Gulph Mills Golf Club

6,222 yards, 136 slope from the White tees

Golfadelphia is only one guy. I’m ok admitting there’s a ton I still don’t know about the universe, about course design and even about golf courses 15 minutes from my front door. Gulph Mills falls into that category, or at least it did up until a few months ago. Don’t get me wrong; I knew about the course and knew it was very highly regarded. Yet details beyond that were hazy. I knew Donald Ross was involved in its design, that there had been quite a few revisions to the course over the years and there was a smaller membership that made it tougher than most to get on and play. Some of my ignorance is on purpose; there are times I like playing a course with as much of a blank slate as possible to form my own impressions. This is one of those times I’m glad that slate was relatively clean.

Designed by Donald Ross and opening in 1919, the evolution of the course from its inception is just as fascinating as the land on which it sits. Flynn, Maxwell, Stiles, McGovern, Gordon, RTJ, Fazio, Hanse; all had their turn in crafting and altering to some degree, all in the name of reaping the best golf from the land as only the benefit of time and experience allows. Rigid elevation changes stoically stand alongside soft shouldered gentle rolling hills that toss over the occasional pond or creek in flowing fashion. This land, a tranquil isolated respite, is brilliantly used while the respective legendary talents that have imparted their hand did not do so to correct, but rather to perfect.

The history of these changes was detailed in the book, “Design Evolution,” by Tom Paul and Charles Lighthall. There’s also a summary of them in a thread on Golf Club Atlas (I recommend reading the thread, which is incredibly insightful and comprehensive). They include Toomey and Flynn regrassing seventeen of the greens in 1925; Maxwell reconstructing the Seventh, Eighth, Eleventh, Fourteenth in the 1930’s; Gordon remodeling the First, Fourth, Eleventh, Thirteenth and Fourteenth, as well as enlarging the pond at the Tenth and installing alternate tees at the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh; and RTJ installing the current driving range on what was the Tenth fairway, then relocating the Tenth tee to the original Ninth green and changing those holes as well as the Twelfth and Thirteenth to accommodate the new driving range location. Fazio and Stiles seemed to have tweaked bunkers and tees for the most part. Starting in 2000, Hanse and member Tom Paul’s work related to tree removal, restoring top shot bunkers and in general, restoring some of its antiquated features while smoothing out the various styles that had come in through the years and accentuating its Ross and Maxwell character. Some of the changes and evolution will also be addressed in each hole descriptions below. One of the more intriguing aspects of this evolution is Gulph Mills may be the only course to have undergone so much change and actually shortened in length (unless recent changes included lengthening). Still, it did not lengthen throughout the majority of its existence.

Suffice to say, the parade of brilliance that has surveyed and analyzed Gulph Mills over the decades enhances its character as it plays today. The aura of Donald Ross remains as well. In fact, as I played Essex County Club a few weeks after this round, the similarity in use of the terrain was striking. Like Essex, Gulph Mills is sporty and strategic, rich with history and character, challenging all aspects of the game while the deft and clever are always able to find their own way. There’s a healthy amount of half par holes, to which the golfer must commit to aggression or caution. The terrain provides dramatic flair, which brings in notes of temptation, invigoration, even intimidation. All of this fuses and conjoins into a very refined presentation. Indeed, what I didn’t realize during the round was what a remarkable example of course evolution Gulph Mills is.

My admiration for the place grew with each shot. I now regard it as one of my favorite new courses played last season. Some times ignorance is bliss.

The zenith of summer upon us and my game in full swing, it was an ideal time to visit this much anticipated and heralded landmark. As Roxy Music tell us, “you know there’s nothing, more than this.” If so, that would be quite all right.

The First is a 415 yard par 4 (from the White tees). An elevated tee shot yet we can see the fairway climb to the green ahead. It’s all out in front of us to survey before getting on. A bunker interrupts the fairway from the left at the second shot, which plays significantly uphill to the green. In fact, the approach will likely be blind to the green based on the hill. The green is large and there is a bunker here and there around it for good measure. but the green size helps tremendously on most approaches.

As mentioned above, there is a hole by hole thread on golf club atlas that I’d highly recommend reading for all of its detail. There also some excerpts from “Design Evolution” that are likewise of note. I’ll include some of what is mentioned for each hole. Here, the First started out as a par 5. The fairway was shifted a bit to the left in 1941 by Stiles due to safety issues with tee shots slicing off to Swedeland Road. While Ross designed it as the First, it played as the Eighteenth for the first 7-8 years.

One interesting comment on the thread is about Ross. Ross was adamant that all golfers played from the same tee. If it took a certain golfer longer to get his or her ball in the hole, then that’s the way it should be. Ross only used alternate tees for different positioning.

The First
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Second is a 383 yard par 4. Still heading in the same direction as the First, the hole fully presents itself from the elevated tee in similar fashion. A tree line menaces along the right and while not immediately apparent, there is a utility road bisecting the fairway near the point where the hill bottoms out and starts upwards to the green. The bunker positioning near the green shifts the entry point off to the left a bit so that the green really opens up to the golfer that is on the left side of the fairway. All other will need to take on the green side bunker at the front right. The green moves from back to front as it pleases, with some areas quicker than others.

The hole has seen less change than most. A cross bunker about 100 years off the tee was removed by Stiles in 1941 and Ross felt the green was too severe and regraded it in 1927. It played as the starting hole when the First played as the final hole, which seemed to be due to the location of the temporary clubhouse while the permanent structure was being built.

The Second
Approach shot territory
The green

The Third is a 427 yard par 4. Now turning to the interior of the property, the elevated tee shot looks down on the fairway, which moves from left to right. A creek is at the bottom of the hill, splitting the fairway. Perhaps longer hits can carry the creek off the tee but most everyone else will be short of it and will need to carry it on the approach. The fairway moves uphill after the creek at an angle off to the left. This is the third consecutive hole with an elevated tee, initial downhill fairway that bottoms out before moving uphill to the green. All have their differences and here the climb is the most gentle and there’s a large center line bunker well short of the green, creating a false front on the other side. The second fairway and green move in an opposite right to left direction. The green is a nice size and multi-tiered but with its strong movement to the right, the approach should strive for that high side. It’s a versatile hole, allowing discretion in how to go about attacking it. The left side of the fairway provides for the best angle, yet makes the tee shot much more precarious. Those opting for the safer right side off the tee will have a tougher approach in, negotiating the left to right tilt that awaits them on the side of the water.

Tree planting in the 1930’s and 50’s changed the landscape of the hole, tightening the ideal route down the left side of the fairway from the tee. The green also used to be square instead of round.

The Third
Approach shot territory
Just short of the creek
The other side of the creek and creeping up on the green

The Fourth is a 112 yard par 3. The first par 3 is a quarry hole that has not strayed too much from the original rendition. What looks like a trio of bunkers guarding the green is actually a quartet, the fourth hiding in the mounds to the right. Carrying the quarry and bunkers is straightforward but it is the movement of the green that the golfer must worry about and not everyone will be happy with their shots on the green as they pertain to the pin. It’s the short par 3 most Ross designed courses have and comes after a stiff opening sequence.

Tom Doak lists this as Donald Ross’ best Fourth hole.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 398 yard par 4. Fairway movement becomes much more prevalent here as the right to left tilt is obvious, all of it moving towards the water on the left. The tilt muddies the golfer’s depth perception, or at least it did for me a bit, which makes it possible the golfer is unaware how much uphill there is to the green. A bunker on the left cuts in to the fairway, complicating the path to the green and obstructs the more ideal angle into it. This also shifts the entry point to the right. The green is large but moves at a furious pace to the left. It’s a tough hole where the terrain asserts itself emphatically.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory
A little closer

The Sixth is a 149 yard par 3. A forced carry over water with a slightly elevated tee shot and a green that widens towards the rear. A bunker at the front right and the visible contours of the green all signal that hitting to the healthy middle of the hole is a good idea, or even the rear. It’s straightforward in its challenge from the tee, saving all the subtlety with the movement at the green.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 456 yard par 5. The first par 5 and the tee shot again shows the golfer the terrain dominates structure of play. The high right side with the trees in the distance is a nice line and if pulled off, should see a nice bit of roll forward and left. The left side sets itself flush with the quarry on the other side while the terrain seems to pull everything towards it like the Bermuda Triangle. The high right side continues to be the way, as the golfer throws up his ball on that side only to watch it heave down and to the left again. Finally leveling out some what near the green, the same directional movement is still there just to a lesser degree. The goal remains the same, however, stay high and right.

This hole reminded me a lot of the Fifth at Pinehurst 2. That too is a shorter par 5 with similar terrain movement that remains through the green. Both are a joy to play where the golfer is able to use such terrain to their advantage with the right types of shots.

The green was moved further left by Maxwell and was much smaller, surrounded by bunkers. J.B. McGovern eventually rebuilt the green in 1946 and removed some of the green side bunkering. It is mentioned in the golf club atlas thread that while there is no documentation to this effect, it is likely Maxwell was emulating the heroic features found at the short par 5 Thirteenth at Augusta with his work at the green.

The Seventh
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
Looking back from the green, the quarry below off to the right

The Eighth is a 327 yard par 4. A short dog leg left par 4, the elevated tee signals to the golfer that the outside elbow of the right is the safe area, with water off to the left and the fairway leaning towards it. The angle into the green is more ideal from the left, however, as the green moves from back to front and that movement can be used more advantageously on that side. Of course, those who are able can try to drive the green altogether. A smattering of bunkers linger around the green, which is wide and requires an aerial approach on nearly all shots. A short par 4 yet requires two very solid shots to get on the green and in the hole.

The original hole was longer, with the green further up on the hill. The present green complex was strongly influenced by Maxwell, a similar template he followed at a few other courses after this, including the Seventh at Augusta National. Hanse and Paul worked on the green here, softening its movement, widening the apron for approaches yet also creating an upslope at the entry and removing trees at the right side.

The unassuming halfway house
The Eighth
Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 367 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot to a fairway that cants slightly from left to right. The fairway climbs and feeds to the green that’s surrounded by bunkers, the one on the right well below the green. The height of the green from the fairway makes the approach blind for most shots. The green curls to the right towards the rear, which adds to the suspense if the approach is blind. The steep climb to the green allows more options into it than the hole prior, which is a welcome change since the approach here will likely be longer. This is certainly one of those approaches where the golfer should consider where the ball lands as where as where the ball rolls afterwards.

The Ninth has seen a lot of changes. Ross originally designed the hole to creep to the left from the tee. The current tee is the alternate position and the green used to be positioned up and to the left, where the Tenth tee currently resides. That had to be quite a steep approach! J.B. McGovern lowered the green to its present position in 1946 and was rebuilt by RTJ in 1966.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The front nine gets right to it with its starting sequence and other than the brilliant change of pace at the Fourth, doesn’t let up all that much. The degrees and type of challenge is what varies, with the strategic and heroic decisions distinct as the remarkable terrain dictates. All are strong holes. My humble ranking or preference of them is 3, 7, 4, 8, 1, 9, 5, 2, 6.

The back nine starts with the 411 yard par 4 Tenth. Probably the most elevated tee shots of the course and decisions must be made right then and there. The hole dog legs strongly to the left and with a tree line hugging tight, one needs to decide whether to try and hit over those trees to cut the turn. Otherwise, the golfer will need to gauge the cant of the fairway moving left to right and decide how much his tee shot will move in that direction. The further out he believes his ball will go, the further left and closer to the tree line he will probably need to be. The rough and a couple trees stand seemingly harmless to the right but instead are the harbinger of what to expect for shots too strong over on that side. After the turn, the fairway leads downhill to a small pond, a spectacular green on the other side. Seemingly draped over a ridge line, the main body of the green is drawn towards the water with its lower left side stretching close to its banks while the high right side lays defiantly supine on the other side of that ridge line, doing its best to resist the call of the water.

This hole has seen the most change of any other on the course. Originally a par 5 by most all accounts, the hole played from where the driving range bays are straight out to the green, which was located 50 yards past the current green. Maxwell built the current green in 1933 and it is at that point the hole became a par 4. Most of the change to the hole came when RTJ installed the driving range, which impacted this hole as well as the Twelfth and Thirteenth. The tee moved to its current location, off to the right (where the original Ninth green was located), then used parts of the Twelfth fairway to get to the green. There was a line of Evergreen trees off to the right that became controversial since the fairway cants in that direction, so that even well executed tee shots would end up in them. Fazio removed the trees and flattened the landing area of the fairway in 1992. This resulted in the tee shot conundrum mentioned above, which relies on the terrain above all else, very much in Ross fashion.

In terms of evolution and craft from a number of historical greats over the years resulting in a present day cohesive well designed hole, this is it.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory
Short approach
The green

The Eleventh is a 318 yard par 4. Climbing uphill, the fairway moves left, slaloming around bunkers on the left, then right, before reaching the green. While short in length, the decisions of the tee are aplenty, as the golfer must decide how to negotiate with the bunkers. This can be done a number of ways. A remarkable green makes this decision even more important, as the approach will need to be precise considering the undulations that await. Long is no good and with the configuration of the green side bunkers influencing its movement, there is a lot of four-way directional considerations, meaning the ball will very likely move horizontally and vertically on most putts.

This was originally a long par 3, albeit a shorter distance than what it is today (229 yards). Maxwell built this green 35 yards above the original in 1937 and the tee was placed behind the Eighteenth tee.

The Eleventh
From the left
From the right, a bit closer (you can tell how this hole went for me based on the last couple photos)

The Twelfth is a 498 yard par 5. Now on the high side of the property, we tee off back down to the interior of this dog leg left. The tee shot favors shots to the right while the left is guarded by trees and water. A grassed in bunker is short of the fairway, a sign of the journey the course has taken through the decades (Stiles grassed it over in 1940). Those tee shots well hit are rewarded with the fairway running it 20-40 yards down the hill closer to the green. The majority of the fairway moves straight to the green with the fairway narrowing a little towards the complex. Another splendid green that moves right to left with bunkers essentially dotting its perimeter. Widening towards its rear, these bunkers come more into play as the golfer is lured into trying for the fat part of the green.

From the driving range work in 1966, RTJ moved the second half of the fairway to the left to create the dog leg around the water on that side. Originally, the hole was straightaway at 555 yards.

The Twelfth
Moving up the fairway
A little closer
The green and massive bunker to the left

The Thirteenth is a 401 yard par 4. We now head back up the valley wall. The tee shot is a bit of a reprieve, all in front of us to a wide fairway. A bunker on the right finally intrudes on this width, narrowing things and shifting the path to the green leftwards. Bunkers fiercely guard this larger green as best as they can, yet its size and back to front movement are tough to deny. The right side, opposite the entry point, remains undefended as well. The approach shot will indeed play much longer than its stated yardage, which necessitates the larger size of the green and green side bunkers.

Originally, the hole was a 416 yard dog leg left over the water we encountered at the Twelfth. The current tee boxes were constructed by RTJ in 1966 from the range project.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory
The green, from the left

The Fourteenth is a 170 yard par 3. We continue uphill with this green looming above the tee. Set on a gentle shoulder of a ridge, green and sand seemingly meld together from the tee. It’s tough to figure out an ideal line at first blush, other than imparting enough vigor on the ball to get it past the ridge line. The green has movement and subtlety. I’d love to meet this hole in a fit of wind, only to say that I did.

This was originally a very short par 4 at 295 yards but the green and tee were in different positions. It was Maxwell that converted it to a par 3 by building the current green and tee site, which he did in 1937. Gordon contributed the green side bunkering on the right.

The Fourteenth
Just short of the green
Looking back

The Fifteenth is a 374 yard par 4. At the higher point of the property, we run with it on this long dog leg right. The tee is below the fairway and with the right turn, most of the tee shots will be blind. The tree line on the right asserts itself, a left to right shot seems to be insisting on itself. After the majority of the turn, the fairway climbs and still turns to some extent, up to the green. The green moves from back to front and right to left, a bunker on each side. A center depression gives it a little but of a punchbowl feel as well, which complicates those who need to cross the center to get to the pin. While wide and inviting after the turn, those imprecise with their approach will need a fair amount of resolve to right the ship.

This is one hole that has remained relatively the same over the years save for a bit of bunker placement.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth is a 386 yard par 4. Moving in the same direction as the hole prior, this too is a dog leg rightist not as big of a turn. The tree line on the right continues to menace but the golfer is able to see his tee shot land in the fairway this time around, with movement towards the left. After the turn, the fairway climbs up to the green, which is up and to the right, with the entry point to the left. The green complex is well bunkered, with a few at the front and then around most of the sides. The approach is dependent on the angle in from the tee shot, which becomes significant considering the dynamic pin positions amidst the bunkers and undulations ahead. Most approaches are also blind.

A curious historical note of this hole. A black walnut tree resided at the inside of the turn from the 1950’s to 80’s until one day it up and left, apparently stolen from the course. I don’t know if I’m not getting some kind of inside joke from my reading of this, but it’s reported as an unsolved theft. I have so many questions about this. The manpower, the amount of time it would take, the noise it would create; I mean, I’ve considered doing the same thing to offending trees at a number of courses but the amount of coordination and expertise that would go into something like this, all undetected, is nothing short of impressive.

The Sixteenth
Approach shot territory
The green
Terrific green side bunkering

The Seventeenth is a 209 yard par 3. A long par 3 whose length is tempered a bit from the downhill, the configuration of the tee, green, entry point and bunkers conspire together for a marvelous final one shotter. The golfer is free to swing for the green, where he must carry the bunkers at the front, but the more pressing matter is the movement of the green away from him, off the rear side. Distance control and getting the ball to stop on the green is at the fore front, which brings the front bunker a lot more into play than anyone wishes. Others can coax the ball on to the green by using the hills and slopes at the entry point, finessing it on and maneuvering between the bunkers. The rough off to the right actually looked appetizing, as the ball would resist the pull towards the left rear and a nice uphill chip to the pin awaited. The array of options are before you because of how the terrain is used along with the placement of tee, hazards and green. Course design in its splendor.

Alas, the ground design of this hole has not changed from its original, which I suspected. While the golf club atlas thread mentions the green used to be much larger, I also suspect that it has now been restored to a larger size since the corners are flared out as described (this was confirmed as I read further down in the thread and was included in the work Hanse did).

This is one of those holes I’d be fine coming out to with a lawn chair and a bucket of balls for the entire day and never tire of what I’d see or learn.

The Seventeenth
The green complex
From short center

The Eighteenth is a 421 yard par 5. When I speak of ignorance is bliss, it is of those times when I have no idea what is coming and then become floored once I see it. It only happens once and then you know about it and that initial sense of sheer vivid discovery gives way to experience. So it was at the final hole. I had no idea is was coming and that made it so much more, exciting. An uphill par 5, the tee shot is blind but at least you know it’s time to climb. The fairway then crooks to the left a bit after the first hill, yet it’s still moving uphill. It finally levels off then starts downhill just before a break in the fairway, where some long grass, a bunker and rock have decided to congregate. After the break, the fairway continues on up, the clubhouse in view and perhaps some of the pin. The green will be blind for almost all approach shots. A small bunker interrupts the sheen of the slope to the green, which I think is a rough bunker, or at least one with a lot more grass than sand. Then there’s the green complex, massive and with the slope at the front, there’s always the possibility putts towards the front will keep going, rolling down the hill to parts unknown. Its length is manageable, which actually increases its versatility.

The dramatic climb, the array of options and paths at the golfer’s disposal, the refusal of the course to let up on the strategy, strife and challenge until the utmost final moment of the ball dropping into the hole; it’s one of the better closing holes I have come across, the climax at the very last possible turn of the ball.

The Eighteenth
Moving up the fairway
The clubhouse and green in view
The green, at last
Looking back

The back nine uses the high side of the valley wall before the glorious climb back to the clubhouse at the last. Flowing nicely among the hills, every point of the back is a distinct note of challenge and strategy, with the denouement leaving a lasting impression on the golfer. My ranking of them would be 18, 17, 11, 13, 12, 10, 16, 15, 14.

Generally, Gulph Mills is a very strong course that rivals the best in the area with a fascinating design history. The terrain and setting are special, incorporated into the structure of play where sporty challenge, deft elegance and captivating strategic components are interwoven in every shot out there. The variety within this structure provides ideal golf. Indeed, it’s one of those slices of paradise that was easy to cherish. The design, rich with its distinct evolution and personality, along with a smaller, knowledgeable and friendly membership, caddies that were a lot of fun and a tranquil, easy-feeling milieu make this one of the better Philadelphia golf mainstays.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Atop the hill overlooking the course and more specifically the Eighteenth and First, an open air breezeway connects the main clubhouse to the separate pro shop structure. Charming, relaxing yet plenty of alcoves and different places to gather in peace. The men’s locker room was all world with its simplicity, adding to the exceptional character of place.

Practice area: The old Tenth is now the driving range, the hitting bays perched on the ridge line to hit balls below. A couple putting greens are near the First and I believe there’s a short game area off to the right of the First tee.