6,359 yards, 130 Slope from the White Tees
The Philadelphia golf scene is a solid one. One reason for this is the abundance of brilliance throughout the area by Donald Ross and William Flynn. Indeed, their designs dominate the landscape, taking advantage of the rolling hills in their own distinct styles. In fact, Country Club of York has a historic and unique role in defining the design styles of Ross and Flynn, as each architect submitted design plans for the land upon which the course would be laid. What better insight into these two behemoths of the Golden Age than seeing how each one would go about crafting their trade on the same terrain? And that terrain is rich with interest, hilly with a large ridge through it and a couple creeks on the lower side. An article over at Golf Club Atlas discusses the differences between the Ross and Flynn design plans in delightful insight and is worth reading for perspective of how remarkable the submittals were: https://golfclubatlas.com/in-my-opinion/morrison-wayne-a-comparison-and-contrast-of-the-donald-ross-and-william-flynn-routing-plans-for-the-country-club-of-york/. Their design plans are strikingly different, so the exercise in looking at each, especially on this terrain, is course design gold.
As the article lays out, Flynn’s design is bolder and was focused on more of the steeper and undulating terrain while Ross sought the flatter land for the most part. Flynn’s holes on the more severe terrain areas would have been challenging for even the more astute golfer, while Ross’s focus on lower lying and flatter areas provided a more forgiving layout for the lesser skilled golfers and an easier one to walk. Ross avoided a number of forced carries while Flynn embraced them, with diagonal carries over creeks (which I find to be one of his trademarks), shots climbing or dropping steeply, some times on the same hole. Ross instead traversed ridge lines and threaded valleys, incorporating forced carries and the steepness on a couple occasions. This resulted in more width and likely more accessibility and versatility.
While it seems likely Ross was chosen because Flynn had already designed nearby Lancaster CC and CC of Harrisburg, the course today gives us even deeper insight into Ross’ design style on such wild land. Despite it appearing Ross’s design was the less bold of the two, it is by no means tame or bland in any sense. In fact, I was surprised by how bold and different it was in many ways and actually found it to be one of Ross’s more bolder designs I have played, with others in similar vein coming to mind being Plainfield, Essex County and Gulph Mills, which is pretty esteemed company as far as I’m concerned. It comes to show there is no hiding from or neutralizing the land; it’s more a matter of how its severity is incorporated. We see it here in the canting of the fairways with the opening sequence, which makes for a romping ground game. These canting fairways traverse across hills or along the tops of them, then feed into greens that are set on hills and ridge lines above. The back of the front nine comes down to some of the lower areas before climbing back up, again diagonally, before heading along a ridge line to the clubhouse. The boldness here may not be readily apparent from appearance in many instances but resides in the terrain movement, where it becomes painfully obvious. The back nine is more adventurous and set on steeper hills, which we confront more directly and vertically. A lot of the boldness resides here in these hills, both visually and in play, culminating in the approach at the Sixteenth, which is to a green hidden among the steep hills from the fairway in the valley below. Boldness within the Ross rubric, always allowing us to think our way through it in a variety of ways, even at that approach at the Sixteenth, where the more clever among us may opt to simply hit it into the hillside and settle for a chance at an up and down recovery. Yes, the course in its entirety should be used and considered, not just fairways and greens, this being a worthy example. All of this results in a multi-dimensional course that embraces the terrain for its strategy in movement than it does in singular demand. Its large canvas is used in appropriate scale, maximizing the width and freedom within the hills. Instead of presenting and accentuating the severe terrain, Ross brilliantly goes the other way, conjuring its subtlety and sophistication.
After a winter of playing in the cold at home and no travel for the first time in years, spring was forgiving and came early. The first new course played in 2021, which is yet another I had pegged for years and finally had the opportunity to experience. Feeling spry as an old Grizzly coming out of hibernation, I was thrilled another dawn of a new season was upon us.
The First is a 402 yard par 4 (from the White tees). A slight dog leg right that immediately runs to the interior of the property. The turn is enough to make you think twice what your line is from the tee while the fairway starts to move downhill to the green after the turn. A larger bunker is below the green on the right, hidden from the fairway, while the left side features sloping short grass contours that essentially run all the way to an adjacent Seventh green. The green is deep and its edges are pulled up in spots that can be used as side boards yet the golfer also needs to make sure their ball does not fall off those edges.
The Second is a 497 yard par 5. This dog leg right moves uphill through the center of the course. Like the First, figuring out how much of the turn to contend with is a decision to make off the tee. The fairway eventually stars to move downhill before jutting back up at the green, which is terraced on a hillside moving back to front. The green side bunkers are deeply set below the green.
The Third is a 226 yard par 3. A long par 3 with a lot of room leading up to the green, which is set on the other side of this center ridge of the property, with the movement left to right. A brawny hole, yet leaving plenty of room to work with on most misses.
The Fourth is a 346 yard par 4. A decent opening trio but the course starts to assert its boldness a bit more now that we’ve been properly introduced. The fairway goes up and over there hill upon which the Second green and Third tee are placed and on the other side, tilts a good amount from right to left. The entry point is at the high right side to accommodate the terrain movement, for those who wish to incorporate it in their approach. Like the Third, the green counters the natural terrain movement a bit but I found the hillside direction to take priority. The back side drop off suddenly, giving the green an infinity appearance; best to not go long.
The Fifth is a 382 yard par 4. The hillside tilt of the prior hole is more prevalent here, now left to right. The hole dog legs to the left as well, so the tree line on the left starts to become an attractive aiming point. To complicate matters, the tee shot is blind and the fairway ends. Most approaches will probably also be blind to the green, and properly lining up the shot accounting for the hillside and dog leg feels like an airline pilot charting a course during a storm, in a good way. The green moves back to front. The suspense and strategy of that approach was fun.
The Sixth is a 147 yard par 3. Ross most always had a shorter par 3 and this one fits the bill. A drop shot that most will use a short iron for, water is on the left that comes around to the front. The bunker off to the right is more trouble than it looks when considering the green movement and water on the other side.
The Seventh is a 361 yard par 4. From the lower hillside, we now move uphill back to the center interior. The tee shot is blind from the uphill, which then dog legs slightly to the left. The fairway keeps moving uphill to the green, which is one of the vexing on the course, mainly for its location at the top of the ridge so it’s more susceptible to wind, but the terrain movement goes a few ways and with the undulations shaped into the green, there’s a lot going on. The climb of the hole is very real and reaching the green at the top gives more of a sense of accomplishment than it should, with wide open views of the course at hand.
The Eighth is a 400 yard par 4. The green was being worked on during my round, but I was able to play the hole until we reached it. A dog leg right where the right side actually drops off substantially if the tee shot veers over there and with the left to right terrain movement, the left side off the tee is preferable. After the turn, the fairway narrows a bit and moves gently uphill to the green. Trees start to enclose here, making accuracy a premium.
The Ninth is a 471 yard par 5. An uphill tee shot where the fairway dog legs right. Like the Eighth, the right side off fairway falls off considerably, so the left, or staying more towards the interior of the course, is a good rule of thumb here and in general. The turn is early and with most of the fairway running straight to the green, canting left to right, favoring the left side for each shot is a good idea. The green shares this same directional movement and as we’ve seen, those who succumb to the terrain movement end up in the depths of trouble, the green becoming far high above, many times out of view. Always mind the movement!
The front nine starts off nicely enough before showing off the boldness of the terrain, which lasts throughout. Knowledge of that terrain and how it treats the ball is important; learning it through each shot is all the fun. My ranking of them are 9, 7, 5, 4, 2, 1, 8, 3, 6.
The back nine starts with the 332 yard par 4 Tenth. Running parallel with the First and also a dog leg right, the fairway is more visible from the tee here and with less trees, cutting off the turn becomes more realistic here than it does at the First. The fairway runs into the green, narrow at the entry before widening the further back it goes. A deep and interesting green, one would do well not to end up off of it, which will likely end up well below it, on all sides.
The Eleventh is a 413 yard par 4. As the Second veers to the left of the center ridge line to start the loop on that side of the property, we now go to the right, which happens to be the sharper tilt towards the lower right edge of the property. We immediately notice this at the tee shot here, looking down into the valley and wondering if we’re not perhaps standing crooked. The fairway has a high left side and almost looks like a tier above the right. The bunkers and trees on the left side are part of the aiming line from the tee because once the ball hits, it will surge down and to the right. While this tilt looks pronounced from the tee, it magnifies tenfold once on the fairway, where we fight just to stand vertically. With the green well above us and a longer approach shot with the ball likely below us, it’s quite the challenge yet made for one of my more memorable approaches when I some how pulled it off. While the green is tilted as well, it’s still a reprieve when compared to the fairway, the constant being the ball will be moving regardless. A very cool par 4.
The Twelfth is a 197 yard par 3. Heading to the interior and top of the ridge, the tee shot is a forced carry over the sharply dropping hillside. The green is partially blind and is a longer shot out to it, yet the hillside gives you all the info you need in terms of movement after landing.
The Thirteenth is a 292 yard par 4. We now traverse the crest line. A dog leg right where the fairway has a pronounced lean to the right, which we’re now accustomed to after the Eleventh. Aim left of left. While the hole is short, it climbs significantly uphill and the green is blind, leaving you with a longer than it looks approach. And the wind may be blowing a lot more at the green since it’s at the top of the crest. Two exhilarating shots here get you to the top, which has to be close to the highest point of the course.
The Fourteenth is a 514 yard par 5. No where to go but down, the fairway drops out of sight and dog legs left. The tee shot will be blind and you’ll get lots and lots and lots of roll when landing on the fairway. The fairway actually ends in rough, so longer hitters take note and plan accordingly. The fairway recommences and is still running downhill to the green, which rises up a bit at the last second. A large angled affair suitable for all kinds of approaches, the thrill of the elevation change comes with every shot, especially the approach as you watch it descend from the heavens.
The Fifteenth is a 471 yard par 5. Back to back par 5’s. The tee shot is a forced carry over a ravine to a dog leg left. The turn is early and must be accounted for from the tee. After the turn, the fairway leads downhill to the green with some tilt from right to left. If you did your work off the tee, the path to the green is fairly unimpeded and as it’s downhill to the green, a second shot close to or on the green is very much in play.
The Sixteenth is a 379 yard par 4. The high right crook of the fairway shows itself from the tee, letting us know clearly its movement. The hole is a climb and after the crook and ridge, continues to climb until ending in rough. The uphill, however, becomes even more severe and the green is among the hills, almost hiding from the fairway. The approach is blind yet the green is a large boomerang, scarred into the hillside. There’s a lot more room than it looks and as I surmised, I was fine with being in the rough in the hills because it meant closer to the hole with a wedge. The approach and green is a highlight of the course and is the kind of boldness within the terrain Ross did sparingly, yet memorably when done. Boldness, selective and with restraint, becomes a rigidly appealing elegance.
The Seventeenth is a 166 yard par 3. Back on top near the clubhouse, the green is a bit uphill from the tee, a display of its arsenal of bunkers guarding it. The bank leading from the green to the lower right bunkers is sharp, leaving quite a steep shot from down there. The left green side bunker is large and with the green running towards the sharp bank on the right, it’s delicacy with survival. A nice final par 3, with room short to play with yet really demanding accuracy more than it looks.
The Eighteenth is a 373 yard par 4. A final nod from the terrain, this time the tilt significantly right to left. Bunkers are on that lower left side to collect from all the movements towards it and the tilt continues on in its ferocity through the green. You are on a hillside and respecting the movement it produces can’t be emphasized enough, here and throughout the round.
The back nine is the much wilder of the two, a thrilling adventure up, over and around the hills with spectacular variety. I would rank them 16, 11, 13, 14, 18, 17, 10, 12, 15.
Generally, Country Club of York is a fantastic display of navigating romping terrain. Despite its severity and aggressive movement, it’s some how still able to pull off a subtle, even deceptive, presentation. Yet there are times when that terrain beats its chest and wants the golfer to give their best, as nothing else will do. It’s a dance full of suspense, thrill, some playfulness and, battle.
It’s interesting and a bit fitting in comparing Ross and Flynn’s approach to the terrain, we learn a little more about them both and it certainly has given me some perspective on why I enjoy their work. Both are known for their genius in routing. Flynn, with his foot always on the pedal, strived for the dramatic, strategy to be found within in varying degrees of plume. Ross was a bit more balanced, dabbling in the dramatic yet more interested in subtlety and cleverness. The risk is of it coming off as dull and a missed opportunity on the land, yet he rarely if ever missed. He certainly does not here. Including some of the bold Flynn most certainly would have shown while incorporating the ferocity of movement in a variety of other ways, the course is like going on every ride at an amusement park.
Yet another fantastic display broadening the unique character and interest of the Philadelphia golf theatre.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: It’s an impressive stone structure and the pro shop is set within.
Practice area: At the bottom of the hill, a great secluded driving range and short game area while a putting green is near the First tee.