6,237 yards, 135 slope from the Back tees
Course: The Seth Raynor masterpiece sits in pastoral suburban Northeast Pittsburgh and opened for play in 1923. Brian Silva restored several of its features in the 1990’s and today, it presents as grand and bold, showing just how splendid golf can get. The template features are vibrant, seemingly living breathing auras resting among the hillsides of devilishly carved bunkers all feeding into greens that range in character from brilliantly sophisticated to boisterous joy. Here lies challenge and fun at its finest chord, with the fun being in the challenge itself. Indeed, Fox Chapel does very well in showing that a shorter course can be every bit or even more of a handful than pronounced length by emphasizing variety; varying shots at each hole, varying the greens and varying the terrain. Each approach shot set itself apart from the prior, the bold templates were routed magnificently throughout the round and the terrain provided everything from the bouncing bounding rolling shots downhill to the sweeping climbing strong shots above. We speak of course identity, or at least I do, which goes in large part to what the course evokes in the golfer during the round and the experience the golfer can attest to at the end of it all, and how unique that experience is at that particular course. Along these lines, the identity of Fox Chapel is very impressive.
The course is widely celebrated as one of Raynor’s better designs and is held in high regard. It recently hosted a Champion’s Tour event, showcasing the course on national television and receiving accolades from several players. The length is on the shorter side, which once again shows that there are several more interesting ways to challenge professionals and provide entertaining golf and holds interest from every skill level. A shining classic that highlights the strong suits of template holes, Fox Chapel is one of those course where you drop everything if you have a chance to play.
My first chance to play was towards the end of last season, but the forecast turned out to make golf untenable and fortunately, was able to reschedule at the height of summer this year. With a couple terrific caddies, we set out on the great Seth Raynor experience.
UPDATE, 2021: In June 2021, I had a chance to play the course after it underwent restoration work by Tom Marzolf of Fazio’s firm to capture more of its original Raynor design, which included restoring lost bunkers (including Spectacle Bunkers and the Lion’s Mouth), eliminating non-original bunkers, restoring greens to their original size and shape, bunkers to their original geometric shapes, as well as even restoring finer details such as the grading of the bunker faces to their original gradual slopes. There is now more of a gentle transition from fairway and green to bunker, which accommodates the re-working of the fairway lines to bring the bunkers more into focus and play, especially from the tee. The bunker faces used to be much steeper, assuring any ball within the vicinity would fall straight into the sound. Now, the bunker is much more inclined to rest some on those faces, bringing a delightful degree of randomness and variety. Forward tees have been installed, as well as more rear, including at the Eleventh and Fifteenth. What I’ve always found to be a remarkable course is so very much more so with the recent work. The attention to detail is impressive and the restored features bring out a lot more layers of strategy and sophistication. The round felt a bit cleaner, refined in its presentation. As some where I enjoyed playing before this work, it is now some where to praise for its pure classic genius.
It should be noted that the club faces strict regulations and limitations with respect to tree removal. Each tree that is removed must go through a painstaking approval process and must then be replaced some where else on the property. While they were able to accomplish the tree work they wanted in some spots, it’s ongoing.
This restoration is pure and strict. The intent was to return the course back as much as possible to the Raynor design. While this is either not possible, worthwhile or sensible for many courses, it certainly was all of those for Fox Chapel and is one of the better restorations I have come across, exhibiting the classic brilliance of Raynor.
Fox Chapel is now a better course because of the work, showing what careful study and attention to detail can do, especially when the mission of the work is restorative in nature for the amateur golfer, as opposed to an attempt to get back in the rota of PGA tournament consideration.
Updated photos are below, with commentary.
The First is a 382 yard par 4 (from the Back tees). The “Away” hole. Starting directly below the clubhouse, this slight dog leg right rolls on down to the green with slender bunkers on both sides of the fairway. The fairway feeds into the large green, which moves from left to right, with bunkers lining the entirety of its sides. The speed of the greens was startling as I saw my ball land short and moves almost off the far side but placement and angles become vital to scoring well. All photos of this hole are from 2021.
The Second is a 460 yard par 5. The “Punch Bowl” hole. Crossing over Fox Chapel Road, if we got our lesson about the greens on the First, we get out lesson about the terrain here. The twisting, sensational terrain. The tee shot is to a fairway moving upwards, with bunkers on each side right around the landing area and it’s not just a matter of hitting it straight to avoid them. The hillside pulls forcefully to the right, so it must be taken into account if you try to move your ball between the bunkers as opposed to over or short of them. The fairway then leads up to the left, even though the hillside continues to insist on moving you down to the right. The more left you are, the clearer path to the green, while the more right, the more you need to deal with mounds and bunkers, as well as a blind approach. Reaching the green is nirvana itself and I enjoyed watching my putts flock downwards, where fortunately the pin was.
Spectacle bunkers were returned here and the restored mowing lines were notable. The graduality of the bunker faces really stood out here, so that when a ball begins to move from left to right on the fairway and catches a bunker, there are over a dozen different lies it could take on, as opposed to moving straight to the sand as before. This gives the golfer a measured degree of recovery depending on the severity the tee shot is missed. For those who didn’t miss that much, the ball will likely come into the bunker face slower and reward that shot with an easier lie above the sand.
The Third is a 159 yard par 3. The “Eden” hole. Raynor’s attention to detail and variety is impressive. Each par 3 is situated differently so that wind direction and distance are all distinct from the other. Finally pulled myself together and had a great swing here, but it ended up in the of the rear bunkers in an awfully awkward lie. There are seven bunkers guarding this green, along with water that much be carried. The green moves towards the water, alarmingly. I managed a recovery that stayed on the green that I think the caddies were geniunely impressed with, or they are much better actors than I give them credit for. The first of a memorable collection of template par 3’s and this might be my favorite Eden.
The Fourth is a 434 yard par 4. The “Long” hole. A bit of a forced carry to the fairway, which now is sloping to the left. The fairway bunkers on either side are symmetrically positioned, then fairway spills over after them to the green. The green sits above the fairway, which I felt was great for a nice bump and run when my approach ended up short. The slope of the fairway will affect the ball flight as well and challenging the green from the approach means bringing the greenside bunkers in play, which the hillside also complicates.
The restoration focused on returning this hole to its Road hole template. This included installing the spectacle bunkers in the fairway as well as reformatting the green so pins on the upper rear side could be used, thereby giving the hole its intended challenge of the Road hole green, impacting the angles and ideal lines of play.
The Fifth is a 324 yard par 4. The “Cape” hole. The tee shot must carry Glade Run and the left side means a shorter approach to a very touchy green. Those trying to play it safe off to the right will need to mind the three fairway bunkers on the right. And the fairway cants left, towards Glade Run. A tee shot safe on the fairway then needs to deal with a difficult approach to an uphill green that tilts right into the front bunkers and doesn’t look all that large from the fairway below. Very much a hole of finesse and placement, one of my most satisfying pars of the season.
The restoration ensured the creek asserted itself as the dominant feature of the Cape template off the tee while the bunkers were reconfigured so that the fairways were separated on the sides, converging to and around the center green side bunker. The green was returned to its four-leaf clover shape as well.
The Sixth is a 182 yard par 3. The “Redan” hole. This hole sticks out to me when I harken back to this round. What appears to be relatively flat ground, the Redan rises forth from the earth. Abrupt and defiant, daring you to go for any pin location off to the right. Left of the green might as well be quicksand, right there is a sliver of hope. The front entrypoint seems like the answer, but there are no promises, as the ball rolling away down the slope is a very real possibility. I’m not sure I’ve run into a Redan so challenging, yet so fun in its movement from left to right. If there’s anything you can be sure of here, it’s that movement, which should guide you well.
The Seventh is a 269 yard par 4. The “Alps” hole. Back over the road we go to this short par 4, whose green is hiding from us off to the right. Yes, hiding behind the Alps. Lots of places to go off the tee and while the right side seems as safe as any where, the left side and flirting with the bunkers leads to a clearer and better line to the green. Of course, there is going for the green off the tee, but there are a number of bunkers and long grass to deal with for the misses.
The Eighth is a 432 yard par 4. The “Plateau” hole. A slight bend to the right in the fairway is more pronounced with the tees placed off to the side on the right side of the creek. After the bend, the fairway ripples a bit before climbing to the plateau green. Trees line the right side while two larger bunkers are spaced out and placed on the left. The green moves from left to right, with a bunker well below the green on the right side. I don’t know which is worse; being in the chasm below the green or on the high left side, just hoping I don’t hit it into the chasm. Luckily, I made it to the green on the approach and had the luxury of pondering this malady rather than living it.
The Ninth is a 410 yard par 4. The “Dustpan” hole. Straightaway, with the fairway canting from right to left. Two bunkers on the right ensure that side is overly abused off the tee. The green moves in the opposite direction of the fairway, with its right sound hidden by mounding. The green seems to suggest an approach land at the entrypoint, or else things get risky with blind shots and all. Considering the lie and ball flight you’ll have coming in, front and short is fine by me.
The return of the Lions Mouth at the green is one of the more notable changes to the course. The width of the green is now realized and allows more pin positions, which accommodates the wider fairway lines and decisions which to make as to ideal angles into the green.
The front nine has an interesting set of par 4’s that range in distances and shots while the par 3’s are all world and the Punchbowl green capping off the thrilling par 5 fits in so well. The routing and the greens take the day above all else, for one of the great front nines. My ranking of them is 6, 3, 2, 8, 5, 1, 7, 4, 9.
The back nine starts with the 394 yard par 4 Tenth. The “Springhouse” hole. A wide fairway that leads downhill to a large green, with bunkers on both sides. This hole likely wins the award for wide, inviting fairway lulling you into a false sense of security before burying you alive with the green, which falls off towards the back left.
The Eleventh is a 138 yard par 3. The “Short” hole. While not based on anything concrete, I feel like the Short is typically on the front nine, at least of the courses I have played. This one comes at a great time, after a series of tough par 4’s. The beauty of Shorts is the hit it on the green or else mantra. Sure you’ll have a chance to recover, but the steep bank, narrowness of the bunker and surrounding rough can make things complicated pretty quickly. The green is well sized, making you feel even more incredulous when you’re hitting your second out of the bunker.
The change to a more gradual bunker face is most apparent here. The steepness from before is now replaced with that gentler slope, so when balls teasing on the sides of the green decided to start moving down, there’s a chance they will stay some along the face as opposed to simply dropping in the sand.
The Twelfth is a 321 yard par 4. The “Leven” hole. Levens challenge off the tee, typically there are hazards that must be carried or avoided for a clearer approach to the green and those deciding to shirk away from the challenge of the hazard will need to face a tougher approach. Here, the ideal approach is from the right side, but that means you need to carry/avoid the fairway bunker on the right. Those hedging to the left will have a blind approach to the green, another characteristic of Levens. While their greens have been described as moderately undulating, that is not the case here, as this green had more movement than many others and was quick as regret. The list of spectacular short par 4’s here continued to grow as we make our way through the round.
The Thirteenth is a 415 yard par 4. The “Corner” hole. A dog leg right that literally runs to the corner of the property. The fairway tilts from right to left, so the further right you go (so long as not in the trees), the slope will advance the ball forward whereas tee shots going left will stop in their tracks, leaving a much longer approach. The tee shot is mostly everything and if pulled off, the green is ahead with nothing to get in the way other than tepid swings.
The Fourteenth is a 380 yard par 4. “Rodgers Field.” Calbraith Rodgers was the first American pilot to fly across the continental United States. Rodgers Field was the first airport in Pittsburgh. Even Amelia Earhart even crash landed there. Yes the hole is located very close to where the airport once was. As for the hole, it’s straight but the cant of the fairway generates the interest, as does the green. Sunken bunkers surround the green but remain largely concealed until you’re right up on the green. The approach is much tougher than it looks at first blush, but once again, this is a primer on straight holes, or even many of them, and even a series of consecutive par 4’s, holding diversity of interest.
The tree work here on both sides is evident, as are the mowing lines.
The Fifteenth is a 365 yard par 4. The “Step” hole. Back towards the clubhouse we go, the fairway stepping down to Glade Run. It’s a forced carry over the creek, with the fairway moving at a good clip from left to right after it, towards the deep wrap around bunker on that side. A great green where going left away from the bunker gives you a tricky pitch into the green that runs towards it, while those over near the bunker actually have a better angle into the green.
The Sixteenth is a 412 yard par 4. “Raynor’s Prize.” The hole has a slight crook to the right, one fairway bunker on the left, followed by one on the right, then one on each side of the green running its length. The green is a little raised from the fairway and was moving very quick the day I played. I was informed by our caddies they were actually a touch slower than they usually are. Yikes. Such simplistic design yet holds an array of interest.
Another significant change here from the restoration reinstalled the center bunkers and returned this to its Bottle template. The longer the tee shot, the more appealing the left side becomes whereas those shorter shots will want to favor right of the bunkers.
The Seventeenth is a 223 yard par 3. The “Biarritz” hole. Things end with a bang with the last par 3, one of the biggest and baddest Biarritz greens out there. In fact, it’s the largest Biarritz green with the exception of Yale. A long shot, the green is immense, with two large bunkers on each side and lots of open space around the green. The green is able to handle any of the long tee shots thrown at it and of course the challenge is getting the ball on the side of the green with the pin. Even then it will be a challenge to get down in two and if you need to putt the length of the green, good luck. A bold design that brings a thrill to the dusk of the round.
The front bunker at the green has returned while another at the front left of the green. Usually able to lay up short and roll it one the green from there, that is no more. It is the green or nothing, although there is plenty of room to miss and recover from around the green.
The Eighteenth is a 537 yard par 5. “Glade Run.” The creek that has been with us off and on throughout the round rises to prominence on the last, running alongside the right of the fairway before crossing sides and creating a forced carry. A well hit tee shot makes things a lot easier, yet a recovery shot can get you back in position. The fairway meanders uphill to the clubhouse, the left side yelding a better line and view of the green. After getting over Glade Run, the fairway runs up to the green, which is joined with the practice green, on a higher tier. An exciting finish that makes you fight all the way until the final drop.
The back nine felt longer than the front, which it is by a little over 100 yards. The par 3’s are spectacular while the par 4’s ran the gamut of shots needed, showcasing the natural splendor of the land with a simple design format throughout. I would rank them 17, 12, 11, 18, 15, 10, 16, 13, 14.
Generally, Fox Chapel was one of the more notable Raynor courses that succeeds in its being. The identity of the place, much of it from the course design, rising to bold template features that strike to the very id of the golfer with their barbaric yawp , then falling to simple and subtle designs utilizing the terrain with cants and tilts, sharp bunkering and a fantastic set of greens. The diversity of short par 4’s is vital since there are a good amount of them in a row on the back nine, yet there’s not a shred of redundancy. While there are a good many template courses that try and simulate a links feel, Fox Chapel shows that parkland courses, even with trees, even when short in length, can have as much strategy and creativity as the links. This is templates done extraordinarily well. While I love the journey of learning this game and its design, having a great time on the course is not to be overlooked. Here, there is an infinite supply of both. A chapel indeed.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Really liked it. The men’s locker room is one to be emulated – a place where gentlemen congregate as long or they please in comfort.
Practice area: A driving range is set out in the middle of the course and the practice green is joined with the Eighteenth.