Huntsville Golf Club

6,484 yards, 134 slope from the Greens

Course:  Tangentially near Wilkes Barre in Lehman, Pennsylvania (generally a couple hours north west of Philadelphia) is Huntsville Golf Club.  Opening in 1994 and designed by Rees Jones, Huntsville was built in the era where a barrage of new golf courses were opening across the country.  While a lot of these new courses at that time centered around housing and real estate development, Huntsville did not.  The club focused on golf, leaving the surroundings untouched.  The hilly terrain makes its way through wooded areas, meadows, ponds and ridges, where play fluctuates between strategic and heroic.  Rees incorporates the ground game as well, which breaks away from the typical forced carry aerial game that was prevalent at the time.  Using the contours and slopes off the tee and near the green, there are several holes opening up an entirely separate array of shots.  In these ways, Huntsville set itself apart and along with some other notable courses opening at the time, started a trend of moving back towards embracing the natural environment and incorporating it into the design.

There are critics of Rees Jones, along with his brother and father, who focus on their popularity for decades as a dark era for golf course architecture.  I disagree with this completely.  While I get into this a lot more in my LedgeRock review, there is no denying the talent and influential impact the Joneses have and have had had on golf course design.  RTJ2 with Chambers Bay and Jackson Hole, and Rees with courses like Huntsville are representations of their influence on the movement towards a more naturalist style that is popular currently.  The impact Huntsville had on this is evident, as it was ranked as the second best new private course by Golf Digest and as high as number 5 in best courses in Pennsylvania (behind stalwarts Merion, Oakmont, Aronomink and Laurel Valley).  It most recently hosted a U.S. Open Qualifier in 2016.

The course features a number of risk/reward shots, elevation changes and elaborate bunkering.  Rees has always rewarded accuracy by allowing straight shots to the center of the fairway to stay comfortable.  There are a few bold choices here, like the small fairway at the bottom of a ravine at the par 5 Fourteenth and a lot of the bunkering, like at the Eleventh and Thirteenth, which I think give the course some identity and memorable points.  The course is fun and allows chances of recovery more than penalizing.  With its surrounding environs, it’s tough not to walk off the Eighteenth feeling refreshed, as the journey through the northeast Pennsylvania forest is a good one.

Being a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, I loved the design of the clubhouse and locker room as well.  It fits in and compliments the course so nicely that it’s worth mentioning as one of my favorite features here.

I happened to play Huntsville on one of the coldest days last October.  Conditions were good, just cold.  I guess the benefit was we had the course to ourselves, which added to the fantastic seclusion of playing in the area.  The wind was up as well, which added to the cold, but the sun was shining, so determined to finally play a round here and with already making the drive, we were undeterred.

The First is a 482 yard par 5 (from the Greens).  Starting things off is a dog leg right with sunken bunkers on either side and mounding that you’ll see throughout the round.  The fairway climbs uphill to the green, with a Biarritz between the second and third shot.  Pin position dictates the ideal approach position, but the green uphill to the fairway and moves from back to front, with both rear sides kind of funneling to the center and the entire green arcing around a green side bunker on the right.  That bunker actually runs alongside a good part of the right side of the fairway as well.  These long parallel bunkers to the fairway reminded me of Pete Dye, who has a number of course utilizing them.  Rees likes his bunkers deep and Huntsville is no exception.  Make sure your bunker game is in point; you will likely be in more than a few.  The other thing we see here is a run up to the green from the fairway.  While bunkers are generally below and off to the sides, you’re more than welcome to use the ground to the green if you so choose.  With the wind up when we were playing, I took advantage of that with reckless abandon.

The First

Moving down the fairway

The green moves from back to front and left to front, arcing around that bunker on the left

Looking back at the fairway

The Second is a 329 yard par 4.  The tee is way up above the fairway on this shorter dog leg left.  Driver may be too much if you’re going straight out, so either shape it left or take something less off the tee.  The tee shot really dictates the rest of the hole.  A well hit shot on the fairway is rewarded with a shorter approach into the green.  Those that struggle off the tee will have their work cut out for them out of the rough, out of bunkers or out of dense woods, provided the ball can be found.  The green is smaller, commensurate with the shorter shot into it.  This hole has been regarded as one of the best in the area.  The tee shot is a lot of fun and the approach short enough to go a lot of ways with, so I can see the accolades.

The Second
A little closer 

Approach shot territory

Looking back at the tee to get a sense of how high it is

The Third is a 143 yard par 3.  The first par 3 of the course is a carry over a wide bunker complex stretching off to the right.  The green is fairly wide, moving from back to front.  There is bail out room on the short left if you want it, but distance control is a necessity here to land on the green.  Also note the smaller bunkers a little further up the hill to the green.  Those are tough to get out of!

The Third

The Fourth is a 320 yard par 4.  Another shorter par 4 where you can take off as much as you want off the tee.  Those that cut off too much will end up in the bunker on the right side, well below the bunker, creating a difficult shot into the green.  The green is almost perpendicular to the fairway, so there are plenty of spots on the fairway that set up well for the approach.  Once again, the tee shot is vital in taking advantage of its shorter distance.  Accuracy is much more important here than distance.

The Fourth

Approach shot territory

Right side off green

The Fifth is a 153 yard par 3.  An uphill par 3 where a long narrow bunker runs along the right side.  The green undulates well and while it tilts into the hillside on the left, the hillside still tends to push balls left to right.  The offline miss continues to be put in tough positions.

Unlike many Rees courses I have played, the miss off the rear side of the green is usually not punished with impunity.  Maybe he forgot.

The Fifth

Looking back at the tee

The Sixth is a 414 yard par 4.  This slight dog leg right is uphill to the green.  The tee shot is a carry over rough and a ravine, with all bunkers on this hole to the right.  The fairway cants to the right, so this makes sense.  The fairway narrows after it’s done turning and the approach will be longer than the yardage because of the incline.  The right front side of the green has bunkers and is well below the green while the left side runs up to it from the fairway.  I thought this hole was tough, then I saw it’s the number one handicapped.  Likely because forgiveness is much less here than other holes and two very good shots are needed to reach the green.

The Sixth

Approach shot territory

A little closer

Almost to the green

The Seventh is a 394 yard par 4.  The tee shot starts off tight but opens up where most shots will end up.  The fairway bends a touch to the right, with a series of bunkers on the left.  The fairway leads up to the green, but narrows once bunkers start coming in below level.  The green is on the larger side and the fairway leads up to it, so pick your line and get it up there to get the flagstick out.  A nice scenic green and point of the course.

The Seventh

Approach shot territory

A little closer, from the right side

The extreme right side.  Water for those shots half a mile off line

The Eighth is a 409 yard par 4.  Lots of room for the tee shot on the dog leg right.  Off fairway is mainly rough and mounding, with trees lining both sides of the fairway.  Similar to the Seventh, the fairway runs into the green, with the sides running into rough and bunkers below.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory

A little closer

Looking back from green

Off fairway mounding

The Ninth is a 522 yard par 5.  The tee shot is above the fairway, which runs downhill to the green and turns left around an elaborate bunker complex on the left.  Getting past the turn off the tee means you have two shots straight down to the green.  You could go for the green in two if you’d like but the fairway tightens up as you get closer to the green.  Bunkers sit below the green on either side, with the bunkers on the right much longer and branching it out to the right.  This is one of the greens where going long will be a very tough draw.  One of my favorite approach shots and greens here, with the mountains in the background and a very punchbowl feel to it, it’s a nice flowing hole.

The Ninth
Moving down the fairway 
Approach shot territory

The front nine loops around the south side of the property, rising and falling through the forest and meadows.  The par 5’s are great plays while the par 4’s are a nice collection.  I’d rank them 9, 7, 6, 1, 2, 4, 5, 3, 8.

Even though we were the only ones on the course (or one of the only groups), the halfway house stayed open for us and we were able to warm up a bit with some pretty good darn chili.  With chili and gatorade in hand, we made the turn.

The back nine starts with the 394 yard par 4 Tenth.  The fairway tilts from right to left, with a longer bunker on the left side to collect shots either hit, bounced or rolled into it.  The fairway dips and tightens as you advance to the green, with a more simplistic bunker placement of one on the left low side, the other on the high right.  Placement off the tee is vital while the approach needs to exercise distance control above all else.  Note that the right bunker means you’re hitting to a green running away from you, directly into the bunker on that side, so favoring the left is my play.

The Tenth

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 409 yard par 4.  Ok I’ll admit it, I was a bit confused off the tee here.  There are a total of twelve different tees here, there’s a wall running across the line from the tee to the (right) fairway and there’s a fairway to the left.  I thought it was an optional fairway for the hole while my playing partner thought it was a different hole altogether.  It appears the left fairway is an alternate route to the green while the right is a longer carry but a more direct route to the green.  Either way, the green is off to the left of the tee.  The left fairway is a shorter, more conservative tee shot, but then the approach is to an uphill green that must carry a native area and the left green side bunkers.  The right fairway is a tougher tee shot, but the approach is more level, from a better angle.  Take your pick and know that the approach must be exact to avoid bunkers, or a tricky lie from the rough, probably on a hill.  Lots of fun here.

The Eleventh

A look to the left, to the second fairway

The right fairway

Moving up, near the left side

A little closer

The Twelfth is a 503 yard par 5.  The fairway starts straight out, moving right to left.  There’s a sunken bunker at the start of the fairway on the left, then water.  The green is on the far side of the water, goading you at every shot to carry the water and land on the green.  A smarter play is to keep moving down the fairway, until the green is directly to the left, taking the water out of play and leaving you with a shorter third shot into the green.  The temptation to go for the green, especially when it looks so close, is strong.

The Twelfth

A look at where the hole is with respect to the tee area

The green, from the left side

The Thirteenth is a 410 yard par 4.  The tee shot is to the fairway below, which seems to bend left but is more straight than it seems.  The tees are set to the left of the fairway, which brings the bunker complex on the left in play more, even feeling like it encroaches into the center the fairway.  There is a wide part of the fairway and utilizing it off the tee is a good idea to avoid the bunkers on either side, both of which are treacherous.  The fairway then narrows leading up to the larger green, but the hillside and angles make you favor the right side, where the lower bunker below the fairway and green presents a tough recovery shot.  It’s a great hole, using the pull of the terrain effectively.

The Thirteenth

Approach shot territory

Looking back at the fairway 

The Fourteenth is a 485 yard par 5.  The tee shot is easy enough; to a nice wide, albeit crowned fairway, but a nice placement in the center of the fairway is important to figure out the next shot.  The green is straight away, but on the other side of a ravine on the right side.  There is a small fairway at the bottom of the ravine and if done correctly, leaves a short shot uphill to the green.  The green can be reached on the second shot by longer hitters while those more confident with their irons can utilize the ravine.  There is also a left fairway, but a gathering of trees in the middle makes you consider cutting over short or carrying the trees for a shorter shot into the green from that side.  Options abound here and like most of the holes, it all starts with a solid tee shot.

The Fourteenth 

At the end of the fairway, do you go left or right?
The green, from the left side

Looking back

The Fifteenth is a 177 yard par 3.  Fairly wide open here, but the green is a tough one, with various undulations and bumps.  Bunkers on either side, with left low and right level with the green.  After the tough stretch from the Eleventh through Fourteenth, the Fifteenth is a good hole to put a good swing on the ball, choose your flight, land on the green and make a run at birdie.

The Fifteenth

A closer look

The Sixteenth is a 366 yard par 4.  With the tees set on the left, this is another hole that feels like a gentle dog leg in that direction, but is actually a rather straight hole, where the fairway constricts and expands in places.  The fairway also slopes from right to left and as we’ve seen, there’s usually a hazard on the low side waiting for those shots not accounting for the movement.  The green also moves from right to left and is tucked behind a hillside just a touch, making an approach from the left side a bit more preferable.  I really enjoyed this hole, again utilizing the pull of the terrain very well, and the green was a fun one.

The Sixteenth

Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is a 159 yard par 3.  The fairway is below the tee and it’s a forced carry over some long grass, yet there is plenty of room short.  Bunkers infiltrate either side before the hole and the green is very wide.  Straight, even if short, is the way to go.  Offline shots on the other hand, well, it gets hairy in a hurry.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 415 yard par 4.  The fairway shoots straight out from the tee.  It’s on the narrow side and there are trees on either side, along with a parallel bunker on the left.  In terms of a match play hole, those that are steady with their swing and stay under control will prevail, as there is no room for disarray.  Even the green is a modest size, yet there is more forgiveness near the green than the fairway, so plan accordingly.  The awesome clubhouse awaits in the background.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The clubhouse beyond
Looking back

The back nine is more spread out and covers around the east side of the property.  It sets itself apart more than the front, with the par 5’s great and par 4’s having a nice range of diversity in play.  My ranking would be 16, 10, 11, 13, 14, 12, 18, 15, 17.

Generally, Huntsville GC is simplistic in its design by mostly relying on the terrain for movement while going down instead of up with bunker formation and placement.  There is strategy, there is risk reward and there are heroic shots that keep the round engaging and exciting.  The scenery enhances the round as you’re secluded within it most of the time.  I thought the course flowed very well, with the fairways oftentimes rolling into the hazards and leading up to the greens.  At the time it opened, I could see it being a little different than the norm, where forced carries and the aerial game was all the rage and any scenery was more framed than incorporated into play.  I thought the par 3’s could have been a little stronger, although there seemed to be an emphasis on the greens playing tougher on them.  Overall, it’s a very strong course that is subtle in its challenge while its beauty is fairly evident.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop:  The architecture is well done, although from the parking lot it didn’t look like much at first blush.  A large pro shop and indoor/outdoor area off the Eighteenth green lends itself to continuing to enjoy the peace and quiet of the round afterwards.

Locker room

 Practice area:  Fairly comprehensive, with a range, short game area and putting green.

   

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