6,352 yards, 136 slope from the Whites Course: In Havertown, PA, which is about 15 minutes from downtown Philadelphia, is Llanerch Country Club. Alex Findlay designed the course in 1928 while Stephen Kay did some restorative and renovation work in 2005, which included rebunkering, tree removal and tee/green expansions. Originally 27 holes, 9 were sold to development, leaving the single course. Llanerch is a club full of history that hosted the 1957 PGA Championship, which was the first year the tournament was contested with medal play instead of match play. A Findlay design rich with character in the Philadelphia area is hard to come by nowadays. While Walnut Lane is nearby and could fit that bill, it’s more of an executive course and in need of some drastic attention. Otherwise, Llanerch is it, or at least to Philadelphia proper. A classic course that has plenty of challenge, especially around the greens, the moderate hilly terrain and meandering creeks are used very well in an outstanding routing. The course is also a lot of fun, with several drop carry shots and some how not a lot of uphill climbs despite the terrain. The par 3’s stuck out as very impressive and I liked the character of the bunkers; large, craggy with fescue, asserting themselves throughout the round as a force to be reckoned with.
Llanerch is very much a classic course. Tipping out at just over 6,800 yards and a 140 slope, the challenge is certainly not with distance, but rather with the greens and placement of the ball off the tee and in the fairways, knowing the best angles and lines into the greens. The strategy and ball striking necessary to properly deal with the greens emphasizes strategy and precision over brawn; something Findlay was known for. The course is a nice walk as well, with transitions from green to the next tee a breeze. Most of the greens are more tilted than undulating, making pin positions affect these angles and lines into the green. Another great example of a course testing every aspect of one’s game without being overly penal or one dimensional. It reminded me a little of Jeffersonville and Merion in being so walkable, how the holes were presented on a smaller piece of property without feeling crammed or hemmed in, and in how forced carries are used sparingly yet effectively.
UPDATE: June 2020. The course is now undergoing extensive changes by Brian Schneider of Renaissance Golf Design. The first nine holes of the project were performed on the clubhouse side of Steel Road, which are 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 17 and 18. The renovated holes showcase the changes and transformation of what eventually will encompass the entire course, as the nine holes on the other side of Steel Road, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16, are scheduled to undergo their changes this coming off season.
At first, it was a bit unclear whether Schneider was undertaking a restoration or renovation. Of course, that might have changed as the project progressed, like many other facets of the work. The initial motivation for work was to have the bunkers restored but as things progressed, the scope of the project changed. Working closely with Brendan Byrne, the greens superintendent, Schneider benefitted from a flexible membership that was open to some new ideas. What may have started as some type of restoration changed, with Schneider not able to find much that could be restored based on the current layout and configuration. While I enjoy Findlay as much as the next person, the shift from restoration to renovation is a refreshing move. Instead of trying in vain to return to some former version of itself, Schneider and Byrne seem to be advancing the character of the course forward in an exciting direction. One thing is clear. These changes fundamentally change Llanerch’s style and from my recent round there, that is very very promising.
Photos and commentary of the newly renovated nine holes are at the end of the review.
I live extremely close to the Llanerch and know some members, but had never played here until this season. I actually didn’t know much about the course other than where it was. As someone who travels pretty much to the ends of the earth to play golf courses, it was finally time to check out one of them in my own backyard. So after listening to half a song in the car, I was already in the parking lot and ready to play.
The First is a 376 yard par 4 (from the Whites). A little bit of a forced carry over native grass to the fairway, which tilts from right to left. Trees are well placed on either side, still allowing width and lines into the green from off the fairway, more so on the left side. A creek runs along the left side of the hole as well and is very much in play off the tee. A creek bisects the fairway for the second shot, which is to the green, set uphill and generally moving right to left. The green side bunker on the right is s sign of things to come; imposing and allowing for all different types of lies, including in the deep fescue surrounding it. Findlay establishes the rules of engagement early; account for the movement of the terrain, too far off line will not be tolerated and set up for the next shot.
Approach shot territory
A little closer
The back of the green, looking back towards the clubhouse
The Second is a 401 yard par 4. And just like that, we face the number one handicapped hole, so hopefully you’re warmed up! At the most southern point of the course, looking off to the left is where I surmise the third set of nine holes existed, which is now residential within Thompson Nature Park and Williamson Field. As for the hole, it’s a dog leg right where the tree line on the right must be cleared off the tee for the approach shot. There is a bunker on the left meant to collect those trying to clear the tree line too much. The approach can be a long one and the green is raised with bunkers on both sides with a little room to spare off the green in the rough. The fairway is wide and opens up even more as you get closer to the green, so there’s ample opportunity for recovery if the second shot doesn’t hit the green.
Approach shot territory, with still a ways to go
A little closer
The Third is a 411 yard par 4. Bending to the left just a touch, we proceed back in the direction of the First, between the First and Second. Just like the prior holes, a well hit tee shot is vital for a clear approach to the green. Bunkers are on either side of the fairway, as are trees. The fairway crests before falling and ending into rough, with the green rising again. The green is essentially level with the highest point of the fairway, so placing the tee shot in the area makes for an ideal approach. And an ideal approach is needed here, with the green being one of the smaller ones and bunkers on either side towards the front, carved into the hillside.
Approach shot territory
Love the flags, with the hole number on each
The Fourth is a 196 yard par 3. This Redan really caught my attention. Unlike the first three holes, the trees part ways and give this a links feel. The tee is above the green, with a bunker short and right, perhaps to provide a little defense against those trying to run the ball up the right side. The green moves nicely from right to left, away from the point of entry, with bunkers on the front left and left side. The right side is uphill to the hole, so any shot to the right of the green will be downhill, with the green running away from you. There are bunkers on that side closer to the green as well. The size and shape of the green fits the hole perfectly; more wide than deep, it invites a myriad of shots off the tee, whether it’s a draw to use the movement of the green, a fade to move away from the bunkers and stop the ball against the slope, or the straight ball that will likely still move to the left a little after landing. It’s a fantastic hole and really got me excited about what else I’d find out here.
The green, from the right side
The Fifth is a 524 yard par 5. We now cross Steel Road where we play the next four holes at least for the front nine, still along the southernmost point of the property. The fairway meanders, moving this way and that amongst trees and bunkers on either side, which creates a number of different lines to the green depending on where your shots end up. There is some movement right to left of the fairway and the tee shot does well to account for it, as well as avoiding the bunkers. The second shot will likely need to be more on the right side to allow a clear approach shot, avoiding the trees on the left. The green is well guarded and only of modest size. Bunkers pinch the front opening while a trench bunker covers the entire rear side. For those opting to go for the green in two shots, good luck getting there safely. The green is bit of a reprieve, recognizing the challenge in getting there, but there is movement near the opening at the front.
Moving down the fairway
A peek at the green from one of the bunkers on the left
The Sixth is a 391 yard par 4. A slight dog leg right, with the fairway moving left to right as well. A large tree on the right must be cleared from the tee, yet a row of bunkers on the left temper how far you can go to get away from it. The green is small and guarded by multiple bunkers on the either side, with the back side encroached by evergreen trees just off the green. The green is narrow with lots of movement, generally from the outside in and back to front. The approach is wide open, however, so the options are plenty in order to deal with this challenging green.
The left side, just off the green
The Seventh is a 383 yard par 4. The tee shot is blind to a downhill fairway. There’s a bunker short right and to the left, as well as the left treeline, to account for. With the downhill, a club other than driver may be a better option, so long as the fairway is found. The approach shot is a forced carry over a creek, to the green that is set to the right of the fairway. The green moves right to left and towards the creek while bunkers essentially surround the green on all sides, except the side of the creek. This hole departs a bit from what we’ve encountered thus far because of the blind shot and abrupt approach, but the theme remains the same; careful planning of each shot and use the movement of the ground smartly. As with a lot of classic courses, mis hit shots typically allow a chance for recovery instead of an outright penalty stroke. This is all the more impressive considering the smaller property upon which the course is set.
Approach shot territory
The Eighth is a 203 yard par 3. We go back across Steel Road for the second par 3 of this front nine. The green moves from left to right while four bunkers make sure they have every post of the green protected. Water is short right, then a creek runs along the right side up to the green. Like the Fourth, you’re free to attack this green with any ball flight and angle you like, including using the wide point of entry in the front. I really liked how the course opens up in the right places, especially with the par 3’s.
The Ninth is a 480 yard par 5. The tees are set a little to the left of the fairway, which moves uphill, with bunkers and trees on both sides. The fairway continues to proceed straight and slightly uphill to the green after the tee shot. The green then curls to the right until it’s almost perpendicular to the fairway. There is an entry on the left while bunkers guard the front right. If you want to use the ground game to run into the green, make sure your second shot is off to the left side to be able to do so. Otherwise, the bunkers on the right will likely need to be carried. While the hole is uphill and a bit longer than the stated yardage, it feels like a four and a half par hole rather than a five, but the extra stroke is always welcome. The longer players who hit the right tee shot will have a nice look at reaching the green on the second shot.
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The front nine comes in waves. From the first three holes demanding precision, almost trying to assert a tone with the golfer early on to be cautious and calculating, the next few holes open up, allowing for more creativity, before reaching the Ninth, which is almost a combination of both; confining the tee shot before providing an array of avenues to the green. The Fourth is a spectacular hole while the par 5’s are solid and the par 4’s all play pleasantly differently and all well in their own right. My ranking of them is 4, 5, 6, 1, 9, 3, 8, 7, 2.
The back nine starts with the 415 yard par 4 Tenth. A tip of the cap to the halfway house, perfectly positioned after the Ninth green, just next to the Tenth tee. Now we head back out, back down the hill and over the creek, near the Ninth tee, where the players there can admire the shots coming down and in to the green. Straight down the middle is ideal for the tee shot. Keep in mind that the driving range is on the range so any shots hit too far on that side are OB. Also keep in mind that the further your tee shot, the more of a downhill lie you will likely have for your approach, so easing up a bit on the tee may leave you with a better lie, albeit a little longer. The green complex is grand, moving from back to front and featuring two terrific bunkers towards the front on both sides. The movement of the green here is enough to consider on the approach, as any putt downhill will be treacherous. It’s a great hole.
Approach shot territory
A closer look. Love the bunkering here.
The Eleventh is a 406 yard par 4. Bunkers on either side of the fairway await lesser tee shots and while trees are on either side, there’s enough width where they don’t come into play unless you’re really offline. The hole then opens up for the approach to a wide green with bunkers short to contend with. The fairway feeds right into the green, with a sloping short grass area near the right front. The green moves from right to left as well.
Approach shot territory
The Twelfth is a 157 yard par 3. This is an interior hole on this side of Steel Road, meaning it’s one of the few that doesn’t border the perimeter of the course. Needing to transition directions yet utilize all of the property, this hole fits in perfectly, as the small nook upon which it is set makes for a great shorter par 3, where the green runs fast from back to front and we see more of those great looking bunkers on all sides, all different shapes and depths. Whether you try to use the slope to bring the ball back towards the hole, or land short of it for an easier uphill putt, by all means avoid being above the hole.
A closer look
The Thirteenth is a 333 yard par 4. The tee is set below and to the left of the fairway, leaving us with a blind tee shot. The placement of the the also make this a bit of a dog leg left where hitting the fairway is a real good idea because of the trees, just waiting to block you out. Bunkers are well placed sparingly leading up to the green, with the fairway spilling out to the left after one of them, which creates some what of a false front. Bunkers then pinch the apron leading to the green while the sides run off downhill, with a sly trench bunker off the back of the green. A nice green complex and with it generally moving away from the front, a nice change up from what we’ve seen from the back nine up to this point.
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The Fourteenth is a 446 yard par 4. It’s the longest par 4 of the round. The tee shot is straight out to a fairway climbing slightly uphill with trees being rather unforgiving on both sides. The fairway then dips downhill before rising and turning left to the green. The fairway starts narrowing as you get closer to the green, with bunkers on both the left and right of the narrow yet deep green. The second shot is likely one of the toughest on the course, considering what your lie probably is, the smaller size of the green and angle of the approach. It’s a tough hole, demanding two very good shots.
Approach shot territory
The Fifteenth is a 313 yard par 4. We go from the longest par 4’s to one of the shortest. And it’s quite the short par 4. The fairway runs at a 4:00 to 10:00 angle from the tee with bunkers running along the left side up to the green. These left bunkers also serve the dual purpose of blocking your view of the fairway from the tee, so you don’t know how much or little room you have for your tee shot. Before the bunkers, there is ample space to lay up shot of them and settle for a longer approach into the green. But the left bunkers will not be ignored, you’re either taking them on off the tee or the approach shot. Those that try to swing out to the right from the tee will be blocked out by trees on the approach, or will end up in a smartly placed bunker on that side. The green, while of a nice size, is surrounded by bunkers and has a lot of movement. The trees on either side also make sure that the old bomb and gouge isn’t used too often, as any tee shot getting caught up in the trees will ensure at least a couple strokes to get on the green.
And there you have the makings of a great hole; a puzzle to solve that can be attacked a variety of ways, but must always be thought through. Local knowledge is rewarded as the battle scars add up and those who continue playing it start knowing what works and what does not for them, yet never able to master it. Such is golf – a game to be played, but not beaten.
The row of bunkers waiting for you on he left
Approach shot territory
Look at the fescue lining the lips of the bunkers
The Sixteenth is a 482 yard par 5. And we go from short to long, yet again mixing it up. A narrow fairway running straight to the green awaits. Trees line both sides, then a large bunker enriches on the left side, which narrows the fairway at that point before widening again and feeding into the green, which is a little raised from the fairway. A bunker on the left front side of the green, and another on the right side protect this green, which is fairly large and runs from back to front. There is a thumbprint indent on the left side of the green as well, taking balls in that off the green and into the rough below.
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The Seventeenth is a 144 yard par 3. Crossing back over Steel Road for the final time, the Fourth par 3 is directly to our left, which gives this course two great par 3’s right next to each other. This hole is a semi blind tee shot to a raised green, with three massive bunkers carved into the front and another to the left, which the green is shaped around. Trouble abounds every where. Any shot off to the right either falls down the hill or if too far right, ends up in water. Short is no good because of the bunkers. The left side will encounter the bunker or rough, but also means the green is moving away from you. Alas, hitting to the center of the green seems like the only reasonable option and while that is likely true of most every hole, the defenses of this shorter hole, towards the end of the round when tournaments or matches are coming down to the wire, make this a fun and challenging hole.
The Eighteenth is a 291 yard par 4. The shortest par 4 on the course, with an elevated tee shot that’s a forced carry over water to a generous fairway. Similar to the Fifteenth, thinking through this hole is necessary since its distance allows it to be played a number of ways. A lone tree on the right means that any long hitter will want to advance on the left side, although there are fairway bunkers on that side to contend with. The fairway does widen short of the tree on the right, but laying up off the tee is necessary to utilize that room while providing enough space to carry the tree to the green if necessary. The fairway is then at its widest just after the tree, which I suppose tempts longer hitters to carry the tree from the tee altogether. There is an entry point to the green on that right side as well, but most approach shots will need to carry the bunkers strewn about the front of the green. The green itself moves from right left, then back to front on the left side. With the clubhouse directly behind the green, you can be certain that everyone inside is watching your every shot, commenting and judging appropriately. Try to give them a show.
The green, from the left side
The back nine is quite a bit shorter than the front nine (almost 300 yards), but just as challenging and diverse. The par 3’s are terrific and the par 4’s provide a broad range of tests and enjoyment. My ranking of them would be 10, 15, 17, 13, 18, 12, 14, 11, 16.
Generally, Llanerch is a solid classic course. The challenge is subtle and there is plenty of strategy necessary to play it well. All of this is done on a smaller piece of property without resorting to over penalizing. It’s a diverse course, allowing play for any shot in your arsenal while properly mixing up the challenges and when they’re presented. Trees are used well and it appears there is an active effort to open up corridors and vistas by removing non-essential trees. At the same time, there are areas where trees are used nicely. The greens at Llanerch are challenging yet add to the fun of the course. Using their movement on approaches or recovery shots makes for engaging strategy calls, as well as makes you plan your shots from the green moving backwards to the tee.
I remember saying in my review of Jeffersonville that the challenge there is so subtle that you tend to blame high scores on your play rather than on the course and I think that’s true at Llanerch as well. The course seems there for the taking, but when strokes start piling up, it may not be immediately apparent how the layout has contributed. Rest assured, however, it certainly contributes.
Llanerch is a great example of what classic courses do well. It certainly is one of my favorite courses by Findlay and an integral part of the Philadelphia golf legacy.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: They are separate and I believe both were recently renovated. The east side of the clubhouse is adjacent to the Eighteenth and showcases the courses from every room and level on that side. Both are well sized.
Practice area: A full sized range, a couple putting greens and a short game practice area. Use those putting greens, you’ll need it out there!
UPDATE JUNE 2020: The revised nine holes on the clubhouse side are below, which are 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 17 and 18.
The course now very much has an English heathland feel to it. The abrupt and sharp mounding found throughout is the one of the more noticeable changes, which will come into play more often than they appear based on the firm and fast conditions the course is now designed to cultivate. Indeed, the ball took those glorious bounds and leaps down the fairway upon landing from its initial descent, adding an entirely new dimension to the course. To accommodate, corridors have been opened up and the course is now much more open, allowing the freedom to take an array of lines from shot to shot. Findlay always emphasized shotmaking with his courses and these changes are consistent with that tenet, albeit in a different manner than having trees dictate shape and flight. Now, those commanding higher or lower ball flights get different receptions from the slopes and contours. Same with shots turning left or right; how they respond to the fairways and greens emphasizes the importance of shaping shots. The shorter hitter can now use those slopes to his advantage while the longer hitter can as well in an entire different manner. Wider fairways and larger greens also accommodate the new style of the course.
Bunkers are also noticeably different. Before, they were typically larger and placed in areas that would collect mis-hit shots on the fly. Now, they are deep and more concise, scarring hillsides and fairways. The ball will now more likely find one by rolling in than on the fly and based on their pointed severity of slope, they become more necessary to avoid.
Schneider has mentioned Myopia Hunt Club, West Sussex and the Kings Course at Gleneagles as models and inspiration. Inland courses, modest in length yet brimming with interest, challenge and strategy. Tufts of high grass, creative mounding throughout and bunkering varying in depth, with an emphasis on angles and distance control. Endless interest in the greens. These are the things I have heard and read of the courses above without playing any of them that I could see applying to Llanerch in several respects. An interesting parkland classic before, the course now moves into a much more intriguing and distinct parkland playing differently than most courses in the area with its heathland inland links feel. Taking the strong attributes from the course and then evolving it is the type of work that I feel is progressive course design. I look forward to how the remaining nine holes shape up to complete this impressive transfiguration.
The First. The trees on the right are now gone, replaced with bunkers. The cart path and bunker on the left is also gone. The fairway and green are wider while the greenside bunker on the right is much deeper yet closer to the green, terrifyingly very much in play.
The visual from the opening tee is more open, more inviting, more full of possibilities. Before, the opener was precarious, little room for error, setting the tone for the ball striking gauntlet to come. The current staggering of the bunkers on the right with the fairway tilting from right to left, both shots are strategic with a lot of different areas to attack from. And since you asked, yes, yes of course I ended up in that deep coffin bunker, against all odds. It was as much as fun as imagined.
The Second. Trees on the right off the tee are gone. Along that right side is the sharp mounding seen throughout. An entirely different kind of hazard that could result in just about a billion different lies and recoveries, they’re spectacularly distinct in how they penalize. The green complex is wider, the bunker on the right side gone and the left bunker moved out a bit. The bounce and roll near the green was a great sight and the punch shot was the deadly weapon I always knew it would be some day.
The Third. Less trees on the left now and bunkers staggered on the right, again suggesting some strategic decisions off the tee, wanting to favor that right side but having to consider when mounding or a bunker will ruin the best laid plans, which of course are always paved with good intentions. At the green, the right side bunker was removed while the left side bunker enlarged. Decisions on sides is now at hand, and which miss can you live with more. The rear of the green is also larger, so get aggressive on that approach.
The Fourth. Quite simply, this is one of my favorite par 3’s in the area and I remained interested what would happen to it. The bunker walls show different, more stoic and structured, while the cart path that crossed the hole for some reason is now thankfully gone. But the change I was hoping for came through, which was widening the entry point and placing more emphasis on the right to left movement of the green. The bunker on the right becomes much more attractive and dangerous at the same time, yet those that are able to land near it on the high side of the green will see their ball move towards the center of the green, hopefully closer to the pin. The banking and sloping around the green is now a lot sharper as opposed to the gradual slopes before. Improvements at all the right places.
The Eighth. After crossing the road and seeing the holes that have yet to undergo revisions, the next three offer another look at the new work. Schneider drew inspiration from the Sixth at West Sussex here. The tee boxes were shifted to the right, away from the cart path and bringing the water more into play off the tee. The fairway leading up to the green was widened to the creek on the right side, intrinsically bringing it into play a bit more. The creek risk continues with the entry point to the green more off to the right, yet wider than before, the tiers shelved right in front of you. Mind the rear bunker, which is between the green and the Ninth tee and can be considered purgatory, for the scorecard or match at least. The new angles into the green are a great change, adding more strategy and variety of acceptable shots.
The Ninth. One change that seems more practical yet takes away some of the quirk was the re-positioning of the tees so they face the fairway head on. Before, the tees were angled to the tree line on the right. Hugh Wilson, among others, were known for positioning tees towards hazards or out of bounds so the golfer would need to heighten their awareness and adjust accordingly. It is a tougher tee shot so perhaps the positioning helps but I liked the temptation presented to try and draw the tee shot towards the tree line and have it come back. At any rate, near the green is now staggered in how bunkers and mounding were placed as you get closer to the green. This widens areas near the green yet provides a bit more defense on each side, especially for those trying to reach the green in two. I also noticed the joy of firm and fast as I was able to maneuver my ball from the rough and have it bound from the lower apron to the green, only to see it settle off the other side. I like the green complex more now. The staggering and the, “side selection” are good fun, just the right place for these conditions and engaging an entirely different dimension of the game.
The Tenth. A narrow tee corridor is now friendlier with the removal of the bunkers on either side, the trees enough challenge for those wayward off the tee. At the green, however, received the most change. A much wider green now, the greenside bunkers on either side reduced, now sits on a plateau of sorts, with two distinct levels, one before the green, then a wall of grass, before the green. Shots short of the green now come into many different scenarios, whereas before their fate was almost certain to be sandy. The approach is decidedly more inviting yet deceptive since some places on that green are going to be trickier recoveries than if you ended up in the one of the large bunkers that used to reside here.
The Seventeenth. The closing sequence includes this penultimate short par 3. The hole was originally modeled off of the Fifth at the Kings Course at Gleneagles. The tee moved towards the creek creating a better visual, more mounding off to the left, the front bunkering also changed to now become more natural looking rather than the three symmetrical ovals from before. And the path was reconfigured to take it out of view. Some great aesthetic changes and along with more room at the rear side, it still plays great, very much in line with what you encounter at a volcano green, which I can’t begin to talk about how fond of those I am.
The Eighteenth. A great finisher, some widening and shifting of the tee did well to consider playing towards the tree in the fairway so you can access a friendlier and wider sloping into the green off to the right (sans a bunker on that side, or at least moved to the left more). It’s amazing how many more options now become realistic and capable of pulling off.