Applebrook Golf Club

6,534 yard, 132 slope from the Composite tees

Course:  In Malvern PA, about 40 minutes northwest of Philadelphia downtown, is Applebrook Golf Club, a course designed by Gil Hanse which opened in 2001.  Incidentally, Hanse is based out of Malvern, so Applebrook is literally in his backyard.  The course’s location and time of design have always intrigued me.  Trying to pinpoint when the tide turned in American golf course architecture, moving from demanding, tough, penal courses to more wide open, naturalistic, minimalist, strategic layouts, is subject to debate.  You have Kapalua Plantation opening in 1991, which is as wide as you can get, showing that width can also play difficult, relying on the hillsides and wind, all against a breathtaking background; you have Stonewall Old opening in 1993; and you have Sand Hills opening in 1995, punctuating these points, and going a step further by ignoring any concept of infrastructure, instead focusing on the most ideal land possible for a natural course.  Regardless, the mid 1990’s was the beginning of this movement, this transition in golf course design – moving into an era where nature is embraced over nurture, so to speak.

During this time, a younger Hanse starts off with one of his first courses about 30 minutes away from Malvern – Inniscrone, opening in 1998.  The course was meant to be a difficult, lower handicap, exclusive club, hosting a PGA exhibition match early on (I believe Jim Furyk and KJ Choi were among those in the field).  The course is indeed difficult, yet emphasized the natural contours of the land, leaning towards a naturalistic feel, yet gets confining with its tree-lined corridors on some of the holes and too many forced carries (likely due to environmental restrictions).  Hanse then went on to open Crail in the same year.  Crail is on the East Coast of Scotland, his first course designed outside of the U.S. and as a links course, not a tree in sight.  After Crail, Hanse designed Tallgrass in Long Island, opening in 2000 (NLE), Applebrook (2001), Rustic Canyon (2002), French Creek (2004) and Boston Golf Club (2005).  Every course listed after Crail takes trees out of the equation, instead embracing width, terrain and intelligent greens.  To be fair, Inniscrone has moments of width, but trees are prominent on several of the holes.

In looking at other courses opening around that time, some notables include Bandon Dunes (1999), Pacific Dunes (2001), Chechessee Creek (2002), Friar’s Head (2002) and Whistling Straits (1998).

My point?  Applebrook was built at the right time, at the right place, by the right guy.

Time wise, an explosion of revolutionary golf style was born in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, forming the influential basis for much of what we’re even seeing today.  A more rugged, strategic and natural look became a lot more appealing than the perfectly manicured, conditioned Augusta-syndrome resort style courses that many a housing development surrounded.  Golfers in the U.S. began re-discovering walking over the double-wide cart paths with GPS, air conditioned carts.  More to the point, things began trending to a more pure golf experience.

Person-wise, Hanse seems to have evolved a bit by the time he built Applebrook.  I’ve always seen Hanse as the Quentin Tarantino of golf course architecture; limitlessly brilliant, but is prone to try and do too much, as if this will be the only opportunity to showcase what they know so they need to figure out a way to put everything out there.  Tarantino has his movies where he tries to wow the audience with every cinematographic concept he came up with while Hanse has some courses with the similar issue.  When that brilliance is tempered, focused, coordinated – orchestrated; the work is so much more memorable.  By the time Applebrook came around, Hanse’s work seemed a lot more fluid and focused.

Location-wise, the land upon which the course is set is ideal.  Rolling terrain mixed with wetland areas, a couple ponds, streams and meadows gave Hanse a superb canvas on which to work.  With the course in his backyard as well, with what his colleagues were building at the same time and with what the owners had in mind when starting this club, I feel Hanse wanted to make damn sure he left his mark here.

Considering this contextApplebrook was born.  A flowing, wide open, intelligent design, capable of as much fun and challenge as you’d like to take on, with slopes, banks, bunkers and angles used so many different ways that the spectrum of play is infinite.  A well balanced course for sure.  Not overly penal and tough to lose a ball, yet recovery shots will require a deft touch.  Green complexes embrace diversity of play, as well as an intimate knowledge of the terra firma.  It’s a sweeping landscape, that can give you miles of width, then have you come back to focus on a few yards, all within half a shot.  This width, the placement of the hazards and green complexes provides endless strategic decisions, making it a great match play course.  It’s currently ranked as 14th on Golf Digest’s list of Best Golf Courses in Pennsylvania.

Applebrook had been on my short list for years.  From everything I knew about it, it was everything I liked in a course, so much diversity of terrain with a rugged look mixed in with a course that plays firm and fast, calling upon an array of skills and decisions to get around the course.  I had a friend visiting from out of town and when our scheduled round in Long Island fell through, I had the opportunity to re-schedule some where else in the area.  Applebrook was a no brainer.

So on a perfect summer morning, I finally had the chance to drive over to Malvern and play one of the courses I tagged a long time ago as one of my must plays.  I warmed up on the range, honed in my putter and explained to my buddy from out of town how I was about to dismantle him on the course.  I then met my caddie, let him know about the upcoming dismantling, and with that, we embarked.

The First is a 522 yard par 5 (from the Composite tees).  A double dog leg that starts nice and wide and sweeps to the right before constricting and turning left around a bunker, with the green curling back to the right.  The second shot comes with decisions, as you can hit short of the bunker where the fairway constricts; the safe play, yet leaves you with a tougher approach shot and bringing the water more in play of to the right.  Those who opt to hit it longer on the second shot are rewarded with a much more manageable and shorter approach shot, yet the margin for error in that area is much smaller and anything too far offline will suffer the consequence of a tricky recovery shot if not a penalty shot from the water.  The green is subtle and generally moves towards the water.  It’s also a great vantage point to survey the course, and clubhouse behind.  I love starting out on a par 5 and with the options available here, allows you sufficient opportunity to get the feet warm for the rest of the round.

The First

Moving down the fairway

Possibly the first “tree cave” I’ve seen, off to the left of the fairway

Approach shot territory

Water off the right side of the green

The green

The Second is a 366 yard par 4.  An uphill dog leg right where the prominent hazard is a large bathtub bunker sunken into the fairway, which seems to attract an inordinate amount of tee shots, especially for those trying to cut the turn for a shorter approach shot.  Surgically placed bunkers near the green on both sides towards the front, as well as large short grass bail out area off to the right.  The bail out area gives the green some options and comes into play for those hitting out of the bunkers near the green.  Staying away from the bunkers means longer shots to the green while the closer you flirt with the bunker off the tee, the closer your approach is.  A nice risk reward hole, again requiring some thought, which compounds during match play.

The Second

The perilous bunker on the right

Approach shot territory

The run off area to the right of the green

The Third is a 310 yard par 4.  A short par 4 that’s even shorter than it’s stated yardage since the fairway flows downhill from the tee, the fairway is nice and chubby, canting from right to left, with a large angled bunker on the right side and a small pot bunker directly in the center.  This pot bunker does its job of turning what would be an easy short tee shot into one fraught with decisions.  Left of the pot bunker provides the best angle into the green, but with the movement of the fairway and the rough on the left side, the margin of error here is a lot less than hitting short and right of the pot bunker, which leaves you with a blind shot and worse angle into the green.  You can challenge the pot bunker and carry it, which if done successfully leaves you with a nice clean short shot into the green.  The green itself is in a knoll, with the front and right sides sloping down towards the center while the left side has a devious little trench bunker running alongside of it.  

My opponent and I took two very different routes off the tee, yet as seen below, our approach shots ended up right next to each other and it turned into a putting contest (push).

A fantastic short par 4.  So many different shots and decisions, off the tee, on approach and around the green.  Brilliant placement of hazards and a sharp little green to top it off.

The Third

Between the tee and fairway

Approach shot territory

The green

This shows just how close the match actually was

Looking back 

The Fourth is a 380 yard par 4.  This par 4 runs downhill and bends to the right.  It’s wide open, with a couple trees hanging out at the inside of the turn and a creek running through the fairway, which comes into play on the approach shot.  There are no bunkers except for one on the left side of the green.  While this is a rather straightforward hole, both my opponent and I made a mess of it, ending up in the long grass off the fairway and running into some chipping issues near the green.  It should play as a refresher hole, allowing you to swing away and find your legs a bit before soldiering on to rougher waters.

The Fourth

Moving down the fairway

Off green, to the left

The Fifth is a 179 yard par 3.  An uphill green with wide bunkers on all sides except the back right.  The back right has a short grass area that slopes into the green while another short grass area feeds away from it on the front left.  There’s also bail out room off to the right on a small patch of fairway for those who want to take on the green and all of its bunkers from a closer distance.  As it plays longer because the green is uphill, this hole is a tougher test of the mid to long irons than it seems.

The Sixth is a 396 yard par 4.  A dog leg left with a wide fairway until it constricts considerably once it turns left around a bunker on that side.  The approach shot will likely be a bit long, to an uphill green that’s semi-blind.  The green is perched on a hillside, jutting straight up.  There is a lot of short grass area in front of the green, as well as to the left.  There is a single green side bunker on the left but primarily, the large slopes and contours around the green make for fun shots for those shots off the green.  The dearth of bunkers around the green is yet another example of Hanse showing restraint, allowing the hole to be played much different from others, such as the Fifth where bunkers surround the green.  Grass bunkers, slopes, contoured short grass areas; there are plenty of other ways to challenge the golfer other than sand bunkers, which is done well here.

The Sixth
Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

Off green short, looking to the left

On the short right side

Back and right of the green

The Seventh is a 437 yard par 4.  The longest par 4 on the course, the fairway bends to the right shortly after the tee shot landing area, with a well placed fairway bunker on the left.  The approach shot is daunting.  It will be a longer one, with water lurking off to the right and a large sunken bunker on the left.  With little room off the green to work with and the green curling to the left, it’s one of those shots where there’s really no hiding from.  I was elated after a bad tee shot, powering a 3 wood to pin high just above the left bunker, especially after walking up to the green and realizing just how unforgiving it gets off the green.  For those keeping count, it’s essentially three challenging longer approach shots in a row (counting the Fifth), all to completely different formatted greens.

The Seventh

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 554 yard par 5.  One of the narrower holes on the course, the fairway spills out in places that make for some interesting decisions.  With water hiding in the trees off to the right and a large bunker to the left off the tee, short of the bunker looks appetizing, but would leave two very long shots just to reach the green.  Instead, getting close to the bunker, or trying to carry it altogether, is preferable though the fairway is narrow there and many may opt for the safer short tee shot and dealing with length on the second and third.  The same decision seems to present itself on the second shot; with bunkers on the left and the fairway narrowing, laying up short of them is the conservative option, leaving a longer approach shot.  But challenging them and getting next or over them is rewarded with a nice short approach.  A great risk-reward hole where, again, length along with accuracy is at a premium.

The Eighth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

From closer

The Ninth is a 149 yard par 3.  With the clubhouse in the background, the second par 3 on the front is a forced carry over a quarry on the left with expansive bunkers, trees on the right and a short grass area starting on the right side leading up to the green.  I decided to hit into the quarry, you know, for research, and its distance away from the green, how far below it is from the green, and depending on the lie, is a hazard best avoided.  A shorter approach shot, take advantage.

The Ninth

The front nine loops around the eastern side of course, primarily running north and south, facing the wind in different directions.  Full of decision making, the par 4’s are all different and stand out on their own as do the par 5’s.  The par 3’s are nice one shotters with sufficient challenge, but don’t present the same strategy as the others.  All holes, however, allow several options, which results in those seeking a fun round to have fun while those seeking challenge to face it in spades.  I would rank the front 3, 2, 6, 1, 7, 8, 4, 9, 5.

The back nine starts with the 573 yard par 5 Tenth.  The tee shot is just outside the clubhouse, so I imagined everyone inside stopped what they were doing just to watch me tee off, which is a forced carry over long grass and a single tree to a wide fairway beyond.  A small stream runs to the right of the fairway, then flows across the fairway further out and continues on the left side, through to the left side of the green.  The stream must be carried on the second shot and with the second fairway essentially in a Z shape, it’s just as though provoking as the others before it.  The green sits off to the left and generally straight out from the first fairway, but trying to go for the green means carrying a swatch of bunkers before and below the green.  The fairway circles around the bunkers, so you can also decide how far you’d like to hit off to the right, leaving you with a shorter shot into the green, yet hitting downhill to a green running away from you.  Lots to digest here, which is the shortest par 5 on the course.

The Tenth 

Moving down the fairway

Crossing the stream.  Narrow yet effective.

Approach shot territory

The green

The stretch of fairway off to the right of the green

The Eleventh is a 121 yard par 3.  A short par 3 where the green is set on a hill and surrounded by bunkers and long grass.  Essentially, you need to hit the green or will likely face a challenging recovery requiring some touch on a smaller green.  The green has contours that continue the challenge onto putting.  It’s a nice short par 3, my favorite on the course.

The Eleventh

Walking up to the green from the tee

A closer look at that bunker

A look at the back left side of the green

The Twelfth is a 370 yard par 4.  The fairway dog legs hard to the right off the tee, with cross bunkers starting on the left then the right.  A well done tee shot will get to the turn, which will have a clear look at the green straight ahead.  Tee shots short of the turn will have an impeded view of the green and will need to carry the bunkers and hills on the right.  There’s a large short grass area ramping up to the green and bunkers on the left side of the green, as the green moves from back to front and left to right.  Any miss to the green other than short will be tricky, dealing with the bunkers and rough, but those in the short grass area will have options to try and hole it out.

The Twelfth

A look more over to the left

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The green

Looking back

The Thirteenth is a 423 yard par 4.  A forced carry over long grass from the tee to a fairway that bends left around a large Black Tupelo tree.  A bunker on the right where the fairway starts and further up on the right makes you think twice about where to place the tee shot, since too far left will be blocked out by the tree.  There’s some visual camouflage here that Alistair Mackenzie was famous for, with a small bunker in the center of the fairway short of the green.  That bunker cannot be seen from where the tee shots land, as the fairway dips down to the green more than it appears.  The green slopes right to left, with a large bunker on the left that gives it a Redan feel.  It’s a great par 4 laid out on the terrain perfectly.  

The Thirteenth

Approach shot territory

As you get closer, that center bunker finally appears

Looking back show the downhill, which is not immediately apparent from the tee

A closer look at the green

The Fourteenth is a 410 yard par 4.  The tee shot must carry the Serpentine Run, a creek that winds and curves along the right side of the fairway.  The fairway is almost perpendicular to the tee, giving the player the decision how much to try and bite off of the Serpentine to reach the fairway.  The fairway then runs uphill to the green, sloping left to right, towards the creek the entire time.  The green slopes a lot in that direction, with a large bunker on the right side and evoking another (reverse) Redan type situation that goads hitting the approach much further to the right than you normally would.  The slope of the green on the front and left is harrowing, especially with front left pin positions.  Another fantastic par 4 for how natural it fits into the landscape and its challenge.

The Fourteenth

A look at the fairway walking over the bridge 

Approach shot territory

A closer look

This one shows the slope in front well

The Fifteenth is a 193 yard par 3.  A forced carry over Traders Run, a creek feeding into Ridley Creek off to the right, there’s a large short grass run up to the larger green with bunkers on the right.  This is the longest par 3 on the course and with a lot of room short and right to work with, is fairly manageable.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 542 yard par 5.  Forced carries galore here, with the first one being the tee shot over some long grass.  Right off the bat, start deciding which line you’d like to take along the fairway to set up the next shot, which will be a forced carry over a creek.  The trees along the right can block your angle to the green if you get too close to that side while a bunker in the center of the fairway and one to the right make it necessary to either carry them outright for the best and closest of approach shots, or try to hit in between them.  Laying up short of them still runs the risk of being blocked out by the trees on the right, although a left to right ball flight would take care of that.  The fairway then ends and a forced carry to an uphill green is in order.  The green is nice and wide, sloping from left to right and bunkers to the left and far side, while the front slopes downhill.

The Sixteenth

Moving down the fairway

Bunkers on the left side

Approach shot territory

The bunker towards the end of the fairway

Another look at it in relation to the green

The Seventeenth is a 179 yard par 3.  A blind shot to an uphill green, there is a lot of room beyond the ridge you’re hitting over so take comfort.  The green slopes from left to right, so much so that it’s necessary to hit on the left side and account for movement to the other side.  There’s the smallest of bunkers short of the ridge, there to collect those shots that weren’t enough, devious in its placement.  This and the Eleventh are my favorite par 3’s on the course.  

The Seventeenth, straight out, not to the right

A look at the green

The Eighteenth is a 430 yard par 4.  The hole is as wide open as it gets, with the fairway bending slightly to the left, then uphill and curling back right to the green.  The ending approach shot here is a punctuation mark and unlike anything encountered on the course; a heroic longer approach shot to the uphill green and over the great hazard of a bunker well below the green on the right.  Those not willing to take on the intimidating bunker can lay up to the left, then chip on to the green.  The visual intimidation is palpable and creates a closing thrill that fits in well with the symphony of the round.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory, with the flag and clubhouse in perfect position to judge your shot

The green, from the front left

The back nine loops around the western side of the property, almost in perfect symmetry to the front. There are more forced carries on this side yet the same amount of deliberation and challenge encountered on the front, with stronger par 3’s and a nice combination of par 4’s.  In my opinion, ranking them would be 13, 14, 18, 17, 12, 10, 11, 16, 15.

Generally, Applebrook has a great harmony to it as the holes all present their own challenges and strategy through the natural landscape.  It’s my favorite Gil Hanse course by a lot, mainly because of how well it flows and the sheer amount of thought needed to play it.  Diversity of play is alive and well here too, as several architectural styles were woven together, some subtle like the Redan-ish greens and some more emphatic, like the heroic approach shot at the Eighteenth.  Hanse picks his spots well in incorporating these, instead of cramming too much in and overwhelming the player.  The perfect loops around the property of each nine, one on each side, the range of distances of each hole and each shot, the different looks of the approach shots and even the green shapes themselves; all of it demonstrates that Hanse took great care here to make this a lasting memorable course.  It’s certainly one I could play for the rest of my days and remain a happy golfer.

Clubhouse/Pro shop:  There is an airy courtyard feel to the place as the clubhouse transitions to the pro shop and outdoor areas.  With views of the Ninth, Tenth and Eighteenth below, it’s placed nicely and adds to the charm of the course.

Practice area: Driving range, short game area and putting green, all right next to the First, as it should be.