6,415 yards, 129 slope from the Blues
In Allentown, Pennsylvania, sits Lehigh Country Club, designed by William Flynn and opening for play in 1927. Set among the banks and hills on each side of Little Lehigh Creek, the masterful routing is a grand tour of the Lehigh Valley, on display all while you play a few hours of inspired golf. It’s one thing to be able to get dramatic property to work on. It’s quite another in what one does with it. Most of the courses Flynn worked on were set on remarkable property but he always found how to best use it, both in terms of how it plays yet deeper than that, how the round is in harmony with its natural setting, unfolding just like it would as if you were floating down a river. Inspiration, intrigue, strategy, temptation; even tragedy. It’s all within the round, revealing itself slowly, some how in tune with you on each shot.
I found this was certainly the case at Lehigh. Starting out in the hills far above Little Lehigh, the creek finally reveals itself at the Fourth from high above. In fact, much of the valley is in view from that tee, which is the playing grounds for most of the round. From there, you plummet down to the creek, across and up the other side. Circling the hills on that side for a bit, you meet the valley once again from the high banks above on that side. Plummet back down then climb up the other side. And again, yet instead of climbing after crossing a third time, you sidle alongside the creek for a spell before finally coming up in those hills from the beginning holes, where the journey ends. Growing up as a distance runner, it very much reminded me of a cross country course. The starting stages time enough to get your bearings and develop strategy, the thrill and abandon of the steep hill and water, then some time to collect oneself, before doing it all over again. The point is the rhythm of the terrain comes naturally, whether one decides on a civilized round of golf or instead sets out to sprint around them like some kind of raving madman. But really, there’s an ideal path and there’s everything else. This is where Flynn made the difference.
Here, the scenery is dramatic and majestic. There’s a heroic nature to the shots closest to Little Lehigh while the further you venture up and away from it, a more strategic tenor takes hold. There’s really not a flat section of the course; the hills dominate the landscape, swaying in various directions before steeply sliding to the creek, which by the way runs fairly wide through the valley. If your ball goes in Little Lehigh, that’s where it will sit for the rest of time. It’s a course that’s easy to fall in love with. The fascinating natural surroundings about you while each hole presents a distinct challenge; one cannot ask for too much else in a golf round. Alas, it’s currently ranked 15th on Golf Digest’s list of best golf courses in Pennsylvania, 135th on Golfweek’s list of best classic courses, and 16th on Golf Magazine’s list of best golf courses in Pennsylvania.
The end of Summer hung over us. It was one of those days where the day burns bright early on then settles into a dusky stillness, which seems to fade forever until night arrives, unexpectedly. Match play was the perfect format, as the ups and downs of the match fit in nicely with the rise and fall of the course. My swing. I liken it to driving in one of the harbor tunnels, such as down in Baltimore or the Lincoln or Holland tunnels in New York. You enter the tunnel and start downwards, below whatever body of water there is. It’s gradual, but you’re decidedly trapped in the sense of there’s no turning back and no detours. You will get to the other side, eventually. At some point, you start to head upwards, which again is a gradual rise and you still have a ways to go until you’re out of the tunnel. That is the best way to explain where my swing was for this particular round. On the upswing, but still not out of that tunnel. And definitely no turning back. With a slight concern, no matter how irrational, it’s all going to come crashing down on you for good.
The First is a 424 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Starting out in what I called the highlands, a dog leg left that tilts towards the fairway bunkers on the left while the green is tucked away even more left than those bunkers. After those fairway bunkers, the fairway shifts to tilting towards the right. The green has an entry point facing the right side of the hole, the back left side higher and falling towards the entry point at the front right. A nice opener, the terrain making subtle suggestions you’d do best yielding to, all of it already slightly moving towards Little Lehigh.
The Second is a 347 yard par 4. Walking past the Eighteenth green and Seventeenth green, we now move uphill towards the general direction of the clubhouse yet we’re closer to Little Lehigh, which hides alongside us to the right of the tree line. The right side is no good for that reason, yet I decided to challenge that notion with a drive that mercifully found the rough before the trees. Flirting with the bunker on the left gives you the best line into the green, just be sure not to go in it. The approach will likely be blind, yet there’s more room than it appears at first blush. And favor the left in terms of misses.
The Third is a 215 yard par 3. The valley between tee and green actually makes the hole play longer than it appears, certainly longer than a level shot at least. The right side and the creek’s gravitational pull can be felt here and any shot remotely over on that side will bound ferociously to the right, racing to Little Lehigh with every fiber of its being. This makes the green side bunkers on the right almost a godsend, as they’ll at least stop the ball. Conversely, the left green side bunker, and any shot off the green on that side really, will be a test of touch. Little Lehigh calls upon us all, including our golf balls. Best to put a lot more stock into the movement of the terrain than less.
The Fourth is a 330 yard par 4. Here we are, finally. The glory of the hills and Little Lehigh before you, off to the left we can see what’s to come. The heroic components of the round are also now at hand. A well hit tee shot should carry the creek easily, yet the green and how the fairway funnels to it on the other side is enough to raise temptation and get as close to the green as possible. Longer hitters, that temptation may be stronger. Bear in mind, however, there’s not a whole lot of room accommodating wayward shots, despite the view from the tee. The right side after the creek has the best chance to find and recover, yet the hillside will push shots away from the green and closer to the creek. There’s always the lay up short of the creek, a conservative choice that leaves a longer yet manageable approach in. Fortunately, I caught my driver on a good day and was able to get a bit up the hill after the creek. The green, wide and shallow, is quick from back to front and there is not a whole lot of room to miss off of it. A fantastic example of using the natural surrounds a myriad of ways to enhance all different components of the round.
The Fifth is a 388 yard par 4. Climbing up and away from Little Lehigh on the other side, the fairway dog legs to the right around a larger bunker. The climb levels a bit after the turn yet still rising all the way to the green, where it too bends to the right around a bunker on that side. A much longer hole than the stated yardage and a hell of a fun green complex.
The Sixth is a 540 yard par 5. The draw of the creek is too much so we start heading back for it. A long dog leg right. Not long in the sense of distance but long in the sense of it seems the hole won’t stop turning. The tee shot gives you a lot of room to the left while the right is full of bunkers and a tree line. The bunkers can be carried and if carried out correctly, a shorter line to the hole is there for the taking. Gate bunkers on either side wait at the second shot, closing the fairway considerably, which moves downhill to the foot of the green from there. Large bunkers on either side of the green, there is no let up on the placement strategy, which pervades every shot and should finally temper any remaining vigor from the Fourth into a more thought provoking serenity.
The Seventh is a 211 yard par 3. The thrill is back as we reach the opposite bank of Little Lehigh. High above, the strategic quietude of the last couple holes becomes a more thunderous war cry as the longer carry over the creek is necessary to reach the green. There is always laying up and relying on the short game from there. Then, there is intending to lay up but hitting the tee shot much better than expected and hitting into the creek anyways. I’ll let you guess which option I went with. The green runs from back to front towards the creek and while it’s fairly open around the green, there are two large bunkers on both sides to contend with. Little Lehigh makes its mark thus far with its memorable presence.
The Eighth is a 383 yard par 4. Climbing back up, the hole bends to the left slightly with trees on either side guiding the way. The off fairway areas can get a bit tough, with the slopes, bunkers, rough and trees. And while it was notable here (probably because I was in a lot of it) it’s constant throughout the round. Knowing where to miss, and where you cannot miss, becomes that much more valuable. Yet you’ll most always have a chance to recover. Again, I know this from lots of experience. In a single round. The green is set off to the left and continues uphill, its entry point set at an angle and bunkers near it staggered, the one on the right coming first then on the left closer to the green.
The Ninth is a 416 yard par 4. Back in the highlands, the fairway runs parallel with the creek from its plateau above. A smattering of bunkers on both sides and the uphill fairway present a challenging visual from the tee, then a fairway bunker on the left a bit further out, followed by one on the right; it becomes evident that the placement strategy becomes a strong structure once again. Clearing the first group of bunkers and ending up short of the left fairway bunker, or trying to go past it in the narrower fairway, approaches from the right side are beneficial for the ability to use the ground and slope. The green seemed to move towards the creek, which apparently even beckons up here.
The front nine traverses the hills and confronts the creek on a couple occasions, with an eclectic mix of heroic and strategic decisions throughout. The holes are all strong. I would rank them 4, 9, 5, 6, 1, 8, 2, 7, 3.
The back nine starts with the 425 yard par 4 Tenth. Slowly back to Little Lehigh. Another blind tee shot, but this time because of the downhill, and fairway bunkers on either side just peeking up enough to see. The hillside moves everything left to right. And while the fairway sweeps into the green, there is a bunker in the center complicating lines in. The green is deep though and the left to right movement continues, just take heed to the green side bunker on the right. With the Ninth before it, there’s a nice strategic rhythm here, this hole relying a bit more on terrain movement for it.
The Eleventh is a 498 yard par 5. One of the more talked about holes, we cross over the Fifteenth tee and head closer to the creek. The tee shot is blind but the effect of the hillside is crystal clear. It almost seems like one can’t aim far enough to the right. Regardless of where your tee shot ends up, the second shot is going to be testing. A well hit tee shot gets you out far enough to think about going for the green, far below and across the creek, or settle for a short lay up. In general, anything else off the tee means the second shot will be blind, off the edge of the ridge, far far below. A trust in your swing and judgment are vital, whether you go for the green or not. You won’t see the shot finish either way, only where it ends up. The second shot, one of the most precarious on the course, all set up starting millions of years before, yours for the here and now.
The Twelfth is a 375 yard par 4. For the first time, we stay a bit along the creek, moving alongside it. On our left off the tee and very much in play, the trees and hillside on the right tempting to use as a side board. Otherwise, confront the creek and carry it off the left. After the tee shot, the fairway moves straight to the green. A tilting from right to left because of the hillside is still there, through the green. The rushing of the creek nearby, the valley softens as your putt settles at the bottom of the cup.
The Thirteenth is a 375 yard par 4. While we have encountered the creek head on in general to great effect thus far, Flynn was proficient at incorporating creeks at a diagonal, thereby maximizing the strategic use of angles. We see that here, a par 3 that tees off on one side of Little Lehigh, the green at a 1:00 angle on the other side. The further right you go, the shorter and easier it is to carry the creek, but you pay with a tougher recovery shot into the green. Those that take a bolder line into the green face a stiffer challenge off the tee but a more manageable putt awaits.
The Fourteenth is a 340 yard par 4. Now we climb, bidding farewell to Little Lehigh, for good. Similar to the Eleventh the slope of the fairway from the tee is so evident that you can’t favor more left. Maybe even consider turning ninety degrees to your left on the tee. The uphill makes the tee shot blind but getting it over the hill and yes, to the left, will romp it forward and to the right, all towards the green. The entry point to the green accommodates the left to right hillside, with a slight ramp up to it and bunkers on either side. A great shorter par 4.
The Fifteenth is a 364 yard par 4. Lying between the Tenth and Eleventh, we make our way back to the highlands of the beginning holes. A dog leg right that starts uphill and is framed by trees on the left and bunkers on the inside of the turn, it then opens up to more width after the turn to the green, which moves right to left and is fairly deep and large. The tee shot is an exacting one, and those out of position will have some tough shots to get back into it.
The Sixteenth is a 161 yard par 3. The final par 3 is a great one. The green set on a hillside that moves right to left, bunkers are on all sides except the rear. Those on the front and left are cut beneath the green, the lips of which almost invert over the sand and give the green an impression of a plank, overhanging above a perilous ocean, to be avoided at all costs. There is plenty of room short, but the more preferable miss seems to be long. And by any means necessary, stay out of the bunker off to the right, which becomes so risky in hitting into the bunkers below the green, especially with everything moving away from you in that direction.
The Seventeenth is a 416 yard par 4. Parallel with the Second, we traverse the ridge line that starts moving down and to the left, towards our friend the creek. This means the tee shot should favor the right side as it moves downhill along this ridge. Hit properly, the fairway will propel the shot forward, and further forward as it bounds downhill to the left. The green is slightly above, the hillside still very much in control with its movement. Bunkers are on the left side, considerably below the green while the bunker on the right is above the green and in many ways, much more dangerous than the ones on the left, despite how it may appear from the fairway.
The Eighteenth is a 418 yard par 4. Neatly, we finish a few paces from where we started. The fairway bends slightly to the right off the tee, with a good number of well sized bunkers strewn about across the horizon. Most of them are off to the left. Like the Seventeenth, the hillside moves horizontally and downhill, rewarding well hit tee shots handsomely. The green is above the fairway, bunkers more center and to the right, with the entry point more off to the left, consistent with the hillside. A larger green to close things out, the clubhouse steps away.
The back nine is a larger loop that comes down to the creek once, yet meanders there for a bit until climbing back up and circling around to the clubhouse. The strategy of these holes coalesced with the terrain makes for impressive play all around. I’d rank them 11, 14, 10, 16, 17, 12, 13, 18, 15.
Generally, Lehigh is a display of masterful use of spectacular terrain. The more severe hillsides of the creek banks are used as an advantage and the heaving hills, many times moving in multiple directions, are incorporated as strategic components. Where the ball lands is not as important as where it ends up and with the amount of blind shots, an inherent trust in one’s swing and experience with the course become strengths in proficiency of play. An understated strength here is in the greens. Despite the slopes and hillsides, the greens are situated to accommodate an array of pin positions, which again adds to its variety and versatility. In terms of the game as a means to bond with nature for all the well being that entails, the course inspires and invigorates. The scenery, the strategy, the highs, the lows – literally and figuratively – make Lehigh one of the greats.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The facilities match the classic magnificence of the course, atop the property and doing well to settle on the hillside comfortably. There’s also a Nineteenth hole just after the Eighteenth, a par 3 intended to settle any lingering wagers, or give those golfers one last chance to end things on the right note.
Practice area: A full range and comprehensive short game area, with bunkers and hillside contours you will inevitably face many times and variations throughout the round.