French Creek Golf Club

6,249 yards, 135 slope from the Blues

Course:  In Chester County in the aptly named French Creek watershed, is French Creek Golf Club, a Gil Hanse design established in 2003.  About an hour drive from Philadelphia proper, French Creek is a private course that meanders through wetland areas on rolling hill terrain, primarily relying on the terrain, wetlands, blind shots and unusual shot angles for its character.  Hanse did a nice job utilizing the land as he found it and working around the wetland environmental restrictions.  There are a lot of cool green complexes, several options around the greens and some demanding ball striking shots off the tee and approaches, which makes for a varied round.  It’s a unique course with a lot of character and while there were some awkward blind shots, I think it’s a course that you get to know and get more comfortable with as you play it.  The views and setting are bucolic, which gives the place a sense of calm.  In some ways, FC reminded me of Inniscrone (also by Hanse).  Some severe bunkering, forced carries with completely blind shots and a green set apart and below a split fairway, but Inniscrone is more constrained in parts.  What I enjoy about Hanse is he makes sure every hole is different and various design mechanisms are used.  A thumbprint green here, collection area there, cross bunkers over there, etc.  At French Creek, incorporating these into the natural landscape provides for a nice minimalist course that is more challenging than it looks.

I have wanted to play French Creek since I heard about it.  Hanse courses intrigue me and while many believe Hanse and Doak are cut from the same cloth (they did work together for a time), I find their styles fairly different.  While I feel Doak is able to craft strategic, fun courses with a lot of unique traits, I feel Hanse leans more towards presenting unique challenge with more severe green complexes and more forced carries.  Of course, that’s based on what I’ve played of their courses thus far and did notice Rustic Canyon was a little gentler, so a lot of it could be land and client dependent. I will say this though, there is never a dull moment at any of their courses.

French Creek is in a decidedly rural area, but there are a number of great courses nearby.  Living near Philadelphia proper and working downtown, it’s nice that there are places like French Creek so close by that have a laid back country charm and slows things down a bit.  The hillsides, landscape and wildlife all make a splendid place for a round of golf, seemingly away from what has become a fast paced life for most of us.

At any rate, I finally had the opportunity to play and jumped at it.  We couldn’t have asked for a better day in the late summer for a round so after looking around the pro shop and locker room, warming up at the range, I finally was able to experience yet another great course in our area.

The First is a 353 yard par 4 (from the Blues).  The hole is uphill, tilting and curling to the left.  Staying off to the right is preferred, but leaves you blind to the green, as the further left you are, the more visible the green is.  The green has a short grass area that ramps up in the front.  Most second shots will be blind though and the green is slick.

The First

Approach shot territory

The Second is a 455 yard par 4.  Turning around and going away from the clubhouse, the elevated tee shot is to a dog leg right that cants left.  Bunkers on the inside of the dog leg, then center bunkers a little closer to the green musty be managed, with most approach shots needing to carry the center bunkers.  The green is perched after a severe slope that runs almost as far as those center bunkers, making most balls missing the green even by a little on the front run all the way down.  The green is wide yet shallow and probably could be a little bigger and more receptive, but the severe slope is a cool touch and there are areas to bail out your approach.   
The Second

 The Third is a 195 yard par 3.  It’s all forced carry over various wetlands to a wide green with a nice front opening that’s multi tiered and runs from back to front.  Generally, staying below the hole is preferable.  A more exacting shot is necessary on this longer par 3 than typical for this distance.

The Third

The Fourth is a 485 yard par 5.  This dog leg right features blind shots on pretty much every one.  The hole dog legs virtually the entire hole, with a drop off along the right side into a basin and a green that must be attacked aerially.  The fairway also cants from left to right and there are short grass area surrounding most of the green, providing aprons on which you must consider how to get the ball close.  It’s a bit of a reprieve from the blind shots to the green.

The Fourth

Moving down the fairway

A look at the green from the left side

The meting point of fairway and green

The Fifth is a 106 yard par 3.  An elevated green with a blind shot, this short par 3 is well defended.  Shots too short will end up below a cliff in wild grass or a bunker towards the right, while those hitting it too far will face a slippery putt running from back to front, or a tricky shot out of rough further back.  A well proportioned short par 3 requiring precision, rightly so.

The Fifth

The green from the left side

The Sixth is a 540 yard par 5 and the number 1 handicapped hole.  A double dog leg-esque that slithers its way uphill with a tee shot to a fairway that angles from 7:00 to 2:00, with bunkers on both the low and high side.  The fairway then sweeps left, around a large bunker on the right, then pools around a few bunkers as it leads up to a plateau green with a ridge running through the middle.  I enjoyed the hole a lot.  So many different areas and ways to get to the green and the scenery adds to it.

The Sixth

Moving down the fairway

Looking back at the fairway and surrounding hills

The Seventh is a 352 yard par 4.  Going back down the hill you came up on with the Sixth, the elevated tee shot is to a wide fairway complicated with some center bunkers that are in reach.  There is a nice wide opening to the green and most shots are well received except for long.  It’s a good hole to score on and take in more of the views from one of the higher points of the course.

The Seventh

Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 169 yard par 3.  This drop shot is partially blind because of the contours and is actually a thumbprint green towards the front, which you can’t see from the tee.  The green is fairly big but drops off on all sides, more severely long.  There were a few holes that reminded me of Inniscrone (another local Hanse course) and this is one of them, although the drop shot at Inniscrone is more severe and used to be completely blind.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 365 yard par 4.  With dual fairways, the tee shot provides the option of the left side (upper) and right side (lower) with a bunker and slope defining the two.  The left side is preferable because it provides a clearer view of the green on approach, but a more precise tee shot is needed to get there safely, whereas the right side is easier to reach from the tee yet presents a tougher approach and only a partial view of the green.  Now that I think about it, the right side may give you a better angle into the green as well…so the hole certainly does its job of providing tons of options and strategy.

Approach shot territory

Approach shot territory from the left, or lower, fairway

The front nine has a couple of nice par 5’s, some pretty good par 4’s and good par 3’s.  There were perhaps a few blind shots I could have done without but in general the course is great at presenting a nice wide expanse of land yet using it cleverly to present an array of options to advance to the green.  The par 3’s felt a little one dimensional to me; you simply had to stuff your tee shot next to the pin or else you were scrambling off the green, which is part of the purpose of a par 3, but didn’t fall in line with the flexibility of the rest of the holes.  Still a very nice nine holes, which I’d rank 6, 2, 9, 1, 4, 7, 5, 3, 8.

The back nine starts with the 160 yard par 3.  A slightly elevated tee shot to a reverse Redan-ish green, where the large bunker on the right side and short make you want to favor the left side, except the green also tilts right to left.  There’s plenty of room short of the green for those who don’t want to wager their accuracy to the pin as well.  A pretty solid par 3.

The Tenth

The Eleventh is a 495 yard par 5.  The tee shot is a forced carry to a fairway that slopes from right left, with bunkers on the right side as well.  The fairway continues to slope in that direction until it ends at a stone wall, which must be carried to the green that has enormous aprons around it.  A little reminiscent of Inniscrone, but the green complex is a lot more receptive and forgiving here.

The Eleventh

Moving down the fairway

The Twelfth is a 450 yard par 4.  A dogleg left that has a piecemeal fairway divided by the creek in a couple parts.  Something less than driver keeps you on the initial fairway, but those who want to reach the second piece of fairway to the right must really get a hold of it and are rewarded with a short approach.  Staying on the initial fairway gives you a longer approach to the green and a tricky angle where avoid the trouble along the right is paramount, while there is a significant collection area along the front and left sides to ease a lot of the pressure of the approach shot.  An interesting hole, where everything is in front of you and plenty of ways to advance to the green.
The Twelfth

Approach shot territory

A look at the green from the back

The Thirteenth is a 427 yard par 4.  A dog leg right that climbs uphill and is decidedly longer than the stated yardage.  Bunkers on either side of the fairway must be negotiated and the approach is blind to an amphitheatre-like green that is deeper more than it is wide.  A fun hole where the tee shot is much more difficult than it appears.

The Thirteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 354 yard par 4.  The fairway is off to the right while the green is in sight, off to the left and well below the fairway.  There are a few ways to get to the green, but pretty much all shots will be blind.  The fairway to the right ends, then continues below, all with the green off to the left.  The hole is similar to the Sixteenth at Inniscrone with respect to the position of the green to the fairway.  The hole reminded me of something you might see on the video game Golden Tee and while it’s creative, I don’t think it fit well with the rest of the course, yet I suspect environmental restrictions played a role here.

The Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 268 yard par 4.  A great short par 4 where there is fairway below the green, which sits level with the tee yet above the fairway, with a line of bunkers protecting all sides of the green from the tee.  Playing it short, trying to work it right so it falls down to the green, or trying for the green directly are all on the table.  Again, tons of options yet an adequately challenging short par 4.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 480 yard par 5.  A forced carry to a fairway on the right with a massive bunker off to the left.  As you get closer to the green, the fairway narrows and slopes from left to right.  The green has a generous opening in front and likewise slopes from left to right.

The Sixteenth

Approach shot territory

A closer look

The Seventeenth is a 200 yard par 3.   The green sits uphill from the tee area, with a long deep bunker intersecting the entire fairway before the green.  The green is large and runs from back to front, a much better longer par 3 than what we encounter on the front nine.

The Seventeenth

A wider view

The green from the left

The Eighteenth is a 395 yard par 4.  A double dogleg where you can end up on either the inside or outside of the first leg off the tee, depending on what angle you want into the green.  The green is tucked off to the left, right next to water, which is along the left side, with the green sloping in that direction.  There’s plenty of room off to the right, but that leaves a trick chip or putt with the water in play.  It’s a great finishing hole, with the clubhouse off to the right for everyone to watch you come in with glory, or doom.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The back nine is longer than the front, has stronger par 3’s, and a little more variety with the par 4’s.  Other than the Fourteenth, there really aren’t any weak holes even though it’s set on relatively flatter terrain.  I’d rank them 13, 15, 18, 11, 16, 12, 10, 17, 14.

Generally, French Creek is in a tranquil setting on a course that likely maintains its luster with repeat play, never the same course twice.  There are some very good holes and for the most part, there is a great balance between fun and challenge.  I think some environmental restrictions played a role in some of the quirkier and awkward shots, but there is enough good here to embrace those as unique and move on.  As someone who has played Inniscrone a number of times, there are some similarities, which was bound to happen since Hanse designed them fairly close in time, but French Creek is more seamless, less severe and more flexible.  I would gladly belong to this club because of the course and its setting.

Gripes:  A little too many blind shots, the Fourteenth and the par 3’s on the front nine.

Bar/Grill:  The bar, grill and patio overlook the Eighteenth while I believe there is a formal dining room elsewhere.  The bar is a great place to hang out after the round for sure.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  Well stocked with a nice selection of what you need.  A great emblem as well!

Practice area:  Grass range and putting green.

Nearby:  Not sure.  Farms, probably some restaurants and shops, some where.