2,613 yards, 119 Slope
Cresting the hill, one could look forward where dark had recently descended and watch the clubhouse come into view slowly. One step at a time. Illuminated and quiet, it drew us in with its promise of halcyon tranquility. A soft glow that could have been candlelight beckoned with that promise. As the lot of us were lulled closer and closer to that clubhouse, I had the audacity to look back from whence we came. The light of the evening sunset still blanketed the hills and greens, its glow coming through the woods beyond. The contrast between light and dark, night and day, was deeply wonderful. Glancing upwards, that line of contrast was there. Stars above candlelight and loosely strewn brick paths lined with lamps welcoming us just after the closing green on one side, a burnt orange fading shine turning colors across the fairways on the other. Our approach shots sailed stealthily on to that closing green and we livened our pace. As I reached for my ball from the hole after all our chips and putts, I looked behind us across the road to those fairways. They had succumbed to the night by that point, the stars already softly flaring in place of the parade of orange light before. We walked off the course and made our way in from the darkness.
It was then I knew Winter was here, another season at a close.
The nine hole St. Martins course is one of the oldest for golf in Philadelphia. Willie Tucker was a golf professional that eventually became more involved in golf course design. He finished seventh in that 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock and was actually related to Willie Dunn who designed the first iteration of that course. He was also involved in the construction of Ridgewood under Tillinghast. Tucker designed St. Martins in 1895, then expanded it to 18 holes in 1897. Cricket members Tillinghast and George Thomas would tweak the course every now and then as time wore on as they saw fit. The course gained notoriety which led to its hosting of the U.S. Open in 1907 and 1910. Alec Ross, brother of Donald, won the 1907 tournament. The Ross history with the course did not end there, however. Donald was retained in 1914 to renovate the course, which included lengthening and instilling additional strategic components as well as work to the greens. The Wissahickon course was built in 1922, in part due to Tillinghast feeling the need for a more modern course accommodating the recent advances in the game. Eventually in 1924, the Houston family took back part of the land upon which St. Martins was on for development purposes, which resulted in its reduction to nine holes. Three additional holes were then lost in a similar manner in 1963. Keith Foster imparted restoration work in 2013 to infuse the classic style of Tillinghast, Thomas and Ross, yet the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth holes are still as they were for those U.S. Opens in the early Twentieth century.
While I can think of a course with work by Tillinghast and Ross and Tillinghast and Thomas, I can’t think of one off hand with all three involved such as here. Starting from the clubhouse and crossing over Hartwell Lane, it feels like one big one counter clockwise loop moving down then up around the hills but all of the holes touch each other so it’s more of an out and back routing. Its structure relies on strategic contours and angles for the most part with smartly restrained bunker placement. The latter holes climbing back uphill show a bolder side, with some blind shots and fiercely moving greens. The width opens up the hilly terrain while allowing the golfer to use the ridge lines and slopes as he pleases. With all this width and larger greens, one may get the impression the course will be a walk in the park without much challenge. This would be ill advised, as the pull of the terrain shows itself in a number of a ways, from the ball bouncing off in surprising directions, putts turning to parts unknown and even shots sailing way off line when the golfer didn’t properly consider one basic tenet. What will the land do with my shot.
The inviting nature of the holes with the complex challenge brimming underneath is the epitome of classic golf. Similarly, the golfer is free to approach each green a number of ways according to his respective strengths, which shows its appeal for match play. Walking these hills with its history in who walked them before, playing all types of shots just to see what will happen; the score card becomes irrelevant. One gets lost in the game here.
The First is a 332 yard par 4. “Hartwell.” An uphill fairway where the tee shot must carry Hartwell Roads straightaway. There is lots of room to play with off the tee but many will steer clear of the right side only to find themselves having to contend with the tree on the left side. This could be avoided if a lesser club is used off the tee yet the shot still needs enough to climb up the hill. Two bunkers guard the front corners of the very deep green that’s offset a touch to the right of the fairway. The fall-offs on the sides of the green can get tricky to deal with as well. In all, it’s a proper introduction to what lied ahead.
The Second is a 257 yard par 4. “Long Hole.” The fairway cants from left to right, which is evident from the tee. A mischievous tree is on the left side, along with a couple bunkers, so that the golfer must decide to take them on or move around them and come what may of the terrain pull. The left fairway beyond the tree and bunkers is ideal off the tee, leaving a shorter approach in as the entry point and green run towards the rear. Bunkers wrap around the green and are slightly below, in wait.
The Third is a 353 yard par 4. “Valley Green.” Yet another example of a relatively straight hole playing as anything but. The tree line on the right runs rigid on that side while the left to right tilt we saw on the prior hole is even more pronounced here. The tee shot is blind as the fairway drops downhill to the green. The ball will roll left to right off the tee. Three cross bunkers are at the end of the fairway before the short grass that ramps up to the green, all of it arching left to right. The bunkers are within the terrain, however, cleverly, so that one may still rely on the ground game so long as a few of those skips move over the area briskly, or start bouncing and rolling after them. While the hole is straight, the golfer must continuously weigh the strength of the terrain movement and plot what happens to the ball once it lands.
The Fourth is a 289 yard par 4. “The Ditches.” This is one tee shot we’d like to see as it soars across Cherokee Street and down to the fairway below. A slight dog leg right, the golfer does need to favor the left a little to get into proper approach position. The green is one of if not the smallest on the course, even more so than it appears since the front half drops off precipitously to the fairway. The slope isn’t that high, yet its movement is such that the ball will take a slow, seemingly never-ending leisurely roll further and further from the green, which is exponentially more agonizing than those that dart away post haste. Suffice to say, an exacting approach is required.
The Fifth is a 110 yard par 3. “The Maples.” The only par 3 is at the far point of the course. A shorter ordeal made a touch shorter since the tee sits above the green. A wide, shallow green moves from back to front while a few smaller bunkers lie in wait at the left corners and right side. A short grass collection area is below the green on the left, varying the recoveries one will face in light of their off line tee shot. This hole comes at the right time in the round, buoying the golfer with a nice, short, engaging hole before he sets out for home against the string of par 4’s to come.
The Sixth is a 310 yard par 4. “Bellevue.” The return begins with a deciduous tee shot with the looming tree line on the right and a few off to the left. The left side opens up and tempts the golfer off the tee for that side, but know that the further left makes the approach longer and more in the blind. The green is perched on a ridge above, making the approach blind. Those approaches ending up short will fly back down the fairway. It’s an aggressive back to front movement with some horizontal and diagonal interior contours. It’s a challenging hole, the result of simply how it was placed on the terrain.
The Seventh is a 368 yard par 4. “Old Sassafrass.” So begins the stretch of original holes. Teeing off yet again over Cherokee Street, the fairway some what level yet creeping uphill just a little. The fairway is generous and even beyond it the golfer may have a shot at the green. Too far left will likely catch the hillside and could possibly leave the golfer further out than when he started at the tee. It’s a pleasantly simplistic hole with a deep inviting green. The golfer is free to play it as he pleases while a bunker short and on both sides of the green is just enough.
The Eighth is a 335 yard par 4. “Hill Hole.” The final hole before turning to the clubhouse, the tees are set within the right tree line to a fairway tilted left to right. A little narrower than we’ve grown accustomed yet sufficient room within which to maneuver off the tee, the green is straightaway. A sole greenside bunker is on the right slightly below. The notable feature of this green and the one prior is they are at grade with the fairway, which invites a host of shots into them. Their level nature also throws all kinds of depth perception issues out there and it’s not surprising to see approaches sail way past or woefully short in this regard. The classic ideal of simple presentation with the complexity underneath is alive and well here.
The Ninth is a 259 yard par 4. “The Inn.” The magnificent clubhouse is below us as the fairway leads downhill and back across good old Hartwell. Just like the opening, right is no good. In fact, the tee shot is deceptively demanding in how intolerable it is to offline passes. Straight is the order of the day while the approach is to a nice large green sitting uphill. Bunkers at the front corners of the green and with the clubhouse just behind, it’s a welcome finish.
Generally, St. Martins is a wonderful unassuming custodian of the game. One can feel its roots within the Philadelphia classic golf tradition. The contrast of surface level simplicity against an underlying sophistication of strategy and structure of play is splendid. Nine hole courses with clubs that have other full eighteen holes can take many forms, yet here offers more of a historical walk where the golfer is free to confront each hole a multitude of ways without any penal or intimidating affronts. It allows the terrain to perform with its twisting contours, jutty ridges and occasional bluff. It’s an arena of pleasant calm that perhaps gets to the proper spirit of the game much more than one expects when standing on that First tee. I’d rank them 1, 2, 6, 8, 9, 5, 3, 4, 7.