6,002 yards, 128 slope from the Blues

Course:  Nestled in Cheltenham, PA, a smidge north of Center City Philadelphia, JC Melrose CC is the closest thing to a hidden gem as far as Philadelphia public golf courses go.  It’s actually semi private to be fair, but there are so many reasons why I will probably rave a little too much about playing here.  Let’s start from the beginning.

A couple months ago, I stumbled upon photos of this course online and became instantly intrigued.  A course designed in part by Alistair MacKenzie with Perry Maxwell also involved, in the immediate vicinity and I’m able to play there by simply calling and making a tee time?  It sounded too good to be true.  Once I was able to book a tee time, I was expecting a hefty green fee, but my weekend morning time came to a head turning $60.  Was there a cart fee they would tack on?  Nope.  Again sounded too good to be true.  Then I thought maybe the course fell on hard times and conditions would be miserable.  Um negatory on that as well; conditions were great.

So at the end of the day, I realized I played a well designed course in great condition, which is pretty close to me, for a very reasonable green fee.  I actually liked it so much that I returned a couple weeks later just to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  But no, it appears JC Melrose enjoys its low key status and if anyone feels like playing its course, they’re more than welcome.

JCM is a parkland course set on rolling terrain with a few forced carries, rippled fairways and sculpted bunkers and greens.  In fact, the greens are the best feature of the course and I’d even say they are some of if not the best set of greens as far as Philadelphia’s public courses are concerned.  It’s a classic layout, where overall length is shorter than modern courses, yet the long game is adequately tested with longer par 3’s and the greens are very well protected against the big hitters.  Expect a lot of uneven lies as well.  Generally, JCM tests every aspect of the golf game and abides pretty closely to MacKenzie’s tenets of course design:

– The course should have beautiful surroundings;

– The course, if possible, should be arranged in two loops of nine holes;

– There should be a large proportion of of good two-shot holes, and at least four one-shot holes;

– There should be little walking between the greens and tees;

– Every hole should be different in character;

– There should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shots;

– There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes….(with every club utilized);

– There should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls;

– The course should be so interesting that even the scratch player is constantly stimulated to improve his game;

– The course should be so arranged that (all levels of players can) enjoy the round in spite of … piling up a big score;

– The course should be equally good during the winter and summer, the texture of the greens and fairways should be perfect and the approaches should have the same consistency as the greens;

– There should be a sufficient number of heroic carries; and

– The greens and fairways should be sufficiently undulating.

The First is a 387 par 4.  And it’s the number one handicapped hole.  The wide but tree lined fairway dog legs right, making it imperative to hit your tee shot well in order to have any shot at the green.  The green is protected by bunkers on both sides while the green undulates both subtly and outright, which I didn’t think was possible.  Nevertheless, a nice opening hole.

The First

Moving up the fairway
The green

The Second is a 497 par 5.  It’s a dog leg left that starts to go downhill at the turn, then juts back up until leveling out and curling to the left some more to the turn, with a bunker far right and short left of the green, and a steep drop off left and far left of the green.  Again, your tee shot must get out far enough to have a shot advancing towards the green and planning for a third shot, you must consider lie, distance and how you want to approach the green.  And if you want try and go for the green in two, I’d err on being short and straight.  It’s a great par 5.

The Second

Looking down the fairway

Approaching the green

Looking back from pin high

The Third is a 159 yard par 3.  The green is raised and set on a hillside that runs from right to left, but it’s tough to generalize the direction the green runs when there are so many contours and ridges that can send the ball in different directions.  The green is large, but is mainly hidden from the tee area while anything left is in a large bunker below the green.  A great example of why the greens are superior here.

The Third

The Fourth is another par 3 at 143 yards.  The green is wide yet shallow and although the tee is level with the green, you must carry to the green since there’s a road below.  It’s a relatively straight forward hole, but mis hits are not really tolerated.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 368 yard par 4.  The tee shot is a forced carry over a creek, but the size of the creek is tough to tell from the tee.  There is a small lay up area, but your second shot would be terrificily difficult from that position, as it would be long and narrow.  Carrying the creek leaves you with a manageable approach (blind) shot to the green, which slopes from back to front and is significantly uphill.  It’s a great hole in that it demands two precise shot to even consider par.  

The Fifth

Looking back to the tee area from the other side of the creek

Looking back to the tee from further back

Approaching the green
A look back at the hole from the green.  It had just rained, so the creek was more like a river

The Sixth is a 320 yard par 4.  It’s a dog leg left where the green is hidden in a knoll and the path from the tee is blocked by a tree, so a really big hitter with a strong draw could get it pretty close, but would have to be precise.  For everyone else, stay to the right so you have an unimpeded look at the green and err on hitting your approach to the left, as anything too short or far will be very unfavorable.  This hole establishes a theme, which is you must be accurate with your approach shots or scrambling.  Otherwise, the strokes pile up.  

The Sixth

Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 353 yard par 4.  The tee shot is some what narrow and proceeds uphill before cresting and descending to the green.  Your second shot will most likely be blind because of the crest.  The green is set below the fairway and repeat play helps here, as you’ll know where to hit it to hold the green, as anything long is done.  

The Seventh

The green in the distance from the crest

The green from the right side of the hole

The Eighth is a 211 yard par 3.  It’s a fairly narrow shot to the green, which is set slight to the right of the tee area with a bunker front and right and everything running from left to right.  It’s a demanding par 3 where an exacting, straight shot is required.  If you decide to hit it short and rely on your short game for an up and down, pin position is a big factor since the green and bunker can limit your options in that regards.  

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 348 yard par 4.  The fairway bends gently to the raised green, which is quite large.  The tee shot is a forced carry, but shouldn’t be an issue for most shots since it’s so close to the tee area.  This is a good scoring hole for sure.  

The Ninth

Approach shot territory

The front nine features elevation changes, a few forced carries and some terrific greens.  Even though there are three par 3’s on this side and some short par 4’s, the course defends itself well with well placed bunkers, a few forced carries and very well designed greens.  Ranking them, I’d go 2, 5, 1, 6, 3, 9, 7, 8, 4.

The back nine starts with the 302 yard par 4.  It actually plays a little longer because the green is set so far uphill from the fairway.  The fairway curls right up to the green, which is deep and probably has more undulations than any other hole, putting an emphasis on your putting.  There really isn’t any margin for a bad approach shot and really, the approach should be short enough that it’s not an issue, unless the visual intimidation of the hole affects your swing.

The Tenth

A good look at the green

The Eleventh is a 328 yard par 4.  We actually start to see wider fairways and less trees, so tee shots may start feeling a little more comfortable.  This is a dog leg left, where the green is surrounded by bunkers, forcing a carry approach shot.  It’s a well protected green for sure.  

The Eleventh

Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 372 yard par 4.  We still have wide fairways as this fairway crests slightly and dog legs right down to the green, which is unimpeded in the front while a bunkers is off to the left.  At this point, it feels as though the courses is stretching its legs a bit, reducing the required precision of a lot of the previous holes, which in turn provides some opportunities for scoring well.

The Twelfth

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 378 yard par 4.  The next few holes are a weak spot for the course, at least from a design standpoint, because of the back and forth switchbacks of these holes.  They run the risk of blending together and that was definitely the case for me as I was playing them.  Nevertheless, the greens continue to be outstanding and there was enough diversity with the approach shots to stay interested.  The Thirteenth goes back towards the Twelfth tee, dog legging a little to the right.  The approach shot is a little tight, as cross bunkers pinch the already small green and again call upon precision, or else.

The Thirteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 385 yard par 4.  It turns around and we go back in the direction of the Twelfth.  The fairway dog legs right and proceeds gradually downhill to the green, which continues to curl right, making a tee shot to the left side of the fairway almost necessary.  I did enjoy the character of the tall evergreen trees on the this hole and with the green sloping back and right, holding approach shots on the green gets challenging.  

The Fourteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 510 par 5.  It proceeds on the outer edge of the course, in the general direction of the Fourteenth tee.  The tee shot is elevated to the uphill fairway that turns to the left then straightens out before reaching the green, which is well surrounded by bunkers.  The rough off fairway is considerable on this hole, which we see again on the Eighteenth, and along with the bunkers and blind second shot are enough to ensure this is a challenging three shot hole for any skill level.  

The Fifteenth

Proceeding down the fairway, with the green in sight

The Sixteenth is a 385 yard par 4.  Going in the same direction as the Fourteenth, dog legging the same as the Fourteenth and being the same distance as the Fourteenth, it reminds you a lot of the, well, you know.  To be fair, the green is much different, as this one is wide and shallow, with a trench bunker running along most of the front on the left side, but leaving an opening to the green from the fairway on the right.  The different green here does make the approach shot much more demanding than the Fourteenth.  And finding creative ways to make most every approach shot different and challenging is something that has been done very well here.  

The Sixteenth

Proceeding down the fairway

The green

The Seventeenth is a 217 yard par 3.  The green is elevated and is mostly set behind a hill on the right, with a large bunker craved into the left/short side of the green.  It’s essentially a forced carry, as any shot that doesn’t get to at least the front portion of the green will be left in very deep rough and there is a creek running across the hole as well.  It’s a great par 3 and sets the tone for a great 1-2 closing punch.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 339 yard par 4.  The tee shot is elevated with the fairway set below, which is probably the best tee shot on the course.  The green is elevated and a little to the right from the fairway, so an aerial approach to a green with plenty of break, bumps and undulations awaits for that closing putt.  The rough on either side of the fairway is significant, which really makes the approach more difficult if you end up in it.  The green can also be blind to semi blind for your approach, depending on where your tee shot is.  

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The green

The back nine is significantly longer than the front, yet the middle stretch of holes actually play easier than anything on the front.  The beginning series, and end, and the greens of the middle holes still make this nine pretty good.  I’d rank them 18, 10, 11, 17, 13, 16, 15, 12, 14.

Generally, JC Melrose is a classic course that has very well designed classic features, which largely are intended to test every aspect of your golf skills and emphasize a challenging yet creative short game and putting.  Course length is handled with trees blocking carries over dog legs or in some cases, ensuring that any big hitter be as accurate as any one else with their approach by penalizing off line shots to the green.  Many of the holes are distinct and I especially like the routing of the front around the hills and creek, weaving in and out of the landscape.  As many classic courses do, there are some longer par 3’s to account for the shorter par 4’s, but also to ensure that the long game cannot be avoided and must be tested along with everything else.  The texture of the sand in the bunkers is also a big plus for me.  And again, the greens might be the best of any public course in the area.  All of this adds up to a challenging and enjoyable course that I am glad is available for the public.  It definitely will be debuting in my rankings.  

The pro shop and bar definitely exude an old school persona that I rather enjoyed.  The clubhouse, however, is grandiose and seems to take on a Mediterranean feel.  It and the locker rooms seem to be closed off to the public.  There is no cart girl from what I could see, but you pass the bar a few times during the round.  The service is great.  Very laid back, down to earth and friendly, even accommodating me and my father when half of our round was in a monsoon.  

JCM is certainly one of the best values in Philadelphia by far and I will be playing here often.  

Gripes:  Not much.  The driving range is a little make shift and you can only hit up to 200 yards.  I generally understand why the clubhouse and locker room are closed to the public, but to be honest, they  may not be.  I never asked to go into them, but they were locked, which could be to ensure no one else is able to get in.  But if it was in fact closed to non members, how do I change into my golf clothes if I show up after work or something?  

Bar/grill:  Like I said, pretty old school and some of the strongest drinks you can find.  I felt right at home.  

Clubhouse:  It appears set up for lots of formal events and is nice to look at.  The pro shop was adequately stocked and I was digging the hats especially.

Practice area:  Mats and limited to 200 yards.  Range balls are extra.

Nearby:  Honestly, a lot of the nearby area is not all that nice.  Stick with the bar/grill.

Getting there:  It’s about 10 minutes off Roosevelt Blvd, just after it stops being an expressway.