6,610 yards, 139 slope from the Black tees
There are days where everything clicks. Where the street lights change in your direction when you approach, there are no lines and you some how end up in interesting discussions with complete strangers. Where at the end of it, you feel like you have lived life as much as you could have for that particular day and you go to bed with a smile on your face. The day I played Meadowbrook was one of those days. The flight out to Michigan was effortless and everyone was pleasant. I seemed to glide right to the course and enjoyed myself immensely. After a great discussion with the Green chair, I sauntered over to my hotel room, then found a great restaurant nearby. I ended things at the hotel bar, where the bartender made a great Old Fashioned and I some how managed to get in a nice little discussion with a few others on another one of my favorite subjects, bourbon. With another round planned the next day, the day passed as a reminder. Some times, everything is alright, even just for a while.
Mind you, Meadowbrook has been on my short list for quite some time. The course looked fresh and unique. It appealed to me instantly and seemed to be along the same lines of other interesting, character-rich, thought-provoking tracks as Huntercombe, Myopia, West Sussex, Wilshire and even my own place, Llanerch. Places that relish in their own identity and show the golfer things they have never seen before and won’t see elsewhere. Where the golfer must think and be agile and flexible, and creative. The game seems more of an art at places like this and is among those where it is at its most lively. It exceeded my lofty expectations quite early on in the round as each hole unfolded in dazzling delight.
Initially, the course was designed by Willie Park, Jr. which opened in 1916. It started with only six holes. It then expanded to nine holes before ultimately growing to a full eighteen holes with work by Harry Collis and Jack Daray, with Donald Ross involved in changing the Twelfth and rebuilding the Twelfth and Eighteenth greens in 1933. It hosted the 1955 PGA Championship (Llanerch hosted the 1958 PGA) and a few other tournaments in that era. Like many places, however, tree overgrowth as well as the shrinking of greens and fairways over the ensuing decades and drainage issues ensured that its character began to fade. With the Centennial coming up, the club began to explore how to conjure more of the Park character that was here, as well as possibly instilling even more of it than existed in the first place. Andy Staples was retained for this undertaking, who was to restore the original Park-designed holes, 2, 3, 7, 10, 11 and 18, as well as incorporate Park’s style and features into the remaining holes. Staples, along with a number of the club’s members, visited Park’s courses in the U.S. and U.K., studying them and for inspiration, then set to work, which closed down the course for a year and a half. All of the original greens were GPS surveyed and recorded, with the greens establishing the visuals and playing structure that would pervade throughout. The intent was to ensure the course revealed itself slowly over time, yet exuded a unique sense of style that Park was known for. Make no mistake, however; Staples imparted his own brilliance to maximizing the hilly property and incorporating Park’s design accordingly. It is very much a showcase of his talents, resulting in a visually stunning course with strategy for days in firm and fast conditions that is now much more sustainable and low maintenance than before. The club set out to improve their course for the Centennial and Staples managed to deliver that in every respect possible.
Indeed, the greens set the tone for the rich character the golfer encounters here, presenting an array of shots on approach and with the short game he would not see elsewhere. Park wrote, “if it can be avoided, putting greens should not be laid down on a plain uninteresting piece of ground. There should be a suggestion of a terminus of the hole, or in other words the position should be suggestive to the player that there is the place to which he must aim to drive his ball.” The greens are certainly placed on interesting land here and their character extends to the fairways, where the tee shots have as much interest. Tilting, obscuring and some times strategically revealing, those tee shots require as much thought and ingenuity as those around the green. The terminus of the green is present, with the journey from tee to green distinct and rich from one hole to the next. It’s the type of course I revel in when I come across in my travels; engaging, unique, terrain-based with loads of ways to think and go about getting around.
Yes it was one of those remarkable days. Whether it was by chance or playing here just made all those other things fall into place, who can say. It was one for the season regardless.
The First is a 348 yard par 4 (from the Black tees). The terminus of the green Park wrote about is evident here with the hole before you, climbing uphill to the green. A few fairway bunkers are off to the sides while water is concealed off to the left. An inviting fairway for that opening tee shot that narrows until reaching the green, at which point it expands yet again. This one is subtle with a few noticeable contours but the movement is swift. Those further away from the hole will have their work cut out for them, but there’s enough room for a lot of approaches and recoveries to at least land on and have a go.
The Second is a 548 yard par 5. Following the perimeter of the property, we get our first blind tee shot. ver the crest of a ridge. It runs downhill on the other side before climbing again to the green. It won’t be the last time we get the feeling of riding on a rollercoaster. The bunkers short of the green on the right are well below the fairway and green, making for a difficult recovery out of them. The green is square with bunkers running the length of each side, a bit below. The tee shot is a challenge to hit the fairway and those that do not at least have another stroke to set up the approach, but the green is yet another with delicate speed and movement where the utmost attention to every grain between the ball and hole must be paid.
The Third is a 351 yard par 4. Still following the perimeter, the left side remains a rigid OB. A slight bend to the right in the fairway is pronounced with a bunker on the inside of the turn, harkening tee shots towards it. With the trees on the left close at hand and even in play for those hitting through the fairway, that single bunker gets a lot more attention than it initially looks like. Getting it over or past that bunker will hit a downhill, moving closer to the green.
There are those moments on a golf course where something grabs my attention and I know I’ve encountered something special. I anticipating have a quite a few of those moments here and was correct, with the first coming at this green. The entry point is at grade, then sinks down below it towards center. There is what I’m calling a danger slope on the right side of the green that falls down to a lower portion of green. Apparently they will put the pin down there. The brilliant aspect to this part of the green is it follows the terrain. Approach shots come in to the green from uphill and will move down and to the right, towards that danger slope. Simply landing on the green isn’t enough for the approach; the golfer must manage the terrain movement to stay on the upper portion of the green. This can be accomplished by teasing the entry point and having it then feed in, going for the rear portion and spinning it back, and so forth. There’s also a good amount of short grass surrounding the green that can be used for the approach to stay up top. Those that end up in that lower portion will have a time getting the ball back up that hill and in the hole. Simply remarkable.
The Fourth is a 518 yard par 5. The left side remains OB as the tee shot moves us down to a lower area of the property where the fairway cants towards the water on the left. A large center bunkers draws the golfer’s attention closer to the green and the decision must be made how to deal with it. Around on the right is the safest path but that leaves a tougher angle into the green with the terrain moving away from you. Around on the left is the most direct route to the green but of course the water is close by and the degree of necessary precision ramps up quite a bit for this path. There is the option of trying to carry it altogether yet that will likely make for a longer shot. The green is on the other side of it, off to the left a bit, close to the water. A great strategic hole making use of land, water, sand and hill movement splendidly.
The Fifth is a 417 yard par 4. Another charming blind tee shot greets us here, jutting up early on. The tree line on the left gives away the direction of the hole and helps a bit with where to go. There are several options for the golfer off this tee, including hitting something less than driver to take advantage of the downhill on the other side. The hole bends to the right and leads to the green, which is on the other side of a rift separating it from the fairway. The green has a punchbowl feel to it and accepts an array of approaches. Another nice little par 4.
The Sixth is a 158 yard par 3. Snuggled into the hills of the Second green and Third tee, the first par 3 has some Redan components to it, with movement right to left towards the lower bunkers on the left side. The golfer is free to use that movement from the right side and watch it float to the left while an entry point is guarded on either side by bunkers. Those with misses to the right or long could end up on the short grass areas but will need to address everything moving quite desperately to those lower bunkers. A very cool par 3.
The Seventh is a 387 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot that needs to carry water coming in from the right at an angle in such a way that the left side allows bail out room for the water carry. The fairway then moves uphill to the green that sits at the top of it. A trio of bunkers are on the left can be seen from the tee, all in a neat little row, then another trio dot the left side of the green. Playing much longer than it appears.
The Eighth is a 186 yard par 3. Speaking of playing much longer, this shot must carry the valley below with water on both sides to a large geometrical green, well-suited for accepted the longer shot necessary to get there. There are run off areas that could lead shots into the water or nearby bunkers while those ending up long will have a spirited time keeping the ball on the green. Despite its inviting, large and simplistic presentation, recoveries here tend to be on the challenging side and the green’s cagey movement is to be taken with the utmost seriousness.
The Ninth is a 324 yard par 4. Just like that, the last hole on the front runs parallel with the First, the entire nine moving out and back without the golfer noticing all that much. That’s a master stroke in routing. A shorter hole and with the elevated tee shot, many can get quite aggressive in getting close for the approach. Bear in mind the dog leg right off the tee as well, or the tee shot will run out into the trees and rough to the left. The green is very well guarded with its movement and bunker position around it, which includes a deep center line bunker at the front that should be avoided at all costs. The green is actually a bit small compared to the short grass areas and bunkers around it, making the approach and recovery that more focused. A sharp short game wins the day here in closing out the front set.
The front nine is runs up and back the perimeter of the south eastern part of the property with all very solid holes, diverse in presentation and structure of play. I would rank them 4, 9, 3, 6, 5, 8, 2, 7, 1.
The back nine starts with the 354 yard par 4 Tenth. The fairway heads away from the clubhouse, once again starting the journey onward and around. A slight dog leg right where the fairway is widest off the tee, before tightening a little and heading more downhill to the green after the turn. The green is below the fairway, so all things ground game are gloriously in play. It also runs away from the entry point, so a degree of touch is needed to hold the green.
The Eleventh is a 194 yard par 3. One of my favorite holes on the course and in the heart of the property, an elevated tee shot to what I would call a modified Biarritz green. There are a couple swales even though there is a dominant one running through the center while the green extends short and long, with swales of their own. Short grass is secondary to the green and expansive while bunkers frame the green complex at the front and left. Golden Age courses always tested acumen of the longer clubs and this does as well, with plenty of room for the ball to roll out in countless directions. Recovery shots are likewise great fun and promote creativity and with all the space, even poor shots likely have some chance of getting back in it. A fantastic restoration of the one of the original Park greens.
The Twelfth is a 540 yard par 5. Running alongside the par 5 Fourth, the tee shot here is more welcoming with its wide uphill fairway, cradling the tee shots in its arms and gently swaying to and fro until the ball finally, slowly, comes to a rest. The fairway then takes a long time bending to the left, lulling the golfer before the dramatic green complex. A right to left tilt with sudden and severe drop offs the rear and right, a deeper soul crushing bunker on the left. It’s a fun green, but a bit more intolerant of mis-hits in the sense that recoveries will be tougher based on the degree of miss.
The Thirteenth is a 168 yard par 3. A downhill par 3 heading towards the water with slender bunkers surrounding the green. Have at it.
The Fourteenth is a 338 yard par 4. There’s a sign out by the tee that illustrates the green and pin location. That’s because the fairway rises right before us to unchartered heights. Mounds on either side with a slight valley in between. This is all we see from the tee. Hitting out to them, it’s anyone’s guess where the shot will end up, save for what that Atari sign tells us. It’s terrific. Once we manage to climb those hills, the green is rather wide, wrapping around a center bunker, with two bunkers lining the sides. Those that manage to pull off the tee shot (there’s a lot of room within which to work) are left with a short approach in and while the green is large, one does need to mind the pin and get somewhat close while avoiding the larger looming bunkers. What a great short par 4.
The Fifteenth is a 447 yard par 4. Up near the highest part of the property, we head in the direction of the clubhouse. The fairway is wide and cants from right to left, with a few fairway bunkers on the right. There may be a temptation to steer clear of the bunkers and stay left but mind the trees on that side that can possibly block out the approach. The green invites all kinds of approaches yet is a tough one. A higher rear tier and lower front make getting from one end of the green to the other an exam in speed and judge of slope. This hole was re-routed, with its green moved to the right and blending in with the Sixteenth to make room for the new practice area, that should open next year.
The Sixteenth is a 414 yard par 4. The fairway here comes together with the Fifteenth to the right, which is more in place for the Fifteenth approach, as the tee shot here should focus on the left center between the rows of trees. The fairway narrows as it climbs a bit uphill to the green, which is guarded by bunkers on the left and rear. The last two holes are fine but share a lot of the same, switch back and I suppose provide a nice lull before the closing duo.
The Seventeenth is a 501 yard par 5. A challenging tee shot through the tees has to be pulled off. Trees abound that tend to get in the way on the next shot and there’s a considerable drop off on the right side. The center line bunkers beyond the tee shot should be the focus, as the second shot should be able to take them on to stay in position. The green is uphill of the bunkers, a large Biarritz where the swale is all fairway before the green. This is the same fairway/swale configuration seen at North Shore, with many contending this configuration is the original one, as opposed to having the entire green encompass the Biarritz. The fairway allows for low running shots to move through the swale and on the green, ideally. The only Biarritz green on a par 5 other than this that I can think of is the Fifteenth at Glen Mills, which is all green. The sheer size of the Biarritz, its uphill position to the green and coming on a par 5 are all impressive attributes that work to its advantage. The golfer can play the green several different ways and angles, having aa few shots at his disposal before getting there. The movement of the green in general adds to its interest, which takes a lot of knowledge to understand what the ball will do once it starts its fateful roll. A fantastic hole that Staples absolutely nailed.
The Eighteenth is a 417 yard par 4. One last blind tee shot where a noticeable bunker on the right is the only real sort of target line. The fairway moves downhill after the ridge and that bunker, where the green finally comes into view. One of the original Park greens, it sets itself on the top part of the hillside and is rather wide from one side to the other. A generous entry point on the left, bunkers are short right and left. The movement of the green is interesting. The hillside certainly dictates some of it but there are some contours built in that make some strong suggestions to the ball to spite that hillside. I had no idea what the ball was going to do on my putts even with the help of my partner and the lasting impression as I walked off of the green is I needed to immediately play the hole again so I could get to know it a bit better. Such is the mark of a great course.
The back nine is takes on the other side of the property and features a lot of remarkable original Staples work showcasing his unique blend of modern play on classic templates to create a fantastically challenging and fun playing style. I would rank them 17, 11, 14, 12, 10, 18, 16, 15, 13.
Generally, Meadowbrook is an exceptional example of a modern restoration that moves course design forward. The focus on the project was for a cohesive course in the design style of Park while still allowing the creativity of Staples to flourish, all of which lead to producing the best course possible they could be mustered. It was a collaboration done the right way, neither ignoring the past or present but instead embracing both, while even tipping off what course design will be in the future. Similar in some ways to King/Collins, Staples anchored the design here in traditional Golden Age tenets, such as favoring recoveries over penalties, allowing ease of finding offline shots and facilitating individual creativity in one’s playing style at each shot. Staples then used his shaping and ingenuity without ignoring the marvelous land upon which the course is set. While the trend in the recent past was for a more minimalist approach and more of a skew towards sustainability, Staples showcased the shaping and strategy that marked a lot of Golden Age designs while still embracing sustainability, which is something Staples is well known for. The course has a tremendously distinct identity that’s versatile, individualistic and as fun and challenging as one seeks out.
The sun was beginning to set as I walked out of whatever Mexican restaurant I went to for dinner. The hotel was close and off to the left but I turned right instead. The early evening was warm. Spring was bringing that vibrant color back to everything. It was time for a drive. The windows were down, the music, loud enough. I didn’t know where I was going but had no where to be anyways. The music played as the neighborhoods and stores and grass and flowers and trees and people all rolled by like one big movie. My thoughts, usually dancing and swirling with the weight of the world, simply drifted to memories of that course and what was along that drive. Some days will see us much worse, some much better. Some, like that day, a little happier than when we woke up. Some days, that’s just fine.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Much larger than it appears when one drives in, it is built into a hillside and boasts several views of the course beyond. The pro shop is at the front of it near the driving range, well stocked.
Practice area: The practice area is now completely renovated and upgraded. I look forward to my next visit to check it out but my understanding is they are now able to practice year round and have a brand new indoor complex. Exciting times for Meadowbrook.