6,454 yards, 130 slope from the Blues
It only happens a few times a season, but this was one of those complete games of a day where everything unfolds seamlessly. It starts with getting out of the house and ends with me relaxing at the end of the day, likely with a draw of bourbon. An early summer weekend morning, those few decidedly summer yet quiet weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, the rest of the house remained in their slumber as I edged out with the clubs. I was prepared to slog on the Blue Route down to 95 but instead, the direction lady told me to stay on Route 1, where I took a turn near Glen Mills that raised an eyebrow. No matter, she seemed confident in guiding me through the hilly woods and farmlands, all of which unfurled its beauty under the rising sun. Covered bridges and streams, it felt like I was driving into a Norman Rockwell painting. Before I knew it, I was turning into an unassuming drive that led to a loose collection of countryside farmhouses. It was quiet and unperturbed. Tranquility settled in me as I opened the car door.
And so began the day at Bidermann. In the hills of North Delaware above Wilmington, the club enjoys a very low profile without insisting on it all that much. There seems to be an unwritten acknowledgment instead, a pact those who visit or belong make, to maintain that bucolic serenity for those that follow. It’s a place to experience, not talk about. This is likely why I had not heard too much about it. This only added to the excitement brimming underneath my nonchalant, cool character that comes so easy to me. Hopefully the sarcasm translates here.
I was intrigued by Bidermann for quite some time, which ramped up in the months before this round after my visit to Meadow Brook. This too was designed by Dick Wilson and is very well regarded, even if it is in hushed tones, never in groups of more than four. My curiosity and eagerness to learn more about Dick Wilson drew me to the course sooner rather than later. While originally designed as a private nine-hole course by Devereaux Emmett for the du Pont family, Wilson was retained in 1965 for the expansion to 18 holes. It was at that time the course began accepting members beyond the du Pont family, albeit a limited amount. The club eventually merged with the Vicmead Hunt Club in 1977, yet remains with a low key membership that allows for no tee times and that feeling you have the place to yourself. Indeed, the club very much retains that intimate charm that surely pervaded during its early days. Time slows down and all those pleasant little sounds usually in the faded background of our everyday lives come to the forefront, dancing along with the tranquil country quiet.
The tranquil quietude carries over to the course in a more vast, expansive manner. The wide open hilly terrain is used in similar ways to Wilson’s mentor Flynn, confronting plateaus, hollows and ridge lines from multiple directions while the bunkering, some times intricate and other time broad-shouldered, accentuates the strategic components of fairways and greens large in size with complex internal contours that educate the golfer each round. Navigating the boundless landscape is a unique strategic trait, as Wilson did not shy away from blind shots or his treasured dog legs and while the golfer is sure the green and/or fairway lies off in the distance, there are occasions when the horizon may shake that confidence a little. The variety in green sites also stands out as impressive. Whether settling on top of the hills, down below or alongside a ridge or terrace, they all have their own individual personalities, allowing for countless pin positions based on their larger size.
To some extent, I see a lot of parallels between Wilson and Donald Ross. Ross and Flynn were responsible for plenty of golf courses, especially in the Philadelphia surrounds, and Wilson worked for Flynn, so this is not particularly surprising. Like Ross, there is nothing showy, flamboyant or quirky of his work. Wilson also lets the terrain come through in large gentle strokes, imparting strategy in macro and micro levels, each layer revealing itself to the golfer as time wears on. Then you have Wilson’s Flynn influence in how the terrain is used and bunkers are flashed. These too comprises the strategic framework of the course, much of it a confluence of subtlety. I have made no secret of it that I am in pursuit of learning more, and playing more, Dick Wilson designs to explore his style. That is a lot of the fun and intrigue of course architecture as far as I’m concerned.
The perfect day came with a perfect host, acutely knowledgeable of course architecture in his own right and a flat out stick who was more focused on enjoying the time out there than score. The course, the beauty, the camaraderie; it is quite the sport we have, all on splendid display that fine Summer morn.
The First is a 311 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A downhill dog leg left, the turn is reachable from the tee, as is the bunker down on the right while water is along the left up to the green. The opening shot must be decided on carefully. Even though this is a shorter hole, the tee shot demands a modicum of precision to avoid the trouble out there. The green is off to the left. Those who opted for shorter tee shot will likely need to carry the water for the approach while those further along are rewarded with a safer and clearer line. The green runs from back to right much hastier than it looks.
The hole shook me. A grounder of a second shot, then in the water on the next, things started moving quickly all while I felt particularly comfortable with my swing around this time. So it goes with opening holes. Some ease the golfer into the round, some punch the golfer right in the mouth while others set the tone for what to expect. The blend of strategy and pressure on this one was admirable and I’ll be ready at the helm next time.
The Second is a 465 yard par 5. The other side of Adams Dam Road we go. The countryside now opens itself up at the tee yet that doesn’t mean we all have the green light to lash away with reckless abandon. Beyond the ridge in the distance, the fairway actually narrows as it runs at an angle up to the green. Bunkers are on the inside right as we move along while the green is offset to the fairway with bunkers surrounding the green well.
The Third is a 409 yard par 4. Now we cross Chandler Farm Road. Chandler Farm is to the right of us and the land beyond is where ten of the holes reside. The tee shot climbs uphill immediately, two bunkers are on the right, exactly where we want our shot to go. Dog legging to the right around those bunkers, the fairway continues to climb significantly to the green. It’s a deeper green at the top of the hill with a couple bunkers on the right. The climbing and turning can make for some interesting shots and the green is as slippery as one would expect on top of the hill.
The Fourth is a 164 yard par 3. If there’s a time to take stock and breathe after that stiff opening sequence, it is here. The view of the landscape is sublime and the handsome green beckons below. The meat of the green is at the center and rear while bunkers are at every side. The shot looks glorious in the air with this background wherever it ends up.
The Fifth is a 357 yard par 4. Moving back up the hill, we approach it at a different angle. Bunker positioning on the left gives the appearance of the fairway moving in that direction but it is mostly straight with a cant to the right. The green is blind at the top of the hill with bunkers guarding mostly the front side. Most approaches will need to carry them in some fashion.
The Sixth is a 531 yard par 5. Moving to the outer edge, the tee shot remains on the upper portion of the hills before gently descending and bending to the left. Larger bunkers are on either side to complicate the tee shot a bit but don’t worry; your faithful writer found the long grass to the left of all of it. The volume and intensity of the bunkers increases closer to the green and most of the approach shots will need to be aerial. I really enjoyed the challenge of it and apparently was so immersed I neglected to properly photograph it.
The Seventh is a 307 yard par 4. A short hole but the valley between the tee and green makes it seem much further. The uphill to the green is healthy and most approach shots short of it will be blind. A couple Evergreens seem to change the entire scene near the green, which is well sized with bunkers guarding each corner. Just as we saw at the First at that shorter par 4, longer tee shots are rewarded with an advantageous approach while the more conservative tee shots pay for their refuge in the fairway with a longer, uphill, blind approach.
The Eighth is a 186 yard par 3. We come to Chandler Farm Road again and hit our tee shot over it. The green is on the other side, a bunker at the rear and another to the right. The green narrows as it moves towards the left rear corner while most room is at the front. Putting will be a task no matter how close your shot to the hole with the movement within this green.
The Ninth is a 370 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left with a single bunker defending the inside off the tee and a some harmless looking trees off to the right that I imagine come into play more often than they seem like they would at first glance. The approach and green are splendid in how they move away from the fairway and curl around the front center bunker. Pin positions influence a lot here, giving this hole versatility and changing its dynamics a good amount.
The front nine brings us to the hills and then has us traversing them a bit until settling back to the area where we started at the Second. The par 4’s are strategic and differentiate themselves a good deal based on their length, elevation differences and contours while the par 3’s thrill off the tee, then ensure the golfer pays proper attention near the green. The approaches of the par 5’s were also fairly noteworthy. I would rank them 9, 3, 7, 8, 5, 1, 4, 6, 2.
The back nine starts with the 421 yard par 4 Tenth. A dog leg right that tees off right next to the Second, moving to the land to the right of Chandler Farm. Figuring out the line off the tee to remain in the fairway and avoid the sole fairway bunker on the right are on tap while the green awaits above after the turn. Yet another single bunker guards the front of the green on the right while the entry point is on the left, with the green moving left to right. The green is in fact precarious and putts can get out of hand quickly if the golfer is lacking with the flat stick.
The Eleventh is a 164 yard par 3. Crossing back over Chandler Farm Road, the green is only slightly elevated and water is over on the left for any hooked shots. Bunkers guard most of the left side of the green while the right remains open. One might expect the green to move right to left based on the hole prior moving away from the entry point as well as moving towards the water here, but that is not the case. A prevalent left to right movement is in store for us, which actually brings the bunkers into play if the golfer would like to use the movement of the green to coax his ball closer to the pin. Of course, there is always short right to bail out and rely on the short game.
The Twelfth is a 506 yard par 5. There are apples for the taking at this tee. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the apple while I was swinging, so I decided against it. But they are there for those who would like one and can figure out my quandary. I would call what is before us at this tee a gateway ridge. The trees hang high on either side so that it seems like a goal post. The fairway disappears on the other side of the ridge. Favoring the left side from the tee is ideal, as the hillside will take ball down and to the right upon landing. There is then another hill to manage before reaching the green as the fairway turns to the left. The right side becomes ideal moving into the green. The green is deep and bunkers are on either side of the green.
The Thirteenth is a 368 yard par 4. Yet another blind tee shot with the green straight ahead, the hillside on the left should not be trifled with, as it will leave a blind, severely uphill approach. Of course, the right side off fairway is out of bounds, so there’s that. The green is similar to the hole prior and a bunker on each side. Balls on the outside of tither bunker come with own special set of complications so if you feel the urge to miss your approach, opt for short.
The Fourteenth is a 431 yard par 4. Great use of the hills in this section of the property. The left hillside on the prior hole works well as a measured degree of challenge based on the severity of the miss while here, the ridge is used to obscure the ideal tee shot line, yet the golfer knows they are going to the right some how based on the holes they just played. The fairway turns right at the top of the hill and there is an interesting cut off over on the right that helps tee shots on that side find fairway. Despite the help on the right, the left side is ideal into the green, especially with the trees on the front right side of the green. It’s a tough par 4 with the blind tee shot, then a longer uphill approach, but the green is large and lots of places to miss short and deep.
The Fifteenth is a 500 yard par 5. Now on the hillside moving back to the right side of Chandler Farm, the water we encountered at the Eleventh is along the left side. The hillside obscures the tee shot a bit to the fairway below with a bunker on the right to complicate the tee shot just so. The fairway is a little narrow and bends left around the water, canting towards the water closer to the green. This is certainly the number 1 handicapped hole. Each shot must be meticulous and that necessity becomes more imperative the closer you get to the green, all the while considering how the ball will react upon landing.
The Sixteenth is a 186 yard par 3. Our time at Chandler’s Farm comes to an end and we cross over its road for the final time. I was surprised to see the stated yardage, as I clearly remember this one playing well over 200. It’s in front of you, curling to the left around a couple bunkers and a generous apron fairway starting well before the green. The hole has interesting timing. For those struggling and trying to close out things differently, in no way is this hole charity. For matches, it serves as one of those with the potential to change things dramatically. And for those playing well and looking for a score, they will need to keep things going with a lot more than luck. It’s a great par 3 for how it challenges the long iron game while still allowing a chance for those with a sharp short game to flourish.
The Seventeenth is a 378 yard par 4. It’s relatively straight and uphill yet it doesn’t fell that way while surveying it from the tee. Bunker placement features prominently in the influencing of the hole so the golfer must navigate accordingly. The green is at the top of the hill, arching to the left and entry point right, which again brings the front bunker more into play than it seems at first glance.
The Eighteenth is a 400 yard par 4. From the top of the hill, we come down from the tee to a fairly significant dog leg right. The turn can be cut off on the approach but most of it must be carried and the modest green has some tumult to it within the contours while the bunkers line each side.
The day seemed much later than it actually was, only because everything had become so much brighter than it was in the morning. The quiet calm of the morning gave way to a more upbeat day with that brightness, the quiet a little more spirited with the sounds of birds, an occasional tractor and spotted, muted talking every now and then. We stayed for a bit after the round, the sun at the height of its powers by the time I left. A full, meaningful day already accounted for, I was able to track my family down and enjoy the spectacular summer day with them before we decided on dinner. They all retired for bed eventually and there I was back in the still quiet again, a draw of bourbon at the helm. Sleep came easy.
The back nine seems to do its most challenging work during those middle to late holes before closing out a little quietly. I didn’t think there was a weak hole. I would rank them 12, 14, 10, 18, 16, 15, 11, 13, 17.
Generally, Bidermann is well balanced in its understated feel that interplays with the expansive, grandiose countryside. The use of the land is practical, yet subtle, its strategic notes both at surface level and deeply ingrained. There is nothing showy and if anything, much of the course takes its direction from the terrain. Wilson’s style reminds me of Donald Ross in a few ways and that comes out here a good amount. That brilliant practicality, exuding a simplicity that the golfer learns over time there’s a lot more to it. The shots, lines to the green, consequences of missed shots and recovery options all start to reveal themselves, slowly, as the golfer gets around more and more. There is also a cadence to both sets of nine, where the challenge crashes in like a wave and then subsides, flummoxing the golfer yet testing how he responds to such a barrage. It should be noted that Wilson designed the course in the purported “Dark Ages” of design, yet there are no signature holes, there is no housing , cart paths are unimposing and there’s much more of a naturalism feel than any kind of a manufactured, contrived look. The course is more akin to aspects of Golden Age design, which William Flynn’s understudies seem to adhere to splendidly and in a manner that especially appeals to me personally.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: There are a few structures that fit in nicely to the landscape, which could even be the original farmhouse buildings. It’s that understated country charm that keeps the golfer relaxed regardless of whether he is on or off the course.
Practice area: Driving range, short game area and putting green.