The Berkshire Country Club

6,401 yards, 127 slope from the Blues

Course:  In Reading, PA, Berkshire was designed by Willie Park, Jr. in 1916 and is one of the more well known private courses in the area.  The classic design is rich in golf history, hosting a number of tournaments where legends like Hogan, Snead and Demaret played the course.  Park, Jr. used the billowy terrain more vertically than across and selected great green sites that swayed as much as the fairways in spots.  Bunkers are efficiently used and there are only a few forced carries.  Most of the strategy and challenge lies with the contours of the land and the rough, which Park used creatively and daringly, especially the Eighth.

There’s a lot to like about Berkshire.  A shorter classic course that remains challenging and demands strategy around the greens.  The ground game can be used just as much as the aerial, but the rough ensures that regardless of how you attack each hole, it must be done with precision.  There are parts of the course, however, that have been softened over the years where Park’s character is fading or altogether gone, which is more obvious with the flattening of some of the greens, but the pedigree and design of the course is still intact for the most part.  The front nine was particularly fun while the back seemed to widen and flatten out, except for the Seventeenth.

There’s a bluff that runs North and South that is used terrifically on the front nine, while those holes are set on a hill side that likewise runs South to North, then even East to West on the more Northern side.  There were likely various ways to use the slopes and hills running in different directions, but using the bluff line to stage greens both above and below it, then eventually going over it to the other side, seems to be its best use.  Those holes were the ones that really stood out to me as memorable.  The restraint on bunker use was impressive as well, showcasing that there are several hazards that can be effectively used to inject strategy and character into a course.  Ultimately, Berkshire is an interesting winsome design with bold shapes and greens that is a fine example of classic architecture. There is potential to make it even better if some of Park’s features were restored, including removing some trees and getting some of the greens back to their more adventurous days.

The First is a 485 yard par 5 (from the Blues).  Straddling the ridge line of the hillside and moving downhill, this hole is fairly straight, but drops off pretty well on the left side into a slope of rough, while the right side has some larger trees you’ll need to contend with if you try to play it safe and avoid the hillside on the left.  The fairway cants from right to left and while generous, is an exacting opening tee shot.  The hole then descends to the green with a bunker on either side.  The green moves from back to front and undulates in a few directions, putting a little more pressure on the approach shot to get close to the pin.

The First

Moving down the fairway 

Approach shot territory

The Second is a 314 yard par 4.  A shorter par 4 that runs right next to the Schuylkill River, but a dense treeline on that side blocks any view of that.  Possibly environmental restrictions, but would love to see that view opened up.  The hole itself bends a littler to the left and is an up-and-down hole, starting from the elevated tee to the fairway below, then the approach to a plateau green that sits nicely on a vertical jut.  Tee placement is critical in setting up the approach shot, which is blind yet challenging since the green moves from back to front and there’s really no where to miss off green.  A great short par 4.

The Second

Approach shot territory

The green

Looking back at the fairway to show its tilt

The Third is a 377 yard par 4.  Teeing off literally right next to the river through a chute of trees, the fairway was one of my favorite on the course.  It twists to the right, dropping off on that side into rough, while the green sits on that bluff I mentioned above.  While it’s a down-then-up hole just like the Second, the fairway contours make it play completely different, provide a bit more freedom off the tee, yet tee placement still needs to be careful in negotiating the right side, where the fairway narrows and shots will fall off into the rough.  The approach will be longer than the Second as well, yet there is not a whole lot of forgiveness of the green, even though the rough comes in handy in stopping balls from going out off play.

The Third

Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 506 yard par 5.  From the elevated tee, the dog leg right narrows at the turn and there’s a group of trees on the right side to block those from trying to cut the turn, although you could always try to carry them.  The green is deep and is set on the hillside, running from right to left.  The fairway leading up to it has an apron, encouraging all different types of shots into it, yet the movement from right to left is pretty strong, which actually ups the fun factor in figuring out how to get the ball close to the pin.  The green complex is so challenging that I think removing the trees on the right to open up more lines to the green would give it even more options without removing any of the challenge for longer hitters.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 470 yard par 4.  The number 2 handicapped hole heads back to the bluff and is straightaway, with a slightly elevated tee shot.  The fairway uses that hillside and slopes from left to right, then moves to the green, which is set a little above the fairway with an apron transitioning from the fairway to the green.  This green sits a little below the bluff, which creates a nice back stop and amphitheater for the green.  This one of the greens that has been softened and the area around the green, especially on the far side, could be utilized a bit more effectively to bring out the terrific landscape the green is set in.  As it is, the hole is challenging and the green does provide some forgiveness for what is a longer approach shot.

The Fifth

Approach shot territory

A closer look

Even closer

The Sixth is a 203 yard par 3.  I can’t believe I didn’t get a photo of this hole, as it’s one of the more picturesque and interesting par 3’s, as the tee shot is a carry from the top of the ridgeline where you tee off on the First to the green, which is set on the top of the bluff with the lead up to the green sloping substantially towards the grass below the bluff.  The green is of sufficient size for what is one of the more daunting tee shots on the course, but the altogether different challenge of getting the ball into the hole once on the green is equally delightful.

Really, it’s baffling; I thought I took a lot of photos here…..moving on.

The Seventh is a 324 yard par 4.  A narrower tee shot to the fairway below that’s straightaway, it’s vital to get in good position for the approach shot to a deep green with lots of sophistication, as it tiers front and back and is straddled by deep-set bunkers running the length of the green.  A great approach shot and even better green makes for yet another great and challenging short par 4.

The Seventh

Approach shot territory

From the right side

The Eighth is a 302 yard par 4.  The shortest and perhaps most exciting hole on the course starts off with a very straightforward tee shot to a fairway that climbs upwards to the green.  You can’t see the green from the tee and in fact, can’t see it from the fairway either, as it’s a completely blind shot over a swath of bunkers sitting above the fairway, then over a ridge, to the green well below the ridge on the other side.  The green is enormous and for good reason, as any shot into the green is a leap of faith.  The green slopes pretty well from left to right and is very similar to a punch bowl since you’re able to use the sides surrounding the green to bounce and roll the ball closer to the hole.

The Eighth likely never plays the same twice and there’s so many different ways to attack that green, even from the tee.  Tree removal would help a lot here too, especially on the left side, again opening up even more options and lines of attack.  As it stands, it’s a very fun short par 4.

The Eighth

The blind approach shot

The semi punch bowl green

The Ninth is a 120 yard par 3.  Again crossing the bluff, the tee shot is on top of it to the green set below in a nook on the other side, with yet another terrific amphitheater setting as the entire far side of the green slopes towards significantly towards the hole.  The fall off the front of the green is likewise severe, so hitting the green is the only way to avoiding a variety of challenging recovery shots either out of a bunker or in rough, even well above the hole.  A well protected short par 3.

The Ninth

The front nine was tremendous fun and the terrain was used to create well sloped fairways and ideal green sites.  I’d rank them 8, 2, 3, 1, 7, 6, 9, 4, 5.

The back nine starts with the 420 yard par 4 Tenth.  A straight off hole where the fairway starts breaking downhill to the green just before where tee shots land, the fairway and opening to the green are generous throughout.  The tree line on the left runs close to the fairway, so right center is probably the best line and the green runs from back to front.

The Tenth

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 202 yard par 3.  We now go to the other side of Bernville Road for the Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth.  What I love about the older courses is there seems to be a much broader range of par 3’s and there are plenty over 200 yards.  Here the green is slightly raised with a single bunker on the left side.  There’s plenty of room short and the green is another one that could probably be a little more interesting considering how much room there is to miss around it.  Still, a nice hole shape and off green areas for a longer par 3.

The Eleventh

The green from the right side

The Twelfth is a 552 yard par 5.  A straightaway hole that’s tree lined on both sides with fairway rising, then falling before ultimately ramping up to the green.  There’s not a whole lot to the hole, except the greenside bunkering are a little unusual from the rest, as they curl up, but it’s a fairly standard parkland hole.

The Twelfth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 459 yard par 4.  Another straight hole with a tiny bit of bend to the left that again rises then falls before the green that elevates a little from the fairway.  Trees line each side of the fairway, but not as dense as the Twelfth.  The green moves from left to right and the wide opening from the fairway allows several different ways to attack it.  It’s the number one handicapped hole, likely because of its length and the semi-difficulty of the greens.

The Thirteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 350 yard par 4.  The last hole on this side of the road and it was the most interesting in my opinion.  The fairway tilts from left to right but there are trees on both sides, keeping you honest off the tee.  Accounting for the slope in the fairway, then being in an ideal position for the approach shot to a green surrounded by bunkers on the sides with some interesting undulations makes it imperative to be precise on the approach.  Based on the number of options the hole can be played, it’s one of my favorites on the back nine.

The Fourteenth

Approach shot territory

From the left side

The Fifteenth is a 458 yard par 4.  It appears the water just in front of the tee is not original and was put in recently, it really only comes into play for those who top their tee shots.  The fairway is a slight dog leg to the left, this tree lined hole does have a moderate rise and fall but the green is the most interesting part of the hole, as there are various undulations and pretty good movement.  

The Fifteenth

Moving down the fairway 

The Sixteenth is a 174 yard par 3.  The elevated tee shot is to a well bunkered green with nice movement.  Hitting the green from the tee is crucial to avoid a challenging bunker or other recovery shot.  Of course, there is plenty of room to lay up short of the green and the bunkers.  It’s a fun par 3.

The Sixteenth

The Seventeenth is a 367 yard par 4.  The angling of the tees presupposes a left to right ball flight is necessary, but the hole is fairly straight with some turn to the right and with the green set a little more to the right, anything from left to left center is a nice line to the green.  The few bunkers are placed effectively, as the single fairway bunker even pinches the fairway a little, forcing most to consider getting even closer to the tree line on the left.  The green is deep yet narrow and has lots of great movement.  It’s one of the better holes on the back nine.

The Seventeenth

Approach shot territory

A closer look

The Eighteenth is a 318 yard par 4.  Leading back to the clubhouse the hole is uphill and tree lined, with a single fairway bunker on the either side, again spilling into the shaping of the fairway like we saw on the Seventeenth.  Two greenside bunkers on the front and a longer one lining the back help focus the approach shot and with its short length, there are options in figuring out which two shots you’d like to get to the green.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory, with the clubhouse waiting in the background

The back nine has a pretty good set of par 3’s, rounding a very good collection of par 3’s for the course, and some fun shorter par 4’s.  I like the front nine much better but there were some holes on the back that rivaled those on the front.  I’d rank them 17, 14, 16, 11, 10, 15, 13, 12, 18.

Generally, Berkshire is a fun play with plenty of challenge that is a classic gem.  There are a lot of really good holes here, as well as lots of potential to make it even better.  Bold contours, wild greens and terrific use of terrain show that a course doesn’t need length, forced carries or a ton of bunkers or water to be challenging, interesting or fun.  It’s a great members course, as there is lots to learn yet well played shots are rewarded.  Playing it made me an even bigger fan of Willie Park, Jr., which is saying a lot since I was a pretty big fan beforehand.

Gripes:  Nothing notable other than trees being removed and some of the greens work mentioned.

Bar/Grill:  A place where Berkshire shines, there are multiple bard/grill areas, highlighted with a newly built addition with a cathedral rounded ceiling that’s great for views of the course.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  Well sized and nicely stocked.

Practice area:  A grass range and separate chipping area.

Nearby:  Reading is nearby, with an array of places to eat, drink and shop.

A look at the course way back when.  Some pretty interesting features!

We are getting towards the end of 2017, and alas, towards the end of all the courses I reviewed this year.  Specifically, there are three courses left on tap, but they are all ranked in the top 100 of the world’s best courses and are three on my very short list for years.  When all is said and done, 2017 will go down as the best season of courses for me, and I’m already planning to see if 2018 can beat it!    

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