You can’t have a conversation on the best modern golf course architects without mentioning Gil Hanse but he, like most in the field, got off the ground by creating thoughtful routes near his hometown. Fortunately for him, that hometown was Philadelphia, where he had oodles of influential Golden Age designs to draw upon. The result of these factors was French Creek Golf Club, one of his earliest designs, and one that seeks to bring the famous facets of the Philadelphia School to a modern layout.
Hanse and partner Jim Wagner are now known among the most active proponents of the “minimalist” look, and that aesthetic is evident at French Creek, where fairways tend to take on a rumpled look, and bunkers appear roughly hewn from the landscape. The course offers a variety of this-or-that decisions, featuring alternate fairways to enforce risk and reward.
Those well-travelled in the Philadelphia golf scene may also draw comparisons to another modern entry — Tom Doak’s Stonewall — namely for the incorporation of stone walls as well as a barn made of the same materials.
French Creek is a WILD Gil Hanse design that will make you guess where to hit a few approach shots throughout the day, especially on holes 4 and 14. Some of the strongest holes include the short par 3 5th, par 4 9th with a "bottle" template for the fairway and a punchbowl type green. Also great is the par 5 11th and short par 4 15th. If you want to experience a mix of great golf holes, and some made through a fun-house mirror, French Creek is the place to go.
I played French Creek, a Gil Hanse design, about a month ago with a good friend who with me has played around 75 courses listed in the top 100 in their country (I have plenty much more than that). For example, he has played Cypress Point and Winged Foot, both East and West with me, as well as Oakmont , Merion East, as well as most of the famous courses in Scotland.
We walked away with several thoughts, all pretty negative.
The first thought was whether the golf course would survive as it was near empty on a nice day. The golf course is primarily surrounded by farms with not a lot of development nearby although population growth is slowly heading that way. The club appears to be surviving based on the number of weddings and outside events held there which produces revenue for the club, but probably restricts the usage and enjoyment by members of the club on the weekends.
The second thought was why would someone build a golf course on this piece of land which is too hilly in parts of the course and has so many wetlands to navigate.
A third thought was why were there so many strange features such as the 17th tee box facing you 45 degrees away from the direction of the green on this very long par 3.
We did not like the golf course and we wondered why Gil Hanse would agree to build this course on this type of land after he had built a really bad golf course called Inniscrone about an hour away near Coatesville in Chester County on similar land somewhat constrained by housing.
This is not to say that Gil Hanse did not do as good as job as could be done given the land he was given, but the land is not suitable for a private club and perhaps not even as a resort course.
There are some very strong and therefore overly difficult holes on the golf course such as the second hole, a very long downhill par 4 dogleg right. One feature I did not like was the green slopes away from the approach shot even though you are hitting a long iron or hybrid into the green that sits below you.
The third hole, a long par 3 over wetlands, has a false front that is so deep into the green that a ball landing as much as 25 feet on dead center will roll back well off the front of the green. The green has a big spine on the right so it becomes nearly impossible to get close.
The fourth hole requires a long tee shot over wetlands and you don't see the green until you are about 90 yards from it as it is tucked against the side of a hill below you.
The fifth is a blind tee shot uphill to a short par 3 that is all carry.
The sixth is arguably the best hole on the golf course, a medium length par five that is made longer because it is uphill. It is well bunkered and has a terrific green.
The seventh is downhill and a boring par 4.
The eighth hole is atrocious, a steep downhill somewhat blind par 3 that should never had a golf hole built there.
The ninth hole requires a long tee shot over wetlands to a split fairway with an uphill green that is basically hidden until you are 120 yards away on the left side. You can't see it if you are on the right fairway. The green is also overly tilted. It's a flaky golf hole.
The tenth is one of two good holes on the back nine, a downhill medium length par 3 next to the barn with good bunkering on the right side of the green.
The eleventh requires another long tee shot to clear the wetlands on this par five. The green cannot be missed to the left because the wetlands pinch in about three yards from the green. I hit the green slightly left of center and the result was a lost ball as the green would not hold a shot from the right side of the fairway despite a lot of rain the night before.
The twelfth hole takes you out into pasture land for a long par 4. You cross a stream but it is visually uninspiring.
The thirteenth hole is a better golf hole although still out in the pasture on this long par 4 that rises uphill.
The fourteenth requires another carry over wetlands to a green that is situated below you and your approach shot has to carry over rocks. It is typically a blind second shot. It is another bad golf hole.
The fifteenth is even worse, a short par 4 that goes down and then up to the green. The tee box points you into the wetlands down the left side of the fairway. I could not hold the green with an 80 yard gap wedge and my ball went into the bunker behind the green against the back side of the lip of the bunker as it is poorly shaped. The hole is much too penal for a short par four.
The sixteenth is a long par five with a pond left for the tee shot and then wetlands right for the second. It does have one of the better greens.
The seventeenth would be a terrific par 3 if the tee box and markers were shaped in the right direction instead of way right. There is high grass and really good bunkering on this hole, primarily on the right. However, this hole seems out of character to the rest of the golf course with those high grasses. The green has a sharp false front. It is overkill.
Finally you end on the 18th which wraps around a pond to another tilted green.
This is not a very good course. It could be improved with better placement of some tee boxes and if some greens could be moved farther from the wetlands. It would be much better served without the 8th hole. Although it would have been a long walk or ride in a cart downhill, perhaps a par 3 along the road would have been better.
It is not a course I would go back to.