6,528 yards, 139 Slope from the Blues
Sunnybrook is in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb relatively close to me. Despite the proximity, I’ve never known much about the course. I’ve seen photos over at The Bausch Collection, which is an extensive photo portfolio of Philadelphia area courses, as well as destination courses, by Joseph Bausch. Joe is very involved in the effort to restore Cobb’s Creek and a wealth of knowledge on the history of Philadelphia golf. He also has an archive of old newspaper articles and publications that you could spend days going over. You can find the photo collection here, http://www.myphillygolf.com/gallery.asp and the archive here, http://www.myphillygolf.com/archives.asp. So other than seeing Joe’s photos, I really didn’t know too much about Sunnybrook. Fortunately, that changed last year and I’m much better off for it.
Sunnybrook was formed by a group that defected from Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1913 and included George C. Thomas. The original course was designed by Donald Ross in 1915 (yet another Philadelphia Ross course per my discussion in the St. Davids review), but was compromised in large part due to the construction of Route 309, so the club re-located to where it is now; the old William Disston farm. William Gordon and his son David designed the new/current course, which opened in 1956.
William Gordon’s path to golf design started as a seed salesman. Perhaps he was able to form relationships with the course architects with whom he dealt with but in any event, he began working with Flynn and Toomey in 1923, where he remained for 18 years. After World War II, Gordon worked for Donald Ross until he opened his own design firm in 1950. His son David joined him shortly after the opening. Discussing the Flynn-Ross dynamics in the area, Gordon worked for both of them and a lot of his work is local to Philadelphia as well. In addition to Sunnybrook, there is the Grace and Weyhill courses at Saucon Valley, DuPont, Deerfield, Medford Village, Old York Road, Bethlehem Municipal, Buena Vista and the original White Manor, where his routing remains largely in tact.
The Gordons had an interesting slant of style to their designs. While the consensus is they leaned towards challening layouts, their greens were typically bold and exciting while terrain was used favorably. Challenging, yet the greens and layout of the holes delved into strategic options. Famously, William Gordon hated bunkers behind greens since he felt those that suffered the shame of a ball running off the backside had likely suffered enough than to kick the man while he’s down by ending up in a bunker. While challenging, the Gordons were mindful of the other elements to the game, to significant effect. Exhibit A is Sunnybrook. Set on a rolling hillside with a creek/ravine running through the low end of the property, the greens are superb and distinct while the terrain and creek were used to inject a motley assortment of shots and strategies from tee to green. The greens are the star and draw your attention while you negotiate the rest of the terrain to get ideal position on them. Most holes are vertical to the hillside, moving downhill or up, with the creek/ravine/gorge in play on most of them, yet factoring in differently on each. The distances of the holes are well varied and the bunker placement, especially around the greens, contribute to the challenging and strategic character of the course. In 2007, Andrew Green came in and restored the greens per Gordon’s design plans. Green did the restoration work at Huntingdon Valley I’m so fond of and his work here is similarly admirable.
Sunnybrook felt like a golfer’s golf course. Perilous off the tee, deliberation from the fairway while precision and options abound around the green, the course is an arena; allowing you to showcase your arsenal at times while ramping up the pressure and execution in others. A sporty classic that grabs your engagement by the elbow because of the variety of situations you encounter.
I seem to rise to the challenge when it’s interesting enough (and the planets align) and within a few holes, I was game. Finding a groove with my swing and my short game in late season razor sharp form, I went to work. Decidely Fall at this point and only getting out for a round sparingly compared to the eventful Summer, I wanted to put a puncutation mark on the season with a solid outing on what was possibly my last of the year. Very much in that Last Stand frame of mind, I set out.
The First is a 359 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A slight dog leg right, trees and bunkers on either side frame the tee shot but there is width either before or after them, so there’s a number of ways to maneuver past. The fairway tilt from right to left is worth considering when mapping out your approach. Bunkers are staggered on either side as you proceed to the green, which is a wild ride. Narrow in the front then widening out as you reach the rear, it essentially changes how it tilts in the front and back as well.
The Second is a 404 yard par 4. We now go down the hillside, towards the ravine. Another slight dogleg to the right, this one downhill and trees placed about the sides. The approach is a forced carry over the ravine. This gorge runs along the low side of the property and presents itself in many forms throughout the round. Here, you have a shot if you don’t reach the green but it gets harrowing pretty quickly. Large bunkers are on each side of the green, which runs from back to front. A more exacting approach shot here is needed than it seems, mainly because anything above the hole will become difficult to coax in the hole.
The Third is a 499 yard par 5. Going back over what I coined a gorge, which is much larger and with water, must be carried from the tee, the fairway hikes up the hillside and bends to the left. Bunkers are placed well and are used moderately. The green complex deserves attention. Tucked into the left corner of the hole at its highest point, there is an entry on the right side. A bunker runs along the front below the green, making most approaches aerial over it to the green. Approaches from the right side of the fairway reveal the green a bit and take that bunker out of play some what, but taking on the bunker allows you to take advantage of the back to front movement of the green, yet the shot will be blind. The green is wide, swerving and twisting, with a great view of the course behind you.
The Fourth is a 389 yard par 4. Back down the hill, it’s fairly straight with the green set off to the right. The downhill helps advance the tee shot, yet also helps advance the ball into the rough, bunkers, behind trees, so plan that tee shot accordingly. The bunkers short and around the green take up a lot of surface area, so chances are if you miss the green, you’re in one of them. Anything long runs the risk of going in the gorge. Of course, you could go long and right and end up near the Fifth tee which is well below the green, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.
The Fifth is a 148 yard par 3. Back over the gorge, all water, to one of the more devious greens here. Bunkers are on either side, the green moving quickly from back to front. The outer edges move towards the center which you think would help, but for those that are chipping on the green, makes the hole exponentially more challenging. The play seems to be the back of the green, letting it run back down to the pin.
The Sixth is a 326 yard par 4. A short par 4 that runs on the other side of the gorge, tilting from right to left. The fairway turns to the right and tightens before altogether ending before the green. Off the tee, longer hitters may try to carry the trees on the right to reach the end of the fairway for a shorter approach in while other may settle for a shorter shot to the turn. Another marvelous green that likewise moves from right to left, which makes it more favorable to approach it from the left to use the slope. Those who opt for the shorter tee shot seem to have the edge here but the longer hitters going up the right side may have the advantage if their short game is up to the task of holding their shot despite the movement away from them. A great short par 4 that utilizes the terrain, trees and bunkers in a remarkable configuration.
The Seventh is a 522 yard par 5. Back up the hill and over the gorge, this time a dry swath of rough. Gradually moving to the right up to the green, the fairway is narrow and trees line each side. All opens up as you get closer to the green, allowing an array of angles and shots into it, all of which is needed due to its smaller size. The par 5’s on the front both incorporate a good deal of strategy, balancing precision against brawn.
The Eighth is a 185 yard par 3. Downhill, a creek along the left side and bunkers greenside right. About those bunkers, a bit of visual trickery here. The first right bunker is actually short of the green, a rather large false front that lulls those off the tee to ease off the gas and have their shot bounce and roll towards the center. The false front climbs to the green, so it’ll repel shots away if they don’t reach well into the green. True to Gordon form, there aren’t any bunkers long of the green, but there is a slope leading down into water, so you may wish there was a bunker there instead. That creek can torment; close enough to the green to collect slightly mis hit shots, or even shots that land on the left edge, then roll off into it; yet those that really hook the ball will probably go over it altogether and have a nice pitch back to it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t evaluate that miss as I was on the tee, just in case. We’re not all tour caliber out there, even when the swing is cooperating.
The Ninth is a 374 yard par 4. A dog leg right leading up to the clubhouse, clearing that turn off the tee is vital for the approach yet you can hedge a little by going more left. Another well shaped green that’s deep with various internal contours. A little too much on the approach and I was off the back of the green, in rough with the green running away from me. It happens every millionth chip, but got it to go in, to the amazement of pretty much everyone on the property. A nice finisher for the front, the star of the show being an inviting yet vexing green.
The front nine covers the western side of the property, its par 5’s are well balanced, its par 3’s sharp and its par 4’s varied. My ranking would be 3, 5, 6, 4, 1, 8, 9, 7, 2.
The back nine starts with the 527 yard par 5 Tenth. A fairly straight hole that runs downhill through a corridor of trees towards a creek, the first two shots must be nailed to get in a good spot for the approach. The trees are at work here and getting in them means getting wrapped up. The creek must be carried to the green, but there’s a good amount of room on the other side leading up to it. Like the other par 5’s, the green is on the smaller side, making those thinking of reaching it in two think twice. Even the second shot comes with a good amount of pondering, trying to stay clear of the trees and trying to gauge how much to move down the fairway to set up the most ideal approach. A great par 5 to start off the back nine.
The Eleventh is a 393 yard par 4. Back up the hill. The trees reside and things open up at this fairway, yet fairway bunkers, rough and of course the uphill take over in suggesting the fairway is the best option off the tee. The fairway leads right into the green, which sits on a plateau at the top of the fairway, its entry point nice and wide. A deep green with a ridge running in the middle that injects some swerve into its movement. The approach shots, pitching, chipping, bump runs and putting at this green have to always be an adventure. I certainly had a fun go of it.
The Twelfth is a 345 yard par 4. Running alongside the top of the hill near the clubhouse leading to the other corner of the property, this is a short par 4 where hitting the fairway is virtually a command performance, even if that means hitting something less than driver from the tee. Accuracy indeed rules the day as the fairway moves straightaway to the green, trees heavy on both sides. The approach is yet another fun one. The fairway ends at rough and then one of the larger bunkers on the course wraps around the green from the left, leaving all approach shots a forced carry. The green falls off towards the front right while the rest of the green also seems to move in that direction. This is the precision side of the course for sure.
The Thirteenth is a 391 yard par 4. One of the wider fairways of the course moves up to the high corner of the course, two fairway bunkers serving as gate keepers. The green is on the right as the fairway curls over to that side. Similar to the Third, the green is set at top of the hill with a larger bunker on front and below it. Here, there’s more of a advantage to being on the left side and avoiding taking on that bunker completely. It also seems like a better angle into the green from that left side while taking on the bunker might come into play for those going for the pin when it’s on the right side. Just don’t miss on that right side or you’re in the bunker and significantly below the green.
The Fourteenth is a 418 yard par 4. Coming out of that corner, we go downhill, canting right to left then turning left altogether. Width is yet again on our side and those who wish to cut off that turn have a bunker to deal with. The fairway spills entirely into the green, which is deep and moves from right to left. A bunker along each side of it, go low or high to get to the pin. I enjoyed this hole a lot. I liked how it tempted me to draw it around the turn from the tee, as I’ve always felt the draw is one of those commandments of the game that makes it resonate with the id. It’s a subset of shaping the ball in general that is the pure aura of golf. I digress. I also loved how the green sits in the context of the fairway. Obtainable, the world is yours sensations, yet the bunkers outright telling you they are there, hoping your ball comes on over. Short looks so inviting, a safe haven; perhaps the ball will roll on for me so I don’t have to go for the green and those bunkers – and who knows what is beyond on the far side – yet deep down know short will stay just that; short, unless you hit it nice and low so it runs on. It’s a great presentation and even more delightful to play.
The Fifteenth is a 148 yard par 3. Back up the hill, bunkers on each side and a green that moves from back to front. Knowledge of the green is important, as there are places you want to be and decidedly do not want to be. Otherwise, factor in the incline and hit your shot.
The Sixteenth is a 516 yard par 5. A straight away hole where the placement of the tee and green makes it bend a little to the left. Mostly downhill, the fairway narrow, trees on both sides for the second and third shot. The green is surrounded by bunkers, except for the rear, but anyone on the back side has to contend with the slope moving back towards the green. The gorge is mild here, yet the rough between the fairway and green is still no where you want to be. A challenging par 5 and with the width you’re given near the beginning, there’s a very real temptation to go for the green sitting below you in two. That’s when the trees do their work and unless that shot is precise, you’ll be at the mercy of how the ball bounces off the bark.
The Seventeenth is a 190 yard par 3. The way home is upward and it starts here. Coincidentally, the Eighth is in the background, the other penultimate par 3 before reaching the clubhouse. Similar in distance and both being downhill, there is no creek here; lots of room short and as is custom, a greenside bunker on each side while anything long flirts with water.
The Eighteenth is a 384 yard par 4. The clubhouse in view straight uphill, the fairway bunker on the left intrudes on the fairway while the ones on the right makes sure you stay honest off the tee. The green is at the top of the hill, deep with bunkers on either side. The stage is set, make it a memorable finish. I opted for a low running approach that settled to the right of the pin, just missed the birdie putt for a tap in par. Still elated and convinced more luck than skill, always.
The back nine compliments the front nicely, looping the eastern side, bookended by two stalwart par 5s, interspersed with shot maker par 3’s and an array of different par 4’s. I’d rank them 14, 10, 16, 12, 11, 13, 18, 17, 15.
Generally, Sunnybrook is classic challenge done well. Ball placement, shot shaping and putting as a skill, not just nerve, are all at a premium while the presentation coaxes and tempts. The greens give the course a level of sophistication that rewards course knowledge and touches on every shot out there. The course engages from the start and shows how traditional tenets can capture the golfer even today. A great collection of par 5’s and broad ranging par 4’s. A complete game is needed to get through the course, or better yet, to fully evaluate its options. Those with a weak bunker game will try to avoid the bunkers, which will rob them of the joy in deciding whether to take on certain lines or pins. Those who struggle with shaping their shots, will settle for the straight lines, which will rob them of considering how to access the sweet spots of fairways or favorable areas of greens. Believe me, I’m one of these poor souls, it makes me want to get out there more. And more to the point, there’s certainly several different ways to play here. Along, of course, with the great equalizer of the greens.
The twilight of the season was suddenly upon me. Time was short, daylight was getting short and other obligations were insisting. It was a full, rich season. You never know what’s coming but I was fine if it ended after this round. Almost too fittingly, however, I overheard this exchange before I left. “I’ll be here tomorrow.”– “OK, thanks for warning me.”
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Well staged and equipped, on all fronts.
Practice area: Driving range, putting green and a nice short game area.