Galen Hall GC

6,271 yards, 127 Slope (from the Blues)

Course:  Just when I thought I had a good sense of the public golf course scene, I come across a course I had no idea existed and enjoy it so much that it gives me an even deeper appreciation for the area’s designs.  Last year, J.C. Melrose is a good example and this year, Galen Hall is it.  Many may already know of this course, but I did not.  Galen Hall is a little over an hour west of the city off of the PA Turnpike, nestled in the hills in Wernersville, PA, some would say well hidden from the outside world.

It was built in 1912, with design credits to a couple of my favorite architects; Alexander Findlay, A.W. Tillinghast and some re-design work by Gordon.  Tillinghast was as booming and flamboyant as golf course architects came, hailed for his designs and many of which are considered the world’s best, which include Winged Foot (East and West), Bethpage Black, SanFrancisco Golf Club and Baltusrol (Lower and Upper) and provided a lot of input into Pine Valley, with some even giving him credit for its famous hazard, the Devil’s Asshole.  Tilly is famous for wandering his courses while they were being built, carrying a bottle of whiskey, imbibing early and often, and coming up with design ideas.  Perhaps that’s why some of the fairways are so wavy and rippled.

Today, unfortunately, the majority of Tilly’s courses are exclusively private.  That’s why I nearly sprinted when I heard there was a Tilly course so close to where I live that was still public.  While Galen Hall used to be private, it has been public for quite some time.  Walking into the clubhouse was like stepping back in time 50 years ago, with everything simplistic yet functional.  There is no way that locker room has changed since it was built, but it’s clean and still nice.  I hit some balls at the range, which is an irons only affair in an open space next to the First fairway.  As I was warming up, I looked around and the topography immediately made an impression.  There are rolling hills and then there are jutting hills, then there are mini jutting rolling hills, which is how I would characterize it.  The putting green gave me a sample of what to expect throughout the round, which is subtle and a lot more complex than it appears.  After a few misses, I felt like I needed to press my face against the green to figure out what happened.  It seemed like I was in store for a classically challenging course.

Galen Hall was a memorable play.  Many will attribute the course setting itself apart with the creative use of elevation changes and the famous Fifteenth par 3 “Moat hole” and while I would agree, it went beyond that for me, to the shaping of the fairways, the sculpting of the greens, and bunkering.  It all had its own character, forced you to think through the round, yet paced the challenge and enjoyment very well as you went through the holes.  The hilly terrain is set in a quiet countryside area, which enhances the ambiance of the course.  In a lot of ways, Galen Hall is what I appreciate the most in a golf course.  A classic design, provoking thought and creativity, that’s challenging and at times difficult while good shots are rewarded, bad shots are provided a chance at recovery and the surrounding environs are peaceful.  And considering the reasonable green fees, this course is one of the best values in the state as far as I’m concerned.

I was able to tee off as a single, right into the base of one of the jutting hills.  As I proceeded down the fairway, with the calmness of the hills around me, I knew then I was in for a great day.

The First is a 336 yard par 4.  The hole descends and slants slightly from right to left with a slight dip from the fairway to the green that creates the effect of the need to carry your approach to the green.  The green slopes from left to right, notably the exact opposite of the fairway.  It was these types of subtleties I enjoyed immensely.  As an aside, I sunk a 15 footer for birdie on this hole, making me -1 on a golf course for the first time ever.  I should have called it a day at this point.

The First

Approach shot Territory

Looking back at the fairway fro the green.  It was an attempt to capture some of the ripples and cutaways of the fairway, but the photo doesn’t do it justice

The Second is a 475 yard par 5.  The tee shot is blind over a ridge.  I striped my driver, gave myself a little fist bump, drove my cart down the fairway as I ho-hummed another FIR, got over the ridge, and jaw went to floor.  This course was done messing around.  The fairway cross a road, goes severely downhill and curls shape left to the green.  My drive went off the fairway and left me with a terrible downhill lie in nasty rough.  I was also cut off from the green with trees on the left.  Some how, I got to the green in regulation and made my par.  I felt like I survived something.  And looking back, what a fun hole where course knowledge helps immensely.

The Second

Approaching the crest

The other side of the crest.  Yeah, you must carry a road.

Coming down the crest towards the green

The green itself

Looking back at the fairway from the green

The Third is a 365 yard par 4.  Although the hole is straight from the tee, the fairway undulates almost as much as some greens.  Speaking of the green, it appears much closer than it is and there is a road before the green you cannot see that you obviously have to carry.  Unbeknownst to me, I tried to hit my approach short since long did not look fun, only to see my ball bounce 20 yards in the air and on to the green.  There was a ton of good luck there for sure.

The Third

A look at the green at the end of the fairway.  The road can’t be seen from the fairway.

The Fourth is a 195 yard par 3.  It’s an elevated tee and a small creek in front of the green must be carried to hit the green.  It’s a quiet hole that actually leaves little room for error with your long clubs.

The Fourth

A look at the green and brook

The Fifth is a 325 yard par 4.  The tee shot is a forced carry over long grass and the cart path to a fairway that pretty much has a giant biarritz, then goes uphill to the green.  The tee shot is deceivingly difficult, but rewards shots in the fairway with a shorter approach shot.

The Fifth

Moving up the fairway

The Sixth is a 480 yard par 5.  The tee shot is elevated to a wide fairway, but then the fairway starts tightening up and snakes its way to the green.  Shot placement is critical here because the trees will block out shots on the wrong side of the hole.  Otherwise, it’s a good scoring opportunity.

The Sixth

Second shot territory 

Approach shot territory

Looking back to the fairway from the green

The Seventh is a 136 yard par 3.  The green is elevated and sits on a hillside that runs from right to left. This hole killed me.  It certainly requires you to execute your shot and a fade seems like the best shot here.

The Seventh

The Eighth is a 500 par 5.  The tee shot is elevated and partially blind to a fairway that slopes severely from right to left.  I can’t remember having such an uphill lie when I hit it straight into the fairway.  The hole then dog legs right to a smallish green protected by cross bunkers.  I found it to be a deceptively tough hole.

The Eighth

Second shot territory

Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 410 par 4.  Another semi-blind tee shot to a fairway that runs right to left and crests down before coming back up to the elevated tee.  Bear in mind the ball is going to run hard to the left on this and the previous hole, with a false front while anything hit too far will run away from the green.

The Ninth

Approach shot territory

The front nine is a very strong set of holes, with 3 par 5’s, challenging par 3’s and a nice mixture of par 4’s.  I was really taken aback by the boldness of the Second while even holes like the First and Ninth were very good even though at first blush appeared to be standard fare.  After nine holes, here, I started to get the feeling this course was a classic with everything done just right to make it an intriguing play.  The area lended itself to a nice quiet round where focusing on the surroundings and your game were rather easy.  Ranking them, I’d go 2, 1, 8, 5, 9, 6, 3, 4, 7.

The back nine starts with the 164 yard par 3 Tenth.  The tee is elevated to a green with a very substantial false front.  There is a small creek that crosses the hole, but doesn’t come into play unless you really hit it short.  The green is deceptive, however.  Hitting it to the far side of the green means it is likely running off while any shot too far to the sides will end up in a bunker.  A lot more precision is required here than it appears at first blush.

The Tenth

The Eleventh is a 380 yard par 4.  It’s a dog leg right with a fairly large bunker on the right towards the inside of the dogleg.  The green is fairly big, with bunkers on either side of it.

It’s at this point that I noticed that the greenskeepers were fairly aggressive in their “we don’t really care people are trying to golf; we’re working damn it” attitude.  Using blowers right next to where I’m teeing off, tractors right on top of me; one time, they walked on the green and sat by the hole, waiting for me to pitch on before going to the other side of the green opposite of the hole, and banging out another hole “for the tournament tomorrow.”  It was a little much.  Thanks for being completely oblivious, guys.

The Eleventh

Just behind the bunker on the right, about 150 yards out

The Twelfth is a 520 yard par 5.  The hillside is rather apparent from the tee and moves significantly from left to right while cross bunkers guard the tee landing area.  The hole keeps straight until it runs to the right a little to the green, with a farmhouse off to the right.  Despite all the left and right of the fairway, the green runs right to left.  It’s a great par 5 that again makes you execute a lot more than it first appears.

The Twelfth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 325 yard par 4.  The green is straight ahead in the distance, but there’s a creek that is hidden from the tee that must be carried to reach the fairway.  I think the carry is about 200 – 210 yards.  The green is then elevated and protected by bunkers in the front.  It’s fairly large, so the only downside to going a little long to make sure you carry the bunkers is a downhill putt.  It was a nice short par 4 as far as I’m concerned.

The Thirteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 453 yard par 4.  Yeah it’s on the longer side, but the hole essentially plays entire downhill, making it much shorter.  The tee shot is a conundrum, as there is another creek that must be carried, but is some where in the 235 range.  Most guys will want to hit it short of the creek, which leaves you with a monster second shot.  So basically, if you want par here, one of your shots is going to be long.  The tee shot was probably my favorite, with much of the horizon and hills in front of you.

The Fourteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 193 yard par 3.  It’s the famous “Moat Hole,” which could be the first island green ever designed.  From the Blues, it’s a beast of a hole, but there is plenty of room to lay up if you’d like.  Visually, it intimidates, as water surrounds the entire hole.  It’s the thought that you’ll be facing a penalty stroke if you mis-hit it severe enough, which ramps up the pressure.  I really thought it was a great par 3.

The course website informs us that Pete Dye was asked about the Moat Hole in an interview, as Dye is generally known as the one to create the island green with the Seventeenth at TPC Sawgrass.  Apparently, Dye had not heard of the hole, but the argument is certainly there that this is actually the first island green created, albeit the obvious differences between the two holes.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 420 yard par 4.  It’s all uphill and there is a forced carry off the tee over water that should only come into play with really bad shots.  The left to right hillside comes into play and acts as sideboard all the way through the green.  It’s a nice scoring opportunity hole, but the contours of the green give it more teeth than it looks.

The Sixteenth

Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is the last par 3 of the course at 184 yards.  It plays a lot longer due to being a pretty steep climb to the green.  The green itself is large, so make sure you hit enough club off the tee to make it there.  Otherwise, it’s fairly straightforward.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 480 yard par 5.  It is another great par 5 utilizing the terrain beautifully.  The tee shot is to the side of a hill, which crests and turns left to the green.  The fairway is carved and sloped as it turns, which causes all types of bounces and rolls on the second shot, as well as some interesting lies. The green also slopes from right to left, but the right side actually seemed to move in the opposite direction to me.  It’s yet another example of a hole that can be played a million wildly different ways if played in a row and was a great finish to the round.

The Eighteenth

Second shot territory, basically a wall of fairway in front of you

Approach shot territory

A closer look at the green

The back nine seemed to stretch out a bit more and felt more open, relying on the contours and terrain for its character.  The Fifteenth must have been quite the story back in the day.  Although it fit in with the course, it was clearly one of the boldest and glaring examples of a hole designed by the architect, as opposed to most if not all of the other holes, which felt like they could have been incorporated in the terrain all along.  I’d rank them 18, 12, 13, 15, 16, 14, 17, 11, 10.

Generally, Galen Hall had a very quiet and peaceful feel to it, where you could focus on your round and how to attack each hole.  There really isn’t any hole I would say was weak.  Every aspect of the course was attended to with respect to its design, from the contours of the fairway, the sideboards, the false fronts to the greens.  The attention to detail translated into and affected the play, which forced you to strategize on every shot.  For a course that is 103 years old, notwithstanding the changes it has endured, that is admirable.

I’ve said it before, but Galen Hall is yet another example of how fortunate I feel being in the Philadelphia area.  With a little bit of a drive, I’m able to play a very nicely designed classic course in outstanding condition for about $40.  Although I have been an avid golf course study for a few years now, I had not even heard of this course until a few weeks ago.  To me, that says something about the depth of public courses at our disposal.  The history, setting and design of Galen Hall will have me coming back as much as I’m able while the green fees will make it easy to do so.  I can only hope I’m able to keep unearthing treasures in the public course scene like this.

Gripes:  I already mentioned the greenskeepers.  Just baffling to me.  The halfway house looked awesome and I was looking forward to the chili dogs, but it was closed.  That was a big WTF.  But I really have no complaints about the design or conditions.

Bar/Grill:  Touted a nice burger and enough room to hang out inside or out.  I didn’t get a chance to loiter there much.

Clubhouse:  Sufficient, a little small, but with a view of the First tee.  Had a good amount of equipment and apparel.

Practice area:  The putting green is a must before the round to get a sense of the greens.  There had an irons only range next to the First fairway.

Nearby:  It looked like a lot of houses and farms.

Getting there:  PA Turnpike, it’s the route 222 exit I believe, then another 15-20 minutes through farms and into the hills.

3 thoughts on “Galen Hall GC

  1. LOVED this golf course! The staff is amazing. The course…well, you said it better than I. I was awed by it. I am a relatively new golfer, so needless to say, my score wasn't going on any leader-boards..LOL, but for me that wasn't the point of being there. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience from the moment I walked into the pro shop until after my post round turkey club sandwich (with home-made chips). I can't gush enough about the friendliness of everyone I encountered. The course seemed to be in exceptional condition compared to what, in my brief experience, I have seen at courses closer to Philly. The staff are all amazingly friendly. I was told there is a new greens super who is doing amazing things, and his team's efforts shine. The setting is bucolic, creating an immediate sense of relaxation and peace. I am already trying to plan my return. Thank you, because without your review, I too would have never known about this place.

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  2. Thanks, James! Sorry, I thought I responded to this message before, but it slipped through the cracks. I'm really glad you enjoyed the course and that you learned of it by coming here. GH is a terrific course and I too am trying to plan my return.

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  3. I so loved playing Galen Hall with my buddy Rod. It was the early 90's and I was an Emergency Medicine resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philly. We would drive all over Pennsylvania looking for courses to play. This was definitely our favorite. So far from my Hawaii home but damn, I will return some day and play it again. Aloha.

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