Inniscrone

6,561 yards, 143 Slope, 6,094 yards, 137 Slope, 5,790 yards, 131 Slope
Course:  Ah…Inniscrone.  An enigma if I’ve ever played one.  Before I get into my own personal issues with the place, a little background is in order.  In Avondale, PA (just south of Kennett Square off Route 1), the ‘Crone was designed by Malvern based Gil Hanse, one of golf’s “it” architects that was recently pegged to design the 2016 Olympics course in Rio.  His other courses include Castle Stuart in Scotland, the Boston Golf Club, Rustic Canyon out in CA and Applebrook in Malvern, among others.  Inniscrone was initially a private country club and I believe the course was designed to challenge the membership, whom were mostly lower handicapped players.  So upon opening, the course was just that, a visually stunning, out of the ordinary/never seen before design, terribly difficult course that evoked strong reactions from those who played it.  The course hosted a PGA event very early after it opened and received some good, and some bad, feedback.  Regardless, the course was an ambitious design and there were a lot of things to like.
The course was built during the golf boom in the late 1990’s and once the economy turned south in the 2000’s, membership began to dwindle. It was then sold and turned into an upscale daily fee course.  It was during this time that I first played here.  Me and a couple friends shelled out close to $100 for the round and were annihilated by its difficulty.  What did we do afterwards?  We replayed then and there, certain that we’d do better now that we had a feel for the place.  It helped very little.  It was tough justifying the steep green fee and driving time, all to play a course I didn’t fully understand and was clearly simply not good enough for.  It was about about survival, meaning, any hole where I didn’t lose a ball was a victory.
At any rate, years went by and my game improved slowly, so I would show up every now and then to give the place another crack, but I always walked away not really enjoying the round.  I also started realizing that conditions were getting worse.  I didn’t think much of the lower green fees, but bunkers were terrible, greens were burned and brown, and off fairway was terrible.  Even when I was hitting good shots, the conditions wouldn’t help and it became impossible to hold greens.  I think I mentioned back then that the greens felt like moss on rocks.  I showed up less and less, realizing there were a lot of tough courses in better condition, but it was more than that.  The course just gave off a bad vibe.  Maybe it was the difficulty, but I always felt a sense of despair amongst me and my playing group there.  It just sucked the fun out of us by the time we got to the maddening Fifth hole.  The final straw for me was when I hit a beauty of an approach on the Sixteenth, which landed next to the hole, then rolled towards the edge of the green, then rolled off.  When I got up to the green, I saw my ball, which had rolled off the green down a hill and into a ravine.  The fringe was burned out and the rough that should have been on the hillside was patchy.  The ball should have at least got caught up in the hillside rough, but I had to take a drop, all for hitting it within a couple feet of the pin.  I can safely say that there was a time when I hated this course.
I don’t think I was alone in my experience here.  And looking back, the issue was a bunch of average Joes like me were playing a course that wasn’t meant for us.  It was designed for better players.  And although it started as a high end daily fee course, I suspect that in conjunction with its location, it couldn’t sustain enough rounds to keep conditions respectable.
I started reading stories about some sort of ownership dispute and some openly wondered what was going to happen with the course.  I found myself secretly rooting for the place to survive, for unknown reasons.  Eventually, it appeared there was a change in ownership and I started hearing that good things were happening with the course.  Try as I might to stay away, I couldn’t help myself to a recent round to check everything out yet again.
This time in, I set out a few ground rules.  First, I wasn’t going to care about my score.  I’ve actually been nursing a wrist injury and hadn’t played for a couple weeks before I went out, so I could always blame my wrist.  Second, I would make a concerted effort to study the design.  Was there something here I was missing?  Why was I drawn back time and time again?  Finally, I went out with 5 balls.  Once I ran out, I’d walk off the course.  That would save a lot of aggravation, but would also make sure I played conservatively.
I played on an early Sunday morning and the drive took no time at all.  The parking lot is on the other side of a ravine from the clubhouse, so there are guys driving carts to your car so you can load up and drive over.  I paid a pretty reasonable green fee, which included use of the range.  That was new and a welcome change for sure.  The starter realized I was a single and was scheduled to go out with 3 players, but offered that I could go out as a 3 some if I was willing to play 10 minutes earlier.  That sounded good and was glad he suggested it.  After warming up at the range, I made my way to the First hole when I looked down at the scored card for the first time and realized there were 4 sets to choose from, which I believe is also new.  Once I picked my tees, which was still pretty high on the slop rating, I stood over the First hole with my driver, yet again subjecting myself to the enigma that is Inniscrone.
The course itself is set on rolling hill terrain that ranges from gentle to severe amongst wetland areas, some of which are environmentally protected.  The bunkers range from immense to meddling, but all are masterly shaped and provide a lot of the course’s character.  The rough is immediately off fairway and is extremely deep.  Fairways slope boldly in varying directions.  Finally, the greens here are very fast and contain tons of undulations, demanding laser precision approach shots and careful putting.  The holes climb and descend the hilly terrain and almost tunnel through wooded and wetland areas.  There are a number of forced carries and many places where hitting off fairway puts you on very severe hillsides leading down to ravines.  Much of the course is also visually intimidating while blind shots are strategically placed throughout.
The First hole starts off pretty tamely, with a 380 yard par 4 (all from the Gold tees).  The fairway is wide off the tee, which makes its way to a diagonal row of bunkers just before the green.  Almost every approach shot must carry one of the bunkers, which makes for a nice test right off the bat.  The green slopes from back to front and, just like all of them, is fast.  
Tee shot at the First
Approaching the green at the First
The Second is a 296 yard par 4, but here’s where the fun starts.  The tee shot is blind, as the fairway goes downhill.  A bunker is visible before the drop off.  
Tee shot at the Second
Most players will take driver out and aim over the bunker, thinking they’ll be ok.  Probably not.  The fairway slopes severely downhill and slants to the left, so most balls will roll into the rough on the left of the hole, or down into the large bunkers at the end of the hill.  The play seems to be a power fade off the tee to short of the green, as I think the green is too fast to hold any tee shot, unless you run it up.  Regardless of being short, it’s a tricky hole.  And if it’s your first time playing, good luck. 
The green on the Second
The Third is an even shorter par 4 at 290 yards, but is also difficult.  The entire hole is in front of you on the elevated tee and the downhill fairway proceeds at an angle in a 2:00 direction.  The green is narrow and long, but surrounded by bunkers, with the fast green sloping severely towards the bunkers on the left.  Your options are to lay up to the wider part of the fairway and take a longer approach shot, or flirt with the right side of the fairway so your ball comes down, giving you the best look at the green out of the path of the bunkers.  Anything off fairway and you’re in deep rough, which makes it more likely you’ll go in one of the bunkers.  And the fringe of the greens goes immediately to rough as well, putting the bunkers back in play.  That was a noticeable difference this time around, the rough around the fringe.  At least it kept balls on the green level instead of everything falling into the bunkers on the left.  
Tee shot at the Third
Fairway of the Third
Now things get downright hellish.  The Fourth is a 368 yard par 4.  The entire hole needles through a narrow chute with trees on both sides of the fairway, which slopes severely from right to left.  The left side of the fairway also has deep rough and a steep bank drop off.  The green also slants severely right to left and off to the rear side of the green.  Severely.  So yeah, anything off center and bad approach shots will be punished with extreme prejudice.  
Tee shot at the Fourth
Usually, I’m ready to check out after this hole.  The green used to be impossible to hold, the fairway was usually too beat up and I ended up on the left side of the hole, only to take a ton of strokes just to get to the green.  But this time I noticed a better, more solid fairway and green, along with more rough surrounding the green to hold balls on that level.  Subtle changes, but effective.  
Then there’s the controversial Fifth, a 105 yard drop shot par 3.  And here’s where I realized that there was a significant effort to make the course friendlier without compromising its unique design characteristics.  This hole used to feature tall grass that made it impossible to see the green.  So you would take out your wedge, hit it in the air and just kind of hope it ended up well.  A lot of times, you couldn’t even find your ball, as the green wouldn’t hold anything and sloped severely towards the back of the green, which then fell off into a hill side with ankle high rough.  The green just wouldn’t hold anything and almost every ball likely ended up in that rough.  Now, the long grass is gone and you have a clear view of the green.  And although the slope remains, it was feasible to hold the green, and there was rough on the front side, giving you a bail out area.  It was the first time I made par here.  Now I was interested to see other changes that were made.
Tee shot at the Fifth.  Looks harmless from here.
A closer look at the Fifth
The Sixth is out of the woods, literally, and is a 403 yard par 4.  It’s a dog leg right that goes uphill, then downhill, then uphill to yet another green that undulates heavily with a left to right slant.  There is a larger tree on the right that protects the hole from trying to cut the dog leg and in general, anything right off the tee will be blocked from the green.  After the narrow holes demanding precision from the Second through Fifth, the Sixth is welcoming, allowing a little lee way on your shots while still being able to score here.
Tee shot at the Sixth
Approach shot at the Sixth
  
The Seventh is a 481 yard par 5.  It’s another dog leg right that starts downhill, then turns and starts going uphill to a mostly blind green.  The narrow fairway and everything sloping right, except the green, which is kind of a punch bowl.  Bunkers are to the left of the tee landing area and cross bunkers are towards the front of the green.
Tee shot at the Seventh
Approach shot at the Seventh
Further left, to see the area of rough versus fairway on this hole
The Eighth is a 185 yard par 3.  This is another hole that looked dramatically different from last season.  In the past, tall grass and bushes obstructed your view of this elevated green, which actually sits on a hillside ridge.  You could see the pin, but the topography of the green was not visible and there was no way to tell how severely  the green slopes from right to left.  I guess the good players just aimed and stuck the pin.  Now the tall grass and bushes are gone, so you have a good look at the green, but the topography is still not visible.  If you can check the ball, then going for any left side pin is fine, but for everyone else like me, I aim to the right side of the green so my ball rolls on down to the pin.  Another option is to aim for the pin and hit it high.  If it misses the pin, hopefully it stays on the rough to the left of the green.  An up and down from there might be better than trying a downhill putt here.  It’s truly a nasty green.
The Eighth
I’ve always liked the Ninth, even though it usually kills me.  It’s a 424 yard par 4 with a fairway that pulls everything left.  There is a gulley with bunkers bisecting the fairway for your second shot, about 200 yards from the green.  And the green is two tiered, also sloping severely to the left.  The bisecting bunkers force you into a tough decision if you hit a poor tee shot; do you lay up to the bunkers or try to carry them?  If you lay up, you basically need an up and down from 200 yards out to a difficult green.  If you go for it and clear them, you have about 175 for an up and down.  The tee shot is probably the most important shot here.  If you can get it out to the fairway, you get your second shot close or on the green and have 2 strokes to make par from around the green, which you really need.  You can also get a good amount of wind on this hole.  I finally hit a good tee shot and was able to get close to the green on my second shot, then has an up and down from 15 yards from the green, which made it much easier to get the par.  It’s a great decision making hole and the green is a firm test of short game and putting.
Tee shot at the Ninth
The bisecting bunkers on the Ninth
A look at the Ninth green
I was feeling good after my par at the Ninth and wasn’t playing that bad overall.  The Third, Fourth and Seventh killed me, but that was because of bad swings.  The front 9 was in much better condition than last season and the changes made to some of the holes seem to be helpful, without doing anything to the integrity of its design.  Ranking the front 9, it would be 9, 3, 2, 1, 6, 7, 4, 8, 5.  The short par 4’s are deadly, but I appreciate their character and the par 4’s as a group are quite interesting.  The par 3’s are above average only.    
The Tenth is one of the more controversial holes.  It’s a 388 yard par 4, but a large ravine separates fairway from the green.  The fairway is downhill as well, leaving a long iron as the longest club you can hit off the tee to where the fairway ends.  A lot of complaints are that the contours of the fairway make a lot of well struck tee shots get unfavorable bounces, which put a lot of these shots in the rough, which in turn makes it near impossible to carry the ravine on your second shot.  So it penalizes good tee shots. Another complaint is that you can’t wail away with your driver off the tee, so there’s really no way to improve your second shot.  Yet another complaint, which is mine, is that even if you try to hit it so it rolls down the fairway to the flat part for your second shot, the fairway is too slow and stops your ball.  So what are you supposed to do here?  Part of the changes from last season included clearing the area in the ravine, which actually gives you an opportunity to hit out of the ravine if something happens with your tee shot.  I suppose you could try and bomb your tee shot, get closer to the green and simply hit out of the ravine for a closer up and down for birdie.  At any rate, that change certainly gives you more options here.  There is a bail out room left, so I took aim to it off the tee and set myself up nicely for a short second shot to the green.  
The Tenth
The Eleventh is a nice 147 yard par 3.  A hillside partially blocks your view of the right side of the hole and there’s a tree that also prevents you from drawing the ball into the green.  The tree actually forces you to aim further left, where there is a bunker on the left side of the green and in back.  There is also a bunker on the right side of the green.  The hole screams for a fade, but I usually line up on the left side of the tee area and take dead aim at the flag.  
The Eleventh
The Twelfth is one of the more wide open holes on the course, but has enough features to stay challenging and interesting.  It’s a 454 yard par 4.  The tee shot is to a wide fairway, but there are bunkers in the center while everything slopes down to the left side of the fairway.  The center fairway bunkers actually obstructs your view of the green, which makes it tough to see the fairly large bunker complex on the left side of the green.  The green is also pretty big and doesn’t undulate as much as most of the other greens.  It feels like everything is on a bigger scale with this hole and lots is done to make sure the holes doesn’t feel like a huge open field.  
Tee shot at the Twelfth
The bunker complex obstructing your view of the green
Looking back at the fairway of the Twelfth and the bunker complex on the left side of the green
The closing stretch of holes, Thirteenth through Eighteenth, is pretty good.  It’s my favorite part of the course, as the routing, design and decision making during this stretch makes for great golf.  You know, assuming that conditions and everything else are up to snuff, which I’ll get into.  The Thirteenth is a 380 yard par 4 with a forced tee shot carry over wetlands to a fairway that slopes off on both sides and has bunkers along the right side.  Apparently, the left side of the fairway descends into an old farm road, which runs the length of the hole.  You can kind of make it out.  The fairway ends, so your second shot is also a forced carry to a smaller green.  The green is multi tiered and is very quick.  I like the oak tree sitting behind the green, which can come into play if your approach shot is long.  This is definitely one of those holes where you must hit a perfect tee shot to set up the rest of your shots for par or better.  It becomes pretty easy to lose a stroke or two here if your tee shot isn’t good.  
Tee shot at the Thirteenth
Second shot at the Thirteenth.  The rough in front of the green is deep.
The Thirteenth green.  Very tough and fast and easy to fall off into the rough at the bottom of the photo
The Fourteenth is the last par 3 at 176 yards.  It’s easily my favorite par 3 on the course.  The tee box has you lined up down the right side of the hole, which drops off into a wetlands area off the green.  The hole runs away diagonally from the tee area at about 11:00 to a long but fairly narrow green that drops off on the back side.  The left side of the green is protected by an immense bunker complex and because of the narrowness of the green, along with the drop off on the other side, makes shots out of the bunker very risky.  If the pin is in the back, your landing area is very small and if you miss, you’re likely getting a bogey at best.  If you want to play for par, lay up short on the fat part of the green and short grass just in front of the green, which leaves you with a 2 putt, or short chip-then-putt for par.  The risk reward on this hole is great, as the only way to birdie is to get your ball close to the pin, which requires getting over all of the visual intimidation and hitting a great shot.  And the other ways to salvage par here give you safer more conservative options.  I went the safe route this time out and sunk a 50 footer for par, which I’m glad went in or it was probably off the back of the green.  
The Fourteenth.  Tee area is further to the right.
Add closer look at the bunker complex on the Fourteenth
The Fifteenth is a 509 yard par 5.  The tee shot is a forced carry over wetland area and even though there is a bunker in the center of the fairway, it’s far enough uphill of the fairway that it’s not in reach unless you really kill your tee shot.  The fairway continues to climb before cresting to a gradual downhill into the green.  The left side of the fairway drops off into deep rough while the right side of the fairway is a bank towards the hole, then rough.  Your second shot is blind to the green, but the fairway is wide enough that you have a lot of latitude where to go.  The green is protected by pretty large bunkers on the left side, and not so large but still tough bunkers on the right side.  The green is fairly large though and slopes from front to back, so landing short and letting the ball roll to the pin is probably the way to go, which also gets those bunkers out of play.  Another par here and I was starting to feel it.
Tee shot at the Fifteenth
Approach shot at the Fifteenth
The Sixteenth, a 362 yard par 4, is yet another hole surrounded in controversy.  It is definitely one of a kind.  After a tee shot to an uphill fairway, the hole actually splits into two fairways; one goes uphill to the right, which keeps going until you’re even with the pin, although the green is to your left, below a bluff, with the green running away from you.  The other fairway goes straight to the hole, but narrows then ends about 50 yards short of the green, at which point you must carry over a steep hillside infected with nasty bunkers before the green, which runs away from you and left.  I used to have a big issue with this hole because there was simply no way to stick the green with your second shot; it was impossible.  You usually have something like 155-165 to the green and even though you can’t see the whole green, you can figure out where to hit it.  Even if you hit to the short right area of the green from that distance, it will roll off the green.  So it’s not even that the green leaves no room for error, it was unplayable in my opinion.  A subtle change I noticed here was the rough around the green, which at least caught balls that made it on the green respectably.  The green also seemed a little more solid, which helped hold balls.  I actually chose to lay up and went up the right side of the split fairway, which left me with a 15 yard lob shot to the green, so didn’t try my luck with sticking my approach from second shot territory.  After seeing the changes and the green, I think I’ll give it a go when I return.  To me though, the split fairway is cleverly done.  A view of the pin almost goads you  into going down the left side of the fairway with a lay up, as the right side is invisible from the tee landing area.  But trust me, if you want to get closer to the green without challenging the pin on your second shot, go to the much wider and generous right side of the fairway.  You have to lob it on the green from above, but it takes the hillside and bunker just before the green out of play.  
Tee shot at the Sixteenth
Second shot at the Sixteenth.  You can see the pin along the slope of the bank, towards the center of the photo to get a sense of your view if you go for it.  Even though not visible, beyond the hill on the right is a very wide and generous fairway.  
Approach with a lay up on the right side of the split fairway.  To the left of the photo is where all those bunkers are.  The left side fairway ends about 50 yards from this point, while the right side of the fairway keeps going until it’s even with the green.  
The Seventeenth doesn’t get any easier.  Reminiscent of the Fourth, it’s a 443 yard par 4 that shoots through a narrow wooded area, with forced carries over ravines on the tee and approach shots.  The fairway slopes all over the place, but generally left.  The left side drops off a steep bank of rough while the right side is trees.  The carry for the second shot is substantial and the green is decent sized, also sloping to the left pretty fast.  Be straight and carry both ravines or else.
Tee shot at the Seventeenth
Second shot at the Seventeenth
Looking back at the Seventeenth from just above the green.  The sloping is visible from here.
The Seventeenth green
The Eighteenth is a 303 yard par 4 that features an elevated tee shot with a forced carry over more wetlands to an uphill fairway that runs into a hill ridge of bunkers, with the green, mostly blind from the second shot, on the other side.  The tee shot is important here and if you strike it well, you have a pretty short approach over those bunkers to a manageable green.  Just aim at the pin on your second shot, or the center of the green to be more conservative.  Two putting is pretty easy.  I did just that for yet another par to close out the round.  
Tee shot at the Eighteenth
Closer look at the tee shot
Approach shot at the Eighteenth
A closer look
For the back 9 rankings, they are 16, 13, 18, 14, 15, 17, 11, 12, 10.  The par 3’s are quite good, the par 4’s are outstanding for the most part and the par 5 is great.  The Tenth is what it is, but I think I’ve seen a cut off fairway forcing a longer second shot before.  
I spent a lot of the round trying to figure out why I always left with a bad taste in my mouth.  Was it because of difficulty?  Was it because of conditions?  Did the place just not make sense to me?  As I wrote at the beginning of this review, the place was really an enigma for me and as this most recent round progressed, I kind of enjoyed the mystique I felt.  It’s a course that reveals itself over time and although it’s taken many times playing the course, I’m starting to appreciate playing some where I can keep coming back to and keep trying to figure out.  I think that’s what kept drawing me back here.  Of course, I can’t emphasize enough the change in conditioning.  Conditions here are much improved and I don’t know if they’re changes that make the course easier, but I think it makes a noticeable difference for the better.  If a course challenges you with undulating fairways, drop offs and lighting quick fairways, I think conditions are that much more important in the course being difficult and unplayable.  I also believe there is a new tee system in place that has a lot more options to make the course accessible to everyone.  Inniscrone is unlike any course you’ll see.  It has a great flow, as the holes go from narrow and force tepid shots to wide open and give you some freedom.  The holes are certainly gorgeous and unique.  Yes, some of the holes receive criticism, but I think that’s healthy, in terms of how you view course architecture and what it gets you thinking about as you’re playing.  Hanse has said that he’s heard from people he respects he may have tried to do too much on some of the holes (the center bunker on the Fifteenth comes to mind), but I’d rather a course error on too much than too little.  No one will charge the course as boring, that’s for sure.
At $55 during the weekend, which includes free use of the range and short game area, the changes to conditioning bring this course up as one of the better values.  I thoroughly enjoyed my round this time,  Whether it was because of the recent changes, my self imposed guidelines for the round, or probably a combination of everything, I’ll be back a lot more frequently than before.  
Clubhouse, with the range directly to the right
Gripes:  There is no bar.  They sell beer and you can sit outside if the weather is nice, but that’s it.  Actually, I asked about it in the pro shop, thinking they may have put something on the second floor, and got a rather testy response from the assistant pro.  I guess it’s a sore subject, but the guy was not friendly, especially when I tried to talk to him about how great the course was.  Aren’t they trying to get  more people in the door?  The holes and parts of holes that are CPO make it extremely annoying.  I’m not sure the course is walkable, but they should consider it, as carts don’t help out enough or serve their purpose and in many instances, make for a tough walk to your ball.  No cart girl.  
Bar/grill:  See above.  There is none.  Maybe they’ll get one going if the course sees more play.
Clubhouse:  Nice.  Big with an assortment of equipment and apparel.  
Practice area:  A grass range with a chipping area, practice bunker and putting green.  Pretty solid.  
Nearby:  Kennett Square, which has a lot of good restaurants and bars.
Getting there:  Route 1 South to the Avondale exit.    

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