6,521 yards, 130 slope from the Blues
There were lots of memories here before I even set foot on the First tee. My wife was seven months pregnant with our first but felt up for going to the AT&T when it was hosted here. We both weren’t expecting all the hills and at some point, she decided to rest in the shade off the Eleventh tee. I saw Tiger here, struggling. Ryan Moore thanked me for exclaiming good shot. A tee shot came out of no where when I was minding my own business standing by myself when I saw a lumbering, towering figure start making his way towards me. It was Vijay. Steve Marino hit an approach, waited for the camera and scorers and everyone else to walk towards the green, then destroyed his bag with the golf club while his caddie pretended to be interested in the trees. After the beating, he looked up at me. I thought I was next. Next was the BMW, years and a course renovation later. Tiger was in much better form and we mostly followed him. Reed played the Seventh approach beautifully, some how without even calling over a rules official. Beyond the tour events, I would visit for swim meets and other clubhouse outings as well, learning my way around, and I always assumed I would play the course soon, all as the years ticked by. The fairways and greens mocked me as I drove past each visit, asking if I brought my clubs this time.
Aronimink is one of the more nationally known golf courses in our area. Designed by Donald Ross with lots of involvement from his superintendent J.B. McGovern (who was a member and Green Chairman), the course opened in 1928. Ross is famously quoted of the course two decades after it opened, “I intended to make this course my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize I built better than I knew.” Set in the wooded countryside hills of Delaware County, the routing climbs and traverses the perimeter before plunging into the interior and returning to the clubhouse on the front while the back starts in the interior before spending most of the time in the upper points of the other side of the property. The hills are very much instilled into the character of the course, which sets the structure while the greens stand out as a very intricate and varied set. I did not appreciate how well designed the approach shots were to this magnificent set of greens at the outset. There is a lot more character here than I could sense with my non-playing time on the grounds, as Ross took his cues from the hilly terrain. And most recently, it is yet another Hanse project where he tapped into the identity of the course and found ways to challenge the more skilled player while ensuring it was just as engaging for the lesser skilled among us. One of the ways this was done was always leaving a chance of recovery while those who know the course can take advantage of its idiosyncrasies. As well as avoid its dangers, which includes the renowned clustered bunkers Ross made a prominent feature throughout. Make no mistake, however, this is a brawny, leggy course where one must get off the tee as strong as possible to ensure those approaches are manageable. Bear in mind the course was always meant for championships and as a more elite test for the golfer.
The origins of the club are traced to the Belmont Cricket Club, which began in 1896. Belmont incorporated themselves as the Aronimink Golf Club in 1900. Among its pros were John Shippen, who I first mentioned in the Shinnecock review. He is one of if not the first American born golf professional, of African-American descent. Aronimink enjoyed a course in Drexel Hill for 13 years that was designed by Tillinghast before purchasing the land on which it now sits and retained Ross for the design.
Ironically, mere years after Ross proclaimed the greatness of the course, changes began. William Gordon was brought in to remove bunkers and move others closer to the greens. Work was thereafter performed by George Fazio, Dick Wilson and Robert Trent Jones over the ensuing decades. Trying to find out what they did has proved difficult, but their work included significantly altering the bunkering and RTJ added the pond at the Seventeenth, which is present to this day. Suffice to say the course continued to transform as needed to maintain its championship venue mantra, which very likely strayed from Ross’ design intent from his plans and what was built initially.
The bunkering is a topic of some study. There is some differences in opinion as to how they evolved, from their clusters of smaller bunkers to location. The bunkering on the course differs from what was on the plans in spots, which some believe was the result of Ross innovating during the construction process, but others maintain that Ross rarely if ever deviated from his plans. Moreover, there are only a few courses where the bunkering deviated from the plans and those were all the result of McGovern’s intercession. Indeed, the clustering of smaller bunkers is a bearing of McGovern’s style, yet it should be noted there is documentation and footage demonstrating Ross was present during construction, so was well aware of what was being built. Regardless, the bunkering changed and evolved over the years well after McGovern and had strayed with the rest of the course.
In 2003, however, Ron Prichard was retained for significant restorative efforts. These efforts focused on undoing most of the revisions by the more recent work of RTJ, Wilson, Fazio and Gordon while returning the course to design intent as shown on the plans in the club’s possession. This meant reducing and unifying bunkers in many instances. Focusing on the bunkers and greens for a couple years, then returning just before the course hosted the 2003 Senior PGA Championship, Prichard focused on conforming the course with those Ross plans.
The club then retained Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner to continue this restoration work, with the majority of it occurring in 2016-17. While Aronimink had hosted a couple PGA events in 2010-11, it had been named as the host of the PGA Championship and LPGA Championship thereafter, so Hanse was brought in to get it ready. Hanse billed his work as restoring back to what was constructed. Alas, Hanse’s restoration focused not on the design plans but on what was actually constructed. Hanse asked Jaeger Kovich to assist with the restoration, which involved examining old aerial photos of the course. The project included adding approximately 100 bunkers, mainly since the course started out with 190 and had 74 pre-project. Greens were also enlarged, restoring back to original size and shape. Trees were removed. Fairways widened. The course was also lengthened. In fact, the original back tees are now the middle tees. Hanse began using the term, “sympathetic restoration” to explain how the course was restored while still being mindful of modern day. If a hole was meant to be a long par 4, Hanse would take liberties to make sure it remained a long par 4 by today’s standards. While the course began with only eight or nine trees, Hanse simply reduced the number of trees, conceding they weren’t getting back to that type of originality. Hanse recognized the property has evolved and made decisions on what makes sense to restore and what doesn’t. Sympathetic restoration.
The course today exemplifies the championship pedigree initially set out by its founders. Pinehurst 2, Oakland Hills South, Oak Hill, Plainfield, Mountain Ridge to some extent; these are the other Ross designed courses that showcase a larger scale of his work while keeping abreast of today’s competitive standards, yet the everyday member is able to find as much interest and challenge in them. Aronimink accomplishes this with a larger set of greens and wider swaths of fairway, all of which contain potent bursts of movement in its contours, hollows and hills that the golfer must become intimately familiar with to get around respectfully. This sets up a lot of the strategy while the bunkering comes into play often on most shots. In all of this, however, there are a plethora of options in attacking it all while the golfer usually has a chance to recover from his misdeeds. With the variety one faces hole to hole as well, the course is fantastically well rounded with some of the best approach shots I could remember in a while.
Some things are worth the wait and while it was my umpteenth time on the property, the fairways and greens could mock me no more. I was finally showing up to play them, and play them well.
The First is a 419 yard par 4 (from the Blues). “Apache.” A famous opening hole has the golfer perched on a hilltop looking out to the fairway yonder, climbing from Thomas Run at the bottom to the green upwards. There is some depth perception issues here as the tee shot will either go a lot further or not as far as you initially think, but the prominent trees and bunkers on the right are a good focal point. Those right bunkers infringe on to the center of the fairway while the green is guarded at both sides on the front (and a couple at the rear) by sand. As promised, the green is large and instantly reminded me of Oakland Hills South a bit visually, in how the contours seem large, gentle and gradual but this pleasing visual belies the complex movement underneath. Hanse speaks of “segmented greens” and “holes within holes,” so these greens have been intricately laid out for various pin positions that reverberate how they should be played back to the tee. My caddie was sharp and guided me to a longer two-putt, watching the ball glide along this green instilled even more optimism for the round ahead.
The Second is a 372 yard par 4. “Pueblo.” A dog leg left around a gathering of bunkers to the green but with the fairway listing left to right, it isn’t as easy as hitting away from the bunkers, as the hillside is waiting to pull tee shots into the depths of the woods. The bunkers should be taken on to some extent to keep the approach manageable, but woe is the golfer who ends up in them. The faces are steep and almost convex, the green no where in sight. A golfer can get tangled up in them, not that I would know about any of that. The green sits on a plateau where the rear edge plummets downhill into a short grass collection area. This weighs on the golfer’s every shot, mindful to stay away from the rear quadrant of the green altogether.
The Third is a 402 yard par 4. “Navajo.” Heading to the perimeter of the property, the terrain levels out so the bunkers take over, ensuring the golfer is properly entertained. True to form, the series of bunkers come in flurries from one side or the other, towards the center of the fairway so that figuring out how the ball rolls after the tee shot or if out of position off the tee, is a good idea. The entry point is at an off angle but opens up the green for those coming in from the right side.
The Fourth is a 419 yard par 4. “Seminole.” Still on the perimeter, the tee shot is blind as it crests downhill. It’s a gentle downhill though, and as the golfer gets through the round, he realizes these first few holes are some of the more level he encounters. The small clusters of bunkers are on the left while the right side is rough. The entry point is wide yet the green moves as it wants. Some would say this is a reprieve hole for the golfer to gather himself for what lies ahead.
The Fifth is a 143 yard par 3. “Mohawk.” Ross usually had a shorter par 3 and here, this is the shortest we get. Guarded by bunkers at the front, the green is pushed up a bit and moved right to left except for the left-most side, which moves back to center. Rear is clear of bunkers with rough but with the green moving away from you and towards the bunkers, that recovery shot can get tricky. The green is a nice and inviting, however, and allows the golfer once again to get his bearings and focus on the nicely moving green.
The Sixth is a 375 yard par 4. “Comanche.” Now wading into the interior and hillside, the dog leg right is essentially perpendicular to the tee, where bunkers on the right must be carried to reach the fairway for those trying to get as close as possible to the green. In some ways the hole plays like a Cape but even those who opt for the more conservative line to the left to avoid the bunkers entirely will have a manageable approach. The bunkers seem to multiply as you get closer to the green yet there are no greenside bunkers to speak of. The green is large but surely moves spritely. Photos of this hole are limited as your humble author had his own struggles here, at some point wondering if anyone would care if he just threw his ball towards the hole.
The Seventh is a 377 yard par 4. “Shawnee.” Another blind tee shot at another dog leg right, this one moving downhill and both left and right, depending on which side of the fairway the tee shot lands on. The fairway finally settles on a right to left cant as it approaches the green, which is wonderfully set on the hillside and a couple bunkers ensconced at the front corners. The green moves right to left, furiously, and most approaches will need to focus on landing on the right side of the green for this reason. It’s a challenging approach and makes the golfer wish he favored the left side more off the tee. It’s a great example of what Aronimink does well; conjures the challenge and strategy from the terrain without over relying on penal elements. I found it to be a superb hole.
The Eighth is a 204 yard par 3. “Sitting Bull.” One of the more famous holes, I certainly spent a good amount of time watching the pros play this one from their tees far far away from the green. A longer drop shot over water with bunkers at each front corner, this hole tests the golfer’s acumen of the longer club. I couldn’t help but think of the Eighth at nearby Jeffersonville, which is also a longer drop shot forced carry over a creek albeit to a smaller green and smaller bunkers protecting it. Here, the shot needs to be longer and is more susceptible to the winds and the green runs right into that of the Tenth, creating some interesting recovery shots for those who go long here. It’s a great par 3.
The Ninth is a 515 yard par 5. “Kickapoo.” We find ourselves moving up to the clubhouse in the background, the grand corridor to the green full of grand bunkers on either side. It’s a large scale send off, capped off with a large green that sways tremendously from side to side, making the hole seem a lot more miniscule than normal.
The front nine establishes a great rhythm of the golfer encountering a strategic combination of hills, bunkers, dog legs and broad shouldered greens, starting off with bravado, then settling down before ramping up again to a full blown crescendo. There ere no weak holes. I would rank them 7, 2, 9, 8, 1, 5, 6, 3, 4.
The back nine starts with the 415 yard par 4 Tenth. “Cherokee.” Heading straight out in the direction of the Eighth green, the fairway moves downhill and out of sight from the tee. This was the hole I told Tiger to, “finish strong” as he was going through a rough patch with his game in 2010. I’m sure he appreciated that. The downhill has a flair to the left as well, which can get dicey if the tee shot hits the hill at the wrong angle. The left side is all trees and then water at the green, so favoring the right side throughout is favorable. The green and its short grass runoff areas instill a lot of character with all different frisky pin positions where the water and run off areas become much more prominent features.
The Eleventh is a 393 yard par 4. “Kiowea.” This was one of my favorite holes on the course and one I envision when I think about the course in general. The clustering of bunkers is on full display here while the fairway is inviting enough with its width, even though it’s advisable to get the tee shot out as far as you possibly can. The approach shot is one of the most thought provoking out there. The cluster grouping of bunkers is in full bloom about the green while the green has magnificent movement, generally back to front and right to left, but the subtle hollow and contours show how sophisticated Hanse segments the greens so that the hole can play completely different based on the pin position. A great golf hole.
The Twelfth is a 429 yard par 4. “Saginaw.” We continue uphill and encounter another fairway that has a sinister tilt to it, propelling tee shots to the right, towards the bunkers on that side. The bunkers finally yield closer to the green, with just one on the right side of the green. The gentle drop off on all sides complicates approaches and recoveries alike, especially off the rear.
The Thirteenth is a 354 yard par 4. “Blackfoot.” Ross liked to dole out a series of par 4’s of all different kinds in a row. It’s a characteristic he pulls off well on several of his courses, including here, where we come to the fourth par 4 in a row on the back (as well as the first four holes on the front nine). A gathering of bunkers crowds the start of the fairway, which obfuscates the view of the rest of the fairway. The tee shot should carry this first series of bunkers easily but mind the bunkers coming in from the left that are more within the tee shot range. The green is slightly above the fairway, bunkers guarding the front corners while the rear transitions to rough and rear left connects to the Fourteenth tee. Another marvelous green with its not so subtle swales send the ball careening from just about any approach and putt. It’s all good challenge and fun!
The Fourteenth is a 190 yard par 3. “Iroquois.” A wide open affair as the bunkers influence the visuals, obscuring just how much room there is short and at the green. It’s a good looking hole to be sure and the bunkers will only come into play on missed shots or maybe where someone goes too aggressively at a pin off to one side. A deft golfer may use all of the grass before the green and then use his second to cozy up to the pin, which is a sneaky play yet with all the room to work with, could make sense.
The Fifteenth is a 433 yard par 4. “Lenape.” A longer par 4 that’s straight out with a tinge of right to left. At the higher end of the course and are starting to move down to that area of the Eighth and Tenth greens for the final ascent to the clubhouse. Here, we need two whopping shots to reach the green, the fairway widening just a bit closer to the green. The fairway feeds into the green, which is enormous and presses the right to left issue emphatically. While one may be happy just to reach the green in two shots, their mood may change depending on where they with respect to the pin, which could be just as far as their approach shot in.
The Sixteenth is a 516 yard par 5. “Sioux.” It creeps up on us, but the shots are uncorked ever since the Fifteenth and getting the ball out there becomes a priority almost every shot. The fairway suggests left off the tee, which is exactly where a few bunkers are. The fairway leans left to right, so taking the bunkers on or even heading in their general direction off the tee is a good play. After the turn, the fairway heads straight out to the green, bunkers nipping at the sides while the fairway tilt cannot be ignored. The green is modestly sized and a center line bunker guards its front. In fact, the bunker is up against the left side but with the contours and angles of fairway meeting green, it seems as if it is centered. The green is wide and a bit shallow, so dialing in the distance of the approach to carry the bunker yet not go of the rear is a priority.
The Seventeenth is a 172 yard par 3. “Seneca.” A forced carry over water where a tongue before the green mercifully helps those shorter shots from becoming wet, the short grass areas off to the sides likewise assist in providing more dry ground, even if the recovery to the pin has the capacity to be harrowing. The green moving back to front makes any putt or recovery shot above the pin in this harrowing category, raising the possibility of ending up in the water if the ball catches the green just so. The golfer has the game he showed up with at this point in the round and should be able to hit the wider green before him, or if he doesn’t should not be surprised all that much.
The Eighteenth is a 393 yard par 4. “Aronimink.” Running parallel with the Ninth, we climb to the clubhouse and the scale here is just as grand as the closing of the front nine. The fairway narrows at the bunkers on the right, while the golfer should mind the left to right list throughout. There is one last stand of bunkers short of the green on both sides, which should be avoided at all costs, and the green beyond is a massive one, right to left for miles.
I have a painting of this green and clubhouse, which I purchased from the artist who was not a golfer. She captured the colors beautifully, melding in the green, sand, trees and fairway in a contrasted unison with the stately clubhouse seemingly at ease overlooking it all. I’m sure that’s what inspired my approach, which landed 8 feet to the pin, finishing with a par and completing a whole other host of memories here, finally within the playing corridors for my own bouts of glory and despair.
The back nine has a remarkable collection of par 4’s while the 3’s and 5 insert themselves into the closing stretch at the right time for a thrilling finish. I would rank them 11, 18, 10, 15, 13, 14, 16, 12, 17.
Generally, Aronimink is a wonderful, sporty Ross designed course with a rich variety of holes that boast a superb collection of thought-provoking approach shots full of challenge, excitement and valor. The par 4’s are as varied and wonderful as any other Ross designed course out there. The greens are likewise excellent, striking that rarely achieved balance of subtlety, swift and true movement while ensuring every contour and undulation remains relevant. Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner seem to have opened up and brought the terrain more to the forefront while the individualizing of the bunkering creates a lot of interesting visuals and countless more recovery scenarios than before. The course certainly reminds us that Ross was a prominent tournament golfer in his own right and sought to create championship worthy venues. Aronimink was meant to be one of them, which accomplishes this with aplomb while remaining so for any walk of golfer.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The clubhouse is indeed stately, yet is able to transition to a more relaxed setting towards the rear patio overlooking the Ninth and Eighteenth greens.
Practice Area: Separate short game area, driving range and multiple putting greens, I have heard an expansion and addition of an indoor facility are in the works.