6,608 yards, 134 Slope from the Black tees
St. Davids Golf Club is in Wayne, PA, adjacent to the Valley Forge Military Academy and resides within the relaxed woodsy backroads of the Philadelphia Main Line. True story, the closest I’ve come to drowning in a car is a mere minute or two away, when I almost decided to drive over a bridge where the creek’s water was surging up and over it. I turned around at the last minute. With water that would have been above my side windows, discretion over valor won the day. The club was established in 1897, but the course was designed by Donald Ross in 1927. On deceptively hilly terrain that is wide and expansive for the most part, the terrain and its interaction with the bunkers and greens is the essence of the design. Very few forced carries, very few water hazards, very few imposing corridors, the slopes, bunker placement and shaping are simplistic in presentation yet effective and brilliant. In many ways, Donald Ross did that so well on several of his courses. The routing provided the framework for him and his team to work on subtleties that heaped layers and layers of complexity, yet presented tasteful and dignified.
Here, the course is in line with this. Like a savvy old gentleman, the course rarely intimidates but charms while placing the challenge right under you. I’ve always said Ross was a master of subtle challenge. You seldom if ever look to the course for your misgivings but instead, are certain that it was simply a lapse in judgment on your part. Chuckling to yourself, you can’t wait to get back out in better form and then, will turn in the round you know you should. Except it never comes. You may change your clubs, change your playing partners, change the time of day you play, but never think to look to the course, which has been slyly grinning at you the whole time.
St. Davids is intertwined and part of the rich history of the Golden Age Philadelphia golf scene. The land was purchased from longstanding and prestigious St. Luke’s School as well as an adjoining farm. Ross designed the course prior to the St. Luke’s purchase and had the clubhouse at the farmhouse on that property, but Frank Mahan was construction superintendent and implemented several changes, as did some of the club’s members. The clubhouse was moved to the main school building on the St. Luke’s property. Amazingly, the course has not changed much in length, opening at 6,484 yards (now 6,608). The course was also the stage for several tournaments where the Philadelphia School set would compete, the likes of Hugh Wilson and George Crump among them. Sequencing of holes changed through the years as a new clubhouse was built, the Ninth became a long par 3 at the suggestion of A.W. Tillinghast, and more recently, Brian Silva performed renovation work, re-working and adding bunkers, greens and tees. Ron Prichard, a Ross restoration specialist and legendary restoration figure, started restoring Ross features here in 2005. This work included re-working the Seventeenth and Eighteenth to include a driving range, yet also restored much of the Ross from his plans that had been changed many times over through the years. But the Ninth remained a par 3 as suggested by Tilly. The work was completed in 2008. The Ross character familiar to me here was likely due to Prichard.
The Pennsylvania Railroad was very much the foundation of the Main Line ( hence the namesake), which developed as a countryside respite from Philadelphia proper. The affluent had their estates out in that area and along with it, the golf clubs among them were formed and accompanying courses built. Ross was involved in several of them, including St. Davids (1927), Gulph Mills (1916), Aroniminck (1928), Overbrook (1919), Pennsylvania Railroad Country Club (1928 – now Chester Valley); and just outside the Main Line yet in the Philadelphia area – Jeffersonville (1931), LuLu (1909, second nine 1919), Frankford-Torresdale (1919), Flourtown (1919) and Kennett Square (1923/36). He also remodeled a number of others. As the railroad continued to grow and along with it, the Philadelphia area as well as the character of the Philadelphia golf scene, the influence of Ross on our area is pervasive. Amongst the quiet, shaded, rolling, traces of a creek or two quietly and softly running some where landscape, St. Davids is representative of that influence in its own discerning way. Idyllic in its setting, vivacious in its play.
The First is a 385 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). A blind tee shot to a fairway that dog legs left. Off the top of my head, I can think of two courses with a blind opener (Desert Forest and Somerset Hills). The aura of anticipation increases for those playing the course for the first time. Once the crest is reached and green in view, it’s inviting mostly on the right while the left is riskier. Another trait that is seen on the First; how well below ground hazards are used. The bunker on the left is below the fairway, which changes the visual and at times camouflages the hazard. That’s the case here as the bunker is fairly hidden.
The Second is a 445 yard par 4. This tee shot is wide open with bunkers infringing on the left a couple times, once just off the tee and then again closer to the green. The steeple is a good aiming point. Greenside bunkers are on each side near the front. A longer par 4 that offers enough width to take the line you prefer, trees remain in the background to take care of the really abhorrent shots.
The Third is a 349 yard par 4. A slight dog leg right, bunkers well contain the fairway but their placement suggest the left side, flirting with the larger bunker on that side. All below surface level. The green is even more well covered with bunkers, two on each side, and with the up and over movement of the green, is the most treacherous you face up until this point in the round. A great hole with its bunker placement and visuals.
The Fourth is a 372 yard par 4. A dog leg left leading downhill, the very opposite of its predecssor. Bunkers on either side crowd the turn yet those who manage to find the fairway from the tee are rewarded with the downhill fairway rolling towards the green. The fairway leads right into the green, with the far side ending abruptly and its movement strongly from right to left. Yet another great hole and with four par 4’s in a row, all sufficiently varying based on the terrain.
The Fifth is a 428 yard par 4. Crossing the entrance road, the terrain begins to heave a bit more. A well elevated tee shot to a fairway that climbs uphill and turns right to the green. Bunkers short of the fairway is something we’ve seen these past few holes, which some times affects visuals and almost always affects the tee shot. A little extra vigor registers in an effort to ensure the bunkers are cleared. The fairway proceeds with bunkers encroaching from this side and that until reaching the large terraced green with a short grass ramp before it. A long par 4 that’s even longer with the elevation. The left side seems to be the easy target from the tee, but consider the longer approach you’ll have from that side.
The Sixth is a 148 yard par 3. The streak of par 4’s is finally broken but with their diversity, you hardly notice. This is the short par 3, which Ross usually included at least one. The green is slightly raised with the sides built up around it and bunkers below. The green is well sized and with plenty of room to miss, take this opportunity to score before continuing the battle with the hills that lies ahead.
The Seventh is a 464 yard par 4. Encountering water for the first time off to the left that’s in play off the tee. Similar to the Fifth in that both are elevated tee shots that then dog leg and climb uphill, the Seventh turns left instead of right and the climb is much steeper, making it an even longer par 4. With the water on the left, steering to the right of it means an even longer approach. Bunkers on the right, then left, once again encroaching on the fairway width to a green that’s much smaller than most. A tough hole demanding a long and precise approach.
The Eighth is a 490 yard par 5. The first par 5 of the round has us at the top of the valley, next to the Fifth tee. A similar tee shot, fairway direction and even bunker placement off the tee to the Fifth, you now have an extra shot to set up your approach to the green, which sits higher up and is a forced carry from the fairway, rough and bunkers separating the two. The closer you get to the green, the more blind it becomes, so you trade off proximity for vision, the decision is yours. The grene is large so I’ll take proximity, yet the green size is big enough for those long enough to consider going for it in two since even off green is fairly generous.
The Ninth is a 232 yard par 3. A longer downhill tee shot that requires a lot more than simply belting away. The green banks off steeply on the left and back with bunkers on both left and right towards the front. A nice end to the front nine and Tilly’s suggestion a good one.
The front nine starts at some of the flatter parts of the course before working in some of the hilliest. The beginning streak of par 4’s are all well distinguished that by the time you get to the par 3 Sixth, you hardly realize the change. The Eighth and Ninth are a great crescendo. I’d rank them 9, 3, 8, 1, 4, 7, 2, 5, 6.
The back nine starts with the 177 yard par 3 Tenth. Back to back par 3’s. This one leads uphill with well concealed bunkers on both sides and lots of area leading up to the green. The green is semi-blind and while it’s generous, anything off green is likely to be trouble.
The Eleventh is a 545 yard par 5. We now cross Upper Gulph Road where most of the back nine resides, through the Sixteenth. A downhill par 5 where trees tighten a narrower fairway that widens closer to the green. A great decision on the approach awaits; whether to use the ground to bounce and roll the ball on or fly it. Just bear in mind the green runs away from you to the left and shots that go off the far side will face a tricky recovery back on to the green. A great location for a green using the continuous downslope.
The Twelfth is a 455 yard par 4. A blind tee shot to a fairway that drops downhill and keeps plummeting to the bottom of the hill, which rises in rough and bunkers with the green resting on top. The approach is likely a downhill lie that needs to carry the bottom of the fairway and hill to reach the green, which is set in a semi punch bowl with the back half sloping down towards it and the green running from back to front. A thrilling approach and with the downhill lie to contend with, anything that doesn’t hit the green will be a touchy recovery.
The Thirteenth is a 420 yard par 4. A much different tee shot here because the fairway turns at almost 90 degrees left, so eitheer turning the ball right to left or at least getting the tee shot to clear the trees yet remain on the fairway is the challenge off the tee. The savviness I spoke of is with the lies in many instances, which comes from the terrain. Here is a great example, with the fairway sloping right to left, towards a small creek off the left side, leaving the ball above your feet on the approach. The approach is yet another terrific one, the green slightly above you and the bunkers hidden, with the entire left side of the green covered. Favoring the higher right side is a good idea, but it becomes necessary to carry the bunkers on that side and hit it a little farther than to the front or center.
The Fourteenth is a 165 yard par 3. Without knowing it all that much, we have looped around the outside of the property on this side of Upper Gulph Road. The Fourteenth completes the loop, playing uphill to the green, the road beyond. The green is blind with bunkers covering the front, urging the player to rip roar at it, but the rear half of the green starts to slope off the back side. Favor the right side and try for the front half, at least that’s the safest spot I can think of.
The Fifteenth is a 451 yard par 4. Using the hillside of the Thirteenth, the fairway tilts from left to right, emphatically. Moreover, the fairway drops below a ridge and runs straight to the green, so the ground game is likely more important yet fun here than most on the course. Aiming as far left off the tee as the tree on that side is not a bad idea, as the ball will roll a lot once it lands and even tee shots hitting the center of the fairway risk going off into the rough on the right. The entry point of the green is off to the left, so approaches from that side are better, while those off to the right must take on the front bunker. The green likewise moves left to right, with bunkers on each side of the green, banking down into them abruptly. Mind the green movement as well or those banks will greedily take your ball to the bunkers. One of if not my favorite holes on the course.
The Sixteenth is a 504 yard par 5. A longer par 5 Ross typically worked into his courses is here. For once, the subtle challenge of the course breaks form and is much more straight forward about it. All uphill, all shots except the second are blind and playing much longer than the +500 yards stated. The first matter at hand is negotiating the bunkers on the left and while the right looks open, there are bunkers on that side a little further up. So, going for the center, or carrying the bunkers on the left altogether, are the plays off the tee. The fairway continues upwwards, another set of bunkers on either side further up, short of the green. The green sits high above at the top of the hill, bunkers and steep slopes beneath it. Get on the green, friend. Any shot below the green will be a balancing act and even if you’re a little far off, at least you’re level with the green. A fantastic par 5.
The Seventeenth is a 184 yard par 3. We now cross back over Upper Gulph. Unfortunately, the Sixteenth feels like the high point of the round whereas the last two holes feel like an after thought. The changes from the driving range contribute to this but as it stands, the round isn’t over and the holes can show some teeth is your attention wanes. Here, a longer par 3 to a smaller green with a larger bunker (and a second one) on the left, the most manageable miss is short.
The Eighteenth is a 394 yard par 4. A dog leg right with trees on both sides that runs parallel with the driving range, the main feature is a bunker on the right that collects overambitious tee shots and makes approach shots on that side aerial. Staying on the left side off the tee allows an approach on the ground if desired. The green sits on a terrace with anything past it rolling well below. A finesse finisher, mind over muscle wins the day here.
The back nine is a bit more dramatic and volatile, juxtaposing nicely with the front. My ranking is 15, 16, 11, 13, 12, 18, 14, 10, 17.
Generally, St. Davids is a classic traditional challenge that remains fresh by relying on the land for its cues. Deception over intimidation, management over braun, experience over daring, the course favors a cool head that negotiates his ball on the terrain, avoiding the dangerous areas through a combination of cunning and experience. Subtlety is most shrewdly exhibited at the greens, which are large and their secondary movements are not immediately apparent. By secondary, I mean some of them show a main tilt or direction movement but that does not account for the entire green. Those areas are difficult to discern and account for the complexity here. The traditional presentation and how it played beyond it were fascinating, as was the setting, particularly the elevation changes and expansiveness. I was expecting a tighter parkland layout more reliant on trees but instead, was pleasantly surprised with its openness and ground based design. My host was great to play with and the other members I know or have interacted with are likewise genteel. Certainly understandable having such a charming course to call their home.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Nice and understated. Surrounded by view of the course, as it should be.
Practice area: A smaller range and I believe a chipping area, as well as a putting green.