6,680 yards, 134 Slope from the II tees
It’s almost embarrassing how little I knew about Philly Cricket as recent as six months ago even though, a) it’s one of the closer golf courses to me; b) it’s a widely heralded Tillinghast course, the only one in our area, really; and c) this site is about Philly golf courses and this is one of the more famous ones. I don’t have any good reason other than I always knew it was there, that it was supposed to be very good and that I would likely play it at some point, at which time I’d delve a lot more into its history and identity. It was procrastination in its purest form. And once I played it, I realized how moronic it was I didn’t get here sooner. A pure classic with a distinct Tilly identity minutes away from my couch. Some times the closest to us are the furthest away for one reason or another.
I finally seized upon the opportunity to play the Wissahickon course this Summer. It was time. Just like that, the flood gates opened. I inhaled every article, photo and video of the course, almost making up for lost time. Philadelphia Cricket, along with Merion, Aronimink and Philadelphia Country Club, were the founding clubs of the Golf Association of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest regional golf association. Tillinghast, as well as George Thomas, were members of Cricket. Initially, Tillinghast was asked to design 36 holes of championship caliber golf at their other Flourtown location, but ultimately the club decided on keeping their clubhouse where it was and had Tilly design a single course there. Flynn was brought in for work that primarily focused on the front nine and bunkers in 1928, also adding some new tee positions. Opening in 1922, Wissahickon was Tilly’s home course, where he was able to monitor, observe and continue to craft his work as necessary. Ross had Pinehurst, C.B. had National, Fownes had Oakmont and, as written up earlier this year, Macbeth had Wilshire. The ability to remain close to the course and fawn over it has historically inclined towards greatness. My interest and curiosity skyrocketed as I imagined Tillinghast, with his broad range of boldness and scale, being able to strive for perfection at Cricket as he remained close at hand. His ashes are spread on the property to put this in context.
The course underwent a famous and much anticipated restoration in 2013 by Keith Foster. The changes were significant. Extensive tree removal, dialing back the routing to its original, changes to the bunkers, reclaimed green size, new tee positions on certain holes, reinstalling the Great Hazard at the par 5 Fourth; and a bevy of other changes that considered returning design traits that had strayed from original tenets and/or ensuring an interesting and challenging layout for all. Quite honestly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the thread at Golf Club Atlas that detailed the restoration work as it occurred and discussed it in real time. The insight in that thread is remarkable and I’d urge anyone interested in learning more about Philly Cricket, or even in how one of the more successful restoration projects came about and was carried out, give it a read.
The changes to the course were widely acclaimed. It made huge gains in the rankings and was appointed host of the 2016 Senior Players Championship, as well as the 2020 USGA Four-Ball Championship (which was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic). Importantly, the course is now more evocative of Tillinghast genius. Similar to Somerset Hills, there’s an exceptional balance of bold features and grand scale with intimacy in the terrain, especially at the greens and par 3’s. This balance resonates again between the inspiration of the broad golfscape the course now provides amidst the strategy awaiting at each shot. This balance is also in the presentation of challenge; between those heroic carries or Herculean shots up those seemingly endless hills to the subtlety that lies beneath, becoming present only after enough experience and feel, of the terrain movement, of bunker placement and of ideal lines to the greens. In fact, the greens typify this balance. Large and expansive, they may look easy enough just sitting there yet it’s not until the putt is away and the ball is rolling do you realize just how much lies underneath not apparent to those first impressions. As the round wears on and the greens do their work on the golfer, all of that green starts shrinking with the trepidation they feel, realizing that placement on the green with respect to the pin is a lot more critical than it looks. Also, I did not lose a single ball during the round. For me, especially with the fragile state my game was in for this round, that is significant. The penalty for missed shots keeps giving a chance at redemption, urging your creativity to get back in position, as opposed to lost strokes and drops. These are the virtues of classic golf, carried out here in natural nobility.
As Tillinghast walked the grounds at various times, his knowledge, experiences . . . life – all changing, developing and evolving, I like to wonder what it was he thought about. What he thought about in terms of the course, how his life, as it was, may have impacted those thoughts and how those thoughts made their way to the course over time. It’s romantic pondering and could have been a lot more practical than all of that, but Tillinghast courses tend to favor the bold and dramatic. While that’s present here, there’s also a sophisticated calm that surely comes over the passage of time. I wonder how much Tilly, tempered with experience and wisdom, expressed that to what is out there. Romantic notions indeed.
The First is a 395 yard par 4 (from the II tees). The opening tee shot must carry Wissahickon Creek to the fairway that dog legs right and runs uphill to the green. Staggered bunker placement on either sides leading up to the green and an introduction as to how width, the contours and the hazards interact and while bunkers may seem innocuous at first because of the width, you realize they’re very much in play when considering the contours and desired position into the green. The green here feeds from the fairway, moving from back to front with a lot of interior movement from there.
The Second is a 396 yard par 4. Now at the top of the hill, we go right back down towards the clubhouse and across the creek again. The tee shot presents whether to lay up short of the creek or make a go of of carrying it. Most will find it best to lay up short and will likely use less than driver to do so. This leaves the approach to the green, which is above and guarded by two deeper bunkers on either side at the front. Part of the clubhouse is on the right, very much in play on the approach. Of course I found a way to hit it, bouncing about on the roof before some of the grounds members mercifully and with humor brought me my ball. That was enough to unravel me the rest of the hole but looking back on it, it’s a lot more memorable that hitting the green for a ho hum birdie or par.
The Third is a 115 yard par 3. The course shows its intimate side early on with this short par 3, the green seemingly arm’s reach away from the tee. The long grass and front bunker may embolden the golfer to favor a more hardy lashing at the ball but landing closer to the front of the green will leave you with a more favorable uphill putt to most pin positions while the rear area or rear side off green, start to confound this hole in a hurry. Trust the yardage and embrace the finesse. It’s a fantastic short par 3.
The Fourth is a 487 yard par 4. Moving from intimacy to grandeur, the hole sprawls out as far as the eye can see from the tee. Despite the view, the fairway is a bit narrow at first, only widening past the fairway bunkers on the left. It’s a hell of a long par 4 and the approach shot is no doubt a longer club for most of us, so hitting the fairway off the tee becomes almost critical to stay above water here. For those willing to lay up short of the green, there’s plenty of room to work with off to the left. The fairway snakes around the bunkers on the right before coming back around to the green, so those going for the green from the fairway will be carrying those right bunkers. The configuration of the green to the bunkers and fairway here is what sets this hole apart, making it a tough approach to judge yet if anything, the golfer will do well here to go with their instincts instead of remaining above his ball, paralyzed in thought.
The Fifth is a 197 yard par 3. It wasn’t too long until our next encounter with Wissahickon Creek, which runs in front of the green here. Surrounded by bunkers and slightly raised, it’s a nice looking stage that almost must be hit from the tee, although either bunker on the side would be an acceptable miss, at least as how I see it. Yet most shots, no matter where they end up, will still have a chance at redemption, so long as they avoid the creek. The green darts from back to front, almost as if it wants to take a dip in the creek itself.
The Sixth is a 475 yard par 4. The creek decides to play a more prominent role in the round. Up to now it’s simply been an afterthought to carry but here it runs at an angle and the golfer must decide how much to try and carry off the tee, while also considering the fairway bunkers, to set up an advantageous approach. The Fourth was a long par 4, but the Sixth is longer, especially since it’s uphill, making a healthy tee shot all that more important. I call these “gateway” bunkers since they seem to act as a gate, with the rest of the fairway then moving uphill to the green. There’s actually a lot more room between the bunkers than it seems from the tee. The approach is a challenge, as the bunkers short of and on either side of the green need to be avoided. A brawny and strategic hole, I enjoyed all seven strokes of it thoroughly.
The Seventh is a 514 yard par 5. The tee shot is elevated, the fairway ending at a whirlpool of bunkers, which is very much in view from the tee. Cricket’s Hell’s Half Acre resides here. A sea of bunkers and fescue dominate the landscape, all of which demands attention on the second shot. Yet the fairway bunkers on either side before the Acre, as well as the hillside upon which the first fairway sits, should not be ignored. Pulling my tee shot to the left, I was in the rough yet with a good lie and line over the writhing sand and grass, all of it straining to hoard the ball in its clutches at any opportunity. Taking my 3 wood, I gave the ball a lash, almost already planning which club I’d use to hit out of the Acre. Instead, the ball took off and dutifully rose in the air, drawing slightly before bouncing and rolling to the fairway on the other side. It was one of the more memorable shots of the day, providing some sorely needed confidence and stability to the round. Of course, the hole continues on after the Acre, the fairway running until a strand of rough, before the green side bunker at the front. The green, a resplendent oasis after the Acre, is not to be trifled with; its undulations providing no sanctuary to the challenges here.
It’s an all world par 5.
The Eighth is a 347 yard par 4. The notable flow and rhythm of the course continues. Hearty par 4’s interspersed with adroit par 3’s, climaxing at the stormy par 5, followed by a couple shorter par 4’s. The tee shot here is straightforward enough; the left side is preferable because of the hillside movement. The approach, however, must carry an intimidating bunker at the front, the green blind behind it. The green is deep, so even those that want to make sure they get over all the trouble and take an extra half club or club should still find the green, with all its movement and speed, left to right primarily.
The Ninth is a 350 yard par 4. This shorter par 4 is even shorter because it moves downhill. A dog leg right, the fairway movement is left to right, towards the fairway bunkers on the inside of the turn. The fairway widens after the second bunker, which then funnels downhill to the green, bunkers, rough and fescue lurking nearby and below. Using the apron before the green on the approach could take advantage of the terrain movement while the green is fairly subtle in its contours.
When all is said and done, the front nine neatly loops about the northeast side of the property, taking advantage of the creek as much as possible along with the hills and ridges above it. As noted, the flow of the course is remarkable and each hole is strong in its own right. My ranking of them is 7, 3, 2, 6, 8, 4, 9, 1, 5.
The back nine starts with the 147 yard par 3 Tenth. A little longer than the Third but still a shorter par 3 nonetheless, the sea of long grass (and road) must be carried to reach the larger green, which is surrounded by bunkers. The green moves in a few directions but generally towards the rear, which is one of the more noticeable differences with the Third. A very good shorter par 3 keeping in the finesse and precision emphasis of the last few holes.
The Eleventh is a 386 yard par 4. Running parallel to the Second and First to the left, the tee shot carries Wissahickon and advances uphill to the green. A sole fairway bunker to the leftist visible, just before the tree line on that side. There’s a prominent ridge line before the green that ramps up and over the hillside, acting as a type of false front and sending shots on it down the fairway away from the green. The green is a large affair and with the views at the top of the hill, is a great spot to take a moment or two, look around – and breathe.
The Twelfth is a 538 yard par 5. We now move to the side of the property including most of the back nine. A semi blind tee shot that must negotiate the bunkers and trees meticulously placed on either side of the fairway, which angles to the right before straightening out and running right into the green, sitting at or just above grade. The width of the fairway is tempered by its tilt from left to right, which narrows closer to the green amidst staggered bunkers on either side before the green, all of them below the fairway. The green side bunkers follow this, all of set below the green as well, all of which makes it imperative to set up a reliable approach.
The Thirteenth is a 409 yard par 4. A dog leg right turning after a larger bunker on the inside right. The fairway widens after the bunker, which leads slightly uphill to the green. Like the Twelfth, the green side bunkers are below the green, on both sides more towards the front. The green is a big one, generally moving from left to right.
The Fourteenth is a 411 yard par 4. The tee shot looks well enough; a wide fairway before you furling down a little beyond view from the tee. As you start walking to the fairway, however, the green comes into view, along with the brigade of bunkers before it, guarding it in formation. The ridge line seen from the tee now becomes the observation post, with the small valley after it the battlefield as it were. Getting the tee shot in position for the preferred approach to take on the bunker brigade is something that is likely learned over time and as for the newcomers, you take it as is, wiser for the next round. The green is not as large as expected from prior holes, moving from right to left, urgently. It’s a great par 4 and just like the Seventh, shows how impactful hazards can be when placed prominently.
The Fifteenth is a 217 yard par 3. The final par 3 of the round and the longest, the Redan quality is here with the left green side bunker lurking below the green, the slope off green steeply dropping into it and the green itself moving in that direction. It’s a deep green and slightly arched so you can’t see the run off area at the rear of the green, running downhill towards the Sixteenth tee. In other words, do not go long here. Likewise, while deep, the green doesn’t widen until the middle to rear, so the left bunker and that rear run off are brought into play a bit more, precision on that tee shot a bit more of a necessity than it may look at first glance. A fantastic par 3
The Sixteenth is a 408 yard par 4. The winding way home starts here, with a winding uphill fairway, twisting after bunkers on the right first, then the left later on. After the bunkers on the left, the fairway runs to the green. A slight ridge before the green reminiscent of the Eleventh, which can be used to pitch the ball forward, or will repel approach shots short of the mark. It’s a fairly receptive green, yet mind the bunkers on either side, below grade.
The Seventeenth is a 419 yard par 4. An uphill dog leg left, not unlike the hole just played, but here the fairway bunkers are on the left and the hole is much shorter. The green side bunkers here encroach a bit more short of the green and are decidedly more deeply set within the hillside, especially on the right.
The Eighteenth is a 469 yard par 4. First timers may not know exactly where they are with respect to the clubhouse at the tee, where the fairway runs downhill out of view. So you hit the shot, guided by the tree lines on either side, and start walking. Each step, gradually, slowly, reveals Eureka. The clubhouse, green and yes, Wissahickon Creek, sit idyllic below. It’s a view worth taking in for a bit, one of those special pockets of the Philadelphia golf scene. The approach must cross over the creek for its one last appearance but there’s a lot of room before the green to utilize, yet a green side bunker on either side ensures one is not simply swinging away with reckless abandon. With the heat and barrage of crappy golf shots taking its toll, the view restored me enough for one last respectable approach, landing 10 feet from the pin. The putt just missed but that was fine. The round was a hearty one, the accompanying throes and glories memorable. A smile on my face and squinting into the sun at its brightest, I gave the course one last nod.
The Wissahickon, babbling in its lazy floating way, carried on.
The back nine loops around the southern part of the property, which I was calling the upper nine after the climb at the Eleventh takes you above the front. More spacious, the rhythm of this set of nine starts with a mellow subtlety before sharpening its challenge towards the end, then crescendos on a fitting blissful chorus. I’d rank them 18, 14, 15, 10, 16, 12, 11, 13, 17.
Generally, the Wissahickon course epitomizes the halcyon Golden Age and exemplifies what made designs of that era worth the acclaim. The sequence of the routing, the subtle strategy, the continuous chance at recovery instead of outright penal; those traits are well thought out here. The balance of the course sets it apart from most others, however. Many courses are great for embracing large and bold features, many are considered great for their intimate charm, yet there very few that are able to excel between the two models, effortlessly. The variety goes a long way in accomplishing this. Wide tee shots to more focused greens; focused tee shots to fairways with an array of options; a bold and brawny couple of holes before a shorter par 3 requiring precision and finesse over anything else; it’s not simply random diversity but instead a cohesive theme presented a variety of ways. This allows the course to thrive comprehensively instead of a monolithic memorability, such as a great “second shot” course, a terrific “driving” course or some where with really unique greens. It has all of those things but the way and order in which they’re presented to the golfer makes the experience much more complete. In all, its place as one of the more well regarded Philadelphia courses is well deserved and while it took me a while to get here, it was certainly worth the wait.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Unassuming on the property but charming and welcoming. The pro shop has a lot of nice memorabilia so scope it out closely.
Practice area: Full blown and there are a few to choose from.