Philly Muni – John F. Byrne GC

5,193 yards, 117 slope from the Blues

Course:  In the Northeast, John F. Byrne Golf Course is a Philadelphia municipal course, purchased by the City in the 1960’s and named after a former Philadelphia City Councilman and Pennsylvania State Senator.  It was formerly called Holmesburg Country Club and was designed by Alex Findlay in  1931.  While the original course consisted of more land, much of the Findlay design remains today, amidst some routing and hole changes to adjust to the changes in property lines.  Byrne sits directly across the street from the Union League at Torresdale, which was designed by Donald Ross in 1921.

Alex Findlay is a key figure for early American golf.  In 1886, Findlay left Scotland for America apparently in hopes of becoming a cowboy.  In 1887, Findlay built a six-hole course that some claim was the first golf course in America.  Findlay then built a number of courses, in Florida, the midwest, and several in the Philadelphia area, including Llanerch, Burlington CC and Lebanon CC.  My experience playing Findlay courses gives me the impression he enjoyed dramatic landscapes and accentuating them, yet was able to build interesting and engaging courses on unimpressive land.  Driver is often not the ideal club off the tee, while precision with the entire range of irons, emphasis on the longer ones, seems to be part of his M.O.  In addition to Byrne, Findlay designed two other Philadelphia municipal courses – Walnut Lane and Juanita.

The Byrne course is set on a steep ridge, with holes placed on it vertically, while the remainder of the holes traverse the valley and smaller hills on the opposite side.  There are a lot of trees, whether from failing to keep them out of the playing corridors through the years or done intentionally, they come into play often.  The greens are straightforward enough, yet the hills and contours affect the undulations.  Another attribute of Findlay courses I’ve noticed is every club in your bag is used.  At least that’s been my experience, which likewise was the case at Byrne.

It is not lost on me that this is a Philadelphia course review blog and even though I keep saying year after year I will visit the other Philadelphia municipal courses, it keeps not happening.  I finally endeavored to change that one Thursday early morning, where I figured I could breeze through on an empty course and take all the photos I wanted.  That was decidedly not the case, as I was one of a number of enthusiastic golfers waiting to start the day off right.  The course seems to enjoy a robust crowd of regulars and the course was bustling even on an early weekday morn.  I was even waved up to the First tee as a single and allowed to the off before a foursome, whom were helpful in pointing out where the hole played.

So with the sun still rising and the cordial group watching, I teed off to experience another city owned course, as the not famous at all “Philly Golf Guy.”

The First is a 373 yard par 4 (from the Blues).  A straightaway par four with an elevated tee shot that must carry a creek and either carry or go between trees on both sides, the opening shot does not have to be driver, but there’s enough intimidation here.  The approach shot plays uphill to a deep green with bunkers on the right and trees to the right of them, as well as the back side.  Accuracy and missing short of the green is a good theme here, which applies to the opener as well.

The First, looking back at the tee

The green

The Second is a 206 yard par 3.  Reversing direction back to the creek, this longer par 3 is a little shorter than the stated yardage due to the elevated tee.  The green rests along a tree line just short of the creek, with a green that runs from left to right and is on the small side.  There’s plenty of room to miss right and short, while left and long will lose a stroke most likely.

The Second

The Third is a 264 yard par 4.  A short par 4 playing uphill, the tee shot is an easy carry over Byeberry Creek to a wide fairway with trees on the right and more room that it looks on the left.  The green is open to the fairway and if your tee shot went off fairway, you likely have a chance at hitting it so long as you’re not blocked out by the trees on the right.  Just don’t go long.

The Third

The green

Looking back to the tee from the green

The Fourth is a 308 yard par 4.  Slowly climbing the ridge line we tee off from on the First, this slight dog leg left is another threaded tee shot either over or through the trees and over the creek to a fairway that runs up to the green.  The fairway and green run from left to right, with the green moving more aggressively in that direction.  There is a lot of room on the left and far of the green, but the slope will make any chip shots above the pin pretty tricky.  Precision is definitely needed on both shots here.

The Fourth

Just on the other side of the creek

Approach shot territory

From the right side of the green, showing the drop off on that side

The Fifth is a 300 yard par 4.  Now back to the top of the ridge line where the clubhouse is, the Fifth runs along the top of it to a fairway that runs from right to left.  A deeper bunker is on the left side, waiting to collect any tee shot that didn’t account for the slope of the fairway, while trees are on both sides leading up to the green.  The green is large and likewise moves from right to left.  Yet another hole where driver may not be the best club for the tee, as middle of the fairway ensures a clear approach shot while those offline may run into tree trouble.

The Fifth

Approach shot territory

The green, from the right side

The Sixth is a 167 yard par 3.  Now starting to head back down the ridge, the elevated tee shot is a forced carry over the creek to the green, which is fairly open except for the cart path cutting close on the far left side.  A drop shot par 3 testing your mid iron accuracy, so get it close.

The Sixth

A look at the green from the left side

The Seventh is a 252 yard par 4.  Teeing off next to the Fourth tees, the fairway is below and dog legs right, with trees framing the hole.  A mid iron is all that is needed off the tee, unless you want to try and carry the trees, cut the dog leg and get to or close to the green.  A tee shot that finds the center of the fairway and clears the dog leg will have a nice wide open and short approach shot to the green.  So the tee shot controls all.

The Seventh

Approach shot territory

A family of deer serving as my gallery

The Eighth is a 168 yard par 3.  Now going behind the Third tee, this par 3 is uphill, with a tree line along the right and a green side bunker on both sides.  There’s an apron short of the green as well.  There’s lots of width here, so just don’t go right or far and you’ll be fine.

The Eighth

Left side of the green

The Ninth is a 385 yard par 4.  Now we cross the creek yet again and go directly to the top of the ridge line.  Trees really crowd this tee shot, which needs to carry the creek to the fairway that is essentially vertical to the green, surrounded by bunkers.  Like many if not all of the par 4’s here, the tee shot is vital to scoring well, as anything not in the fairway will likely get blocked out by trees and even fairway lies will be significantly uphill.  The green slopes from back to front, with a nice view of the hills and course as you look out towards the fairway.

The Ninth

The creek and fairway on the other side

Looking back towards the tee

Approach shot territory

The green, from the left side

The front nine loops around the northeast of the property, going up and down the ridge line a couple times.  A mixture of par 3’s and shorter par 4’s that do well is testing your shotmaking and short game.  I’d rank them 4, 5, 9, 2, 7, 1, 3, 6, 8.

The back nine starts with the 332 yard par 4 Tenth.  Reversing course of the Ninth, the tee shot must either carry the creek yet again, or lay up short of it, clearing the tree line on the left of the fairway that dog legs left.  Trees again crowd the tee shot and some should probably be taken out here, while still have the remaining ones keep the corridors for each hole separate.  A well played tee shot opens up a nice short approach shot to a green with a few undulations in it.

The Tenth

A look at the green

The Eleventh is a 159 yard par 3.  An uphill green tucked in to the right of the tee, it’s pretty subtle and I like the area just short of the green, including the bunker on the right.  I wish I took more photos of it, but it was a fun hole trying to work the ball as close to the trees as possible to the back right pin.

The Eleventh green

The Twelfth is a 526 yard par 5.  Now playing at the bottom of the ridge line altogether, the first par 5 stretches out straight from the tree with trees lining both sides.  There’s some width but mainly you need to hit it straight and far.  Not too much creativity is needed but with limited land, they figured out a way to get some par 5’s on the back nine and things get a little interesting with the green, slightly raised abutting a creek on the far side.

The Twelfth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The green from the left side and the banking just off green

The Thirteenth is a 120 yard par 3.  Kind of set in its own little alcove, it definitely does not feel like it was an original hole but I have no idea for sure.  A short par 3 where the main hazard is the overhanging tree on the left side, which blocks out that line to the green.  Lots of trees are on the right while the left side is fairly close to the tee line to the green.  A draw, or straight from the right side of the tee, is necessary to get on the green and get that bird.

The Thirteenth

The green from the left side

The Fourteenth is a 234 yard par 3.  This is the middle of back to back to back par 3’s.  Reversing direction from the Twelfth, this longer par 3 has lots of room on the right while the tree line encroaches on the left.  The green is deep and a little narrow, which accommodates the roll of a longer club.

The Fourteenth

Looking back at the tee

The Fifteenth is a 163 yard par 3.  Things get a little more interesting with this par 3 using the little hillside, with everything running from left to right.  A draw works really well for the trio of par 3’s here, especially with the tree line always on the left.  This hole demands more precision since there are trees surrounding the green and the slope off to the right can get a little nasty for the recovery.

The Fifteenth

The slope off to the right of the green

The Sixteenth is a 505 yard par 5.  Parallel to the Twelfth, the second and last par 5 of the course bends slightly to the right with trees lining both sides.  There’s also a fairway bunker on the left and going further left risks getting into some tall grass areas.  There’s lots of width but the corridor with flat and straight terrain starts to get uninspiring.  More could have been done to these par 5’s for sure.

The Sixteenth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 381 yard par 4.  The number one handicap hole, the trees yet again encroach and block lines to the green, this time on the right side.  You either need to work it left to right off the tee or straight out with a shorter club to avoid going through the trees on the left.  I like the green a lot, which is kind of a hump, running from back to front, and front to back from the spine running in the middle, while the sides of the green slope towards the center.  The left front bunker is also well places.  A fun par 4, it’s in need of a lot of TLC, I suspect because it’s on lower ground and takes on a lot of water.

The Seventeenth

Approach shot territory

A closer look

The Eighteenth is a 350 yard par 4.  Going back up the ridge line and similar to the Ninth, the trees confine the tee shot, which is crucial to finding the fairway for the approach, which is straight uphill to the plateau green.  The Seventeenth and Eighteenth are a nice closing twosome and ending the round back up on the hill being able to look down on the course just played adds to the enjoyment.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The back nine stays on the lower parts of the land and it’s apparent holes on this side have been altered from their original design but I always like routing featuring more par 3’s and 5’s, while the last two holes are a good finish.  Ranking them for me would be 17, 18, 15, 10, 11, 16, 14, 12, 13.

Generally, Byrne is a shorter course that defends itself by demanding accuracy.  Distance does not help much and the greens won’t beat anyone up, but the challenge lies from tee to green and here, the course flourishes by demanding the full spectrum of shots.  More could have been with the par 5’s, which feel like hitting it on a fielded driving range.  To me, it looks like a blank canvas with so many possibilities, to vary both of them and create more challenge and strategy from tee to green, which would keep in line with the general theme of the course.

Philadelphia municipal courses need more resources to ensure they’re adequately maintained.  Byrne is no exception.  The cart paths are eroded and severe in spots, overgrown trees affect lines of play and bunkers are bare.  The staff does what it can with the limited budget it has and there are a good group of regulars that enjoy the place.  Munis are vital to golf in the U.S. and there is a trend to ensure they remain a strong part of the game.  They’re accessible, a great place to learn the game and in many respects, an ideal piece of the community.  I played mostly all of my golf on munis for years and it was at a muni that I started taking an interest in golf course architecture.  Just like Cobbs Creek, I hope Byrne gets more funding to improve some of the rough patches and possibly work on those par 5’s.  There’s no reason why munis shouldn’t be just as interesting, engaging and strategic as any other course.  There’s additional land maybe they can use at some point in the future for a practice area, or re-rout a few holes but at this point, it’s a public course in the area that makes anyone that plays it enough a strong ball striker.

Gripes:  Just the conditioning issues mentioned above.

Bar/Grill:  An indoor area with some televisions, the clubhouse is on the highest point of the course.

Clubhouse:  An ok selection of stuff, has all the essentials.

Practice area:  There’s a putting green.

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