Course: Downingtown CC is in the town of the same name, which sits in one of the more west suburbs of the city. It is one of a few private courses that opened up to the public a while ago and I’m glad they did. The course was designed by George Fazio in the 1960’s, with re-design work in 2006 performed by Gil Hanse (now designing the Olympics course in Rio and famous for many other courses) and Broadbelt, a former greens superintendent at Chester Valley CC. D-town exudes a classic parkland charm by being a very walking friendly course and featuring a traditional presentation of hazards you’d encounter at most parkland courses; tree lined fairways, a few water hazards, elevation changes that move through the hilly terrain and bunkers. The things that set this course apart from other park land styles are some of the angles you’re forced to take off the tee and on your approach shots, the complex greens and most importantly, the bunkering here is very well done. I suspect that Hanse was involved in this, as they seem similar to some of his other work. The bunkers are rigid, well placed, of varying depth and add lots of visual and contour character to the course. It is a nice course to walk, as I always feel like I’m going for a stroll in a really gigantic pretty backyard that happens to have 18 holes. Like many classic designs, keeping the ball in play is paramount and if you’re able to do so, the course will yield pars and birdies. On the other hand, mis hits can easily lead to disastrous results, quickly.
I’ve always enjoyed the simplicity of the design, that still drips with character. There are no homes lining the course; there really isn’t much of anything except the course. The course has always held a certain charm for me and like many of these more classic courses, I always come away enjoying myself, yet wondering how I didn’t score better. I like to call it subtle challenge. There are courses where the challenge is in front of your face to intimidate you and there others, like here, where it takes many rounds before you’re able to put your finger on how you’re losing strokes. When you add in the multi story clubhouse and expansive indoor and outdoor bar and grill, it’s some where you way to the spend the whole day.
Speaking of spending the whole day, you probably will be if you play here during the weekend. Downingtown is very popular and backs up a lot. Crowd issues have reared their ugly head a few times here for me and as I detail below, kept me from playing here for a couple years. It is a major deterrent, not unlike many other courses during the weekend.
The design and setting are well done and enjoyable enough that at times, I’d even be willing to tough out the crowds for a round here. As it stands, Downingtown is one of the better public course options in the Philadelphia area.
The First is a 378 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The tee shot is elevated to a fairway that goes straight to the slightly elevated green, with bunkers carved into it on the left and right. Trees line both sides of the fairway. It’s a nice warm up hole.
Approach shot territory
The Second is a 359 yard par 4. The fairway slopes from left to right and is tree lined. The green is perched, with a deep bunker on the low side of the green. It’s a little narrow and the approach shot must be well executed and anything too far right makes for a very tough recovery shot.
Approach shot territory
The Third is the first and only par 3 of the front nine. There’s a nice little snack shed that sells everything from hot dogs to Bloody Mary’s right next to the tee. Great place for it, especially since there are no cart girls here. As far as the hole goes, it’s 169 yards, with bunkers cut in front left of the green and long right. Trees cut in a little on the left, making a draw or simply straight the right play. The green is two tiered, with the higher side on the back and lower on the front. Short is really the only miss without getting into too much trouble.
Bunkering on the Third. Interesting shapes with the long grass plant in meddling position
The Fourth opens up the width a little with a 300 yard par 4. After the elevated tee, it dog legs right where a row of bunkers await that essentially must be carried to get to the larger green that is swirls and undulates.
The green in the background, with the row of bunkers dissecting the fairway. Hanse styling definitely comes through here
Another look at the bunkering with the green looming
The Fifth is a 338 yard par 4. That’s right, 4 out of 5 of the first holes are par 4’s and it actually goes as high as 6 of 7 of the first holes are par 4’s. This spices up the back nine, but it definitely makes scoring a little tough on the front. As for the Fifth, the tee is set to the left of the fairway, so you have to hit it out to the right and draw it, while the green is set back to the left. The green is wide enough that pin position can make it a dramatically different hole depending on where the flag stick is. The bunkers and green complex are great and the hole is very good.
Going down the fairway, bunkers protecting the closest route from tee to green
Approach shot territory
A closer look
The Sixth is a 382 yard par 4 and is the number one handicapped hole. Its distance and limited access to the green are probably enough for that honor. The hole dog legs slightly to the left after a healthy tee shot with a longer approach shot to a green protected by water on the left and trees on the right. Laying up is a smart option here. Otherwise, you need to hit the green to stay out of awkward lie chip territory.
Approach shot territory
The Seventh is a 369 yard par 4. Time to go back up hill, which makes this hole longer than its stated yardage. The hole is pretty much straight, but the green runs at an angle to the fairway so pin position changes how you want to approach. Anything over the green is really tough and the green runs off that side, so make sure your approach is high and lands soft.
Going up the fairway
The green, upper center of the photo
The Eighth is a 478 yard par 5. Finally, out of the par 4 repeat cycle. The fairway goes downhill and is rather wide, so it’s a great scoring opportunity. The green is another that must be hit, as bunkers surround the green and there isn’t much room beyond those.
Second shot territory
Approach shot territory
The Ninth is a 345 yard par 4. The tee shot is blind, as the fairway crests, then descends to the green. There is a bell that must be run once you’re clear for the group on the tee behind you. I love those bells. A large bunkers fronts the right side of the green and careful with where your tee shot ends up, there are bunkers that come into play and facing a downhill lie for your approach shot magnifies its difficulty. Lots of options and things to think about here.
Bunkers on the right at the top of the hill, which you can’t see from the tee
The other side of the crest, looking at the green
A closer look at the green
9th green. I like the bunkers here
The front nine features virtually all par 4’s, primarily playing uphill or downhill with some great bunkering on all but 2 of them. I’d rank them 4, 5, 9, 3, 2, 6, 7, 8, 1.
The back nine starts with the 314 yard par 4. It’s a rather short par 4 that is straight ahead with a slightly elevated green, but a row of bunkers falls at just about 215 – 230 yards, crossing the entire fairway and forcing you to decide to lay up or carry the bunkers for a nice short shot to the green.
Short of the bunkers, with the green in sight
The Eleventh is a 431 yard par 4. The fairway is wide albeit tree lined and the hole is straight with very little trouble, but some how everyone in my group couldn’t score on this hole.
Down the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back from the green. There is a bunker protecting the left side that you can’t see here. The tree lining is a good example of many of the holes here.
The Twelfth is a 161 yard par 3 from an elevated tee, over water. The clubhouse and any golfers waiting to tee off are behind you, watching your every move and adding to the pressure. It’s a nice par 3, one of the few courses I know of where most of the par 3’s are with a short or mid iron.
The Thirteenth is a 467 yard par 5. It’s all uphill, so definitely more yardage is involved that what is stated. The tee shot must carry some wetland/long grass area, with the fairway tightened up with trees all the way up the right side and bunkers on the left. Bunkers then switch over to the right and guard that side of the green, which wraps around the bunkers and slopes severely from back to front.
A look at the green
The Fourteenth is a 372 yard par 4. The tee shot is elevated, so it could be a relatively short second shot so long as your tee ball is straight and doesn’t stray too far left into the trees or too far right into the water. The green is straightforward, but like a lot of greens here, there is little room for a mis hit.
Approach shot territory
The Fifteenth is a 131 yard par 3. Bunkers wrap around the left side of the green, water is on the right and far side and the green slopes from left to right, towards the water. It’s a shorter par 3, but again, not a whole to of opportunities to mis hit.
The Sixteenth is a 507 yard par 5, going uphill after the second shot. The routing on the back nine is much spicier, with the par 3, 4, and 5’s mixed in with reckless abandon. It gets much tougher on the second and third shots, as cross bunkers began to appear all the way up to the green. It’s a longer hole that can trip you up easily if you start getting sideways.
Up the fairway
The Seventeenth is the last and longest par 3, at 172 yards. It actually plays longer, as the in was 185 yards when I played it. You must carry another wetland area to get close to the green, deep bunkers are on the left side of the green while there is no room on the right. It’s a good place in the round to demand a longer precise tee shot.
The Eighteenth is a 536 yard par 5. The hole dog legs slightly to the left, then gently descends to a raised green. There is a creek about 100 yards away from the green that goes across the entire fairway that must be contended with. The green is surrounded by bunkers and slopes severely from left to right. A great finishing hole.
Second shot territory
Fairway of 18. The raised green, slope and bunker placement is a good example of what you see a lot of here.
The back nine is certainly more diverse in terms of what types of scoring holes you see, and in distances, with a few more strategic holes in place. I’d say the front nine is tougher to score on while the back nine is a tough shorter and easier to score. I’d rank the back nine 18, 17, 10, 12, 16, 15, 13, 14, 11.
Generally, the course gives you a little of everything. It’s a true risk/reward course that emphasizes the approach shot. The greens are a moderate challenge and the bunkering is fantastic. Going left or right, or short, on any hole is usually a penalty avalanche. If this course was a little cheaper, it’d be some where I played all the time. As it stands now, I play here a good amount. The walking and the classic set up of the place gives you a great experience on a challenging course that allows you to score when your game is on. The emphasis on ball striking adds to the above, along with most of the people who play here, who are usually seasoned and nice. For what I’ll call a classic golf experience, Downingtown is a great experience.
Gripes: Green fees are a little high, but not incredulous. Can get freakishly windy here. Some of the natives can get restless here if they’re behind you and feel you’re slacking.
Bar/grill: Indoor and outdoor area ranging from a great 19th hole to a nice place for dinner. Good beer selection and fine food.
Clubhouse: Well sized and lots of good stuff. The Titleist hats are cheap.
Nearby: Wegman’s, Dick’s (for more golf stuff) and a HUGE plus: The Victory Ale Brewery, which has an awesome tasting room. I mean, people come from out of town and stay at hotels to go to this place.
Getting there: Off Route 30 about 40 minutes from Philly.
Played in December 2011. My recollection of the holes was actually off, so I clarified things above. Generally, the experience here wasn’t as great as I remembered. This may have been due in large part to a staff that was dealing with a December day where the course was packed, and cranky natives who needed to blame the crowd on someone, but it’s frantic days like this where a course can really shine or get exposed. The staff dealt with a frost delay efficient enough, but were bullying groups into speeding their pace of play, including mine. And we weren’t slow by any stretch of the imagination (I had gone par-bogie-par-par-bogie before the cajoling started, rest of my group was no worse than a double on any hole). Now being herded along is not ideal, but with the frost delay, all these groups had to come around to the first hole, which was absolutely packed. So any group that started on the back 9 from the frost delay were actually being yelled at to hurry up so they could wait at Hole 1, where the starter was alternating between the frost delay folks and the groups that were teeing off at their scheduled tee time. It made no sense and pretty much upset everyone that started on the back 9. Members were yelling at non-members to speed up as well, only so they could take their time on the hole, which almost started a few altercations, especially getting hit into a few times. There was definitely a sense that the non-member playing public was not welcome. In all fairness though, from my conversations some of the members were nice guys and seemed to realize it was just a crowded day. The snack bar was also closed and there was no cart girl, so a +5 hour round was made worse by having no way to get something to eat or drink.
Other than that situation, the fairway and rough conditions were questionable. Again, it’s December, but many of the other courses I’ve played around this time have held up much better.
On the bright side, the greens were a lot more interesting with undulations and putting was much more important than I remembered. I also liked many of the greens and bunker designs surrounding them. The more memorable of these include 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, 17 and 18.
In sum, I’m chalking my bad day up to bad timing and will come back next season. I really liked the green complexes, so I hope my next experience here is on par with what I remember from last season. My original gripes section talks about the prickly natives as well, which made me remember another situation there, so we’ll see if that improves next season.
UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE
April 2014: Yes, it’s been a few years and yes, it’s directly related to my experience last time I was here (for the most part). The other reason why I don’t play here often is the green fees are a little excessive. It’s $82 to play with a cart during the weekend, which is about $20 too much. Really though, walking makes it much more reasonable at $63 during the weekend. Regardless of everything mentioned, I haven’t been here in a while and really like the design, so I thought I’d check it out again to see if I can put D-town in the rotation again.
I was able to take photos of all the holes and revamped the course review above, so a lot of my thoughts are there. Generally though, I had a great round. I played with a couple former members and they were a pleasure. We started off on a weekend morning and finished just below four hours (even though I saw a lot of back up as we were finishing up). The bunkering is as good as I remember and the green complexes remain among some of the most interesting around. The greens had recently been punched, so I didn’t get the full experience of all the undulations, but it was refreshing to get back here and have such a nice round, even if my score was higher than I thought it should have been. It is still a fair test with subtle challenge and a healthy amount of character in the design and clubhouse. The staff were courteous and they were offering a lower rate because of the punched greens. This is something that should be standard but unfortunately a lot of times courses simply do nothing.
So generally, Downingtown is in my good graces again and I’d like to get back this season when the greens are rolling true. I still think crowds are a major issue here during the weekends, but I’ll wait until next time I go to render any further judgment. It’s a nice little course and with the Hanse/Broadbelt re-design in 2006, has a little natural rugged flair to it that enhances its classic parkland charm.