An Arnold Palmer/Ed Seay design, the course at Commonwealth National Golf Club is routed around a very tight tract of land that lies adjacent to Horsham Air Guard Station. It’s acknowledged as a tough track so golfers are advised to choose their tees carefully, especially if playing here for the first time.
“Commonwealth National is something of an uneven design, both in terms of its aesthetic (holes are alternatively bordered by attractively wooded wetlands or corporate office buildings) and its playability, writes Daniel Wexler in The American Private Golf Club Guide.
The author continues: “Indeed, it features several notably strong tests but also at least four holes where longer hitters must lay up of the tee due to encroaching rough/wetlands/water – including the 491-yard par five 9th, which might as well play as a par four given its lack of a realistic lay-up zone.
The better holes include the 389-yard 4th (a genuine dogleg over water), the 561-yard 11th (a solid strategic hole which unfortunately doglegs around a large parking lot), the 183-yard 12th (with water on three sides), and the 431-yard 14th, which crosses wetlands before running a wooded gauntlet to a small, bunkerless green.”
Commonwealth National is a course with multiple personalities. At times it feels like a poor public course where a few holes sit near to office buildings or busy roads. On some holes on the back nine it feels like a course in the low country of South Carolina due to the wetlands that result in tight landing areas and the wooden bridges one drives across. It is a course that forces its will on you with many forced carries over water hazards or forced layups short of water hazards. As a par 71 it is a difficult course no matter the yardage one plays whether it is the back tees at over 7100 yards rated 74.6/151 or the member tees at 6550 yards and rated 71.4/141. It is a parkland course at times due to many tree lined fairways. It is a somewhat unbalanced course as it is a course that has the majority of the harder holes in the middle of each nine as well as the par 5’s are early on both nines.
Other than Merion East, I do not think there is a more difficult course in the greater Philadelphia area. Getting from tee to green is very challenging on a majority of the holes. The course seems to build in difficulty from hole to hole. I do not think I ever played the back nine in fewer strokes than the front nine. If I have a decent round after going through the gauntlet I usually falter near the end. I am often surprised that the long par 4 eighteenth is not rated the hardest hole given my struggles there.
The only consistent relief to the course is on the greens and that is only relative to the difficulty getting there. This is a course where it is wise to move up a set of tees from what one normally plays. It is also the course where one should forgo the brave shot and try to make par via one’s short game.
In addition to water or wetlands on many holes, the bunkers are usually large. I think the large bunkers are one of the defining characteristics of the course.
The course begins with one of the easier holes, a shorter par 5, featuring five fairway bunkers and one at the green. One gets a sense of the bunkering they will experience throughout the round. The hole is somewhat tree lined as you near the green.
The second, a par 4, is tree lined and has a narrower fairway with only one large bunker on the front left of the green. It is also one of the easier holes unless one finds tree trouble off the tee.
The third is a par 5 with water on the left coming into play for the longer hitters off the tee. The pond then becomes a crossing stream where many shorter hitters might have to lay up short on a narrow piece of land and rough area of perhaps 70 yards in length which leaves a very long shot into the green on slightly higher ground. The green has three bunkers including a double bunker on the right side. It can be a difficult hole. The cart path winding across the fairway mars the hole. From the green through the fifth hole one hears the noisy nearby Horsham Road.
One has ample opportunity to run up a big score on the fourth, a short par 4, requiring one to twice take on crossing water as well as having water down the entirety of the left side. I do not care for the hole because the fairway runs out in the form of five bunkers which are too many. Thankfully the green is easy to read as it is merely slanted.
The fifth is the first par 3 and of medium length with the office building behind the tee and the cart path marring the view as the cart path has to go towards the green due to wetlands left and a crossing stream and pond down the right. The left side of the green is protected by a large but shallower bunker. It’s not a compelling hole.
The sixth is rated the hardest on the course as a dogleg left with a stream and trees going down the left and trees on the right. The dogleg is fairly tight for the longer hitters but there is ample room for the shorter hitters. Two ponds are farther up on the right with the second one being greenside. For those hitting a short shot of the tee then trying to lay up short of the fairway is only half the size due to the first pond. A long bunker is left of the green and a long deep one is also behind the green. The green has more slope to it and a bit of a tier.
Seven is a shorter par 4 playing alongside a large office building to the left and a social function building to the left of the green. The hole plays straight with a fronting pond before the green. The one interesting part of this hole is the green which wraps itself around a left side bunker creating a difficult back left pin location.
I like most very short par 3’s because one does not see them that often. The eighth plays less than 125 yards. This one does not disappoint due to the bunkering and tiering of the green. A bunker is placed short left and another on the left side. A large, deep tomahawk bunker is placed on the back right corner. But the main bunker to avoid is the large one at the front middle. Stand behind the green you cannot see this bunker. My only quibble with the hole is that the land has a lot of ripples before that front bunker and I wish that were the case on the other holes as it is wasted on a short par 3.
The easy holes end at this point. Nine is probably my favorite hole on the course as a long nearly 500 yard par 4. The hole parallels the first with trees and wetlands down the left side. The fairway stops about 120 yards from the green with five bunkers - four on the left and a large shamrock bunker on the right. The fairway has some ripples to it. Short grass begins about 30 yards short of the slightly raised green which is protected by flanking bunkers. There is a grass depression on the front left of the green and a large mound on the back left of the green. I wish the course offered more of this type of contouring near the greens.
Ten is a difficult par 4 but only the #8 index on the course. The hole plays straight with a pond trees and a stream on the left and trees down the right. The stream crosses the fairway about 100 yards from the green. The green is angled left to right with the fronting bunker down the right. It is a difficult hole that kicks off a challenging back nine.
Eleven is the final par 5 and it’s nearly 575 yards with a sharp dogleg to the left. There is an outer corner bunker and two bunkers placed after the turn of the inner corner. It is a relatively narrow fairway between these fairway bunkers after a forced carry from the tee to reach the fairway. A bunker is placed left in the lay up zone as a stream crosses diagonally right to left just before the green. Another rear bunker is placed behind the green. Unfortunately you are again at the busy Horsham Road. I think the hole is overly complicated.
Twelve is a mid length par 3 playing alongside Horsham Road with water on three sides of the green. But even a miss left will find rough, uneven ground. It is an all or nothing hole although the green is not overly contoured.
Thirteen is considered the toughest hole on the back nine as a long par 4 beginning with a drive over water that should be cleared if one has chosen the correct tees. This water is connected to a pond down the right that ends when the stream bisects the fairway. A second pond is on the right beginning about 70 yards from the green which cuts into three fourths of the fairway. The green is smaller on the right side with a back right bunker. It’s borderline unfair for a pin to be placed on the right side of the green. This hole seems to have the fairway disappear into a canopy of trees.
Fourteen is where I start to draw some parallels to the low country of South Carolina beginning with a long walk or cart ride to a hole where one crosses wetlands early with the wetlands continuing behind the line of trees down the left. This is a heavily tree-lined hole and a mid-length par 4. The fairway is also narrow and the hole feels claustrophobic. The green is defined by a higher ridge down the left side. I dislike this hole due to the density of the trees but it is unlikely any trees can be removed due to environmental protections.
Fifteen is another challenging hole as a dogleg right mid-length par 4 with a forced carry over wetlands and a stream although ending before the turn. The hole is again lined with scattered trees. There are three long bunkers on the outer corner which adds to the difficulty of the tee shot. If one can successfully hit a good tee shot the hole eases up a bit although there are two bunkers front left and one bunker shirt right of the green. The first of those left bunkers is a bit deeper and represents a tougher recovery shot. What I like about the fairway is that it rolls again as you near the green. A back left pin position is hard to access.
Sixteen is the final par 3 and longer at 200 yards from the back tees. Six bunkers are on three sides surrounding the green other than the left side where a cart path is too close to the hole dictated by the tree line and wetlands. The front right bunker is very long and wide. The green tilts to the left.
Amazingly, the shorter par 4 seventeenth is the fourteenth index on the course but would be rated one of the harder holes on other courses. It is narrow from tee to the green. There is a short forced carry over wetlands. The right side is lined thick with trees hiding a wetland to the green. One long fairway bunker on the left forces one towards the trees. The green has a long bunker on the right side preceding by a grass bunker.
The finishing long but straight par 4 is a brute. It is again heavily tree lined. There is an early bunker on the left before the fairway. This fairway again feels narrow. An area of wetlands/pond begins about 170 yards from the green and is about 90 yards in length. The green is protected by flanking front corner bunkers and a left rear corner bunker. The green is raised a bit and also more contoured than most of the greens. This is a par 5 for women and one should not be overly disappointed with that score on this hole.
Due to having so many great/good course in Philadelphia, Commonwealth National is often overlooked. Perhaps that is due to its difficulty or is location. It is a course lacking in ambience. It is a course that would be better with more contouring both obnoxious the greens as well as the fairways and green surrounds. However, that could make a difficult course even more difficult. As for Mr. Palmer, I consider this to be one of his better routings given the land he had available. This course sits on a previous golf course that was sold off to create a small office park requiring a new routing. If you like difficulty and a challenge, this is a course for you.
Commonwealth National is a very challenging course. At times you feel it is big and at times you feel claustrophobic. The back nine has a number of holes which require absolute precision while the front has some elbow room. The intent was to build something more challenging than most in the area and in some ways that was done. It is a nice day out but there are so many better days out in the Philly area.
Commonwealth is an extremely well conditioned track that I would call a players course, as it requires proper shot making with most clubs in the bag. The first four holes require good tee shots to give you a chance at a decent score. Miss left on any of them, you're likely OB. Miss right, you'll be laying up back to the fairway out of thick rough or trees.
The greens are pretty fast but true. I really found that out with a 6 foot downhill par putt on 2 that would have gone 25 feet past had the stick not been in due to COVID regulations. I was overly cautious the rest of the round and it paid off.
The rest of the front is pretty unmemorable. I really liked the par 4 4th with an island green that gives a unique type feel despite being right on the corner of a pretty busy suburban intersection. The result of the holes are woven into the business park around it. The 9th hole is extremely difficult, narrowing significantly as it approaches 275-300 yards, and then forcing you to still make a significant carry of 180+ over probably 50-60 yards of bunkering. In a lot of ways, this is where the course truly begins to show the teeth that Arnold designed into it.
The back 9 feels like you are immediately transported to a different course. My friend who was a long time member said he would often only play the front, because he knew the back was going to make him feel bad about his game on certain days.
Proper tee balls are required on 10 and 11 to have a shot. I think the previously mentioned description of either or golf becomes super apparent quickly on the back. A fun hole is the par 3 12th, an island green surrounded by rocks. On this day, I hit off a rock and when in, but was able to put my drop shot to 8 feet and nail the putt for a great bog.
After that point, you go deeper into the backlands of Commonwealth's property and really forget you're in suburban Philadelphia, and not somewhere in the Poconos. Deep woods and water hazards line the back, and challenge even the most skilled player with no free shots given on 13-17. The 18th is a great hole, the perfect make or break finisher to an excellent round at a beautiful course.
Wonderful golf course. Well maintained and challenging. A few uneventful, tight holes but several great holes too. Well-protected greens.
From time to time one will come upon courses that feature a very straightforward but certain dynamic framed by the words "either or." Commonwealth National is a tale of two different nines. The outward half fairly basic -- design outcomes one has seen countless times from other Palmer courses.
The inward half is full dosage of "either or" golf. Either you hit the target or you donate a golf ball -- or two -- or maybe even more. There's nothing wrong with "either or" golf - provided - the architect provides sufficient landing areas so players of varying ability levels can have a reasonable opportunity for success. Pine Valley is very demanding -- but proper spacing is included. Commonwealth's back nine is narrow -- as in NARROW -- in a number of instances. You leave the fairway and, as said previously, you experience "either or" golf. There's no middle ground.
Ask yourself this -- how many courses sport a 138 slope from the white tees under 6,400 yards! From the extreme back the slope reaches 150. Frankly, the golf design has been forced upon a site that provides very little "extra" in terms of available acreage. Frankly, holes as the par-4 13th thru 15th holes are simply beyond the pale because you'd best drive the ball with the dexterity of a Fred Funk or the late Calvin Peete.
There's nothing wrong with having a demanding course but there must be a clear recognition that recovery is part and parcel of the game. For those who are proficient golfers the appeal of Commonwealth may be present but a steady diet of straightjacket type golf can be suffocating. Being a private club can be a bit helpful because play can be better spaced out than say a daily fee or resort type layout. Nonetheless, the greater Philadelphia area is awash in numerous top tier layouts -- some of the finest in the USA. It's best to schedule your golf accordingly with that in mind.
M. James Ward