6,695 yards, 140 slope from the Blues
Course: In Springfield, PA, about 25 minutes from downtown Philadelphia, is Rolling Green Golf Club, a course designed by Willian Flynn in 1926. Rolling Green is a well known course, ranked 16th on Golf Digest’s best courses of Pennsylvania, hosting the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2016 and generally touted as one of the courses to play when one is in the Philadelphia area. Fortunately for me, I live about ten minutes away and drive by it frequently, yet another benefit of living in the heritage rich Philly area (it’s Golfadelphia for a reason). While I had played Rolling Green in the past, I had an opportunity to play it this season at the height of the golf season, with the newly renovated clubhouse, and news that the course will be undergoing restorative work by Keith Rhebb in the near future. All is looking well for the club at the moment.
As for the course, it’s a brawny, stiff challenge with all world bunkering and the use of the terrain, especially for the green complexes, is some of my favorite work by Flynn. Angles and lines into the green are important while the greens are charmingly confounding. While the aerial game becomes necessary on a number of shots, the ground game is very much alive and well, as you’re able to use the hill, slopes and contours on most shots, which opens up the variability and strategy here. Its complexity of design is even more impressive by its simplistic outward appearance; other than a small creek running across some of the holes, the course is fairway, rough, greens and bunkers. I suppose you can say that for most golf courses, but my point is there is nothing flashy here, just solid golf hole after hole, providing such challenge from the most fundamental course components. There are no elaborate water hazards, or seemingly impossible carries, or unique great hazards. The placement of the bunkers and green sites, with respect to the topography, is so good there is no need for any of that.
The scale of the course is fairly large and in that sense, reminds me of Bethpage Black a bit. Your tee shots seem to disappear into the background, swallowed into the great landscape – approach shots seemingly powerless against the hulking and towering green complexes; that sense of being so infinitesimal when facing the great green hype. There’s a David vs. Goliath analogy in there some where. It has the capacity to start working on the mental gears, especially when standing on the tee after being chewed up and spit out on the prior hole. And along with a larger scale comes width, providing the opportunity to attack holes a number of different ways. Variety is indeed the spice of life, at least as far as golf is concerned.
Rolling Green is what I enjoy in a round. An engaging test presenting a significant challenge that must constantly be thought out, then executed. Where a good score makes one feel accomplished, like all the practice, thought and time spent has paid off. And where if one’s game is off, you either figure out another game plan or take the lumps and collect yourself for another go back at the clubhouse. It’s yet another fantastic classic design in the Philadelphia area and a great example of accentuating topography and routing ingeniously.
I must confess that I was looking for a bit of revenge this time around. I have a distinct memory of my prior round, warming up on the range and during every shot. I licked my chops, certain that I was about to put on a prolific display of golf, dazzling those in my foursome. My opening drive bellowed down the fairway, good things were on their way. My approach shot, far and sure, set to cozy up to the pin, suddenly careened to left a little and ultimately in the large bunker on that side. I never recovered from that double bogey, hanging tough for a few holes on the front before my tee shot abandoned me and spent most of the round in the rough and trees. This time, however, I had a game plan, which consisted of playing a club more into every green than I thought I needed and being much more diligent on my tee shots. I took no solace in my great warm up session this time, knowing it was of no moment once I stepped on to the course. Instead, I was focused, on getting a better score than last time but more importantly, enjoying getting the chance to play here again.
The First is a 404 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Heading straight out with trees lining the left side and a fairway bunker on the right, the fairway dips from the tees before climbing back up to the green, sloping from the left to right and feeding into the green from the right side. The green side bunker on the left side is of note, more than head high and expansive. With the green moving away from it for front pins and towards it on back, sand shots out of it need to be fairly precise to salvage par. Attacking the right side of the hole is the way to go.
|Approach shot territory, from the left side|
|Looking at the left side, with the bunker below the green|
The Second is a 433 yard par 4. A dog leg left heading back in the direction of the clubhouse, the tee shot is to a fairway that dives down sharply before jutting back up and turning left, leaving you looking at the turn, the bunkers on the inside and trees on the outside. It’s all in play off the tee and with a longer second shot ahead, hitting the tee shot far and sure without going off of the fairway and into the trees is almost necessary. After the turn, the fairway keeps ascending to the green, which runs from back to front and has bunkers on the either side. Slightly tougher than the First, the course is slowly leading you into the hot water without you noticing.
|Approach shot territory|
The Third is a 167 par 3. Beside the clubhouse again and running parallel with the entrance, the tee is slightly elevated. There’s a short grass area short that leads into the green, all moving right to left. There are bunkers on the left and right sides of the green, with the left steeper yet you’re able to hit into the slope, while the right is shallower yet runs away from you. The back side falls off pretty suddenly. Any shot far to the left will catch a severe slope and could end up on the entranceway. The green is large and moves strongly to the left but there are some internal contours that complicate matters, especially towards the rear.
The Fourth is a 378 yard par 4. A straight hole that plays anything but. The fairway cants from right to left significantly and any tee shot to the left near the trees is in jeopardy of falling into the creek on that side. Focusing on right to right center off the tee seems like the ideal play. The approach shot plays longer than it looks, with the green likewise moving right to left, with bunkers on the left (below the green) and on the right. One aspect of the greens you see right away is there really isn’t any where all that great to miss off the green. Other than short, off line approach shots will likely end up in a bunker. If not in a bunker, it will probably be rough with a tricky lie. The cardinal rule is to stay below the hole, but I decided to aim for the back side of the green on each hole, with the thinking I’d rather deal with a tricky downhill putt than end up in the bunkers. Most bunkers are to the side of the greens, so by aiming towards the rear, I was willing to chip out of rough from the back than deal with the bunkers. At any rate, hitting the course makes hitting greens critical in scoring well.
|Approach shot territory|
|Bunker on the left side of the green, showing just how far down it is directly next to the green|
The Fifth is a 372 yard par 4. The fairway bends slightly to the right with a large bunker short and right off the tee, almost goading you to miss that bad into it. The tee shot is blind for the most part, but favoring the left side gives you the best angle into the green. Those on the right will bring the large green side bunker into play, which is quite massive. The fairway also moves to the right, making that ideal left side even more elusive. The green was subtle and baffling, as slopes I thought I saw defied me once the ball left the putter face. In all, this was one of my favorite holes here. The placement of the green on the hillside, the massive bunker on the right and how there are a variety of lines to the green, which all correlate to how well the tee shot is executed. Then you have the green itself, which turns into a game unto itself. So many options and lots of challenge.
|From the left side|
|Approach shot territory|
|Looking back at the fairway from the green|
The Sixth is a 190 yard par 3. An uphill tee shot where visually, there doesn’t seem to be any where safe to land the shot. The green sits on a hillside and slopes severely towards the downhill on the front while bunkers are on either side on the front, with an extra bunker on the right, with everything moving left to right. High side of the green, past the left bunker is where to aim and back side of the green is better than the front, just not too far left. A great challenging par 3.
|The green, from the left side|
|Looking back at the tee|
The Seventh is a 501 yard par 5. A dog leg right from an elevated tee, a creek bisects the fairway just about the tail end of tee-shot-landing-land, so consider it off the tee, but much more important to stay on the fairway, as both sides are lined with trees and a stroke with surely be wasted punching out if you get too wayward. On the other side of the creek, the fairway cants right to left, almost drifting away from the green, which sits on the left side at the bottom of the hill, yet the green is sloped up at the bottom.
It’s a great hole, for the trepidation it creates off the tee, for the variety of options on the second shot, leaving the hillside and ground available as you see fit, and for the green location, so unassuming and subtle in its challenge, standing out from most of the towering, raised, ominous greens that are its brethren. For those who try and challenge for eagle, there is enough defenses with the bunker and off the green that those will need to become very precise to salvage bride or par here.
|Moving down the fairway|
|Approach shot territory|
|Left side of the green|
|Looking back towards the tee and seeing just how much slope there is|
The Eighth is a 425 yard par 4. Another creek goads from the tee, this one easier to carry, but also much easier to land right in. Hitting before it means a much longer approach shot to a green very much uphill, while a great drive that carries the creek makes the approach a lot more manageable. The green is way up above the fairway, with bunkers in the right places, especially the short right one that makes recoveries from it into the green harrowing. Hitting it past the pin means you’ll have a delicate shot or putt coming back, as the green moves fast from back to front. As the number 3 handicapped hole on this course, enough said.
|Approach shot territory, left side just before the creek|
The Ninth is a 605 yard par 5. Straight and uphill, at yes, over 600 yards. Great terrain here that tilts left to right, then switches mid-hole to right to left. Flynn loves punishes short and right shots here and it’s the same with bunkers just short of the trees on the right that turns a long hole into a much longer one. Using the left side gets the ball some roll towards the center for the second shot, which is all you can handle, yet must be within control. Bunkers take up a good amount of room on either side of the green, but is open on the front. Brawn tempered with precision is the keystone to this hole. No forced carries, great hazards, tree lined corridors or an impossible green. Simply using the terrain well and placing bunkers in very strategic areas.
|Moving up the fairway|
The front nine loops around the perimeter of the property before cutting in at the Ninth back to the clubhouse. There’s not one easy par 4 in the bunch, the par 5’s are outstanding and the par 3’s very good. Visually grand yet much more subtle and complex as you really get in. I’d rank them 7, 5, 2, 8, 9, 1, 3, 4, 6.
The back nine starts with the 244 yard par 3 Tenth. Yes, you go from an uphill 600+ yard par 5 to a monster par 3, which also runs uphill from the tee. And yes, this is a classic course. There is a large run up to the green, sloping right to left, with large bunkers off to the left that you don’t want anything to do with. A small bunker on the right ensure that you can’t simply throw your tee shot off in that direction away from the left side while the green moves well from right to left. Many like to throw around the term, “half par” and it may be appropriate here as a 3.5. Similar to the Ninth, however, resist the temptation to swing out of your shoes, as accuracy is much more valuable than length. In fact, this may be a great hole for my bunt driver shot I perfected before going to Bandon and watch it run right up on the green. At any rate, it’s a wonderfully challenging par 3 and caps off a great series of difficult holes starting with the Eighth.
|Up a little, near the bunkers on the left|
The Eleventh is a 431 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot where the left fairway bunker jutting out pinches the fairway landing area quite a bit. There is room to miss off the tee, but the approach is a demanding one, having to hoist the ball on to the hillside green between bunkers on both sides, including the massively deep one on the right. The green moves from left to right as well, but not as quickly as I anticipated. Any shot over the green is likely done for as well.
|Approach shot territory, off to the right|
|A look at the bunker on the right, attempting to show its severity|
The Twelfth is a 361 yard par 4. While the stated yardage isn’t short by any means, it definitely feels like a shorter par 4, perhaps with the elevated tee. A dog leg right with a total of nine bunkers, decisions abound with the tee shot in negotiating the bunkers on both the inside and outside of the turn. The green sits above the fairway, with the high or left side spotted with bunkers and two larger ones near the front on either side. A surgical approach shot is necessary to avoid all the trouble and keep in mind the green moves from left to right. It’s a terrific par 4.
|Approach shot territory, from the right|
The Thirteenth is a 434 yard par 4. A blind tee shot to a fairway that crests down to a ravine, or valley, where a creek runs across the fairway and creates a small landing area just below the green. The landing area is a nice place to have for recovery shots or those who can’t, or don’t want to, carry the valley and go for the green on the other side. It’s a great approach shot, one part visually daunting and the other part demanding accuracy over anything else. Again, the theme I saw here over and over is a premium on distance but only “accurate” distance. You’re much better going short than you are going for it and ending up offline. The course goads you in to longer shots and the more you wind up and talk yourself into it, the more the course has you as that shot hooks 20 yards to the left into parts unknown. Use the landing area if the approach is too much and treat the hole as one of these, “half pars.” It’s a unique hole completely different from anything encountered before or after and one of my favorite approach shots on the course.
|Moving down the fairway of the Thirteenth. The pin is just peeking out.|
|Approach shot territory and the creek and valley before the green|
The Fourteenth is a 203 yard par 3. Turning around, the tee shot is now a forced carry over the ravine to a green set on a hill side, running away and the right from the tee, with bunkers spotting the front side, as well as a long bunker running along the back. The hole screams for a left to right ball flight and with a back pin position, taking on the front bunkers means an even longer shot, again, with little room for inaccuracy. I’m kicking myself for not photographing the walking bridge you take over the ravine to get to the green (you can kind of see it in the photos above). You’re high in the trees as you cross and it’s a nice touch to the round. This is a wonderfully challenging par 3 that I could play over and over.
The Fifteenth is a 384 yard par 4. A dog leg left where it’s necessary for the the shot to clear the turn, with the left side lined with trees. Clearing the turn means a good look at the green is uphill from the fairway and an array of bunkers, some short left then others on either side of the green. The shot plays longer than it seems based on the uphill. The green moves back to front, quickly, with the possibility of the ball running off the front down the fairway in play.
|Approach shot territory|
|The front right bunker, with just how steep it is to the green|
|The green, from the back left|
The Sixteenth is a 163 yard par 3. A forced carry over a valley to a green well guarded with bunkers on pretty much all sides except for the back right, where the downslope will take balls across the cart path into the long grass anyways. The green runs from left to right as well. Another terrific par 3 where it’s easy to feel like you could have hit a better shot than you ended up with, wanting another go at it.
|The front bunker|
The Seventeenth is a 473 yard par 5. A dog leg left that starts turning after the tee shot, again making a well executed shot necessary to clear the turn and have a clear second shot. A long bunker juts out on the left at the turn, which seems to come into play for those longer hitters off the tee trying to cut the dog leg altogether. The hole fluctuates from wide at the tee, constricting near the turn as the trees sneak up on either side, then parting once again to the one of the wider areas on the course leading up to the green. While the bunkers flash on most of the holes, they are more subdued here, more carved in with the fairway and even near the green, are at more of a ground level. The green is large and like most of the greens, there’s not much area to miss of the green except in the bunkers. The widening of the area up to the green and the green itself seem to transition the round, from the stormy challenge that started with the Thirteenth, the Seventeenth green represents the calm after the storm, signifying the time to stop, enjoy the surroundings and breathe.
|Moving up the fairway|
|The green up ahead, as the trees part|
|Approach shot territory|
The Eighteenth is a 527 yard par 5. Back to back par 5’s to end the round as this dog leg right starts off downhill from the tee before starting back uphill to the green at the turn. Bunkers litter the right side of the hole up to the green while a lone bunker on the left appears at the front of the green. The second shot is flexible in that it gives you the option of going for the green or hitting the distance you’re comfortable with for the approach into the green. More fun than difficult, the Eighteenth ends the round on a nice note, helping you laugh off the spectrum of emotions you likely faced out there, and putting it into the proper perspective.
|Moving down the fairway|
|Approach shot territory|
The back nine features a strong trio of par 3’s, a variety of challenging par 4’s and an ending duo of par 5’s that round out the course brilliantly. The routing is superb, each hole and shot presenting itself as how nature intended. My ranking of them would be 14, 12, 17, 13, 10, 11, 18, 15, 16.
Generally, Rolling Green is an outstanding example of Flynn routing and utilizing the land to unearth and showcase the best course possible. The challenge it presents has withstood the test of time and remains one of the more difficult in the area. This challenge is more complex than the demand of distance; accuracy, tempering temptation and a sharp yet adaptable short game are all necessary to score well here, which gives the golfer a richly diverse experience with each play. Those who have not brought their best game could be in a for a long round, as trying to figure out how to grind a decent score likely only comes with knowing the course fairly well. Alas, that is part of its complexity. What seems like a simple and straightforward challenge with hills, valleys and bunkers starts getting much more when you look closer. Things like hitting it to the back side of the green in an effort to avoid many of the large front green side bunkers, taking the converse challenge of quick downhill putts to the front of the green, or deciding when to lay up short of the green and take your chances of getting up and down; all of these present themselves even when the ball is cleanly in the fairway. Making you think and execute while using the basic course elements is my kind of golf.
Another very compelling aspect of Rolling Green is how walkable it is. Each tee is right next to the prior green and while some of the hills are a good climb, the holes come right after one another and are well placed.
While there are some areas where I think they could lose some trees to enhance the course, I believe they’re in the process of doing that very thing. As I write this, trees around the Sixth have been taken down to open up some visuals. Additional work is likely on its way, as Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb are working on a plan to restore the course to Flynn’s original design. It will be interesting to see those changes. I for one am looking forward to it.
Clubhouse/Pro shop: The clubhouse just underwent extensively renovated and looks terrific. Great indoor and outdoor areas to lounge after the round, overlooking the Ninth and Tenth.
Practice area: A driving range and putting green, possibly a short game area off to one side of the range.