Steel Club

6,665 yards, 134 Slope, from the Blues

Just outside of Allentown in Hellertown , the Steel Club has an interesting history. The course was formerly known as Silver Creek Country Club yet was originally known as Bethlehem Steel Country Club, which was designed by Donald Ross in 1947. This was the last year Ross was known to design and build courses and passed away the following year, 1948. In fact, the course website indicates it actually opened in 1948, so it was one of the very last ones Ross was personally involved with. Ross’ original courses was a wild and rollicking one, playfully careening in the abrupt Hellertown hills that fall and rise on a dime. With such sudden elevation changes and valleys, the course started and ended in the calmer meadow opening at the foot of the clubhouse. The clubhouse is set at the base of the hills, a terrific place for it, as the golf holes twist and turn above and beyond.

In 1958, additional land was acquired on the side of Wassergass Road and another nine holes were build by the Gordons. This land is moderately flat, with a couple dips and rises here and there. The Gordons took inspiration from the Ross course yet needed to rely on building and shaping features a lot more based on the terrain provided.

Bethlehem Steel was the second largest producer of steel in the country, starting up during the Industrial Revolution before closing down in 2003. It was likewise a major producer during both World Wars. Also one of the largest ship-builders in the world, the company was a source of prosperity in the region for decades. It ceased operations in 1995. The decline of Bethlehem Steel eventually trickled down to the Steel Club. At some point, it changed ownership and became known as Silver Creek until 2018, when it was purchased by a local, David Spirk. Spirk changed name of the club to its current namesake and has been focusing on various improvements and changes to renew interest and development with the club and area. This included changing nine holes Ross designed into a frisbee golf courses among the holes. While the website indicates it’s a 27-hole facility, this nine holes was not open for play when I was there and the fairways were largely overgrown, bunkers lost. The greens were still in decent shape, all with Silver Creek pin flags still in. I have heard these nine holes are slated for housing development but am not sure where things stand.

From a course design perspective, this is disappointing to hear. One of Donald Ross’ final designs, where he likely was aware due to his declining health that his body of work was coming to a close, routed a volatile rollercoaster of a course among very interesting terrain that gave it a dynamic personality. The thrills of the hills interspersed with the more strategic meandering meadows amongst a flurry of exciting elevation changes is quite the course and would set itself apart from the other Ross designs in the tri-state area. I had an opportunity to go through those nine holes and photos are below. Despite being pretty impressed with the routing, bunkering and green shaping, a certain sadness stayed with me. The unfortunate reality of this art is that its preservation is never guaranteed. A work of art that nature was slowly taking back may disappear forever. I’m sure there are economic realities to it but for me, a course design enthusiast who finds some of the purest joys from experiencing such works of art in grand natural settings, there was appreciation for seeing it yet sorrow in the realization it may disappear for good.

As it stands, the course is comprised of nine Ross designed holes (1, 2, 12 – 18) and nine Gordon designed holes (3 – 11). This gives it a modicum of uniqueness, as I’m unaware of any other Ross-Gordon duet. Most of the uniformity is with the greens, which are heavily shaped and rely on the contours when they can. During my round, the greens were lightning fast, which affected the usefulness of a lot of the contours and slopes. Yet the same strategy advantageous at places like Pinehurst can be applied here, namely, going for the pin is rarely the correct plan of attack. And this speed made acceptable areas you could miss stand out from the areas you absolutely did not want to miss. Other than the greens, however, the two sets of nine sharply contrasted based on what side of the road you were on. The Gordon nine is hampered a lot by less interesting terrain, which dulls things from tee to green but the green complexes are good fun. Hole length is also varied, which shakes things up a bit as well. But after a very sudden and jolting start that raises expectations from the get go, it isn’t until you cross back over Wassergass Road that the round perks up again, providing an exciting finish to that clubhouse. And after seeing the other nine holes on that side of the road, a longing contemplation of what once was and what could have been.

Riding high from a few recent rounds, things came back to a crashing tragedy here, starting at the range before the round. The cold reality that winter was coming, literally with the temperature and wind, and figuratively as the season began to wind down and my swing was still MIA, set in as I gazed up at those Hellertown hills from the First tee. Yet, I soldier on, come what may. Good times, bad times; you know I had my share.

The First is a 410 yard par 4 (from the Blues). We climb the hills immediately. The opening tee shot is to an uphill fairway, framed by trees. Bending slightly to the left, the approach is to the green, which is an even steeper shot uphill than the first. The approach is blind for the most part and the green seems to run towards the right rear quadrant, quick as a whip. Use the terrain as a guide, as despite the internal shaping, the ball will ultimately move with the elevation. You look back to the clubhouse from the green. Looking fairly small now, quieter, from the high vantage point, like the world looks when looking down from a skyscraper.

Incidentally, the First of the lost Ross nine to too your left, climbing the same hill, its green adjacent as well. While that nine holes turns back into the hill above the clubhouse, we move off the other side towards Wassergass Road.

The First
Moving up the fairway
Looking back from the fairway
Looking back from the green

The Second is a 303 yard par 4. A short par 4, even shorter sitting downhill from the tee. There is a tidal wave of temptation to go for that green, yet consider for a moment a shorter club, more reliable, easier to control, landing short of the green, then a nice wedge in to set up a birdie putt? Of course a booming lashing from the tee making the green brings Eagle into play. Decisions here. The tree line on the right is imposing and annoying, but that might be the point. With the Twelfth tee on that side, they serve a purpose as well. A nice short par 4 that contrasts the First really well.

The Second
The green

The Third is a 387 yard par 4. Now on the other side of the road, we get into the Gordon holes. The undulating and untamed terrain of the first two holes with all its promise yields to the flatter side of the property, a relatively straight ahead hole littered with trees. A single tree is on the left to tease the tee shots while the right side is more dense with them, which makes that single tree a lot more relevant. The green is slightly elevated, well sized and brings some interest to the hole.

The Third
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 193 yard par 3. A downhill par 3, longer at that. The green moves from back to front, so while there may be a thought to run the ball on, it’s going to take a little more heft that it appears initially. Anything too long will not fare well and missing right is much better than left.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 525 yard par 5. Running along the perimeter, trees dominate on both sides of the fairway, which runs straight into the green, bunkers on either side. From the promise of the first couple holes, things flatline about here.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory

The Sixth is a 423 yard par 4. We head back in the direction we came, another tree lined fairway. There’s a little bend to the right and the fairway runs downhill into the green, bunkers on either side. Maybe a blip or two coming back on the life support machine.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory
Closer
From the left

The Seventh is a 380 yard par 4. Getting to the more interesting terrain at the interior of the property corresponds to a bit more interesting holes. Here, the creek comes into play off the tee and while it should be a non-issue for most, there is an area for those who want to lay up and settle for a much longer second shot. After the creek, the fairway sweeps to the right and upwards, to one of the more exciting greens on this side of the road. Bunker placement near the greens is more selective, which makes you think about how to go about the approach.

The Seventh
Shorter approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 181 yard par 3. A forced carry over water from a raised tee. The green is large, a nice landing area, with bunkers on either side that come into play for very leeward shots.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 530 yard par 5. An uphill dog leg right, trees running along both sides, the turn is a long one, which makes playing up the left side a priority. Bunkers on either side of the green, which is narrow at the entry point and widens as it moves back. The green has interest but otherwise this hole ends the back nine on a flat note.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory

The front nine is primarily on the Gordon-designed holes and it becomes evident quickly that there is a sharp contrast in terrain and interest between the holes on each side of the road. The excitement of the opening sequence is quickly lost and while a hole or two on the Gordon side of the front nine have their moments, those holes are nothing special. In terms of being in line with Ross design tenets, there are short par 4’s and long par 5’s like Ross would typically designate, as well as a forced carry par 3, but that’s all I could really sense. I’d rank them 1, 2, 7, 3, 4, 8, 6, 5, 9.

The back nine starts with the 406 yard par 4 Tenth. The good news is that the last two holes on this side are some of the better ones. Now on the other side of the property from the Third and Fourth, the tee shot is to a downhill fairway, a blind shot if you will. The downhill leads directly into the green, which has a severe drop off the back and nice shaped bunkers on either side. You can roll your approach on if you want, but by all means do not go off the back. It’s that steep of a drop.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 361 yard par 4. A sharp dog leg to the left, the tee shot must carry the creek although just like the Seventh, there is room to lay up short of it if you want. You must clear the trees on the left and reach the turn to get a good look at the turn. The green is a good one. The bunkers on either side of the entry point that we’ve come to expect but then the green rolls and rollicks at its wider points, with a really fun short grass collection area behind the green. A nice and different shorter par 4 to end things on this side of the road.

The Eleventh
After the turn, approach shot territory
From the rear, showing how much short grass area there is around the greens

The Twelfth is a 367 yard par 4. Picking up where the Second left off, the tee shot brings in the hillside into play, which runs right to left. How much of the hillside you carry off the tee is up to you but the more carry means the shorter the approach and vice versa. The fairway runs at an angle from the tee so is set off to the right of it, a sole green side bunker below at the front left. A short grass area front right drops down below the green as well, another creative option for those that miss the green. What a difference a road makes.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory
From the left side

The Thirteenth is a 194 yard par 3. A forced carry over the creek to the green, which is fairly large and runs deceptively fast back to front. Plenty of room to miss sideways if the mood strikes.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 520 yard par 5. The fairway dog legs to the right early on, at which point things open up from the array of trees that congregate around the tee. Moving slightly downhill towards the clubhouse, you’ll need to contend with a few fairway bunkers as you get closer to the green. The course becomes as wide open as we’ve seen thus far, which allows for an array of lines and angles into the green, with the bunkers and green contours in intriguing configurations.

The Fourteenth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory, from the left

The Fifteenth is a 489 yard par 5. Back to back par 5’s and I’m on board. Heading back out away from the clubhouse, the openness continues here, with the fairway dog legging slightly to the left closer to therein. There is a creek running off to the right, very much in play. The two fairway bunkers further up on the left actually block the view of a wide open fairway short of another creek that separates the fairway from the green on the other side. The green is wide yet shallow and the creek needs to be carried on the approach. Similar to the Thirteenth, there is a good amount of room around the green to miss.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory
Closer
The green

The Sixteenth is a 185 yard par 3. Again needing to carry the creek, this time the green is set up on a ridge. Deeper than most greens here, bunkers are on the right and short grass run off is on the left, so pick your poison. The hole plays longer than the yardage and with the fast movement of the green as well as its interior undulations, staying at or below the hole is a good idea.

The Sixteenth

The Seventeenth is a 390 yard par 4. A dog leg right, the elevated tee shot must manage the turn of the fairway as well as the trees framing it. It’s a critical tee shot but if you end up in the fairway, the green is on the downswing of a crest, the fairway running right into it and a single greenside bunker at the front right. With the bunker wall rising above the green, and the rear left also rising up, the green sits like a saddle between them, with the right side falling off completely. It’s a fun green and as you get to know it, can alter your approach to take advantage of those contours.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Eighteenth is a 421 yard par 4. A slight bend to the right as well as a definite crest of the fairway, the tee shot is blind in the sense you likely won’t see its final resting position but will get a close enough idea where it is. A wide fairway leads to the green, the clubhouse comfortably close. The green has the sharpest teeth on the course. Whether it eats you up or you conquer it with ease some how, the effect is the same albeit for entirely different reasons; you’re raring to get back at out there and give it another go.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory
Closer

The back nine is mostly on the clubhouse/Donald Ross side of the road but even the Gordon holes are better, making this the much superior set of nine holes as I see it. I would rank them 12, 15, 18, 17, 14, 11, 10, 16, 13.

Generally, The Steel Club is set on interesting terrain interspersed with hills and meadows used nicely on most of the holes. The green movement is rather fast, which renders some of the wild undulations less effective but the mounds and creeks are used well and creating strategy amongst them. The glaring issue with the course is that most of the holes on the other side of the road lack a lot of cohesion with the rest of the course and aren’t otherwise very interesting. As will be shown below with the other Ross nine holes, there is terrain that could be used that would really unlock the potential of this course and make it much better in my opinion. As it stands, there are a good amount of interesting holes here but there is also plenty holding this place back from what it could be.

Below are photos of the other nine holes designed by Donald Ross. Like the other nine here, they are among his last. The frisbee golf chain nets are here and there while the Silver Creek hole signs and pin flags remain. Rakes are in the bunkers, which seem to be kept up to some degree, as well as the greens. Fairways are grown over for the most part, however. The terrain is the more severe of all the holes, as they climb and traverse the hillside above the clubhouse and the holes are laid out across the peaks and valleys throughout. The terrain and views are splendid and while I imagine the total yardage is shorter compared to today’s standards, the strategy and finesse required are off the charts.

In some ways, these holes had the feeling of stumbling upon some type of vintage priceless antique at a garage sale, the owner clearly unaware of what they have and you’re just glad to come upon it in the first place. Nine holes designed by Ross on such hilly wooded property is indeed vintage, and in many ways, priceless. Here’s to hoping some day, they are revitalized and beyond all hope, are not lost forever.

Some notes of the holes are below.

The First moves up the hills in the same manner as the current First. A little shorter, I actually like the bunkering here better than the current First, especially on the left short of the green. For those trying to take advantage of the left to right slope, that bunker tags shots that get too ambitious on that side while the front right green side bunker acts in the same way as the current First; a collection area for those falling victim to the slope.

The First
Approach shot territory
A little shorter

The Second is a dog leg left moving back towards the clubhouse, around the current driving range. The bunkers are on the left and as seen already, cover more surface area yet are shallower than we see on the current course for the most part. The green is uphill from the valley, so the hole runs from one hillside to another.

The Second
Moving down the fairway, with a couple hikers moving up into the hills
Approach shot territory

The Third moves further up the hills, straightaway, bunkers on either side of the green. The grade is fairly steep.

The Third
Approach shot territory
From the right side

The Fourth is a dog leg left that snakes through the trees, traversing a terrace moving slightly downhill. The fairway tilts left to right before the turn, then funnels down to the green, rocking and rolling its way there on the natural bumps and contours of the hillside. A lot of accuracy is needed here, for both the tee shot to clear the turn and the approach.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory
The drop off on the right

The Fifth moves back up the hill and is a fairly short par 3 but with the dramatic hill side falling off quickly, there is little room off the green to miss and anything short is likely done. The severity of the hills can be felt here.

The Fifth
The green

The Sixth is a dog leg left that’s a healthy careen in that direction, the hillside showing lots of tilt. The fairway then heads downhill to the green, a bit on the smaller side.

The Sixth
The holes below, terrace upon terrace
Approach shot territory
The green

The Seventh is the beginning of the descent back down to the clubhouse. One of my favorite holes, the fairway opens up down below the tee, the fairway moving right to left. The strategic decision off the tee is whether you prefer a shorter yet more constructed line of the right side or a longer, yet clearer, uphill line of the left. Of course you can belt it up the right side, intending to roll it out down the hillside, ending up with a shorter approach on the left. The green side bunker on the left is a very good one, in both shape and placement, while things get pretty steep and severe just before the green. Deftness of touch around and on this green is mandatory. One of the best holes on the property.

The Seventh
The fairway
Approach shot territory
The green
Looking back
The old pin flag

The Eighth still traverses the hillside, with the fairway pretty much all moving back towards the right, the terrain strongly suggesting a well hit shot out to the left. Just don’t go too far left into the tree line. The approach includes a deep crevice off to the right that must be carried on that side to the green. Of course, if you end up in there, you have a chance at hitting out of it but good luck with that. A sole green side bunker on the front right is more than effective, as is the hollow before the green. Another very good hole.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a drop shot par 3. A large green awaits on a longer shot, all sides falling off except at the front. Again, the terrain could be used short of the green to bounce on while those off target are met with tricky recovery shots.

I was told this was the last green Ross built. I don’t know if it’s correct or not, but with a family of deer quietly relaxing off to the left and the sun rays shining upon it, I took my time about it. The deer weren’t bothered and a feeling of reverence took hold amongst the tranquility. One of the range balls was close by and while I did not have any clubs, I decided to roll the ball to the hole from about 20 feet away. It dutifully went into the hole. I can’t make this stuff up.

The Ninth
Looking back

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