6,359 yards, 138 slope from the Blues
In Elverson, PA, which is about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia, Stonewall is comprised of two golf courses, the Old and North, both of which were designed by Tom Doak. The Old was started by Tom Fazio, but Doak was brought in early enough to implement his own design within much of the established routing, with Gil Hanse assisting. The Old opened in 1993. Doak then built the North course ten years later in 2003.
Stonewall began as (and still is) a walking only course. The founders had a few simple tenets that focused on camaraderie, being able to play fast, enjoy the views and of course, walk. While these are very solid ideals, at the time of the club’s founding, golf was in a different place. In many ways, Stonewall was one of the early beacons harkening a return to a more simple game that focused on the connection between golfer and the terrain. The Old is also one of Doak’s earlier courses, certainly before Pacific Dunes, and his design philosophy married very well to the land here. Sprawling countryside with vibrant hills and meadows that congregate with creeks and ponds every now and then. The expanse is impressive and figuring out how best to accentuate all of this is what Doak is known for. Most of the course is flexible, allowing for an engaging ground game, but there are forced carries scattered here and there, diversifying the round with spirited challenge.
The flow of the Old course stands out. It all seems as natural as putting one foot in front of the other. You see a hill in the distance and your attention starts to wander to it, as soon as you cross the creek and putt out on the creek bed. The next tee will be on that hill, and so on. Doak does that rather well, enhancing how the land and course merge together. Spontaneous and uncontrived.
My game was still spiraling. Resorting to a litany of training aids and swing cues, each couple days was experimenting with something new. The swing became more and more foreign to me yet my short game and putting crystallized. The tee game was likewise fine. But oh the ballstriking and how it would come and go whenever it damn well pleased. Regardless, I was in good company with my hosts, it was a gorgeous day on the links and as they say, on to the next hole.
In fact, I’d say I don’t think I ever enjoyed myself more playing so bad. The only other time that comes to mind is Dismal River and it may or may not be coincidental that one of the Dismal courses was built by Doak. At Stonewall, the course is plenty challenging but versatile. There were a number of ways to get to the hole and there was some fun in trying to negotiate that with the game I showed up with. Beyond that, however, there’s a sense about the place; golf is much more than a scorecard and its more transcendent attributes seem to be what’s valued here. The rich outdoors, engaging with the countryside with your fellow golfers-in-arms, talking like old friends by the Second tee; these are the qualities of the game that make it so much more. This part of the game is alive and well at Stonewall and very much a part of its fabric.
The First is a 498 yard par 5 (from the Blues). A dog leg right with bunkers on the inside right, the fairway makes its turn after those bunkers and marches to the green. Towards the green, the fairway cants left to right, in the direction of a pond off to the right side while a bunker complex on the left is short of the green. Taking on those bunkers is actually a safer line to the green than trying to go around it off to the right, which puts the water more in play. Lots of room between that bunker and the green as well, even though it doesn’t appear so from the fairway. A nice par 5 to start to get one’s legs squarely under oneself for the round.
The Second is a 376 yard par 4. A dog leg right as well but because of the topography, plays much differently than the First. The tee shot is over fields of long grass and while clearing the trees on the right is vital to get a look at the green. But the further left you go, the longer the approach and the more the bunkers on the left of the green come into play. Those who dare closer to the right side (trees and water) are rewarded with a better line and look at the green. Stick to the age old adage and you’re oftentimes rewarded; flirt with the trouble you see off the tee.
The Third is a 536 yard par 5. The hole is before you, a sea of long grass, water off to the right and further along, the hillside arching up the green. This is very much a driving course and execution off the tee is essential. Fortunately, I was not struggling with the long stick. Here off the tee, water is off to the right and the fairway falls off on the left. The fairway then dips and rolls while bending slightly to the right, then up to the green a bit. Greenside bunkers are right and high while the left side falls off altogether. Keeping it straight and on fairway is more important than elsewhere yet using the contours efficiently helps along those lines as well.
The Fourth is a 372 yard par 4. The number 1 handicap hole starts with an elevated tee. A small creek crosses over just before the fairway, making sure your shot gets in the air to the fairway beyond, which rises before going down to another creek. So placement off the tee is vital, the left side preferable. The approach is a forced carry to a green perpendicular to the fairway, surrounded by a swath of bunkers, eight to be exact, four each on the high and low side. Needless to say accuracy on the approach is likewise vital.
The Fifth is a 178 yard par 3. A drop shot par 3, the creek is now short of the green and runs up the right side. Bail out room is short left while the sole greenside bunker is deeper to the left. The movement is to the right, towards the creek. While the creek and movement give this hole its character, this is where my attention was drawn to the hillside on off to the left and how I thought that would be a great place for a tee shot back down into the valley. And so it is as we move to the next hole.
The Sixth is a 422 yard par 4. A glorious hole. Not only is the tee on the hill, but off on the side so the rest of the hill hides part of the fairway on the right and you’re not sure how much room you have to don’t have. The creeks run fabulously random through the property and are captured tremendously well over and over, here probably the best. The creek zig zags across the fairway, creating different pockets to ponder from the tee, while the hillside on the right suggests shying away from the left gets you a closer approach shot. Once over the creek, the fairway runs straight to green, canting left to right. A great opportunity for the ground game, watching the ball bounce up to the green, swerving right and avoiding those bunkers on the left. A fantastic par 4.
The Seventh is a 156 yard par 3. A forced carry across a creek below to a raised green, surrounded by bunkers. The hillside moves everything left. This would have been a great place to use the hillside more, maybe lower the green and be able to use the hillside more as a sideboard than with bunkers, but it’s possible the creek below made it necessary to keep the green elevated.
The Eighth is a 402 yard par 4. Another great par 4, we now run along a ridge above the lake, which dips and turns left at the crook of the lake. While the green is in view off the tee, it goes into hiding once we get in the fairway until you get a bit closer. Mind the roll your tee shot will take to the left, closer to the lake; that same movement will take hold at the green, so plan accordingly. The fairway turns left down the hillside, then sweeps up and to the right back to the green, so most approach shot will need to carry the off fairway space. The clubhouse waits off the green, an idyllic spot among the lake and surrounding hills.
The Ninth is a 179 yard par 3. Using the other side of the lake, it’s pretty much a forced carry over the water to the green, unless you hit some weird push grounder to the right that ends up near the bunkers short of the green (wouldn’t know anything about that from personal experience). The green is nice and deep, settled along the lake edge, moving towards it. Lots of room to use off the tee and trying to keep from getting too far right and above the hole is good advice.
The front nine starts with nice width and strategy, focuses a bit on accuracy in the middle before shifting to flexibility and angles at its close. The par 4’s were the star for me while par 5’s were likewise enjoyable and the par 3 Ninth green using the lake surrounds well. I’d rank them 6, 8, 2, 3, 1, 9, 4, 5, 7.
The back nine starts with the 371 yard par 4 Tenth. Teeing off alongside the water on our right, we start to rise above the lake and the clubhouse and the small valley in which it sits. The way to the green is uphill, on a very much right to left hillside. The fairway is a good size while off fairway gets less than desirable from a lie standpoint quickly. Narrowing a bit closer to the green, the green itself is fairly deep with movement left, towards the greenside bunker on that side. Negotiating the movement of the hillside is good fun.
The Eleventh is a 544 yard par 5. Now heading above the clubhouse, the tee shot is a carry over long grass, an array of bunkers on either side of the fairway and a slight tilt from left to right. The fairway mellows after the bunkers, taking its time in reaching the green, a slight bump here, nook there; before you know it, the slight tilt is now more pronounced closer to the green and demands attention. The hillside goes so far as to hide the left portion of the green from the fairway, which looks even more daunting if you’re on the left side because then all you see is the left bunker and it appears as a false front with very little green showing. The right greenside bunker leaves you no other option but to delve into the blind area of the green, unless you’re on the right side and have a better look. A nice use of the land in creating these strategic niceties.
The Twelfth is a 340 yard par 4. A short par 4, the tee shot presents an angular bunker coming in from the right and a further one off to the left beyond it, so that if you carry the fort right one yet go too far over, you’ll be in the left. So shaping the shot in either direction off the tee, or being able to stop after carrying the right bunker, is how to go at it. The tee shot becomes vital in conjunction with the approach, which is essentially a forced carry over a bunker, movement from left to right and a bunker off to the right, lurking below and taking advantage of the movement towards him. It’s a conniving short par 4 where dictating your approach from the tee is necessary and part of the fun.
The Thirteenth is a 419 yard par 4. Still traversing and climbing the hillside, the tee shot is all uphill over a meadow of long grass, mind the bunkers on the left. The fairway finally crests, then levels off to the green, all with a right to left cant. The green is fairly accessible, allowing for the longer approach shot it’ll likely be for most of us, with bunkers on the high right side and the rest of it moving left, dropping off into rough on that at some point. A dramatic hole reaching the apex of the hillside, the green site fits right in.
The Fourteenth is a 379 yard par 4. Going back down the hill, this dog leg left is wide at the start of the fairway before starting to narrow as it turns around bunkers on the left. The tree line on the right off the tee has you favor the left, but going too far will put you into the bunker, which has a steep face and likely has most pitching out sideways. After the turn, the fairway leads downhill to the green, feeding directly into it. Greens at grade really emphasize the flow of the land and usually play more versatile because of how it engages the ground game and that’s certainly the case here.
The Fifteenth is a 176 yard par 3. We come to the first par 3 of the back nine at the bottom of the hill. The hillside crashes against the treeline on the right, long grass between the tee and green, while the bunker placement here creates different visuals on where the acceptable landing areas are. Despite the bunkers along the direct line to the green, the left side feeds in to the green unfettered, even giving shots short of the green a clear path. The bolder among us will fend off those bunkers and get right to the hole. Those more shrewd, or less confident in their swings, have the left side.
The Sixteenth is a 440 yard par 4. Back up the hill we go. A blind tee shot with a saddle bunker to get over, favor the left side. The fairway is wide and there is no trouble to speak of except the treeline on the right and I suppose off fairway rough. An expansive fairway before you, it runs downhill to a likewise expansive green. Don’t get caught in all this expansiveness, however, for shots that move to the rear side of the green will fall off abruptly and you’ll have a tricky shot coming back with the green moving away from you. This is good width and when the wind is up, the points of attack and areas of advantage change considerably. One of my favorite here.
The Seventeenth is a 130 yard par 3. Tucked in to the corner of the property above the Tenth green, the final par 3 is also the shortest. Like the Fifteenth, most of the trouble is off to the right, yet confronting it head on gives you the most direct route to the hole. The left side is safer and more conservative; all that’s needed is a little pitch over the long grass hanging about. The far side is no good, so if you take on the bunkers, don’t get overly ambitious.
The Eighteenth is a 441 yard par 4. Of all the holes at Stonewall, this one is the most famous and most photographed. Starting at the top of the hillside, the fairway cascades down, slowly revealing the valley in which the green and clubhouse beyond, rests. The clubhouse site is severely underrated in its selection. Instead of building on top of one of the multiple hills to take advantage of the views such a position would provide, all of those hillsides were reserved for the golf while the clubhouse enjoys an area where the hillsides converge into a crook, which provides a peaceful solitude to the winds, meadows and broad slopes surrounding it. The Eighteenth leads there as naturally as a river flowing to sea. Long grass must be carried form the tee to the fairway, which terraces while the bunkers on the right should be avoided. Like the Fourteenth and Sixteenth, the fairway leads downhill to the green but here, moves downhill then sweeps right, around another set of jagged bunkers. The area to the left of the green extends all the way to the clubhouse steps, which is a brilliant tie in and completes the flow of the course perfectly. Just as the ball comes to rest at the bottom of the hole, we come to rest at the bottom of the hill, those few steps to the clubhouse porch.
The back nine is a bit more expansive than the front, using the hills to there west of the clubhouse terrifically and yielding a splendid collection of par 4’s that are all cohesive in theme yet play distinctly from one another. My ranking of them is 18, 16, 10, 13, 12, 11, 14, 15, 17.
Generally, Stonewall Old is a wonderful modern course in tune to its natural surroundings. Towards the beginning of the careers of Doak and Hanse, the course takes advantage of the countryside well while enhancing its challenge with bunker placement and angles. The greens set at grade give the course a strong feeling of flow while how the meadows of long grass conjoining with the hillsides, tees and greens likewise preserve the naturalness of the round. There is also plenty of intrigue in the challenge here. Most tee shots are manageable in hitting the fairway but knowing the areas of those fairways to set up the approaches while considering the movement of the hills and bunker placement is an entirely another level of complexity that likely takes a lengthy courtship before starting to understand. On the front, there are some shots that are downright do or die, the approach at the Fourth, the Fifth, the Seventh, approach at Eighth and Ninth immediately come to mind. And the Eighteenth certainly meets its billing as a fitting climax and epitome of the course; flowing, scenic, strategic, sans souci.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Next to the clubhouse and well stocked, with one of the best logos around.
Practice area: Range, short game area, putting green, all you need within this splendid setting.