I was lucky enough to to play this Fazio gem this weekend, and I think it was my favorite Fazio course thus far (I have also played Waterville and Pinehurst No. 8). This golf course has a few defining features--it's hard, it's narrow with tree-lined fairways, very long (if you play from the back tees), there is a lot of elevation change, you cannot see many of the greens from the tees, and sand provides both the beauty and the beast to the course.
I have read elsewhere that the course shares some characteristics with Pine Valley, which is only a few miles away--mainly lots of sand and a brutal test of golf. I don't know the extent to which this comparison is true or not, but I generally enjoy courses where sand is the dominant feature. I do not mean courses that simply have well placed bunkers (for example bunkers are a major part of the strategic considerations at Bethpage), but rather a course where the landscape feels dominated by sand. For example, the dunes holes at Cypress, Tobacco Road, Dormie, and Pinehurst. Even for the courses where the landscape is not defined by sand, bunkers are often my favorite parts of the course, as was the case at Pasatiempo. Based on my preferences, I am not surprised by how much I enjoyed this course.
We played from a shorter set of tees, but the back tees stretch the course to 7400 yards (with par being 71). Even the second longest set of tees measure in at 6900 yards. That length plus the sand and the tree lined fairways make it quite a monster. We also played in the wind, cold, and occasional rain, which did not help matters (to the extent the pictures below are not ideal, that is a reflection of the weather and lighting, rather than the course). Nonetheless, I was able to play fairly well. Though, if I am being honest with myself here, I was making lots of pars when I had little business making pars. I felt like I often found myself crafting fairly miraculous up and downs (whether they were greenside chip and putts or 100 yards away with a wedge recovery shot). But, it is nice to know that I can still score even if the driver lets me down a bit.
As our hosts said, if you want to score on this course, you have to take advantage of the par threes. Luckily, there are three of them on the front (along with three par fives). When a course is long and narrow, this setup is ideal for me. Try to take advantage of the par threes and if you turn the par fives into three shot holes, you do do not necessarily have to even hit driver on the par fives, thus letting you avoid the trees. Looking back on my scorecard, though, I only parred one of the five par threes, but nonetheless shot about my handicap.
One of my takeaways is that I enjoyed the back a lot more than the front, which is in line with what I identified above. To me, the front had a narrow forest feel to it, while the back felt a bit more open and was defined by sand. That setup visually appeals to me, and, as is true for most I imagine, a bit wider fairways never hurt anyone.
I would also note that everyone at the club was exceptionally accommodating to guests, including our host members. Perhaps I am behind the curve, but I learned some new golf phrases from our hosts that I will be using going forward. Hit a bad shot, but got away with it--"Nice OJ Simpson there." Go from one bunker to another--"Quite the Osama Bin Laden." As it was said a few times during the day, it does not take much for a golfer to come back tomorrow, even if not playing great today. I think the two members we played with are "thirsty for more" after two solid pars on the last, which is among the best holes on the course. And, we capped off the day at the bar in the beautiful clubhouse watching John Daly win. Congrats JD!
Now, onto some individual holes.
I do not have a photo of the first hole because I was a bit focused on getting off to a good start. It is a 461 yard par five with a sharply sloped fairway from right to left and an enormous bunker in front of the green. My third shot was directly over the bunker from about 90 yards (aka a terrifying shot). Luckily, hit it to 8 feet and made the birdie. Should have quit then.
The first hole I have a picture of is the 415 yard par four third, which is one of the most difficult and scenic holes on the course. The tees are elevated and there are three huge bunkers that await you at every turn. I found the fairway bunker on the right, hit a poor shot out of there, hit my third into the greenside bunker, hit a terrible sand shot into the face of the bunker that miraculously popped out, and then made a 12 foot putt for a five. Quite the sandy and a true gift of a bogey.
The fourth is a 350 yard dogleg left par four with a blind tee shot. I have some good memories from this hole. Hit a decent drive a little to the right, but got unlucky and was stymied by a tree. Punched out to 90 yards, hit a wedge that nearly went in, and then made a six footer for par. I don't think it is all that interesting of a golf hole, but it is a bit of a breather after the first and third holes, both of which are real tough.
Approach to four. Catching this bird in the middle of the photo reminded me of Randy Johnson hitting a bird with his fastball--perfect (or imperfect for the bird) timing.
The fifth sounds easy on paper--a 157 yard par three. However, we were playing it to a back pin location, thus stretching that to about 170 yards, into a wind and driving rain. I took my bogey and left fairly happy. Video below.
The sixth is one of the most entertaining holes on the course--a dogleg right 342 yard par four. You can really get out of position off the tee, which makes the already difficult approach that much harder. Regardless of the shot off the tee, you will be left with some scary bunkers guarding the green on your second.
Approach to sixth.
The seventh is one of my favorite holes on the front--a 446 yard par five. This was another Houdini hole--I totally missed my drive and was playing catch up the entire hole, but nonetheless made par.
The eighth looks easy--a 152 yard par three. Though fairly short, the green is insanely sloped and, if you happen to miss the green it is exceptionally hard to recover due to the canted nature of the green. Hit the left bunkers and you will be hard pressed to hold the green with your bunker shot.
The ninth is yet another tough hole--a 494 yard par five-- and it ruined my front nine because I would've broke 40 with a par, but wound up with a double. Lots of sand, lots of trees, and a right to left sloping fairway.
I think the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth are among the best holes on the course and one of the strongest three hole stretches I have played. It begins at the 434 yard downhill par four tenth. This wide fairway was a nice reprieve from what had otherwise been a narrow course until that point. The approach, which will be a long shot even with a strong drive, has to carry over an enormous swale in the fairway to a perched green. Miss the green and you will be at the bottom of this swale leaving you hitting your third to a green that is 20-30 feet above your head.
Approach to ten.
The eleventh--a 355 yard dogleg left par four--is my favorite hole on the course. It is a risk reward hole that allows you to cut the yardage by taking it as far left as you dare, which forces you to carry a fairway bunker and flirt with the trees on the left. If you navigate the tee shot correctly, your approach, though with a short iron, has to be on point because the largest bunker on the course will gobble up any shot to the left. This bunker on the left was my favorite part of the entire course.
Approach to eleven.
The twelfth--a 373 yard par four--is another unique hole. The tee shot is level, but the approach is downhill through a chute of trees where distance control is paramount given the huge bunker in front and trouble over the back. It was made even more difficult on the day we played due to the rain and wind that picked up on that hole.
Approach to twelve.
One of the members told us that the only throw away hole on the course is the 139 yard par three thirteenth. It was indeed one of the weaker holes, but the tiered green made it difficult to walk away with a par unless you landed it on the right level.
I think the fourteenth--a 488 yard par five--was a bit out of place on the course, but I really liked it. After only one hole having water and nearly every hole having tight fairways and intense bunkering, this hole is fairly open with few bunkers and water serving as the primary protector.
Approach to fourteenth.
The fifteenth was a real tough hole--a 419 yard par four dogleg right. To be sure, a strong golf hole, but not one that I found to be particularly memorable.
Glimpse of fifteenth green through the pine needles.
The sixteenth is one of the signature holes on the course--a 158 yard downhill par three with some mean bunkering leading up to the green. Not quite the devil's asshole on Pine Valley's tenth, but the primary bunker in front of the green is no joke. I found it and made it out, which was my only goal.
Sixteenth green looking back towards the tee with me entering the front bunker in the left portion of the picture.
Just like 10, 11, and 12 are a great stretch of holes, so is 16, 17, 18. Unfortunately, my pictures of 17 simply do not do it justice. It is the hardest hole on the course measuring 408 yards. A solid drive in the middle of the fairway only gives you a chance on this hole. After that, you need a perfect second to carry a sand-filled swale to an uphill green.
Approach to seventeen.
I imagine that many see the eighteenth--a 353 yard par four--as the best hole on the course. It is quite grand in scale--huge fairway, lots of bunkers, and atop a hill. The approach shot is uphill to a green protected by some more deep bunkers. When you finally make it to the green, an expansive view of the Philadelphia skyline awaits. As you will see below, my approach to the green came up inches short and left me in quite the diastrous situation.
Approach to eighteen.
Happy to just get it out and get away with a bogey.
Overall, this was one of the stronger courses I have played that required a player to have many facets of his game clicking. Drives had to be long and accurate (and your recovery shots had to be spot on because more likely than not you will hit the woods once or twice). You will eventually hit a bunker or two and probably a really deep one. Given the length, you will no doubt have to rely on your short game a fair amount after missing greens with your longer clubs. If you are lucky enough to be a member here, you will be a better golfer for it because it is more difficult than most other courses, but you will likely feel beat up with regularity.
On the whole, there were few bad holes on this golf course and some stretches of truly great holes--3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, and 18 are spectacular holes. The only holes I found fairly boring were 4 and 13. The rest (1, 2, 5, 8, 15) are no doubt good golf holes, but not the best on the course (though my brother liked 15 the best, so it is all in the eye of the beholder). Looking at this list, in my mind, only one par three (of the five) qualifies as one of the great holes (the sixteenth hole). It is odd for me to like a course this much when the par threes are not a defining feature. This is only a further testament to how good the other holes are.
I am very grateful to have played here and for the great company provided by our two member playing companions. My first course in the Philadelphia area was a winner--looking forward to playing some more great golf near this city!