6,781 yards, 135 Slope from the Blues
In Bethlehem, PA is the esteemed Saucon Valley Country Club, boasting three well regarded golf courses; the Old, the Grace and the Weyhill. We focus on the Old here, which was designed by Herbert Strong in 1921, then was worked on by Perry Maxwell and Tom Fazio. The Old is set on ideal parkland terrain for dramatic climbs and broad turns alongside creeks and water that cut in appropriately. The greens really grabbed my attention for their variance of movement and just how different some of the holes play depending on pin placement. It’s also very much a driving course, meaning getting off the tee correctly is critical and while there is some forgiveness in poorly struck tee shots inasmuch as remaining in play without a penalty stroke, you’ll be relying on the heroic recovery most of the time. The course was classic in presentation for the most part, yet played within a modern rubric. It has hosted a number of tournaments, including the 1951 U.S. Amateur, 1983 U.S. Junior Amateur, 1987 U.S. Senior Amateur, the U.S. Senior Open in 1992 and 2000, as well as the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open. It’s 11 on Golf Digest’s list of best courses in Pennsylvania and makes Golfweek’s list of top 200 classic courses. The course is certainly acclaimed and well regarded.
As I made my way through the round, the diversity amongst each hole was strong all the way through the finish. This was even more impressive since a lot of the hills were used more than once. Even the hills themselves varied significantly despite oftentimes being right next to each other. This variety along with the larger scale of the place all coalesced with bold greens that worked very well with the fairways and bunkers. The classic structure of freedom off the tee, which then focuses into more exacting shots as you get to the greens was impressive, which always likely puts more strategy into the tee shot as you play the course again and again. The bunkers and greens, as well as some of the distance demands, are modern components that add to its distinct identity. In fact, the greens are where classic and modern merge; the shaping, strategies in approaches and recoveries, even green speeds, have classic and modern features that attain a very impressive balance, all of which endow the course as a unique enjoyable play.
In the middle of Summer, I continued my quest of getting to courses I have long wanted to play but never have. Still not traveling, continuing to explore what’s been nearby all this time has shown to be every inch the adventure.
The First is a 558 yard par 5 (from the Blues). Bunkers on both sides of the fairway that crests as it turns right as seen from the tee. Trees line the sides yet the right side is some how inviting, goading you to take on that bunker, or at least the side of it, to start the round. After the crest, the fairway widens a bit, leading downhill to the second turn, this one to the left. The bunkering and their positioning with respect to the fairway direction creates a lot of different visuals, here it makes it seem there’s a lot more bunkers then there really are. The green is terrific, with a ridge influencing most of the movement. A great opener, the firm, not gentle, handshake.
The Second is a 426 yard par 4. Turning around and going back up the hill, the same crest we had at the prior tee is here, this one a little further away. This time, the fairway goes down from the crest but then back up to the green, which makes the second shot much longer than it may seem at first blush. The green did a number on me, as it looks subtle but the slope is quite strong, so pay attention to the hill you’re on.
The Third is a 374 yard par 4. Crossing the entrance road and sidling up against the driving range, the tee shot is a forced carry over rough to the fairway, trees on both sides. The fairway then dog legs left before Saucon Creek introduces itself and bisects the fairway in front of the green. A forced carry approach over the creek is necessary to a wide green that runs from back to front, towards the creek. The green is yet another fun one, very much making sure the creek is not forgotten just because your approach may have carried it on the approach.
The Fourth is a 159 yard par 3. The green is uphill with front bunkering appearing like it might wrap all the way around the green, but can’t see the green or its size from the tee. The poor greens crew had to watch my topped pull tee shot dribble about 50 yards before a recovery shot finally got close to the pin. Hopefully they watched that one too. The green here was another terrific one. So much strong subtle movement within the visuals.
The Fifth is a 416 yard par 4. If the Fourth is the climb up from Saucon Creek, the Fifth is the higher ridge running alongside the creek. I suspect a pull of all shots in that direction, but I’m not a doctor; I just play one on t.v. The tee shot is actually one of the wider ones we’ve seen at this point, the right center is the line I like. The fairway running into the green at grade is splendid and of course I used it to run the ball on.
The Sixth is a 560 yard par 5. Going back up the hill, higher and further from the creek, the uphill fairway makes a lot of tee shots blind, or at least blind landing spots. The hole has a constant bend to the right, a bunker on the outside left off the tee. There’s a center line bunker and with a tee off to the left, I mistook it for the green. My caddie gave me the yardage to clear it, I had not looked at the score card and while I patted myself on the back for a terrific shot, I was still a ways from the green, and still ended up in the bunker. An immense bunker complex is on the right and once at the green, another bunker is at the center of its entry point. There is more width here that we’ve seen thus far and many places to plan the approach to the green. The green is large and takes all comers, whether from the right, left or above. It’s what I like out of a par 5. Uses its length to create a lot more options, is a beast from start to finish, yet is able to do so without penalizing or confining.
The Seventh is a 430 yard par 4. Now going slightly downhill, the configuration of the bunkers ands fairway at the start of the fairway is noteworthy for how it confounds the best line to take. I op[ted for the right, then realized it was close to the bunker on that side but it carried it and I ended up in nice position for the approach. The bunkers on the left are further from the tee so take care not to run into them off the tee. After a couple kinks, the fairway straightens out and feeds into the green, larger bunkers on either side. My longer approach was in nice position on the green and tapped in for a par. Easy game.
The Eighth is a 387 yard par 4. A dog leg left with plenty of bunkers at the turn, on either side. The mounding within the bunkering is a distinct feature. Some call it “rolling bunkers.” It gives the course character and thought it worked well. Here, there’s enough bunkers that staying out of them takes effort and once you reach the green, the movement towards the back right is a bit different than what we’ve seen and the interior ridge makes things fun.
The Ninth is a 180 yard par 3. We now are back at the creek, which must be carried to reach the green. The creek’s location so close to the green makes it a dominant featured the bunkers along the front with no room in the back means tough recoveries if the green isn’t hit. The green wraps around the front right bunker, another one with lots of fun movement where moving from one end to the other could be tougher than the tee shot itself.
The front nine has two very good par 5’s, a solid set of par 4’s and the last par 3 is a scenic yet deceptively challenging finish. The variety, greens and terrain are all showcased nicely here. My ranking of them would be 6, 1, 7, 5, 3, 2, 8, 9, 4.
The back nine starts with the 387 yard par 4 Tenth. Parallel to the First, the variety of hillsides smacks us in the face here. Where the First went downhill, here we go straight up, crooking a step to the right, into the the green. The bunkering along the right is relentless while on the left more reserved. It’s a longer road than it looks. Two healthy shots needed to get to the green.
The Eleventh is a 172 yard par 3. A drop shot where bunkers surround the green. The angle and height into the green from the tee are enough pressure but the genius placement of the green, in the middle of a hillside without more, is golf at its more rambunctious. Most greens are set on a hill, or against a creek or lake; this green is set on what could be a fairway. The green falls off in all directions as well, adding to the challenge. The subtlety here is great, also showing off the course’s variety and versatility.
The Twelfth is a 412 yard par 4. Continuing on down the hillside on which the Eleventh sits, this dog leg left rises above the tee before it turns out of view. A lot of bunkers line the inside of the turn but the fairway shape makes it tricky figuring out just where to place it off the tee. After the turn, the fairway runs slightly uphill to the green, a touch blind. A Biarritz type swale is in the green, which feeds from the fairway. It’s a very nicely shaped hole, creating a tough drive and approach.
The Thirteenth is a 338 yard par 4. We now head out from the clubhouse a third time. A dog leg right with the perils of bunkers and trees on either side. The green will be a blind approach except for the best of tee shots, the left side giving you the best chance. Another movement heavy green awaits.
The Fourteenth is a 192 yard par 3. An uphill par 3, the green is blind from the tee. Looking very much insurmountable, this is one of those times during the rounds where there’s no where to hide, you must hit the shot. I’ve said it many times before, but classic courses always challenged acumen with the longer clubs. With all the swing issues I’ve been having this year, all that went to the wayside and I hit a great one 10 feet from the pin. The tee shot is half the challenge, however, as the green is a wild mover and being above the hole, I didn’t do myself any favors. I call these gut check holes. It sounds technical and eloquent enough.
The Fifteenth is a 589 yard par 5. The string of really impressive par 5’s continues. The fairway leers downhill from the tee, falling to the left. A wide fairway with trees on either side, most tee shots will be blind. Turing left around a bunker on that side, the second shot will mostly be setting up the approach. From the hill, you can see the green and the array of bunkers at a distance and may wonder how it is one is supposed to navigate all of it safely. Indeed, the configuration of the bunkers, the slight turn to the left and the dual tiered green, it’s quite a marvelous quandary. Possibly my favorite green and hole on the course.
The Sixteenth is a 434 yard par 4. Down from the hills, the tee shot carries Saucon Creek and heads straight out to the green. The fairway narrows some what as you near the green, which is raised. The shift from hilly wide corridors to a more lowland woodsy feel is a nice transition.
The Seventeenth is a 422 yard par 4. The march home starts here. A tributary to Saucon Creek is along the left, hiding in the tree line, while the fairway seems relatively wide. I see the right side as more preferable to clear the tree line and have a clear approach, which is a forced carry over the same tributary that was along the left, to the green. It’s a different look than the holes we’ve seen most of the time, resembling the Third more than anything else. A nice change up.
The Eighteenth is a 345 yard par 4. A longer forced carry tee shot over Saucon Creek, here for its one last word, to the fairway beyond. The clubhouse is above, bunkers hover off to the left between the green, which is perilously raised above the bunkers embedded in the hillside. A challenging and pressure filled approach to go with the tee shot to end the round. Once you reach down and get the ball out of the hole and look up over the creek, however, you realize how sporting of a round you just had on thrilling terrain.
The back nine is on the hillier property, then settles down at the creeks before one last raised jut to the final green. The par 5 is tremendous while the par 3’s are as different as can be, yet both are solid. The par 4’s are as diverse as they were on the front. My ranking of them is 15, 18, 12, 11, 14, 18, 13, 17, 16.
Generally, Saucon Valley Old does a lot of things well. It maintains its classic structure on very good terrain with outstanding greens while welcoming modern tenets slowly yet effectively. The greens were wonderful. Lots of movement, rolled true and at a speed that made sense. I know I harp on it but the more places I play, the more I sense it’s vital to getting the course right. Here they have it right. Mini punch bowls, sloping terraces and shelves molded into the ruffled hillsides are all just some of the characteristics you’ll find within those greens. The bunkers and some of the distance demands have shifted the course to modernity, which have given it a lot of character you won’t find elsewhere. The fairways seems to meander on as the land guides, swirling around bunkers, cresting ridge lines and careening off contours. Saucon Creek occasionally intervenes to demand rapt attention, bringing you to your senses that may have become a bit lost in the mesmerism of the hills. The hills, the creek, the greens; all of it conspired on a larger scale to bring us a stalwart of the Mid-Atlantic golf scene.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: There are various structures on the property, with the stately clubhouse on top of the hill while the pro shop is down the hill in an expansive yet cozy structure with lots of really cool stuff. I believe there are other structures, including the Field House.
Practice area: Grass range, separate short game area, use it own it.