2,832 yards, 129 slope from the Back tees
In the Valley Forge hills above the downtown sits Phoenixville Country Club, a nine hole course design by Hugh Wilson.
Phoenixville is brim full of character and quirk as it basically goes where it pleases about the sharp hills upon which it is laid. There is significant tilt, numerous blind shots and wild fluctuations from one end of the golfing spectrum to another, from shot to shot. Its setting is likewise unique. While it melds with the quiet residential neighborhood seamlessly, Valley Forge park is a stone’s throw away, adding a layer of natural and historical stillness to the rounds depending on the time of day. The course really could care less how long you can hit it. Knowledge of the terrain combined with hitting the ball pure and true are what aids the golfer here. Well, that and it’s the greens. Simple in their tilts and terraced undulations, reading them correctly, then actually being able to stroke the putter consistent with that read, prove to be one of the fantastic challenges to go through. Chips and recoveries are likewise always tough, especially if you find yourself above the hole. In all, it’s the exact combination of character, strategy and challenge a nine holer should have to stand the test of time in maintaining interest. Tom Doak once said that with nine holes, there is no hiding; the pressure is on for each hole to stand out in order for the course as a whole to stand out. That is certainly accomplished here.
I know PCC well, as I was a member there for a few years many moons ago. At the time I worked very close by so it was easy to get around in the early morning or evening, or even pop in for lunch and a short practice session. In many ways, this is where I fell in love with walking a golf course, learning the relaxed cadence and those wonderful drifting thoughts one has from shot to shot as they traverse the terrain. It’s also where I learned that there’s a lot more ways to play this game than an eighteen hole stroke play round. But most of all, its intimate scale and relaxed setting almost made it feel like I was playing golf in my backyard. My classically designed, well pedigreed, and cleverly fun, backyard. Learning how to negotiate the hills and slopes by trying different angles or distances into the greens, as well as crafting tailored short game shots for each green, opened up entire other windows to the game, all of which were enthralling. The blind tee shots dictate a knowledge of what the land does and how the ball reacts once it lands while the elevation differences must also be learned for what they do to the distances. The greens could be studied a good deal; the advantages in my putting remain today from playing them so much. While at the time I was beginning to learn the resultant differences between a well designed course, or even the differences among design concepts or structures, playing here is where I learned a great deal on how to find joy in course design in general.
It had been over five years since I had been back but as I walked in the pro shop, it felt like I had never left. The familiarity rushed back; the sounds of the trees softly whistling with the wind, the murmur of the patio overlooking the Ninth green, and the fairways, climbing and sweeping right up to each of the showcased greens. I was excited to be back, to see if my perception of the course would be different after all this time and really, just to say hello again.
The First is a 350 yard par 4 (from the Back tees). The opening tee shot is over the ravine, to the other side as the fairway climbs abruptly to the green. Its tilt from right to left may not be immediately apparent but those who hit over to the left side will recognize it as their ball dashes for the adjacent Third hole. The green is at the top of the hill, nothing stopping the ball from falling off of the sides, and bunkers at each side well below. The green moves from back to front, quickly. I always found it one of the more challenging greens and did almost anything I could to stay below the hole, in line with it. Otherwise, hopefully you’re dialed in with the flagstick. Putts have been known to roll clean off the front. We’re in the thick of it early.
The Second is a 146 yard par 3. A healthy drop shot that is about a two club difference. The green moves, once again feverish in pace, from left to right. Quite honestly, there’s not much room to miss sideways but there’s more room short of the green than can be seen from the tee. But if I had to pick being off the green to the right or left, give me right all day. The left hillside rises up in a hurry and with the rough and green sprinting away from you, it’s going to be a tough recovery. Those that figure out the distance, hit the green at the right spot and, with a little luck, an ace is not out of the question. More than a few golfers have claimed their aces here. Yours truly is not one of them, although that spark of hope always brightened a bit putting the tee in the round here.
The Third is a 342 yard par 4. A dog leg left that sweeps around the boundary of the property and the lower side of the hill we’ve been traversing thus far. The fairway cants from left to right and with the tee well below the fairway, it’s a blind shot. There used to be a mirror way up in the air behind the tee that you’d look at to make sure the group ahead was out of the way, but it wasn’t there this time around. The trees on the left are a good target and the ball will move to the right a good amount no matter what. The fairway continues uphill to the green but just before it, dips downhill. This makes most approach shots blind and the tall target flag helps orient you as to where you should aim. Like the tee shot, the ball is going to move right once it lands, a fair amount. Yet hitting too far left means your ball with stay up above the green, which is not favorable. I almost liked to get my tee shot in the right rough, which gave me a better, or more comfortable, angle to the high left side of the green and sitting in that rough, you can heave the ball way up in the air so when it lands, the movement to the right is a bit more restrained. One member hits these really low controlled shots. They land short but stay on the line intended, coming to a rest in ideal spots. This was always fascinating to watch but took a combination of executing that low shot well yet also having an uncanny familiarity with the terrain.
The Fourth is a 305 yard par 4. We now go back over the ravine from the First tee shot at this dog leg right angle. From the tee, the green sits diagonally to the right and downhill, but the tree line obfuscates any view of it. This doesn’t stop some from going for the green from the tee anyways. For anyone else, the fairway ahead crests from the ravine bank and immediately turns to the right downhill. A tree line straight ahead lies in wait for anyone hitting their tee shot too far in that direction. Many will shape their the shot to curve to the right, hit the fairway and start rolling downhill to the green. I am not one of the them, as then you’re left with a substantial downhill lie. I like the flat section on the left side, which still leaves you short iron in, with a much better lie. As for the green, live on the left side. The further right you go, the greater the pull of the ball into the bunkers and area right of the green, which gets hairy quickly. I’d take 20 yards left of the green before 5 to the right of it. This green is more subtle in its movement but the general inclination to off to the right.
The Fifth is a 460 yard par 5. The first par 5 moves from one end of the property to the other, at the front and along Country Club Drive. The tee shot is blind, with the fairway moving left to right and downhill out of view. Like the Third, the ball will move to the right after it lands, a lot in some instances. There is a bunker on the right side as well that doesn’t allow for much advancement while longer hitters should mind the bunker complex on the left, above the fairway. The second shot must carry the road into the club, although I think I cleared the road off the tee on a couple occasions so it’s a possibility. After the road, the fairway leads downhill and sweeps to the right so much it goes left, with the green on the right. Got that? The second shot will likely be blind as well and requires some experience in figuring out the ideal line. There are several places to favor depending on what you want out of your approach and you’ll need to consider the hills and pin placement. The green is comprised of two main terraces, an upper at the rear and lower at the front. Like the First, you do not want to be above the hole and putting from the upper to lower tier is an exercise of extreme acumen. It’s a very good par 5, emphasizing how challenging one can be without focusing on length.
The Sixth is a 184 yard par 3. Now on the higher side of the property, the tees make a difference here. For those playing a full eighteen, most usually play the regular tees on the front nine, which is where you would be in the photo below. The back tees would then be played for the back nine and here, those are about 50 yards left of this photo, introducing an entirely different angle and alas, the bunkers and slope play significantly different. The movement from right to left is much stronger than it looks and as has been the experience thus far, being to the right above the hole is decidedly a disadvantage. This is one of the more deceptive holes. It seems like it may be a refresher, but it is not. The green is literally begging to reject your ball off the left side. I’d take a recovery shot in the left rough or bunker before some putts here.
The Seventh is a 214 yard par 3. A reminder that classic courses would usually employ longer par 3’s to test the acumen of the long irons and this hole is both long and uphill. The wind will blow against you at times, which makes it much longer than it already is. The good news is there’s plenty of room before the green; just don’t go to either side in the massive bunkers, left of the green with its steep drop off, or even to the right, with its mounds (although that’s the side I’d rather miss to). Getting over the right bunker and ending up short of the green isn’t a bad approach either; but realize this is another very deceptive green, even if it can be considered one of the flatter ones, it seems to undulate in multiple directions all at the same time.
The Eighth is a 446 yard par 5. The second par 5 runs parallel to the First and Ninth. Mind the tee markers, which are precariously angled to the tree line on the right. Hugh Wilson loved to do this. Line up the tee shot properly. After water on the left and a small first fairway landing area, the fairway starts uphill and continues that way to the green. The second shot will be blind and if in good position off the tee, it’s really up to you in deciding what to do with the shot. It’s relatively straight but for distance, figuring out where you’d like to be for the approach makes all the difference, as the green is intricate, large and multiple tiered. Part placement strategy, part experience with the pin positions and part preference of angles, making sure the approach is with a wedge was always paramount to me. There’s not a whole lot of room to miss off green and even less room if you want a manageable recovery. Hitting the correct tier is likewise paramount. The par 5’s are some of the stronger holes of the course, neither over 500 yards, yet providing all the strategy and challenge you could hope for in a par 5.
The Ninth is a 385 yard par 4. My nemesis hole. The tee shot is blind and trees essentially line the wide fairway. You have to hit a good tee shot. It has to be long enough so you can see the green and cannot be too far sideways where you’ll be blocked out by the trees. Yet a walloped drive risks running out of fairway and diving into the rough downhill, which makes for a headache of a recovery. The approach can be blind if you’re not far enough down the fairway. There’s an apron before the green providing a bit of forgiveness on the approach, but water is off to the right while the rough and hillside is off to left. Hitting the clubhouse with the approach is not out of the equation either. This is the time for two well executed shots to close things out the right way.
Generally, Phoenixville CC is a wonderful nine hole course that has you sprinting to the First tee after the round to do it all over again. The terrain and quirk work together to present shots and holes you won’t encounter any where else. While on a smaller piece of property, the routing is varied and includes an array of longer shots as well. The routing is fairly impressive, confronting the main hill on the property at the outset, then looping around it before coming back down maximizes the variety the hills provide. This, along with not being afraid to incorporate a number of blind shots and sharp turns and drops, brings the excitement and character of the round. The setting is likewise notable for its relaxed charm. It feels as if you’re out for a walk in the park here among the quiet hilly countryside, enthralled watching that white ball dance about them. And then there are the greens. Bold yet within a classic structure, there’s a lot to learn about them, adding to the complexity of the course, which is even more incumbent on nine holes to maintain a higher level of interest and engagement.
Coming back after all these years, if anything I have a deeper appreciation for the place. The thrill of suspense with those fast slopes and blind shots, deciding how to approach the greens and tee shots, then diving down deep into my short game skill set to handle those shots near the green; it was like I never left. And really, that might be the point.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Befitting of the setting, the charming colonial style clubhouse sits unassuming from the front, but is set on a hill side so is quite large moving from the front to the rear, as well as its multiple floors. The main dining area maintains that quiet charm, however, while the outdoor patio area enjoys the area above and behind the Ninth green and the ridges and hills beyond. The pro shop is in a separate building, well stocked and with views of the First.
Practice area: A short iron range runs next to the Fifth and the putting green next to the pro shop is worth getting to know quite well.