Whitemarsh Valley CC

6,494 yards, 138 slope from the Whites

Course:  In Lafayette, PA, about 15 minutes outside of Center City, resides Whitemarsh Valley Country Club, a course designed by George Thomas.  Thomas has designed such masterpieces as Riviera, Los Angeles CC North, Bel-Air and Stanford’s course.  One of my first experiences on a golf course was one by Thomas, although I wasn’t golfing.  Instead, I was in high school, running a cross country invitational on Stanford’s course.  From what I remember the couple times I was there, it was decidedly hilly with width, but I was more focused on other things, such as surviving the grueling hills and trying not to let the entire field pass me.  At any rate, Whitemarsh is one of the few George Thomas designed course on the East coast and is his first 18 hole design.  Instead of the usual arrangement where a property owner or club hiring the architect to design the course, Thomas designed the course on his own property.  In fact, part of his house and barn is still there; used as the Men’s locker room and grill.  Thomas subsequently sold the course to Whitemarsh in 1908, who has had it ever since.

I have always been a big fan of Thomas because of Riviera.  Moreover, even as a non-golfer and growing up on the west coast, his name was synonymous with good golf, kind of like being in Philadelphia and hearing about William Flynn or Hugh Wilson.  In general, however, Thomas is lesser known than other such as Ross, Tillinghast or Raynor.  Like Charles Banks, this is unfortunate because he was one of the better architects of his generation.  Thomas was very good at bunker placement and was one of the rare architects that was able to incorporate fantastic visuals with a very complex, interesting design.  In addition to Whitemarsh, he was involved tangentially with Merion and Pine Valley.  Just like those courses, Thomas invited input from his colleagues and was never shy about showering praise on others for their help.

The majority of the course is indeed set in a valley, with the clubhouse, First tee and Eighteenth green set on one ridge and numerous tees and greens set on the opposite ridge.  The bunkering here was great and with their white sand, visually pops off the tees and fairways.  The hills on the property are used well and similar to Merion East, the course is well routed on a smaller piece of property, never feeling restrained or confined.  The greens are very good as well, balancing subtlety with undulations.    Ross and Flynn apparently worked on the course at some point after Whitemarsh purchased it while more recent work was done to address some flooding issues that crop up in the valley, but the course has a west coast feel to it, with some Riviera vibes felt as well.  Quite honestly, a lot of that may be attributable to the bunkers, but goes beyond that to the way the course plays.

Whitemarsh is one of those gems in Philadelphia rich with a history of its own.  As one of the earlier courses in the area, it has maintained its unique identity amongst all of the other well known courses and for me personally, became a favorite.  Harry Vardon and Ted Ray played it during their romp prior to getting upset by Francis Ouimet in the U.S. Open, it hosted the “All-American Open” in place of the U.S. Open during World War II, Ben Hogan played it and deemed it, “one of the great golf courses;” all of this adds to its aura and charm.

The First is a 352 yard par 4 (from the Whites).  The elevated tee is to a wide fairway that narrows for the second shot, with fairway bunkers on the right and green side bunkers covering the left and right sides of the green.  Lots of room off the tee on the right while a tree line runs along the length of the left.  Off the fairway, the rough is thick enough to influence club selection into the green, while the bunkers cover most area off the green, while the back side slopes severely away from the green.  A nice opener while establishing a coherent theme; inviting tee shots, exacting approaches.

The First

Approach shot territory

The Second is a 398 yard par 4.  Still moving across the valley floor, the tee shot is to a downhill fairway with cross bunkers in play.  The fairway is narrower than the First, which gets narrower short of the green.  The green is elevated, with bunkers on with sides of the false front.  The green runs from back to front significantly, making it entirely possible an overambitious putt in that direction keeps going down to the fairway.  A tough hole as the tee shot needs to be more precise and the approach is decidedly longer, to a challenging green.

The Second

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory, from the left rough

The Third is a 529 yard par 5.  Reversing course back to the ridge upon which we started, the elevated tee shot is to a tree-lined fairway with a fairway bunker on the left side.  It just so happens that the left side is preferred off the tee so that there is a better angle to the green, as the fairway dog legs right.  Of course, advancing up the right side off the tee means ending to get over to the left on the second shot, since that’s the only area with a clear angle to the green.  We also see here trees used properly into the design of the hole.  They’re not constraining, yet serve the important purpose of influencing strategy and shotmaking.  This is seen on the hole clearly, telegraphing the importance of that left side.  The end of the fairway dog legs then abruptly ends at Wissahickon Creek, at which point the wide and deep green lies just after a false front.  The creek runs directly next to the front and left side of the green, giving off just a little bit of the same effect as the Road hole.  While the green is large, the off green areas are not very enticing, with many possibly resulting in a penalty.  This makes the approach shot vital, which goes back to the second shot and ensuring there’s a clear line to the green.

The Third

The Fourth is a 235 yard par 3.  The longest par 3 on the course by far, there are two tributaries of the creek to carry but neither are all that tough, just enough to keep your tee shot honest.  A longer bunker along the left side of the green and another on the right.  The green is large, receptive to a lot of tee shots, while the surrounding trees frame the acceptable playing area.  A good example of a long yet manageable classic par 3.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 481 yard par 5.  A dog leg right with trees on the right and the Wissahickon Creek on the right, getting off the tee properly and far enough to clear the turn ensures you have a straight look at the green for your second shot.  You can give the second shot a go at the green or lay up to whatever number you want your approach to be, with the green curling to the left, up against the creek.  The green has some interesting undulations and shelves, was one of my favorites on the course.  A shorter par 5 that still requires execution to score well while the green is a stalwart last defense.

The Fifth

Moving down the fairway, er, rough

Second shot territory

Approach shot territory

Looking back at the fairway

The Sixth is a 333 yard par 4.  A tough tee shot across the creek and to an elevated fairway that ascends uphill to the green, with a tree line running along the right and some space off to the left.  Cross bunkers await, with the shorter on the right.  The green is guarded by a trio of bunkers along the front side, with a green that widens as it gets to the rear.  A nice shorter par 4, where strategizing from the green backwards to the tee helps a lot.

The Sixth

Approach shot territory

A closer look at the green and a good perspective on those white sand bunkers

The Seventh is a 407 yard par 4.  The Seventh and Eighth are across Thomas Road, so after a short jaunt to the other side, the fairway heads straight out to the green, sloping from left to right a little.  While the tee shot is fairly generous, the approach shot to the deep green is a little deceptive, as the left bunkers makes the green feel shorter than it is, yet acts more like a false front.  The next left bunker encroaches on the left side of the green, which runs from back to front.  A fun green where avoiding the bunkers is ideal.

The Seventh

Close to the green

The Eighth is a 452 yard par 4.  The number one handicapped hole, the fairway is straightaway and inviting off the tee, with only bunkers off to the right to negotiate.  Bunkers left and right, respectively, are staggered as you advance towards the green, which slopes from right to left and a tough bank off to the left.  It’s length and demand of the approach shot make it a challenge.  If you’re to miss on the approach, left is better.

The Eighth

The group of bunkers on the right

Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 115 yard par 3.  This short par 3 is even shorter as it plays downhill.  The wide shallow green is surrounded by narrow bunkers, forcing precision.  The green runs away from the tee as well, so distance control is vital here, as most shots off green will be in one of the bunkers and those off the back face a delicate shot to get close to the pin.

The Ninth

The front nine loops around the eastern side of the property before crossing over Thomas Road to the westernmost point.  There’s a nice variety of par 4’s and the par 3’s are in stark contrast with one another.  All maintain the constant theme of requiring strategy and shotmaking.  I’d rank them 6, 2, 7, 5, 9, 1, 8, 3, 4.

The back nine starts with the 375 yard par 4 Tenth.  The back nine starts out very strong and quite honestly, I’m not sure it lets up as each hole is distinct and exciting as the next.  The elevated tee shot is to a fairway that widens off to the left, while trees on both sides narrow things where most tee shots will end up, with fairway bunkers on the left to boot.  Bunkers elongate around most of the green and while the fairway is surrounded by trees, the green is wide open, open to a number of options to get the ball in the hole.  The subtle options off the tee and again on the approach and its presentation make it one of my favorite holes on the course.

The Tenth

Left side of the fairway

Looking back at the fairway from the green

The Eleventh is a 501 yard par 5.  A longer hole than the states yardage since it goes uphill the hole way, trees line each side of the hole while fairway bunkers attack one side before attacking the other side further up.  The hole bends to the right around the right fairway bunkers, then widens before ending at a hill with a cluster of bunkers before the elevated green.  There is so much strategy and shotmaking here it’s incredible.  Take advantage of the wide part of the fairway off the tee, then hit a longer second shot over all the trouble to the end of the fairway; draw off the tee, then fade the second shot; power fade off the tee then try to go for the green in two; fade off the tee then draw.  The possibilities are endless and with such a visually pleasing hole, it’s a great par 5.

The Eleventh

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory, above the bunkers in the center

The Twelfth is a 164 yard par 3.  Playing along the ridge opposite the clubhouse, the green slopes from right to left, with a little space on the right to play with.  The bunker on the left side makes it a quasi-Redan, but the bunkers on the right complicate that by needing to be a little more exact off the tee to properly use the slope.  With the view of the valley and most of the course below and to the left, it’s a nice inspiring hole.

The Twelfth

Looking out to the left, to the valley below

The Thirteenth is a 354 yard par 4.  Probably the most elevated tee shot on the course to a fairway below, bring you back into the valley.  There are actually two forced carries over water on this hole, the first is off the tee that really doesn’t come into play unless you top your shot while the second is for the approach over the green.  The green is long and boomerang shaped, with the lone bunker short and right.  The green moves from left to right, so any pin position on the right brings the bunker into play even though you can use the slope to some extent.  Yet another solid hole.

The Thirteenth

The start of the fairway below

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 353 yard par 4.  Believe it or not, this is another two-forced carry hole.  The tee shot is a forced carry over water to a fairway where the water runs alongside the right for a while.  The approach shot is a forced carry over Wissahickon Creek, to another one of my favorite greens on the course, which has a terrific slope on the back and right sides, making precision around the green critical.  A hole whose strict challenge is subtle.

The Fourteenth 

Approach shot territory

The right of the green and off.  Look at that slope.

Looking back at the fairway

The Fifteenth is a 419 yard par 4.  Mind the treeline on the right off the tee, as they will block out your approach shot if too far over, so left to left center is preferred.  There are no fairway bunkers to contend with, but ensuring you have a clear line to the green off the tee is no small matter, considering the narrowness of the fairway and the right treeline.  If the right treeline is clear, then the approach shot is wide open to the green, with a left bunker short of the green and one on the right green side.  The fairway feeds into the green as well, so the ground or aerial game works, whatever your pleasure.

The Fifteenth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The green

The Sixteenth is a 140 yard par 3.  The green is severely elevated from the tee with bunkers on each side.  The main feature of this hole, however, is the steep slope on the front.  Heed to the slope at all costs, as even tee shots hit to the back of the green can fall all the way down below the green if the pace is too aggressive.  I know this because it happened firsthand to me.  With the pin towards the front, I placed a short but firm putt on the ball that started slow but gained speed with each roll, eventually sprinting past the hole and darting off the green and to the rough below.  Despite the internal strife that followed, it’s a great feature that adds to its strategy tenfold.

The Sixteenth

The green, from the front, now showing the severity of the slope

Looking back to the tee from the back of the green

The Seventeenth is a 483 yard par 5.  Heading home, the elevated tee shot is to the valley below one last time.  Lots of fairway bunkers on both sides, with the right side a little more open yet with more bunkers.  The fairway ends and there’s a forced carry over a creek to the green, which has a large apron leading up to it and bunkers on both sides, yet the green is a big target.  It’s amazing how many holes switch back along the same direction of the valley yet play entirely different from one another here.  This is yet another example of that, figuring out how whether the second shot can carry the creek or wise minds take over and lay up.

The Seventeenth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory, off to the right

The Eighteenth is a 403 yard par 4.  A bear of a finish, this dog leg left is lined by bunkers of both sides of the fairway.  The width of the fairway varies as well, getting narrow at the turn yet staying wide before the bunkers.  A great match play hole, the pressure is on for the tee shot to get in position for a clear approach shot to the uphill green.  I made my own strategy by hitting my tee shot left to the Tenth fairway, leaving me with a great look at the green from over there.  I’d love to say it was intentional, but a fortunate accident nonetheless that enabled me to get it to within 8 feet of the pin.  The green is a wide oval, receptive to a number of shots, most of which will be with long clubs, and slopes from back to front.  I couldn’t but help think of the similarities to Riviera, with the uphill finish while the clubhouse looms above.  One of the best looking holes on the course.

The Eighteenth

The back nine was very strong.  I liked every hole, each was distinct yet had a constant theme throughout.  Ranking them, for me it would be 11, 18, 10, 16, 12, 14, 13, 17, 15.

Generally, Whitemarsh is subtle in its presentation, as it’s a very attractive course that has a lot going on below the surface, with complexity in strategy and shot selection on most every shot on the course.  Whether done after it was built or not, there are similarities to Riviera and visually, the course is great, as the bunkers contrast nicely with the contours of the terrain and trees are in some smart places, although there are some others that could be taken out to open up the course even more.  A great routing on a smaller piece of property, fully utilizing the advantages of the terrain, you always have that pleasant sense you’re one of the few on the course, never feeling constrained.  While tee shots are generally inviting, there are some that focus the ideal landing area to set up the better angles into the green on the approach shots.  As for the approach shots, the greens are typically open to the fairway and large, yet the ideal landing areas are even more focused than the tee shots.  And because of the contours of the green, knowing what the ball will do once it lands means there are other angles into the greens on approach that become available as you get to know the course.  The course brought out several strategic and shotmaking decisions and make sure you show up with a strong bunker game.  I really enjoyed my round here and see Whitemarsh as a very strong classic design that holds its own in the well known Philadelphia collection of courses.  

Gripes:  Nothing comes to mind.

Bar/Grill:  The Men’s locker room is a great place to socialize, with a full bar, seating area and televisions.

Clubhouse:  The clubhouse was recently renovated and looks terrific.  Overlooking the entire course, it includes a pool.  The pro shop is likewise large with a great selection of everything.  Whitemarsh also has a caddie system and ours was a nice addition to the round.

Practice area:  The driving range is off the Fifth green, which means it’s pretty close to the clubhouse.  It features a short game area as well.  There’s also a putting green next to the First tee.