6,676 yards, 132 slope from the Blues
Philadelphia Country Club is in Gladwyne, an affluent suburb just outside the city. In a quiet residential neighborhood, the small streets sidle the fairways, allowing golfer and cyclist or motorist to exchange pleasantries. The peaceful wooded setting, country estate chalets of the neighborhood adding nicely to the visuals; the tone is set early for the relaxed, soothing round awaiting the golfer, all on a subdued yet insightful course.
PCC moved to its current location in 1924. Its eighteen hole course is called Spring Mill and was designed by William Flynn, opening for play in 1927. There’s also a nine hole course called Centennial, which was built to commemorate the club’s 100 year anniversary. That course was designed by Tom Fazio and opened for play in 1991. The Centennial is undergoing extensive work and re-routing to add in a new practice area. As for the Spring Mill course, the front nine is Spring and the back, Mill. Easy to remember.
Flynn designed most of his courses in the area within a five year period, with Spring Mill being one of the later ones to open (Lehigh opened the same year). With the exposure to a variety of sites and likely in the midst of multiple projects at once, there is a culmination at Spring Mill and the refinement is evident. Everything is tied in nicely. Mind you, the routing is now different than it was originally when clubhouse locations were changed, but the transitions from hole to hole remain. How the holes are placed on the landscape, like silk scarves fluttering down from the sky until they gracefully come to their final rest, remain. What remains and what is evident is a refined and polished course, elegant and charming in how it plays, all of it enchantingly understated.
The 1939 U.S. Open was hosted here, won by Byron Nelson in a playoff. That tournament is also famous for who didn’t win. Sam Snead, who everyone was ready to crown champion coming into the final hole, scored an 8, which took him out of the lead and ensuing playoff altogether. One of the most prolific players of the game, Snead never won the U.S. Open and it was here he came closest. More recently, the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur and 2005 U.S. Amateur tournaments were hosted here. It is currently ranked 13th on Golf Digest’s list of Best Golf Courses in Pennsylvania and 122nd on Golfweek’s list of Best Classic Courses.
My description of the course in the 2020 Recap is worth putting here as well. “We start with the greens. Pure movement on subtle contours where the terrain and grass are in balance with each other and the ball rolls exactly as it should, beautifully. This concept extends to the course as a whole. There is nothing here bold, or flashy, or grandiose, because there doesn’t have to be. Flynn’s design is in harmony with the hills, creeks and ponds, which glide through the land effortlessly. The strategy in using the contours and figuring out advantageous angles is pure joy, the presentation of each hole after the next superb. It’s a classic layout pulled off at a very high level, all of it understated.”
This was one of those days of golf that comes around only once in a while. Like Haley’s Comet. A morning tee time, the drive over to the course even showed promise. That promise never left the day. Finally finding something in my swing, a resurgent confidence overtook my game, the course glowed throughout and our caddie was one of the best I’ve had. We finished the round with the day still beaming, everything vivid today as it was then. Alas, the golf gods shined upon us, albeit briefly, yet enough to savor and see what lies on the other side of what some times feels like the never ending road of strife.
The First is a 313 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A short par 4 to start things off. A dog leg left with the green tucked away on that side, the fairway cants in that direction as well, towards fantastic shaped bunkers on the left side of the fairway. Like the round itself, this hole is full of possibility. Longer players can make a go for the green, those with more faith in their irons can use on both shots, and anything in between is in play, really, using the slope of the fairway to one’s advantage for the preferable line into the green. The further and right you go, the more the green opens up. A graceful green at that, sleek and much more dynamic than it looks. A stunning opener.
The Second is a 341 yard par 4. A ridge awaits from the tee, running from right to left, bunkers at its edge. The fairway is just a tad off to the left but with the contours, there can be a bit of roll that way. Uphill from the fairway is the green, a bunker triumvirate must be carried to reach the green. A blind approach at that, deftness is necessary to place the ball in scoring position from the fairway below.
The Third is a 559 yard par 5. An uphill par 5, the bunkers on the right off the tee are a risk/reward proposition, especially since there’s ample fairway off to the left. After the tee shot, the fairway moves uphill, whirling between bunkers on either side before straightening out to the green. Determining placement and navigating through the bunkers is one of the challenges here and like the prior hole, a lot of the approaches are blind to the uphill green but here those that are short of it can run their ball on. Options at every shot, with the tee shot paramount and the far side of the green a sneaky play.
The Fourth is a 455 yard par 4. The number one handicapped hole, a long par 4 that’s all before you at the tee. Straight on and downhill, it’s worth noting the bunkering on this hole. In fact, the bunkering here is heavily underrated. A cornucopia of variety, aesthetically pleasing and discretionally effective, at the Fourth the one on the right off the tee flashes at you, signaling and goading, while the one on the left is demure, slightly hiding yet likely to be in play a lot more than the one on the right. The two near the green have differential personalities as well. The higher left, a U-shape that effectively confounds the further the ball goes left while the lower right is below the green, cavernous almost, making for a challenging recovery out of it and on the green. Aside from the bunkers, the hole requires two very well hit shots while the terrain generally moves across us from left to right. Most shots out of position will face sterner chances at recovery.
The Fifth is a 167 yard par 3. Flynn liked to have creeks and water front the green at an angle and we see that here from the elevated tee. From left to right, your shot must be longer to carry the further right you go, while the bunkers are an additional consideration if you decide on left. There isn’t much off green that will treat you all that well; the green is set in a pocket of creek bank where hillsides intersect and surrounding trees also confine things a bit. It is downhill and a shorter shot, so take dead aim.
The Sixth is a 491 yard par 5. The tee shot is a forced carry over water, again at an angle from the tee, running left to right. The fairway slopes from left to right as well, so take that into account when lining up your tee shot. Water continues to run along the right side of the fairway, which is ultimately bisected by a creek, starting up again on the other side. The second fairway climbs uphill to the green, spilling off to the right, bunkers circling. A well hit tee shot is rewarded by allowing the golfer a choice of laying up after the creek before crook in the fairway and the bunkers for a shorter third shot, while a tee shot out of position likely means more pressure to get in a position for a manageable approach. Short of the green and around it is fraught with peril, so the safer the approach shot, the better. A well laid out par 5.
The Seventh is a 195 yard par 3. Sawmill Run murmurs off to the left, creeping to the green before sulking off towards Stony Lane. The green is above us, a narrow deep apron before it, which climbs a bit before dropping in. The green moves right to left and back to front. With the bunkers off to the left, there are Redan notes here and favoring the right to allow for some roll back to the left is wise. A great par 3, tucked into one of the corners of the property, the small rippling hillside before Sawmill Run used spectacularly.
The Eighth is a 380 yard par 4. Stony Lane at the Seventh turns right and is Stony Lane at the Eighth. On the other side is the neighborhood, all of it together in harmony. It reminded me of the back nine at Merion, where Golf House Road rises and falls across from the clubhouse. Sprinklers going, the humming of a lawnmower, a couple cyclists riding by; it’s a low key serenity that adds to the sense of place. Taking a moment or two, we tee off straightaway. A couple bunkers on the left and one on the right are off to the sides but some how come into play a lot more often than one would imagine. Bunkers at either side of the entry point and a green that falls off on the sides, the approach is a deceptive one, especially since it appears there’s all the room in the world to miss.
The Ninth is a 404 yard par 4. Neatly, we’re headed in the direction of the clubhouse, the First off to the right. While the hole is straight, bunker placement has the fairway running at an angle from the tee to the right before turning a click or two to the left before heading to the green. Near the green, the fairway narrows into a smattering of bunkers but staying left keeps the ground game alive through the green. I found the green side bunker to the right on the approach but then pitched out to a couple inches of the hole. A nice way to close out a set of nine, I’ll take it every time.
The front nine is a zig zagged loop around the southeastern side of the course, a nice rhythm throughout. Starting with a couple shorter par 4’s, one with options and the other two blind shots and a forced carry approach, the course then stretches its legs with a par 5 and longer par 4. The shorter par 3 gives way to a par 5, then a par 3 before another pair of par 4’s that are straightforward enough, relying on bunker placement for a lot of the action. It’s a ying and yang, a back and forth, and out to in that flows well over the land. Ranking them, I would go 6, 1, 3, 4, 7, 5, 2, 9, 8.
The back nine starts with the 417 yard par 4 Tenth. A slight dog leg left that makes it even more so with the tee placement. Water is kind of hiding off to the right but a pair of trees on the left might make you line up closer to the water than you would have ever imagined. The fairway is uphill to the green, which is guarded by bunkers and likely requires a high soft shot on. A subtle hole that is fairly straightforward if hit well but infinitely tougher if out of place.
The Eleventh is a 181 yard par 3. It’s a deep green, wrapping around the left green side bunker that’s well below the surface. While an apron before the green seems to look like a bail out area, shots to the green from there are decidedly touchy. The right side of the green is a safe landing area, albeit a small landing area, but that’s where my shot went and while a tough putt downhill to the pin was left, I was fine taking that over ending up in any of the bunkers. It’s a great par 3, one of the stand outs.
The Twelfth is a 542 yard par 5. An uphill tee shot, the fairway tilting right to left, most shots will be blind. The tree line on the right forces your gaze further left, but with the terrain moving that way and a large bunker on that side, learn to stay closer to the right than you might be comfortable with at first glance. Once you crest the hill, the fairway gets much wider. We’ve seen the fairway crook and twist near the green amidst bunkers, which masks just how much fairway there is. The green drops off at the rear.
The Thirteenth is a 365 yard par 4. Drifting slightly to the left form the tee more than dog legging, the inside left has bunkers placed along it up to the green while the right side off the fairway is rough, with trees, and a much longer approach up to the green. Bunkers are on either side of the green, with the sides dropping off substantially. Taking on the left bunkers off the tee and pulling it off gets you great position in the middle of the fairway, in relatively manageable striking distance.
The Fourteenth is a 436 yard par 4. Off to the right of the tee is the old clubhouse, now used by the greens department. You also start to see the Centennial course off to the right and beyond the green. Here, this is a slight dog leg to the left, downhill from the tee. Similar to the prior hole, the inside left line from the tee is the closest route to the hole, and with the fairway canting from left to right, that line becomes a lot more attractive even with the bunkers and trees on that side. The fairway moves straight into the green, a bunker on the left short of the green, green side on the right sitting below the green, all of it moving left to right.
The Fifteenth is a 214 yard par 3. Moving back up this side of the hills to the other, the par 3 is all uphill, playing much longer than it looks. The green is blind from the tee, so you won’t know you made that ace until you get up there. The green angles to the right from the entry point, making it almost a dog leg right par 3. Hence, taking on the bunker on the right will likely get you closer to the pin in most hole locations. Bunkers are also left on the far side, so take that into consideration. It’s a beast of a hole, especially if your tee shot grounds 20 yards into the rough. Or so I heard.
The Sixteenth is a 391 yard par 4. Now that we have climbed the steeper face of the hill with the prior hole, we tee off at the crest, downwards. To the right is the Centennial and once we move from tee to the fairway, a splendid view of Spring Mill unfolds before us. The tree line hugs tight down the right side while there is more room on the left. The fairway moves downhill at a steeper grade. Flynn always managed to have remarkable holes that play downhill on a steeper decline. Here is no different, where it appears the green is a wave of water that crashed into the bottom of hill and rose back up. Angled to the right almost perpendicular to the fairway, approaches from the right will need to carry the bunker guarding the front on that side while other may decide on the left side and use the apron before the green but after the bunker on that side, virtually hidden from anyone that doesn’t know the course well, and have the ball bounce and roll on to the green from there. Either comes with a higher degree of difficulty but ultimately comes down to preference. It’s a very good par 4.
The Seventeenth is a 444 yard par 4. The sharpest dog leg of the round is here, with water just after the tee and a hillside running left to right masking most of the fairway with bunkers on the right, set below the fairway. Getting the correct line off the tee is vital. The more left you go, the longer the approach in. The more right you go, the riskier it gets but that’s the price you pay for a shorter approach. And it does make a difference. The fairway moves left to right, dipping down before rising back up to the green. Short is really the only manageable place to miss. It’s a steep drop off on the right, the bunkers on the left get tricky in a hurry considering what’s on the other side of the green and the rear drops off pretty abruptly. It’s a tough hole, at the right time in the round.
The hole has a bit of history. Byron Nelson eagled here at the 1939 U.S. Open by holing out with a 1 iron. There’s a plaque in the fairway where he hit from. Considering the green and gravity of the moment, that is certainly one of the all time legendary golf shots.
The Eighteenth is a 381 yard par 4. A dog leg right that straddles the top of the hillside just below the clubhouse. Bunkers are on either side of the leg and the fairway tilts from right to left. It’s a generous fairway with a good amount of room off the left side, which falls below into rough. The green is slightly uphill, steps away from the clubhouse. At one of the high points, the course is below you, a reminder of what came before.
Many are adamant that the back nine is the better set of nine holes here. It’s set on more volatile terrain so perhaps sticks out more but for me both sets were fantastic. Here, like the front, the sequencing is natural, starting at the foot of the clubhouse, slowly settling into the hills until before you know it, you’re on the other side. Suddenly scaling the hillside at the Fifteenth, the finishing sequence is on some of the sharper terrain, which finishes high above yet steps from where we started. There were no weak holes. Ranking them, I’d go 16, 17, 11, 12, 15, 10, 18, 14, 13.
Generally, Philadelphia Country Club is a very solid Flynn design that ended up being one of my favorite rounds of the season. This is just classic golf at its finest. The routing relies on the natural terrain in how the course reveals itself at each shot along with the general ground movement, bunkers are shaped and placed sparingly and strategically, and then there are the greens. Elegant and graceful, rolling true upon which the contours they are set and not overly reliant on speed alone, the craft of putting is alive and well here. They really underscore an invaluable trait of classic golf that gets lost a lot of times with courses that focus too much on green speed, oftentimes rendering a lot of the remarkable characteristics of those greens irrelevant. That is not the case here. The greens flourish and instantly earned a spot in my upper echelon.
What PCC does wonderfully is demonstrate that a course doesn’t have to be bold, or flashy, or quirky, to be memorable. Mind you, there are courses out there that are memorable and great for those reasons but it’s certainly not a necessity. Using the terrain properly, discretionary placement of hazards and tremendous attention to the greens, all in a quiet country setting, exudes a very understated character that in many ways is more substantially memorable at the end of the day.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Rather spread out yet low profile, the club offers a number of other activities and social rooms throughout. Overlooking the Eighteenth and the rest of the course beyond, it’s certainly some where one could spend a day delightfully.
Practice area: There’s a driving range near the First that is irons only but my understanding is that the short game area is being completely revised in conjunction with the Centennial to allow for a full driving range as well. This has yet to open but is anticipated later this year.