6,545 yards, 134 Slope from the Blues
In North Hills, PA, which is north of Center City and within that band of courses that includes LuLu, Manufacturers’, Sandy Run and Flourtown, is North Hills Country Club, designed by J. Franklin Meehan way back in 1908. The course then saw Hugh Wilson and Ab Smith perform renovation work in 1916, at least according to the good folks at golf club atlas. Meehan is yet another Philadelphia golf treasure only mentioned in the more historically ardent sets, but was involved in a number of designs, including the first nine holes at LuLu, Cobbs Creek, Brookside, Sandy Run and Paxon Hollow. In fact, North Hills was his property that he likely decided would make a great course, to which he was correct. One of the original members of the Philadelphia school of golf course architecture that I’m sure looked upon North Hills with special attention. It’s one of the older parkland courses in our area on undulant terrain that has a few different acts as the round progresses. Varied greens fit in with each hole while fairways waver from wild twisting tilting to welcome warm abodes, as the terrain dictates.
North Hills should be talked about more. It’s a thoroughbred classic presenting a captivating round of golf. Perhaps it’s overshadowed by its more well heralded neighbors LuLu and Manufacturers but for those in the hunt for those hidden gems that will likely surprise you how good it is simply because you haven’t heard too much, this fits the bill.
My first round here was several years ago when golf was more of a casual interest and we ended up getting rained out as we started the back nine. I remember a quarry and a lot of tree lined fairways but North Hills mainly sticks out for me because I was very close to moving into the neighborhood and already had the club pegged as where I would pursue membership. All of this was eons ago, however, so when the opportunity to return presented itself, it was time. Also, I received a request to review this course from a reader and when that happens, I consider it obligatory to get there!
January golf is always playing with house money but the day of the round was almost as ideal as you could hope for. Dusting off the clubs after the holidays and knowing there was a gaggle of golf coming up for me in the near future out west, I ventured out into the hills up north to start off a new season of exploring.
The First is a 340 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A nice inviting opening fairway welcomes you to the round, bunkers on either side to keep things formal, then it all arches downwards to the green. Bunkers are on both sides towards the front of the green and everything moves towards the back of the green, although the apron short of the entry point seems to kick off to the right. A good start with the green bringing things into focus, just in time to get a bit more serious for the forthcoming holes.
The Second is a 504 yard par 5. Things escalate quickly. An uphill par 5, trees on both sides of the fairway and a blind second shot as the fairway crests over a ridge and settles out to the green. Once over that ridge, there is a lot of room to essentially plot things as you wish but the green moves pretty well back to front. Ans we’re off.
The Third is a 187 yard par 3. A treacherous yet fun green with a couple shelves sits slightly above the tee. A simple yet effective bunker placement continues, here on either side towards the front. Plenty of places to end up off the tee, but the reality of the green remains and must be dealt with one way or another. A great par 3, with the green really shining.
The Fourth is a 616 yard par 5. I’m not sure I’ve come across a +600 yard par 5 on a classic course before but here we are. Two +500 yard par 5’s in the first two holes. Yet there’s room to work with and that remains here. We start to see mounding on both sides of the fairway, which seems to come into play more than it looks. It’s very heathland-esque and a great touch. The fairway bends ever so slightly to the right and in deference to the length, provides a bunker here and there but otherwise allows the golfer to negotiate the sheer distance. Near the green is where things become alive again. Mounding off to the right, the fairway begins to ripple and ramps up to the green, which is a deep affair – plenty of room to take on those longer approach shots.
The Fifth is a 364 yard par 4. After that stirring opening act, things quiet a bit and allow you to grind. The fairway here descends from the tee to the green, narrowing considerably once it reaches short game proximity. The green moves right to left. In fact, this entire area of the course is on a larger hillside moving in that direction, something to keep in mind. The green is smaller than we’ve seen and moves strongly, which explains the more generous fairway, allowing us to decide on our best line of approach.
The Sixth is a 430 yard par 4. The right to left movement continues with this fairway while trees creep in more on the sides. The trees actually suggest the left side for your tee shot but again, mind that left to right movement so you don’t end up too far left. The green is perched on a ridge well above the green, pretty much blind from it. This can be seen from the tee and places more pressure to nail the tee shot. The bunkers on the ridge around the front of the green bring a measure intimidation we haven’t see before and it all may goad the golfer into too much club to reach the green. The green is on the smaller side, however, so flirting with the front side or center may help stay on.
The Seventh is a 190 yard par 3. There are two tee areas here, one from the right side (below) and the other about 150 yards off to the left. The left tee gives you a better line to the green yet is longer while the right tee is a tougher angle albeit short in length. The green moves, and has a lot of area short of it to maneuver. I really enjoyed this hole and especially how the green facilitates so many different recoveries for those who missed it from the tee, yet challenges those who are on with its sweeping contours.
The Eighth is a 432 yard par 4. A downhill fairway after the tee shot, which ends into rough. The green is on the other side, forcing an aerial approach and a delicate one at that with the downhill nature of the fairway, the green below. The green is similarly downhill. The trees also become more assertive here and insist on a straighter more precise tee shot, which is mandatory to take advantage of all that downhill, all for a shorter approach that’s helpful here, well, for all that downhill to the green. So yeah, downhill.
The Ninth is a 189 yard par 3. Much more uphill that it looks and a green moving from back to front, well bunkered. Close the opening nine with a nice tee shot and birdie putt here, a nice reprieve ending, calm before the back.
The front nine is starts out like a rollercoaster, a little introductory climb before a rash of thrill and excitement, a bit of a break before another series of fun, then an even finish. I would rank them 4, 3, 7, 6, 8, 1, 2, 5, 9.
The back nine starts with the 326 yard par 4 Tenth. This hole I remember from last time but it’s not really a quarry. It’s a ridge, and a fabulous tee shot that can give you fits. Talk about angles and slopes, the tee shot must carry the ravine at the foot of the ridge and land on top where the fairway is, which runs downhill from right to left, then tilts right to left as well. Many will belt their tee shot out towards the far tree line, but left is much better and a ball flight moving left takes full advantage of the fairway movement. Brilliant. The fairway goes right into the green downhill. The green is set on the hillside, yet on a terrace that gives it a little volcano green feel. It’s a great hole, lots of fun and probably plays countless different ways.
The Eleventh is a 158 yard par 3. A forced carry over water, the green is big and there’s even room short and long left off the green. Other than being aerial, this is a brief interlude in the round that starts ramping up from here, so take advantage.
The Twelfth is a 536 yard par 5. The water we saw on the Eleventh and subsequent creek and water we now see through the end of the round is called Sunnybrook. Here, it runs on the right side before intersecting the fairway completely after the tee shot. The focus of the tee shot is keeping it on the fairway, which slopes into the creek, and clearing the trees on the right for a clear second shot. The second shot is a carry over the creek, and keeping it more to the right now that Sunnybrook is on the left. The fairway narrows closer to the green yet most of the trouble disappears by then. Two very good shots needed to get into scoring territory.
The Thirteenth is a 373 yard par 4. Straightaway, with trees then OB on the left and trees on the right, it’s wider than it appears and it gets even wider on the approach to the green, which is deep, the sole green side bunker taking up most of the right side.
The Fourteenth is a 234 yard par 3. The longest par 3 on the course, it does what many classic courses did with longer par 3’s; ensure lots of room short, more commonly plays downhill and receptive to rolling shots from the front. So even if you can’t carry 230 yards, there are ways to get the ball on the green from the tee, thereby limiting the advantage of the longer player. The green gets feisty around the edges, however, so take heed.
The Fifteenth is a 512 yard par 5. From here on in, the course runs on the higher side of Sunnybrook until eventually crossing over and climbing up to the clubhouse at the Eighteenth. The land on this side shifts and juts at a moment’s notice, making for a great closing sequence. Here, similar to the Twelfth, this par 5 runs along Sunnybrook, this time it stays on the right side. The fairway dog legs left so the inclination is to favor the right side, but the sloping towards the creek should temper that thought a bit. The fairway keeps turning and eventually ends at a small hill, bunkers ensconced within, which protects the green. The green undulates a good deal and with most approaches being blind, there’s a lot of local knowledge that helps here. And don’t forget Sunnybrook, which is still off to the right, lurking closer to the green than you may think. A nice par 5 using the creek and small rise in landform well.
The Sixteenth is a 389 yard par 4. A sharp dog leg that ultimately brings us to upper left perimeter of the property before heading home. Trees line the left side and form the dog leg on the right. The trees on the right are tall, so those thinking of carrying them from the tee have their work cut out for them. The rest of us need to keep it straight and true to clear that group of the trees, at which point we’re rewarded with a fairly easy wide approach into the green, which moves right to left.
The Seventeenth is a 420 yard par 4. Fairly high above Sunnybrook, we now dive back down towards it. The trees recede and we have a nice wide fairway to tee off to (which I still managed to miss). This is vital because the approach gets touchy. Downhill from the fairway, the left side built up so that shots in that area will shoot down and to the right, and an abrupt fall off on the far side, placing the approach with consideration for what it will do upon landing is paramount. The green also makes an approach from the right side more preferable to avoid the banking on the left side of the green. A very good approach coming at the right time of the round.
The Eighteenth is a 345 yard par 4. The sharpest dog leg of the course, the tee shot must carry Sunnybrook below to the fairway on the other side, which twists and climbs to the green. Clearing the trees off the tee is vital, with special attention paid to the bunker in the distance. While that’s a good line and getting in that area off the tee is a good idea, going in it is not the best. Our work is far from over. The approach, even though it will likely be on the shorter side, is to a green very much uphill from us, pulls to the right much more mightily than anyone ever imagined and the green, while large, simply does not feel like letting you leave, with its furious interior contours. A short par 4 finding ways to stay tough, keeping you honest all the way until the ball reaches its final resting place.
The back nine continues the variety and enthusiasm of the front, using the land features well. My ranking of them would be 10, 15, 17, 18, 12, 14, 16, 11, 13.
Generally, North Hills showcases splendid parkland terrain that makes for an enjoyably diverse play. The cant of the fairways is the subtlety here that inserts the touch of classic character many may overlook at first glance. From the strong Tenth all the way to the more understated Sixth, the tilting draws upon cues from the land that brings another nice little layer of strategy here. We see this again with both par 5’s on the back running along the creek and then finally, becomes much more prominent at the Seventeenth and Eighteenth. While trees are used to form corridors and at least one dog leg, they are not over relied upon nor seem to crowd any where but I played here during the winter so perhaps that changes during the warmer months. I’d still say probably not though. The changes in fairway presentation from the tee and placement of the greens on various land formations significantly adds to the diversity of play as well. All of this conspires for a terrific classic romp of a round that is one of the area’s under the radar courses, yet has the terrain and pedigree to make just as big of an impression as some of the heavyweights.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A recent renovation to the clubhouse brings new life to it while the grill room below remains. All of it overlooking the Tenth, Eighteenth green and the short game area.
Practice area: A range next to the First, a small short game area off of the First tee and small putting green.