Golf was played at Havertown on sand-based greens under various club names from 1895 to 1916, but Llanerch Country Club wasn’t officially formed until 1919, by which time the greens had been grassed.
Scotsman, Alex Findlay, laid out a new course for the members in 1924 and he returned four years later to extend this 18-hole layout to 27 holes. Unfortunately, nine holes were lost to housing soon after the Second World War, so the club commissioned James McGovern (an associate of Donald Ross) to reconfigure the layout back to 18 holes.
No doubt the proudest moment in Llanerch’s long history was when the club hosted the 1958 PGA Championship.
Tom Doak commented as follows in his January 2020 newsletter:
“Brian Schneider added a former major championship site to his consulting portfolio last fall, starting on the first half of an 18-hole renovation in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Or had you forgotten about Dow Finsterwald’s 1958 PGA Championship win?”
A common question from people who are visiting from far away is “what is the hidden gem in the area?” Near St. Andrews the answer might be Elie, in Chicago it might be Kankakee Elks, in New York it is possibly Bethpage Red, near London it is likely New Zealand, and in Philadelphia I would say Llanerch.
Typically Philadelphians will say Gulph Mills, Manufacturers, Rolling Green, or go over an hour away to Lancaster or Lehigh. Yet, most knowledgeable golfers in Philadelphia know of these courses so they are not so “hidden.”
My answer is always “Llanerch.”
I do not know of another club in the area that has undergone as many transformations as Llanerch. Below is a summary from the club’s website (some of this is repetitive to the overview).
It was previously known by four other names and in 1903 nine holes were laid out by John Reid, including a 655 yard par 6. The course was expanded and at one time there were three consecutive par 3’s, all of about the same length forming a diamond loop, as part of a 6300 yard layout, built on sand.
In 1916 the course was converted to grass.
Finally, in 1923, Alexander Findlay originally from Scotland, was contracted to build six new holes and new bunkering. Mr. Findlay was known as “The Father of American Golf.” When he came over from Scotland he made his way to Nebraska working on a ranch where he laid out a six hole course at the age of 20. He would go on to design over 130 golf courses in his lifetime. When asked to work on Llanerch, he was working in a famous local department store overseeing the design of golf clubs.
After his changes, the course was viewed so favorably it was expanded to 27 holes. A.W. Tillinghast wrote “let me say that the 165 yard seventeenth is truly a gem – a rarely fine hole.” The hole is called “Eagles Nest” based on a hole at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Denny Shute was hired as head professional in 1933 to raise the profile of the golf club. Mr. Shute had won several tournaments, was later a member of the USA Ryder Cup team three times. In 1933 he won The Open and later won two PGA championships in 1936 and 1937. After Mr. Shute’s departure, the club hosted a major tournament every year including in 1945 the Philadelphia Inquirer Invitation Tournament which was won by Bryon Nelson, the seventh win of his eleven consecutive wins. Ben Hogan also won here but as he was in the Army at the time, he played under the name of Gordon Jones.
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby hosted an event to raise money for WWII funds.
Because the land for the property was leased, the club wanted to buy the property but due to WWII they decided to buy only enough land for 18 holes. At this time the club went to 119 acres and then had James McGovern, an associate of Donald Ross, design four new holes with the new routing opening for play in 1948.
In 1958 the club hosted the PGA, the first contested in stroke play which was won by Dow Finsterwald by two shots over Billy Casper with Sam Snead third.
Jim Finegan, a famous local golf writer wrote of Llanerch, “what makes this course extraordinary is the diversity of great golf holes on a small piece of ground – you never get bored – in that way, it’s like Merion (East) or St. Andrews.”
I could not agree more with Mr. Finegan. While Llanerch is not at the level of nearby greats such as Pine Valley, Merion East, Aronimink, Philadelphia Cricket Club Wissahickon, and several other notable courses, it is a gem. Much like Merion, it fits perfectly on rolling, sometimes hilly terrain on a small piece of land. The par 3’s are some of the finest I have played. It has a nice variety of par 4’s playing uphill, downhill, on or flat terrain. It has interesting contours on many greens. Finally, the course is well defended on most holes with a nice placement and variety of bunkers and sometimes trees or streams. In an age where tree removal is all the rage on USA parkland courses, Llanerch has kept an appropriate number of trees strategically placed. It really does have it all with the exception of length.
I honestly believe if Llanerch had more length it would be better known but at 6780 yards from the back tees and 6343 from the white tees, this par 71 is likely viewed as too short for the game’s best amateurs or even mini-tour professionals. I find it to be both playable, interesting, strategic, and challenging. It is truly everything one would want from a round of golf.
The first hole at Llanerch looks simple as a 403/378 yard par 4, but it is not. The fairway slopes right to left so one needs to find the right side of the fairway. There are a few trees on the right. A large bunker on the left is very much in play for the average length player. There is a stream 60 yards at the bottom of a valley prior to the raised green which is narrow and very sloped back to front. A ball landing short will not make it onto the green and likely come down the hill. A ball going long is even worse as the chip back onto the green is one of the speediest I have ever played. There is a large bunker with grass splitting it on the right and the rough is kept high on the many mounds left and back. The hole is listed as handicap 9 but it is more difficult than that.
Listed as the number one index on the course is the second, a par 4 of 432/401 which plays over a slight valley to a level fairway but with out-of-bounds down the left of this dogleg right. A few trees are scattered down the right side as well and a bunker on the turn. The green has four bunkers surrounded it and the green is two-tiered. Despite all the difficulty here, I felt the first hole to be the more difficult.
The third is the longest par 4 on the course at 467/411. The second shot must carry the same gully as is present on the first. The green is sloped nearly as steeply as the first hole back to front. There are two fronting bunkers. It is the number 5 index and deserves it.
The fourth hole is the first of four very good par 3’s. It is 205/196 yards and plays downhill but one must carry to the green due to a large and deep fronting bunker. There is another bunker on the left and two fronting bunkers on the right. This green is sloped right to left consistent with the terrain. This completes a difficult stretch of four starting holes. While it is not at the level of the great Pennsylvania courses such as Oakmont or Merion, it is one of the better starting four holes in the Philadelphia area.
You cross the road to get to the first par 5, a longer one at 555/526 with ten bunkers placed at the ideal location for the average length player. For the next three holes you get to breathe a bit. The second set of fairway bunkers could be put another 20 yards forward but there is a large tree overhanging the right side of the fairway that will influence or block shots into the green from that angle. The green is well bunkered particularly with a bunker in the rear on a green that has all sorts of subtle slopes. It is a nice par 5.
The sixth is a mid-length par 4 of 415/390 that is a slight dogleg right with three bunkers down the left side and two on either side of another tilted green. Going long will likely result in being out-of-bounds. It is another good hole.
The seventh hole, a par 4, was recently rated by locals as one of the best eighteen holes in the greater Philadelphia area (note: only one hole per course could be used or Merion East and Pine Valley might have taken all 18 holes). This 393/383 yard hole bends to the right with bunkers flanking the fairway. The green sits below you in a corner of the course with large trees and long, deep bunkers front and behind the green. There is also a stream fronting the green. The green is two-tiered and speedy. This hole is both visually attractive and wonderfully designed.
A very good inland par 3’s come next after crossing the road. Some might say this hole is too difficult as it has length at 223/201, has higher ground both behind, four bunkers surrounding all but the front of the green, and a green that is sloped left to right and back to front. New tees require you to hit over a pond but it should not be in play.
The ninth is the last of the “relaxing” holes as a par 5 of 491/473 but with a tee shot playing slightly uphill. There are trees on either side with out-of-bounds to the right. The green is elevated but thin and steeply sloped and well defended by three large bunkers. This hole represents the best chance at a birdie/eagle on the course.
The tenth is another hole that takes advantage of the rolling terrain and a continuation of the gulch on holes 1-3. This 438/413 requires a demanding tee shot but the second shot is even more daunting as it has to carry the gulch and stream to a green with a severe false front. The green has three large bunkers and is another steeply sloped back to front two-tiered green. The location of the green, much like the first hole, is perfect for the land.
You cross the road again to get to the eleventh, a long par 4 of 457/406 that plays to a large green with a bunker to either side. This is another difficult hole and is rated as the sixth index.
The twelfth is one of the best inland par 3’s I have ever played at 176/157 sitting in a bit of a raised bowl with higher ground to the left and behind. There are four large bunkers on this narrow three-tiered green. Miss the green and you will find it difficult to stop one’s ball. Miss the green with a bunker between you and the green and a triple bogey is very possible. It is another visually beautiful golf hole that takes perfect advantage of the terrain.
Thirteen is another breather hole as a short par 4 of 361/333 with flanking bunkers and three at the green which is the flattest on the course. Due to a shortage of land and this hole occupying the rare flat ground, I think they have done all they could to make it interesting short of putting silly contours on the green.
Fourteen returns to difficulty as a long par 4 of 456/446 with ground that falls away off the tee but then is uphill to a narrow green flanked by bunkers. This is another hole expertly routed for its terrain. The size of the green is brilliant.
Fifteen should be one of the easier holes on the course if one plays it correctly. Bunkers line the left side of the fairway of this shorter par 4 of 321/313/. Going slightly too far right and the tee shot could bounce into the tree line resulting in a blocked line to the green. Pitching out diagonally brings those fairway bunkers back into play. The green complex is another good one, with four bunkers on a small green with multiple levels. This is a very clever golf hole and one that I have yet to learn how to play. However, it is one of my favorite holes on the golf course.
Sixteen is the final par 5 and a relatively easy hole at 540/462. The fairway is narrow but the real danger is the bunker on the left 100 yards from the green. There are three bunkers at the large, but somewhat flat green.
You cross the road for the final time to get to a gem of a par 3 which plays uphill at 150/144 and is a somewhat blind tee shot. Three bunkers are at the front on the side of the hill for the shot hit too weakly. There is another bunker left biting into the green that if found will leave a shot nearly impossible to stop to this green titled back to front and left to right consistent with the land. This hole completes an excellent set of par 3’s.
Depending on one’s point of view, the eighteenth is either a let-down or a welcome relief. You are playing back to the bottom of the clubhouse on this short par 4 of 296/291. There are trees that need to be avoided and two bunkers left. The green is sharply tilted and smallish due to the four fronting bunkers and one at the rear. You can hear the conversations from the clubhouse terrace as you contemplate the final slippery putt.
Whenever I talk to my very knowledgeable head professional at my home club about local courses, he also mentions Llanerch for all the reasons I listed. I recently played there with a member from Southern Hills and he agreed that it is a fabulous course. When one comes to Philadelphia, this is a course worth adding in addition to the big four. Perhaps it will not challenge enough the longer/scratch player, but for the average player every time you play here you discover new things about the golf course that continue to make it both interesting, fun, and challenging.