Hall, especially in the course’s low areas. The tough and rocky soils and nearby mountains give the water nowhere to go. Superintendent Chad Oxenreider had done his best given the course’s limited resources and trying summer. Galen Hall has some of the most interesting architecture available at a price everyone can afford. My recommendation is to find a nice stretch of the forecast and head over to see one of the most unique courses in the area.
Reading Country Club – Alex Findlay – Reading, PA
Peak walking rate: $30
About 15 minutes from Galen Hall is another Alex Findlay design, Reading Country Club. The former private club is now owned by the city and offers the public a layout with strong architectural bones. Reading C.C.’s clubhouse is beautiful and is a registered historical landmark. Unfortunately, overgrown trees are the biggest problem, blocking any views of the clubhouse from the course. Reading’s strongest asset is the topography – it rolls and creates dramatic approach shots. A river runs through a low portion of the front nine that Findlay was able to use to create some strategic shots. The course’s premier hole is the Alps 11th. The hole swings to the left and obstructing the second shot is a rock outcropping. The green is narrow and long, smaller than it should be. A little TLC would go a long way toward cleaning up Reading. Trees clearly cause major agronomic issues throughout, while hindering playability and long views of the gorgeous property. Much like nearby Galen Hall, the summer weather hadn’t been kind. Reading is certainly worth the play if in the area.
Manor Golf Club – Alex Findlay – Sinking Spring, PA
Peak walking rate: $35
Another Alex Findlay design in the foothills, Manor is a great value. The course is no more than 5 minutes from Galen Hall and sits on a nice piece of land. It starts out with a bang with two punchbowl greens in the first three holes. The back nine traverses more severe land on the 11th hole and has two splendid three-shotters in the 12th and 14th. Manor handled the tough summer much better than Reading and Galen Hall. The three courses along with nearby Berkleigh offer an excellent super-value weekend of golf.
The 5th and 7th greens at Manor GC
The weather cut into the week and forced me to forego some of the courses that I intended to visit. My next trip to Philly will include a few stops at places I wish I had gotten to on this trip. Here’s what I missed that I look forward to seeing next go around.
The Course at Glens Mills – Bobby Weed – One of the premier public options in the Philly area, Glens Mills is also home to a great youth program.
Harkers Hollow – Robert White – A little more than an hour outside of Philadelphia is the golden age gem, Harkers Hollow. An area superintendent purchased Harkers Hollow and has poured his soul into restoring the bold features back into the property.
Berkleigh Golf Club – Robert White – A neighbor of Manor, Galen Hall and Reading C.C., the recently private gone public offers golden age architecture for under $60.