6,549 yards, 142 slope from the Member tees
In Horsham, PA, 25 miles due north of downtown Philadelphia, is Commonwealth National. Built in 1990 by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay by refurbishing 36 holes that were designed by George Fazio, Palmer said of Commonwealth, “All I know and love about golf is in this course.” A strong endorsement from Arnie. Built amongst wetlands and a good deal of water, almost 50 acres of it, the course meanders and rolls through, some mild elevations cropping up here and there. The club enjoys a well earned reputation for its low key membership and spectacular staff. The course is ranked as one of the top courses in Pennsylvania by Golf Digest (19). It hosts mid-ams and has hosted pro tours in the past.
Really, Commonwealth National is an outlier in the Philadelphia golf scene. A well regarded modern course catered towards the lower single digit player is the norm in places like Florida but in Philadelphia, classics tend to dominate. In that respect, it rounds out the local portfolio. Conditions are always first rate. Yet there’s no ambiguity about it, its calling card is its difficulty. I remember encountering another “black diamond” course designed by Palmer and Seay a few years ago near Golden, Colorado – Bear Creek (built in 1985). Penal, forced carries, little room for error, tough greens. Commonwealth National has similar traits, although the landscapes are entirely different. Bear Creek was mountainous while here, we’re in the wetlands. Both courses strike me as similar, though. The difficulty isn’t there to be flashy, isn’t there to intimidate and isn’t there to torment. It’s there as a stern test. You either pass each aspect of the test or you don’t. The skiing analogy fits in well here. I’m a much more skilled skier than golfer (or at least used to be) and I would seek out the tougher super deadly double secret black diamond trails as a challenge; something that would push me to my limits and at the end of the day, I’d come away stronger and wiser, so long as I didn’t break any bones or die. Sure I could go to the intermediate slopes and enjoy myself fine but I’d start looking for more. Sneaking off trails, finding cliffs to jump off, going as fast as I could before getting yelled at by some dumb ski patrol guy; my skills demanded more to realize their potential. Or I was just a young punk looking for trouble. Either way.
I imagine it’s the same for highly skilled golfers, of which I am not one. I’m sure it’s nice to have some where that pushes their skill set to its limits. Sure they can play any where and figure out ways to challenge themselves, but having some where that tests them and only rewards them when they maximize their performance, well I’m sure it’s nice to have those black diamonds.
Just like skiing, however, black diamonds aren’t for everyone. Difficulty takes many forms. It can reside with the tee shot or the greens or blind shots. Many times, strategy and options can make the course more accessible to those less skilled. Other times, it can be fairly one dimensional, a take it or leave it mantra. There is no place to miss without getting penalized, you need to carry this 200 yards or just go to the drop zone, hit the fairway or you’re basically playing for bogey.
Commonwealth has many of these features. Most of the course is very difficult. There are many forced carries. There are many narrow landing areas, intolerant of deviations. It wasn’t particularly fun, although I don’t think it’s supposed to be. There wasn’t a whole lot of strategy involved. It’s about hitting the shot correctly. And the shots you must hit, not everyone can hit, even on their good days. The setting is ok. The wetlands are fine while not ideal terrain for golf but the adjoining office park is decidedly not ideal. So that leaves us with a course that stands out for its unrelenting straightforward difficulty and not much else. Now mind you, I put in an awesome warm up session. I was feeling it. Unfortunately, I think my swing stayed at the range. At the same time, I’m not sure it would have mattered much. The course wasn’t meant for my ilk. Of course, those black diamond trails weren’t meant for me either, until they were. It took a lot of grit, unawareness of self preservation and downright stubbornness. Perhaps the same is true here. Perhaps that is the point for those of my ilk. The biggest risk is not taking any risk, and all that.
The First is a 514 yard par 5 (from the Member tees). The tree line along the left is consistent up to the green while the narrow fairway get even narrow in spots, with fairway bunkers alternating sides leading up the green, some of them placed at the most narrow fairway areas. Rough abounds. The green is more wide than deep, with a larger bunker out on the right side, very little room off the green except short to work with. Hit it straight and far.
The Second is a 382 yard par 4. I liked this hole. The fairway is below the tee, which hides it some what, yet driver is likely too much. Hitting the fairway is critical though and there missing off to the sides likely means you’ll waste a stroke recovering back on to the fairway. I liked how the green is before you on the tee, enticing you, yet you maximize your chances of getting there by tempering yourself and favoring precision off the tee. The green is a dog leg left in its own right, curving around the bunkers on the left. The approach shot will likely be a long one and the green is receptive to the longer clubs.
The Third is a 535 yard par 5. Enter the office park on the right, the fairway goes downhill away from the tee, yet also narrows and slopes sharply into water on the left you can’t see from the tee. The tee shot can go down the right side, yet if it starts going down the hill, may swerve right across the cart path and into the trees. So, length off the tee simply isn’t rewarded all that much and instead, is likely penalized. Best to lay up, leaving you with a very long second shot, which you can use to carry the dip in the hole where the fairway ends and avoid the water and both the left and right. With the cart path crossing over the hole completely, you’ll need to carry this entire area at some point. A successful belting second shot gets you to the second fairway, where the green is uphill, nice and deep, with bunkers on both sides. Not Arnie’s best effort.
The Fourth is a 352 yard par 4. Turning to the right to lop and around the office buildings, this par 4 starts with an elevated tee shot with the entire hole before you. The green is set off to the left, water before it. The fairway is off to the right, fairways straight ahead and cautioning you from hitting too far. Less that driver yet again is a good play, to hit the fairway area that will set up the forced carry approach to the green. You basically need to hit the green or your ball is wet, in the left bunker or on the back mound, either in the trees or in the rough, above the green, which moves away from you and quickly towards the water. So two pinpoint accurate shots gets you a chance at par!
The Fifth is a 165 yard par 3. The water and office park are strong in this area of the course. The first par 3 is a forced carry over water off to the right. It’s a deep green, moving towards the water and a treacherous bunker off to the left. Other than that bunker that you will leave you in a despondent position, there really are no alternatives than to hit the green.
The Sixth is a 400 yard par 4. Now going between office buildings, a forced carry tee shot over water to a fairway that turns left hard. After the turn, the fairway narrows and water is on the right. The green is then ahead, slightly uphill, more water on the right. Getting rid of the trees on the left would inject some risk/reward strategy off the tee, tempting some to favor the left side, yet would have a small window before the water came into play. As it stands, hitting to the wider part of the fairway is pretty much the only play, which then sets you up for the approach to the green that shapes towards the water on the right.
The Seventh is a 378 yard par 4. More office park, this time on the left, the fairway is hidden for the most part from the tee. It’s a wider fairway than we’ve seen, yet ends at water further up. A longer approach, all carry, over water to the green with an apron in front. The green is wide not deep so you may end up using that apron to get approach shots to roll on and stay.
The Eighth is a 118 yard par 3. A short par 3, it’s the easiest rated course on the course. The green is rather large and the center bunker creates a false front, so there’s actually a lot more room than it seems from the tee. Bunkers are in some odd places short and wide, apparently to punish those shots where someone slipped and was in the process of falling during their shot. Perhaps they’re more in play when it’s windy. The office park looks on over on the left, but it’s more of a large parking lot. The Manor House at Commonwealth is on the right side of the hole and it starts feeling like this hole was an afterthought, crammed in a small strand of area between a parking lot and catering house. It’s a hole for everyone to catch their breath from all the forced carries and water though.
The Ninth is a 428 yard par 4. Now parallel to the First, the tee shot is slightly elevated to a fairway that’s narrow on the ends and wide in the middle. Don’t miss the shamrock shaped bunker on the right towards the end of the fairway, I actually liked it. It wouldn’t be an approach shot if it wasn’t a forced carry and this one is, over bunkers and rough to a pretty small green that’ more wide than deep.
The front nine felt contrived in many spots, the cart paths came in at awkward times and the office park is a detractor in terms of setting. The difficulty is demanding, however. The forced carries, small landing spots from the tee and wide, shallow greens value precision and distance control almost as a necessity. Consistency is more valued, as there is little room for error most of the time. I’d rank them 2, 7, 9, 1, 6, 5, 4, 3, 8.
The back nine starts with the 410 yard par 4 Tenth. A slight dog leg right that also slopes in that direction with a tree line hugging the left side, closely. Bunkers are on that far right side, warning you to either curve your tee shot off to the left or lay up short of them. The green is set to the left side, a forced carry approach to a green that angles to the right away from the fairway. While the hole follows the general template we’ve seen thus far, the movement of the fairway and placement of the green sets this one apart, as angles and risk/reward become part of the decision making process.
The Eleventh is a 514 yard par 5. A dog leg left almost turning ninety degrees, which comes into play off the tee. After the turn, the fairway begins its gentle descent to a creek, where it ends. The green is on the other side, for yet another forced carry approach. There is an apron on the front for those who want to try and reach the green in two and gives the rest of us extra landing area.
The Twelfth is a 171 yard par 3. A forced carry over water, the green is deeper than it looks from the tee and has some nice undulations to it.
The Thirteenth is a 411 yard par 4. We leave the office parks for good and get a nice wide fairway for the tee shot, with water menacingly off to the short right. The approach shot is one of the tougher on the course. Likely on the longer side and with a Bay Hill feel to it, water encroaches on the right side, with a sliver of fairway curving around it and the green residing on the far side. It’s essentially a long forced carry over water to a wide green on the other side, but I suppose you could try to lay up on the sliver of fairway off to the left. Mounding on the back side at least stops shot that are over ambitious and there’s some interesting short grass sloping, but it’s very much a do or die shot that may be much more sensible to lay up for many.
The Fourteenth is a 383 yard par 4. We now move to the wooded portion of the course. The tee shot is a mild forced carry to the fairway, which turns left and down before narrowing considerably leading up to the green. There are some decisions to make off this tee, as the longer and closer you want to get to the green, the less fairway and more accurate you need to be. The green has some nice movement and is set at an angle to the fairway. A precise approach is needed but there is some room to play with.
The Fifteenth is a 386 yard par 4. The tee shot is a forced carry over a small creek through a chute of trees. The fairway dog legs right before ending in rough. Bunkers are on the hillside to the left of the fairway, collecting tee shots trying to get out too far without curving. A forced carry to the green, a very good one with subtle contours.
The Sixteenth is a 188 yard par 3. A nice wide green in a clearing of trees, which moves from right to left. Bunkers are short and long, so distance control is important in holding the green.
The Seventeenth is a 374 yard par 4. As we’ve seen, the strips of first fairway fluctuate in width, with the middle part typically the widest, suggesting where to land your tee shot. Here is no different and with the trees crowding on both sides, getting the tee shot on the fairway is vital. The fairway narrows, twisting, turning and climbing to the green, which is wide. For most, it’s a forced carry approach. There’s also water along the right, well hidden as it is.
The Eighteenth is a 440 yard par 4. You know the drill. Hit the first portion of fairway at all costs, then you have a forced carry approach, this one to a green that’s a bit larger than others. The taunting trees are on either side, stalking you. There is room well before the green for those who are trying to recover out of the trees or aren’t in a position to take on the green and the treacherous bunkers around it.
And with that, you emerge from the trees and the First tee is smack dab in front of you. It’s almost egging you on for another round. For those who want to call it a day, turn right and make way for the clubhouse.
The back nine is more diverse in terms of terrain, yet offers the same style of aerial precision play that dominated the front as well. I would rank them 10, 11, 14, 15, 12, 13, 17, 18, 16.
Generally, Commonwealth National is a difficult layout for the constant demanding aerial precision it requires. The distance of each shot will vary and if you have the skill, being able to get the ball on a certain side or area of the fairway or green provides some options, but any strategy here is strictly positional in nature. While I can appreciate difficult courses, it goes well beyond that to the difficulty presented in terms of interest. Here, the challenge is primarily with accuracy and a varied demand on length. There are opportunities to sacrifice length for accuracy, yet the trade off is likely a longer shot before or after. The decisions come down to which of the longer shots can you pull off more accurately and/or does the hole give you places to hedge on the longer shots. It is a bit rote, however, although the theme is straightforward.
The greens here deserve commendation. They are well conditioned like the rest of the course yet their speed was not overdone. In fact, their speed fit in to what it should be based on the required shots into them and their contours. I could see the temptation in having them at break neck speed but at least when I played it, they were fast without venturing into the absurd. Once I eventually reached them, I enjoyed their challenge.
Beyond all this, the routing and setting leave a lot to be desired. I’m sure there were a lot of environmental restrictions and I don’t know if the offices appeared before or after the course but a lot of the layout felt contrived. Perhaps this fit in with the objective of building an accuracy driven course, but it felt wedged in to land that barely accommodates the game.
The membership is great here, the pro, super and everyone else on staff is top notch. The course resonates well with others and like those black diamond ski runs, maybe it will one day with me. Time to schedule another lesson.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A nice relaxed country feel to it and a nice modern pro shop.
Practice area: Range, short game area, putting green near the First tee. You need them all.