Bala Golf Club

5,306 yards, 130 slope from the Blues

Course:  In Philadelphia proper, Bala Golf Club is a private course about 10 minutes from Center City, just blocks from the Mann Center.  Built in 1901 and designed by William Flynn, Bala is a classic layout that makes the most of the smaller rolling land upon which it is set.  Originally a nine-hole course, Flynn was able to expand to a full eighteen and succeeded in developing a comprehensive challenge that emphasizes accuracy while ensuring that every club in the bag is utilized.

 Bala defends itself well despite its length.  Flashed bunkers around the greens, slopes and contours creating difficult lies, forced carries and narrow corridors are all presented as you progress through the round.  Greens are fast, small and undulate.  Essentially, Bala makes sure that acumen in the long game does not assure a good score.  While the green complexes were the most interesting part of the course, there were a handful of holes that stood out as memorable while the rest provided a nice straightforward test of golf on template holes.  It’s a very walkable course and during my time at the course, I’d say the majority of the rounds played were being walked.

In many respects, I find a lot of similarities in the Flynn courses I have played in the area.  Plymouth CC, McCall and Bala all have shared characteristics; their parkland design is dominated by flashed bunkers, tree-lined dog legs and canted fairways with a dedication to avoid any inkling of quirk at all costs.  The instances where Flynn comes perilously close to quirk just happen to be the holes I enjoy and remember the most and as a result, I wish he came close to that line more often.  Of course, I always maintain a pretty high interest level on Flynn’s courses because of his superb ability to present a straightforward course yet diversify it through his use of the terrain and attention to bunkering and greens.  I found both Plymouth and McCall interesting and challenging throughout and that’s how I feel about Bala as well.  While Plymouth was my favorite of the three because it showed the most character, I remember McCall most for its use of severe elevation changes and blind shots, I’d say Bala is the more straightforward of the three yet has a couple of the more memorable holes.

Bala’s location is one of its bigger strengths.  It’s the closest course to downtown Philadelphia, and based on its attributes, makes it an attractive option over traveling 30 minutes or more some where else.  I live fairly close to Bala and have often considered membership.  While I had played here several years ago, I had the fortune of playing here again recently, perhaps this time with a bit more of a refined (or at least experienced) eye and once again mulling over whether to join.

The First is a 336 yard par 4 (from the Blues).  An uphill dog leg left, with an imposing bunker on the right side of the fairway where the closer you get to it, the better your shot into the green, or carry it altogether, yet beware the fairway starts to narrow around that area.  Going up the left side will leave you with a shorter shot, but brings the greenside bunker on the left into play and generally demands a more precise approach than going up the right side.  The green is well protected by bunkers and trees (on the far left).

The First

Approach shot territory

A look at the bunkering from the right side

The Second is a 303 yard par 4.  The Second and Third are a nice combination of holes and some of my favorite.  The Second is a shorter par 4, blind from the tee.  The fairway ultimately ends on a drop off, with a drop shot approach to one of the smallest greens you’ll ever see.  The approach shot must be precise, as the green is tiny undulates back back to front, is surrounded by bunkers and an OB wall on the far side.  A well done short par 4, which goes a long way in giving this course character.

The Second

Looking back towards the tee from the end of the fairway

A look at the green, well protected

The Third is a 316 yard par 4.  My favorite hole on the course, another short par 4 with plenty of options off the tee.  The green is tucked away on the right, with trees on that side blocking the view from the tee.  The fairway is terrific, as it rises then plateaus off to the left, then falls off to the right, towards a creek that separates it from the green.  You could hit it up the plateau, try to cut the dog leg and get past the trees, hit it short on the fairway as the safe play, leaving you with a tougher approach shot.  I wish that the fairway was mown shorter so that the slope of the fairway could be used to roll the ball towards the creek, with those well executed shots being rewarded with a nice short wedge shot just short of the creek.  Regardless, it’s a great hole.

The Third

Moving down the fairway, on the right side

Looking up across the fairway from the right side

The Fourth is a 195 yard par 3.  A long par 3 with trees looming on either side to a green that is multi-tiered and slopes from left to right.  And long bunkers lining each side of the green.  It’s a tough tee shot with relief short of the green, likely leaving you with a tricky chip shot.  The Fourth is a great cap to the Second and Third holes, albeit the more challenging.  

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 390 yard par 4.  The tee shot needs to clear the dog leg and trees on the left to have a look at the green, as the turn is almost 90 degrees to the left and will block out any shot short of the turn.  Those tee shots short of the turn will have to either carry or hit through the trees to the get to the green while those with a clear shot have a straightforward shot to a green that is elevated a little, with bunkers below it on either side.  The tee shot is the focal point here.

The Fifth
Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

A look back at the fairway from towards the green, showing the severity of the dog leg 

The Sixth is a 131 yard par 3.  A short par 3 that’s a forced carry over water to a green below the tee area, this is a hole that demands precision.  Anything off the green, especially above the hole, will be very difficult to handle.  A hole that typifies the course in general; short yet assertive.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 380 yard par 4.  It’s the number 1 handicapped hole as well.  The tee shot is a forced carry over water to a fairway that cants significantly from left to right, which must be considered with the tee shot and can result in some tricky lies even if on the fairway.  The green is elevated from the fairway and demands an aerial approach.  The green is on the smaller side and is very fast, also running from left to right.  It’s a very challenging hole.

The Seventh

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 331 yard par 4.  Coming back the direction you whence came on the Seventh, the tee shot is elevated and framed by trees on both sides.  The hole turns to the right, with trees continuing on both sides and blocking out approaches from the right side.  Those trees could probably use some trimming to clear up the approach areas and allow more options to the green.  The green is more subtle than others on the course.

The Eighth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 164 yard par 3.  The shot is uphill to the shallow but wide green and also a forced carry over water, with a bunker below the green also protecting it on the front.  There’s also a bunker on the left side of the green to collect shots ending up over there.  The hole obviously plays longer than its stated yardage and distance control is once again paramount, as anything short will end up in the bunker and anything too far ends up above the green in a difficult spot.

The Ninth

The front nine was my more preferred nine and features some nice short par 4’s and interesting par 3’s.  I’d rank them 3, 2, 7, 9, 4, 1, 6, 8, 5.

The back nine starts with the 487 yard par 5 Tenth.  It’s the first and only par 5 on the course.  The hole bends slightly to the left, where the green resides, protected by trees and a bunker on the left.  There’s a bunker near the green on the right as well, creating the perception that the green extends to it.  While it’s a shorter par 5, the difficulty comes in around the green and on the approach shots.

The Tenth

Moving down the fairway, with the green off to the left

The Eleventh is a 385 yard par 4.  A dog leg right where once again clearing the turn is necessary to have a clean look at the green.  Many tee shots run the risk of running out of fairway if hit straight, so either trying to cut the dog leg off the tee or shaping the shot from left to right are ideal.  The green is generous and fairly benign.

The Eleventh

Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 306 yard par 4.  The tee shot is to an uphill fairway that climbs to the green, which is protected by larger bunkers on both sides.  The tree line on the right forces you to stay left to left center and the approach will play longer than you think.

Approach shot territory

Looking back at the tee from the green

The Thirteenth is a 174 yard par 3.  The green sits a little below the tee and bunkers are on either side.  Erring on the short side is the place to miss.  To me, the course starts to lose steam right about here.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 333 yard par 4.  The course comes back to life a little with this straightaway par 4, with a green surrounded by trees and well contoured, again protected by larger flashed bunkers on either side.  A template hole but still well done and fun to play.

The Fourteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 323 yard par 4.  An interesting shorter par 4 where driver off the tee may not be the best option, but setting up the best look and lie for the approach shot is vital.  The green is on the smaller side and is well guarded by bunkers, especially the one on the right that is one of if not the most severe on the course, carved into the side of the green.  It’s one of the better green complexes on the course.

The Fifteenth

Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth is a 97 yard par 3.  The shortest par 3 on the course, even shorter since its a downhill shot, yet again we encounter a smaller green that is pitched and guarded by bunkers on all sides.  Hitting the green is almost mandatory to avoid a virtually inevitable difficult recovery shot out of a bunker or rough, which could very well roll off into another bunker.  A short yet sufficiently challenging hole.

The Sixteenth

The Seventeenth is a 293 yard par 4.  A blind tee shot that dog legs left to a green that is guarded well by bunkers.  I think clearing the trees on the left would make this hole a lot more interesting.  Allow it to be a drivable par 4, as the green is so well protected that even those that lay up will have a tough time nailing their approach and those that go for the green would need to hit a fantastic shot to reap any reward.  As it stands now, it’s yet another tree lined dog leg fairway with an intriguing green complex.

The Seventeenth

Approach shot territory

The Eighteenth is a 362 yard par 4.  A nice finishing hole that is straightaway and downhill.  Trees line the fairway to keep you honest off the tee, but a well struck the shot will run and leave you with a shorter approach shot.  The approach is a forced carry over a creek to a larger green than runs from back to front with enough speed that putting to close out the round is a challenge.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The back nine is longer than the front and features a few terrific green complexes.  The dog legs and other greens became a little redundant and while there is enough variety, primarily around the greens, to maintain interest, some of the limitations of the property are felt here.  Regardless, the back nine requires the same type of length and precision any well designed course insists upon and a well-rounded game is necessary for a healthy score.  I’d rank them 10, 15, 18, 14, 12, 16, 11, 17, 13.

In general, Bala is well laid out course that emphasizes accuracy and short game acumen.  There are some holes, like the Second and Third, that leave a great impression and identity of the course, while others like the Thirteenth, are template holes you can encounter elsewhere.  The course is indeed challenging without being tricked up, which is an accomplishment considering its overall length.  Driver probably does not get used as much as many would want and there is probably an added challenge to those who struggle with fairway woods or long hybrids, as those really are used quite a lot.  For its classic design, challenge, walkability and proximity to downtown, Bala is a nice little course with some very good holes that contribute well to the high reputation of the Philadelphia area golf scene.

Gripes:  There were a couple of rough areas, mainly with some of the tee areas, and would like to see some of the trees trimmed and/or taken down altogether.

Bar/Grill:  There are a couple, with a grill area offering indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the Eighteenth green for casual fare while a separate building holds the formal dining and bar options.  I also think there’s a separate restaurant off the Eleventh green.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  Small, but had a nice selection of apparel and their logo is a good one.

Practice area:  There is a range, but it is limited to short irons most of the time.  They open up the range to longer clubs on a weekly basis, but then must close down the Twelfth and Thirteenth I believe.  There’s also a putting green and hitting nets.

Nearby:  Everything!  City Line Ave. offers tons of options, Manayunk has a great restaurant/bar scene, downtown is minutes away and the Main Line is likewise just minutes from the club.  The location of Bala really can’t be mentioned enough.