The Galen Hall Golf Club website describes its layout as: “Something of a mountain course; short but challenging… built on historic South Mountain and as such it features a mixture of hilly terrain as well as undulating fairways.”
Peter nominated Galen Hall as a gem in November 2015 and we felt compelled to add it to the Top 100 website. Peter’s comments follow:
“Galen Hall is not my home course. It is located in Wernersville, Pennsylvania near where I grew up. The course from the back tees plays to a par of 72 at 6,271 yards. It was built in the early 1900s as part of a resort and the original nine was designed by Scotsman Alex Findlay. A.W. Tillinghast designed the second nine in 1917 and the 15th, a 193-yard par three, is considered America’s, if not the world’s first island hole. It is aptly called the "Moat Hole" and has not been altered in nearly 100 years.
The course is on hilly terrain with a number of challenging holes, including several other tough par threes. This is an old course that has not had its original character changed. Long hitters will have an advantage but the greens are small and fast and from an earlier time. For golfers who enjoy the opportunity to experience a page from golf’s history in America I believe Galen Hall is a hidden gem for sure.”
After taking a break from golf to reacquaint myself with my family on a long vacation in Naples, Florida, I returned to Pennsylvania and wanted to find a course to play on a Monday. I went onto the top100golfcourses.com website to see what was available within a reasonable drive to the Philadelphia area, having to take into account the current Covid-19 travel restrictions in neighboring states.
I was intrigued when I read the overview regarding Galen Hall. I convinced two of my friends to join me on a chilly Monday of November 23, 2020. One of my friends accompanying me had been encouraged to go play Galen Hall for several years, having been told of its many memorable features. The drive was about 80 minutes.
My friend had been told of the “value” of playing the course in terms of the interesting architectural qualities of the course with an inexpensive greens fee. He was told the course has a beautiful location mainly at the bottom of South Mountain. It has possibly the worst hole in the USA, which is the second. He was told the course has a fine back nine. He was also told the course would be a difficult walk; indeed there are several small upward hikes and a substantial downhill, before you arrive at seventeen and eighteen which are mainly straight uphill. He was told the fifteen (island green-moat hole) is brilliant as are all of the par threes. He was told the course was likely not in good condition. Finally, he was told the greens are primarily small but very quick.
That is a good summary. My summary would add that the course offers blind shots, uneven lies due to the tilt of the ground, one tilt to a green making it nearly impossible, a hole with a barn, and a couple of holes that remind me of Somerset Hills. The front nine suffers from a lack of bunkers. Maintenance is an issue. The second hole is atrocious (despite what one might read on other golf websites). The fifteen is an amazing golf hole. The par 5’s are very easy and perhaps the course would be better served by reducing the par but in the end it is only the total score that one should remember anyway as opposed to the number of pars. Bigger hitters will have only a slight advantage here given the greens. A foursome of players with a variety of indexes will likely have a spirited match. A road bisects the course twice on holes two and three. There is a clever use of streams on several holes, particularly the fourth and fourteenth. I will add more commentary in my hole-by-hole summary.
The history of Galen Hall per the Golf Association of Philadelphia is as follows:
“In 1880, the Preston family of England constructed a three-story resort in South Heidelberg Township. On April 8, 1911, the Prestons sold the resort to the Galen Hall Company, which ran a hotel and health sanatorium of the same name in Atlantic City, N.J. In 1912, the Galen Hall Company built a Mountain wing onto the resort, which now offered seven stories and 300 rooms. Galen Hall had to compete with Walter’s Park and Grand View, and the owners had to add something that none of the others could offer.
Scottish emigrant Alex Findlay (1865-1942) designed the original nine-hole golf course. Findlay was a pioneer who helped bring the Scottish game to the attention of Americans, many of whom had never even heard of the game. Throughout his career, Findlay designed over 100 golf courses in 16 states, played on over 2,400 courses, competed in exhibition matches with then renowned Henry Vardon, and left many course records in his wake. The course was built by James Albert Preston, who stayed on as Galen Hall’s contractor. The front nine was built in 1912. A. W. Tillinghast added his unmistakable touch to the course, with the 15th hole, also known as the “Moat Hole.” The course and hotel were a Mecca for celebrities during this era. Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle stayed at the hotel and the golf course drew names like Fred and Adele Astaire who once went out as a foursome with then pro Bob Middleton and his assistant Henry Moyer in 1927. The hotel was a popular place for conventions.
Galen Hall well known for its beautiful and tricky golf course as well as for its conventions held in the spring and fall. One of the first conventions which attracted considerable notice over the entire country was held in 1915 by the moving picture industry. Some of those attending the convention were the motion picture stars Pearl White, Mabel Normand, Marguerite Clark, Francis X. Bushman, John Bunny, “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mary Pickford.
The Galen Hall Hotel was sold in 1935 to an experienced New York hotel man, Emanuel Burack, who began taking the already elegant resort and transforming it into a more modern first class destination hotel. It was in this era that the Forest Glades Pool was built from a natural pond surrounded by tall hemlock trees. It was regarded as one of their most beautiful swimming areas in the Berks County area. There was on site “room service” and even a dance orchestra. The pool complex cost $18,000.00 a large sum at the time, and the work was again done by James Albert Preston. During this era, the golf course was improved and lengthened.
The golf course was again enhanced in 1955 by the father and son team William & David Gordon, who designed other local courses such as Saucon Valley and Sunnybrook. The work made some refinements and lengthened the course to its current 6,271 yards, increasing par from 68 to 72.
In 1955, Emanuel Burack’s son Daniel took over the operation of the hotel. William & David Gordon, who also designed the Saucon Valley Grace course, revised the course that year as well.
On April 7, 1963, fire was discovered around 11:15 p.m., and flames were curling out from the penthouse. John Yocom, Galen Hall’s club professional at the time, was notified shortly before midnight. He, in turn, passed the news onto owner Daniel Burack, who was in Philadelphia at the time. Burack immediately rushed up the turnpike to the scene. Much to his horror, the extent of the blaze became plain when he could see the night sky lit up by the fire many miles in the distance as he drove towards the scene. The efforts to fight the fire were ultimately in vain because of a shortage of enough readily available water. It was the end of the Galen Hall Hotel. The golf course suffered some light damage, but was repaired. Today, the bungalows, the restaurant and an out building used to house ground keeping equipment survive from the once 900-acre complex that was Galen Hall.
In 2001, with the death of the owner Eli K. Martin, the golf course’s future was now in question. The property was put up for sale in 2006, the invitation to bidders suggesting it might be a good choice for housing development, which would have meant an end the long history of the course. A partnership was formed to buy the property, with the goal of making the course the premier course in Berks County.”
Adding to the above is that there are photos of Mr. Burack arriving in time to see his hotel up in flames. The hotel had seven stories, with 300 rooms, with the exterior made of stone. The date of the fire coincided with Palm Sunday. There were several hotels built near South Mountain at the time as the mountain air and water went considered to have restorative/rehabilitative qualities. Guests arrived at the Wernersville railroad station, where carriages were waiting to transport them and their luggage to the hotel of their choice at the cost of 25 cents per passenger.
A.W. Tillinghast reconfigured the previous nine hole course before he added his own nine holes. Later, as mentioned William and David Gordon also altered the course.
Due to the time of the year, we were offered a tee time with a $20 fee including a cart. We debated walking the course as a way to keep warm on the chilly day, but after playing the course I was okay with taking the cart and avoiding the climbs on the final two holes.
The course measures 6290 yards from the Blue tees, par 72/73 rated 69.1/127. The White tees are 5876 yards rated 67.3/122. There are two sets of lesser tees at 5269 yards and 4910 yards.
1. Par 4 336/320. The first tee begins right next to the clubhouse/pro shop window going downhill with the driving range to the right and a road to the left. Bigger hitters might be able to drive the green. There are three fairway bunkers to the right. The green is small and built on a steep tilt back to front and left to right consistent with the land. There are no greenside bunkers. I went just over the green and knew I had to hit a delicate chip given the tilt of the green where the pin was in the middle. I hit a “decent” chip that had no chance to staying on the green. My playing partners were below the hole in two and neither got close on their putts, one well short and the other putt bending off to the right. I went back and tried the chip again and chipped it in so the green is not impossible, but going above the pin likely means an improbable recovery shot. I think the green should be softened slightly, but not a lot. It is a fun hole.
2. Par 5 – 475/465. It took us awhile to figure out the tee box was not parallel to the first green along the tree line and instead one walks up the hill about 120 yards where the tee box is found next to the driving range. You face an uphill, blind tee shot with trees down the left and a single bunker on the right that is not in play. It should be moved further up the fairway. Our tee balls landed short of a road that intersects the course twice where housing has been built inside the golf course. Such a pity but it does add some character. After the blind uphill the hole bends dramatically to the left and falls steeply downhill. My second caught a tree on the left but still came out leaving me about 130 yards downhill to the green. The green appears to be able to hold balls but in reality one must land their approach shot short of the green. I looked for nearly three minutes before I found my ball 40 yards behind the green. The green has no bunkers where it really should have a rear bunker at a minimum and perhaps a cross bunker 25 yards short of the green. My friend was told that a lot of players simply play the hole as a par 3 given the blind nature for most players of the tee shot and the second shot. It is not a good hole. None of us liked it.
3. Par 4 – 365/351. We named this “the road hole” after playing it. The hole plays down a gentle downhill. There are no fairway bunkers. The same road that bisects the second also cuts across the fairway about 50-30 yards short of the green. We did not know what it was and assumed it was a ravine. Another road goes down the left side with scattered trees down the right. This road is fun to play because one’s ball, if hit short of the green will likely make its way to the side of the ravine that leaves an uphill, possibly blind pitch onto a green that is well bunkered with a bunker right and two on the left. The green has a substantial tilt to the left. While this hole is not interesting to the eye, the road and green complex make it another quirky, but fun hole.
4. Par 3 – 195/170. This is a very good par 3 with the only issue being the proximity of the road on the left side of the green. Playing from an elevated tee, the green sits behind a narrow creek that cuts in front and to the right side of the green. While the safe play would normally be to the left side of this green due to the creek that brings the road into play. This hole is both visually pleasing and a challenge.
5. Par 4 – 325/300. You play out of a chute to an uphill tee shot with trees down the right side. There is a single bunker on the front right of the green. The same stream from the fourth crosses the fifth but it should not be in play. There is a pond on the left that is in reach off the tee for the longer hitters. There is room to lengthen the hole although I do not know who owns the land and I felt another 25 yards would enhance the hole. The green sits above the fairway on a plateau with a fall-off at the front. This oval green has a back to front tilt.
6. Par 5 – 480/470. From the elevated tee, this is a beautiful hole. The tee shot needs to avoid the bunker left that should not be in play while the bunker on the right is likely in play. There is ample room to miss to the right. Further down the fairway are two bunkers on the left with the final bunker placed inside the fairway about 40 yards short of the green. The green has a substantial back to front tilt to it, but not excessive like the first hole. However, going long will lead to an improbable recovery. All of us liked this hole.
7. Par 3 – 156/125. I took the wrong club off the tee as I thought the hole played 135 yards. The hole plays over a ravine and is uphill. My tee shot was short and one instantly notices how small this green is. It has three bunkers, one right and then two placed at the back. Going long leads to another impossible recovery shot as the green is very tilted back to front and right to left. It is one of the more difficult par 3’s I have played for that length. Our best score was a double bogey.
8. Par 5 – 500/485. One could lengthen this hole by as much as 50 yards although it would create a different look from the tee. The current tee is elevated while a “new” tee further back would be only slightly level. The fairway it tilted to the left so most balls will gather at the left side of the fairway or even in the left rough. There is a single bunker on the right side but recovery is not difficult from it given the length of the hole. The green is raised and has a bunker right and two on the left that are fairly deep. This is the first dogleg on the course going to the right and the fairway has a few ripples in it. All of us liked the hole.
9. Par 4 – 410/355. Being at the base of the South Mountain, this again has its fairway tilted to the left. While there are no fairway bunkers there are trees down both sides. The green has fronting bunkers. It is an average hole with an above-average green due to its tilt.
10. Par 3 – 164/155. Playing slightly downhill, this hole has a creek running diagonally right to left but well short of the green. The green is slightly raised sloped overall back to front with a bunker left and two on the right. Although this hole does not offer anything “new” it is a nice golf hole and not a guaranteed par.
11. Par 4 – 380/348. This hole is a slight dogleg right with trees down both sides but a generous fairway. There is a fairway bunker right. Much like the ninth, the hole requires better bunkers on the fairway. The green has bunkers left and right on the sides and has a “hidden” tilt to the right that is speedier than it appears. This hole cannot be lengthened.
12. Par 5 – 520/500. This is the barn hole. You play from an elevated tee across the stream that cuts diagonally left to right before the fairway before. The hole goes out to the left ever so slightly before doglegging back to the right. There are split fairway bunkers for the tee shot with the left one closer than the right. The fairway tilts to the right a bit. As you near the green there is a single bunker left about 35 yards short of the green with the barn on the right starting about 20 yards short of the green. The ground to the left of the green is steep and a ball landing there has the chance to bounce down onto the green. This is one of the few greens that is flattish. The location of the barn makes this a compelling hole.
13. Par 4 – 325/293. The tee shot appears narrower than it actually is due to the trees on the left and another stream cutting diagonally from left to right. The stream should be easily carried even if it looks much farther out than it is. This green has two fronting bunkers which reminded all of three of us of the sixth and tenth at Somerset Hills. The green sits on a shelf in front of higher ground to the rear. It is a fun hole and another nice visual from the tee.
14. Par 4 – 453/438. This hole has a double stream and is easily the most difficult hole on the golf course, other than the seventh. From an elevated tee you play down a fairway with a large tilt right to left. The wise play is down the right to take advantage of the slope. In addition, the first stream can be reached from the tee down the left side as it cuts diagonally across the fairway left to right. Bigger hitters will likely carry this first stream down the left side but not the right side. The second stream is inverse to the first, coming across the fairway right to left although even the left side is 30 yards short of the green. This is another hole with no bunkers and it does not need it given the difficulty to the green. The green is small with a substantial left to right and back to front tilt. This hole could be on many very good golf courses and fit right in.
15. Par 3 – 193/132. This is the moat hole with a water feature of about five yards in width surrounding the entirety of the green. Counting the sides, the hazard is about ten yards wide. You can see the green from the tee but the distance is confusing as it is a level tee shot. There is a beautiful waterfall on the back right. If one is to lay-up, the correct side is the left side as the right side of the smallish green has a hump to it. Any pitch or chip coming in from that right side will find it difficult to hold the green. I found this to be the most difficult island green hole I have played including the one at The Creek or TPC Sawgrass due to the combination of length and size of the green. This takes a very precise tee shot to reach the green. I did have a putt for par after pitching on, so there is a decent chance of recovery if one is short center or left. It might be worth traveling to play this course merely to play fourteen and fifteen.
16. Par 4 – 350/320. This hole is not much. It plays from an elevated tee downhill over a pond with trees to either side. There is a bunker on the left. Given the length of the hole it would be enhanced by better bunkers. The green is tilted back to front with a slight vertical ripple.
17. Par 3 – 184/168. This hole plays up a steep hill making the yardage another 25 yards. You play over a ravine to a landing zone where the green has a small false front. There is a single bunker to the right. There is no reason to change this hole as it is a good hole.
18. Par 5 – 480/475. The tee shot is blind and sharply uphill. The hole bends slightly to the left and tumbles downhill with scattered trees down the right. The fairway tilts to the left where higher grass awaits. This is the final hole without bunkers and has a flattish green. This is a disappointing hole. If one wants to keep this as a par 5 it needs both fairway and greenside bunkers. If one changed it to a par 4 I would still add at least two bunkers. I would change this hole to a par 4.
I am really glad I read about Galen Hall on top100golfcourses.com because I would never have gone to play it until I read about it. There are some very strong architectural features on this golf course, despite the bad second hole and four-five “average” golf holes. I like every one of the par 3’s with the fourth and fifteenth being standout holes. There are several very nice par 4’s particularly the fun thirteenth and difficult fourteenth. The par 5’s are all fairly easy, and potential eagle holes for the longer hitters.
Better bunkering would enhance the course.
The green surrounds could use a bit of micro-contouring which would not cost much to do. The green surfaces should be kept as is as they are very good.
The course’s reputation would likely be enhanced if the par was changed to 70, improved conditioning and better bunkering. There is no reason to change the green surfaces.
The course is quirky at times, unfair at times, and an absolute joy to play. All three of us really liked the course from the sixth on as well as the fourth hole. I would encourage people to make the trip and play it. Our greens fee was $20 which was amazing for the course. Even in the height of the summer, the green fee is well below $100. It is great value for money.
The rating is somewhere between 3.5-4 but I will go higher given the architectural features that the two primary designers incorporated into the course as well as the brilliance of thirteen-fifteen.