According to the book The Life and Work of Wayne Stiles by Bob Labbance and Kevin Mendik, “Gulph Mills is located on rolling property just southwest of Philadelphia on part of the original land grant in 1684 from William Penn to Peter Yocum. Portions of that property were then sold to the Hughes family in 1697 and named the Walnut Grove Farm. The next change occurred in 1916 when a portion was sold to the newly formed Gulph Mills Golf Club.”
Donald Ross designed the club’s course and it opened for play in May of 1919 at a construction cost (excluding land acquisition) of $92,277, which was more than three times the original estimate. For some reason, all of the putting surfaces were rebuilt after only five years in operation, though Donald Ross recommended renovating four of these new greens in 1926.
Perry Maxwell changed seven holes during the 1930s before Wayne Stiles drew up a comprehensive hole-by-hole report for the club in 1940, focusing mainly on the replacement of the Ross bunkers. William Gordon became the club’s course consultant for a time then Robert Trent Jones was called in to advise on modifications to several holes in 1966.
"I've simplified the [architect] credits for this course", commented Tom Doak in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses , “everyone from Flynn to Bill Gordon to Robert Trent Jones tinkered with it at some point, but Gil Hanse has thankfully sorted through the hodgepodge of styles and restored the best of Ross' and Maxwell's work. There are a few holes that would rate with Philly's finest, including the short 4th across a deep valley, and the 6th and 11th with their distinctive and severe Maxwell greens – but there are also some clunkers, and the cramped and hilly site does not allow it to surpass the second tier of Flynn’s many fine courses in the area.”
Correctly accrediting architectural provenance, especially for historical courses, can be error prone. David A. contests: “William Flynn was mistakenly credited with re-doing a number of the greens, but as it turns out, merely assisted in re-grassing them in the early days of the course.”
Like so many golden age classics, the timeline of architects is convoluted with many cooks in the kitchen all serving different dishes. Generally understood, the first 7 holes are Donald Ross, the next 7 holes are from Perry Maxwell before returning to Donald Ross for the last 4 holes. I’m not going to try to understand why it evolved this way, but the switchover in design multiple times during the round is noticeable. It reminded me of how Sleepy Hollow used to play with how the collection of Macdonald holes would abruptly change to a mix of Tillinghast holes and then back again on the inward half. The personality of the course just changes in front of your eyes.
It was of zero surprise to learn that the genius of Gil Hanse was brought in to sort it all out and improve the flow and feel of the entire routing at both Gulph Mills and Sleepy Hollow (ironically) in recent years. The lack of consistency throughout the entire 18 holes at Gulph Mills in terms of the green and bunker design certainly doesn’t take away from how special the club and course are today. The variety ensures that everybody will have different favourite holes which I see as a positive.
Over the past 70 years, several tees and holes have been repositioned and greens were moved significantly due to the influence of the architect at the time. It’s comforting to see that despite so many iterations and contributions over time that the current layout continues to sparkle.
As noted before, the club stays below the radar and is essentially a peaceful escape for the few lucky members who embrace the rolling hills. The simplicity of the men’s locker room is the perfect complement to the traditions that have been preserved for over a century. Keeping up with the times, the club has removed thousands of trees to expose the beautiful landscape and opened up views that were thwarted by bizarre tree planting in the 1960s.
The massive scale of the opening 3 holes flowing up and down the hills to contoured greens makes it the most difficult start in the region. All of them tough par 4s, especially the index 1 3rd hole which plays around 475 yards from the back tees down towards a diagonal creek cutting across the fairway with a large bunker 70 yards from the green. The severely sloped fairway brings all the danger in the play and you won’t have a flat lie for an approach shot that will be at least 200 yards back up to the raised green.
We all loved the short par 3 4th hole over the quarry, not only because it gave you a chance to make a par without sweating – but because of the beautiful green site. The challenge of the pitched Ross greens from back to front, and the sheer dynamic nature of the Maxwell greens makes this venue worthy of top amateur play. It is a gorgeous walk all the way around, but I did fall in love with the downhill par 3 17th green into a delightful punchbowl green which is always fun.
On paper, the last hole is a 464-yard par 5 from the back tees. The innocent visitor immediately thinks “birdie”. The experienced member thinks “best of luck with that”. After a demanding drive up and (hopefully) over a plateau, the fairway plummets downwards before sharply presenting the steep climb up to the pitched elevated green. The closing hole at Gulph Mills is a sight to behold, and the reality of making a birdie is as mythical as the club’s sweet evolution. I truly enjoyed my experience at a well-preserved old classic.
Perry Maxwell reconstructed the 8th and 10th greens in 1934, the 11th and 14th greens in 1937 and the 7th green in 1938. Very glad you enjoyed this special place.
Gulph Mills is a beautiful course outside of Philadelphia that often does not receive its fair share of praise compared to some of the other stalwart courses in the area. My guess is that is because of the exclusivity and the fact that the membership appears to prefer to stay under the radar as I’m told it does not seek to have course raters from publications access.
Gulph Mills offers a rolling landscape that is a beautiful walk throughout (albeit your calves will get a work out on the closing uphill 18th). Despite being located in the densely populated and built area of King of Prussia and Conshohocken, the course offers a reprieve from the masses as little of the outside world is visible from the majority of the course. With the relative light play, you’ll often be blessed by being only a handful of lucky souls gracing the fairways should be blessed to be
A strong set of par 3’s including a short one shooter over a beautiful quarry which is reminiscent of the beautiful quarry par 3 at Manufacturers Golf & CC about 10 miles west of Gulph Mills. The short par 4 8th hole might be my favorite short par 4 in the Philadelphia region. The greens feature some of the classic Ross characteristics with several holes featuring dramatic back to front sloped greens and well protected complexes.
I would happily make this fine course my home club and would not get tired of its timeless design.