Philadelphia Country Club is one of the oldest in the country, formed by John C. Bullit in 1890. He acquired a 60-acre property on which a polo field was laid out (hence the horse head club emblem) at Bala, next to Fairmount Park and a 9-hole golf course followed two years later.
Land was purchased at Gladwyne in 1926 for the purpose of constructing an 18-hole layout and this was designed by the William S. Flynn and Howard C. Toomey company, opening in 1930 as the Spring Mill course.
To their credit, the club has only recently finished a refurbishment program which restored the course to the playing conditions intended by the architect 80 years ago.
In addition to the classic Flynn-designed 18 holes, Philadelphia asked Tom Fazio to create another nine holes, the “Centennial Nine,” when they reached their 100th year in 1990, resulting in an outstanding 27-hole golf complex that sits very nicely alongside the tennis and squash courts, swimming pool, shooting lodge and bowling alley at the club.
The US Open was held here in 1939 when Byron Nelson claimed the title and, in more recent times, the US Women’s Amateur championship took place in 2003.
The Spring Mill course at Philadelphia Country Club is the golf course in the Philadelphia area that leads to the largest variation in opinion as to whether it is a very good course or merely above average alongside many other fine golf courses.
In talking with golfers in the Philadelphia area who have been fortunate to play at the more recognized courses they generally have a ranking as follows:
(Excluding Pine Valley across the river), 1. Merion East 2. Aronimink and Philadelphia Cricket Club Wissahickon 4. Rolling Green * 5. Lancaster Meadowcreek/Dogwood * 6. Gulph Mills 7. Saucon Valley Weyhill 8. Huntingdon Valley Toomey/Flynn * 9. Stonewall Old 10. Saucon Valley Old 11. Applebrook 12. Philadelphia CC Spring Mill*13. Lehigh* 14. Saucon Valley Grace 15. Manufacturer’s* 16. Waynesboro 17. Lookaway 18. Llanerch 19. White Manor 20. Chester Valley.
However, there are those that would put Philadelphia CC in the top seven.
I write the list also for those who also might debate whether Philadelphia (including Pine Valley and Galloway National) have as many good courses as the greater New York City area. I do not think it is much of a debate as I could easily list 30 courses in the New York City area, most of them much better than their numerical counterparts in Philadelphia. For example, Pine Valley is better than Shinnecock Hills but National is the equivalent to Merion East, but then add Fisher’s Island, Garden City Men’s, Friars Head, Maidstone, The Creek, Piping Rock, Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge, Sleepy Hollow, etc, many of which are above Aronimink or Philadelphia Cricket Club Wissahickon…..you get the picture.
Per the list above it references the number of recognized courses designed by Mr. Flynn (asterisked above). Add Cherry Hills, Kittansett, The Country Club (Ohio), Indian Creek (Florida) and the Cascades course at the Homestead (Virginia) and one begins to see why Mr. Flynn is held in such high regard and likely deserves more recognition as a golf course architect.
Designed by William Flynn but re-routed over the years, the course offers a very good change of terrain, albeit without many interesting land forms which many of his other courses in the area have such as Lancaster and Rolling Green. At the Spring Mill course, many of the holes are placed more on the sides of hills rather than up and down. For me, the better holes on this course are the ones that take more advantage of the rises and falls in the land. Mr. Flynn was known for his excellent routings beginning with the green sites and working backyards to the tee. He accomplished this for the most part at Philadelphia CC with many very nice green locations sprinkled throughout the course.
The back nine is significantly better than the front nine as the front nine begins with two weaker hole and ends with two poor holes. At the time they were built they were fine. But with technology changes, there is not enough available land to make the holes more interesting. While the change in terrain is about the same on both nines, the holes are more varied and routed more interestingly on the back nine. The greens are also better placed and have more contouring on the back nine.
While the members can be very proud of the course and especially the long views over it from the clubhouse, it is somewhat of a shame that the clubhouse reminds one of going to a corporate meeting at a Ritz Carlton. I do not normally comment on a clubhouse, but this one is so large that it takes away from the opportunity to lengthen some holes as well as build a better practice area.
From the Black tees the course is 6976 yards, par 71 rated 73.9/135. From the Blue tees it is 6683 rated 72.5/133. The White tees are 6373 rated 70.9/130. There are two sets of lesser yardages. I have played both the Blue tees as well as the White tees in golf society events. My most recent round was on July 1, 2019.
The course is always in good condition both in fairways, bunkers, tees and greens. In the several times I have been there I have never seen any spots that needed attention.
Here is a summary I sent to a friend. One and two are not very good. Three-five are terrific. Six, seven and eleven are above average. Eleven - fourteen is a good stretch. Seventeen is a very nice hole but sixteen is bad and eighteen is dull. I cannot decide whether I like fifteen or not. The remaining holes seem to blend together (eight, nine, ten).
1 – par 4 325/313. The worst hole on the golf course so it is nice to get it out of the way. It is a dogleg left with three large bunkers left and three right. There are two bunkers left of the green and a large one that looks like two bunkers on the right. The green has nice contouring with a bank on the left and is angled right to left, slightly raised and narrows at the back with a fall-off behind. The green complex and bunkering are about as good as one could hope yet the hole is too easy. Bigger hitters can easily reach the front of the green or have less than 30 yards.
2 – par 4 353/341. This hole plays 25 yards longer as it is steeply uphill. Other people do like this hole but I do not. It is a blind tee shot between a chute of trees up the hill with two large, staggered bunkers right and two large bunkers on the left. The fairway is wide to the left side away from the trees hanging over the second bunker on the right. Fronting the green are three long cross bunkers. This small green is very tilted back to front and going long presents a problem for recovery. This hole is similar to the first where it does not ask much of you unless you try to overdo it.
3 – par 5 585/559. I like the third hole, playing as long as the yardage indicates. There are three bunkers right and one on the left. Longer hitters easily fly these bunkers from the slightly elevated tee. The next shot has to comtemplate two bunkers staggered on the right and left that pinch into the fairway forcing average length hitters to hit out to the right where the ground is slightly lower. If they lay up short of these two bunkers they have a difficult, long third shot into the green. At the green are three bunkers left and a tree while another bunker is on the right side where the land falls off. The green is angled left to right with a tier in it. This hole would be good on any golf course.
4 – par 4 470/455. One of the more difficult holes on the course, this hole plays from an elevated tee downhill with flanking bunkers. The green is set off slightly to the right with another set of flanking bunkers. Balls hit low do have the chance to run onto the green. The fairway tilts to the right. It is a nice golf hole.
5 – par 3 167/155. Likely the most photographed hole on the course due to a downhill shot between trees over a pond that continues down the right side as a smaller sliver of water. You cannot miss left as two bunkers await you to a green that tilts left to right. It is a splendid hole. Many miss the green from the tee.
6 – par 5 500/491. This is a more devious hole than it might appear. From another elevated tee you hit down to a fairway that slopes slightly towards a large pond on the right. The pond is very much in play due to a finger that extends down that right side. There are no bunkers until a stream cuts through the fairway with two bunkers on the other side. At the uphill green beautifully situated on a side of a hill there are four surrounding bunkers. There is a steep fall-off to the left of the green so the recovery shots from those bunkers can be almost blind. The green tilts right to left and has two tiers. This hole is similar to the first and second where the green complex is very good but the hole suffers from a lack of length. It is rated the number one index on the front nine.
7 – par 3 211/202. A long par 3 with a green angled right to left and two bunkers left and one right. The hillside is on the right so any ball on the right side will face an almost impossible recovery as the green slants right to left towards those two bunkers. It is a good hole. It has bettered me every time even if I had a three feet putt to save par.
8 – par 4 391/380. Hitting uphill there are two staggered bunkers on the left and a single one on the right. The longer hitters do not even see the bunkers. Most people go right due to the road on the left being out-of-bounds. There are some scattered trees on the right. At the green are flanking bunkers but I find the green to be uninteresting. The final tree on the right near the green seems to always be in play for at least one of the foursome.
9 – par 4 416/400. A straight hole with out-of-bounds down the left and scattered trees down the right. There are two bunkers left and one right that cause the fairway to turn a bit to the right. Near the green is a large bunker left followed by two more on the left side of the green and a large bunker greenside right. The hole has no real visual appeal despite all of the sand. I have seen players hit their tee shots left out-of-bounds, across the road and in a neighboring front yard.
10 – par 4 437/393. Playing downhill from an elevated tee this hole has a big tree on the left followed by tall fescue. Trees border the right as well. On the right is a single bunker. Hit it left and one will likely not find their ball in the summer months of the taller grass. Down the right side is a large pond but it should not be in play. At the green there are two bunkers left and two bunkers right with a bunker behind to a green that runs away a bit and is sloped left to right. It is an okay hole. This is the hole where the tall grass on the left is in play for most of the hole. The green is somewhat crowned on a slight plateau.
11 – par 3 192/181. I think this is the best par 3 on the golf course although not as difficult as seven or fifteen and not as pretty as five. Playing from an elevated tee across a valley the green is located on the side of a hill with a large bunker to either side and another large bunker behind a balloon shaped green. The green is a tricky one with all sorts of slopes and burrows shaped right to left. The only negative to the hole is the visual from the cart path that snakes around the hole.
12 – par 5 580/542. This hole plays sharply uphill for the tee shot and the large bunker on the left is very intimidating. Average length hitters must avoid it and avoid going left into the taller grass. After the initial uphill, the hole plays essentially flat. If one hits a decent tee shot, their reward is a chance to play short of the two bunkers that pinch into the fairway about 90-75 yards short of the green. At the green are bunkers to either side of a green that has a mound on the back right. I like the hole nearly as much as the third.
13 – par 4 380/355. A nice short par 4 angled off to the left with two staggered bunkers left and one to the right. The hole plays down then slightly up. The green has a narrow opening with flanking bunkers. There is a substantial fall-off left and back of the green. In the stretch of holes 11-14 this is the weakest one but it is still an okay hole
14 – par 4 477/436. This is the eighth handicap but I find it to be a difficult hole playing slightly uphill on the tee shot. There are bunkers on either side of the fairway split by about 40 yards with the further one being on the left but then reversed at the green with the left one being shorter of the green while the right one is against the entire side. The higher ground from the hill is on the left side of the green so if one misses there it will be a very difficult recovery shot to a green sloping away from you. The bunker on the right of the green sits much lower than the green due to the slope of the hill. This is my third favorite hole on the course.
15 – par 3 225/214. As stated earlier I cannot make up my mind about this hole. It is a very difficult hole playing substantially uphill with the green mainly blind. There is a bunker about 20 yards short on the right and another middle right. There are two bunkers on the left. There is ample room to miss the green short to potentially make par or no worse than a bogey. However, the green has multiple tiers in it and is very tricky with subtle breaks. It is a very difficult hole for the average length player or someone with a suspect short game. I think it is overly difficult which is why I do not favor the hole although I do admire the location for the green.
16 – par 4 403/391. A very forgettable hole but after the terrors of fourteen and fifteen this is a welcome chance to catch one’s breath. This hole plays sharply downhill with a blind tee shot where one’s ball will roll an extra twenty-thirty yards. The land tilts to the right. The key is simply to not hit into the few trees down the left or way right into other trees. There is a final dip in the land before the green. There is a center-line bunker about fifteen yards short of the thin green that catches more balls than it should. The green is angled left to right with bunkers on most sides. At the back there is a substantial fall-off where balls can end sixty yards away with a blind shot. This hole should be a guaranteed par or birdie chance.
17 – par 4 472/444. The best hole on the golf course plays fairly level as you hit over a valley. Down the entire right side of this dogleg right are trees but they should only be in play for the tee shot. Five bunkers are on the inner corner of the dogleg but most players have a chance of carrying them. If they cannot carry these bunkers there is ample room to the left. The fairway drops to the green so the longer hitters can pick up some extra distance off the tee. The green is built into the side of another hill with the higher ground left and a huge fall-off to the right. There are two bunkers left and one to the right with the left ones perfectly placed in a carved-out hollow, much like twelve to penalize those trying not to miss on the right. It is a very good sloping, contoured green.
18 – par 4 392/381. After the terrific seventeenth, the eighteenth plays also as a dogleg right with two bunkers on the inner corner and one on the outer turn. The hole rises all the way to the green and has two bunkers left and one right. The green is thin at the front then widens a bit with a fall-off down the left as the hill goes down from the clubhouse. There is a good chance you will be watched by people on the patio as you play in. It is an okay hole but I expect more despite a nice titled green with two tiers. Perhaps they should relocate the building behind the green and lengthen the hole by thirty yards although that would put the green on lower land.
The Spring Hill course has some marvelous holes such as seventeen, it has some visually very pretty holes such as five and six. It has some very difficult holes such as fifteen. There is a marvelous placement of bunkers and the greens are smooth and nicely shaped. The reason that many do not place it among the area’s best is that it is inconsistent. There is an extra nine hole here but it is not on great land so it is not a question of swapping out land to improve the course.
This course once hosted a famous U.S. Open that Sam Snead kicked away (the routing was different with the third hole being the eighteenth, as was the location of the clubhouse) which it could not do today due to lack of length and lack of strategy. Contrast that to Merion East which is about the same length but could host a U.S. Open with a week’s notice because Merion has world-class greens, strategy and options on nearly every hole. The Spring Mill course offers several holes with strategy, but on many holes there are no options. On the plus side, with the exception of two and fifteen, one knows what to do.
Don’t let the distance on the scorecard fool you. This William Flynn design has an abundance of challenge facilitated by the immensely rolling topology. The second hole is a medium length par 4, but playing straight uphill and with a mostly blind approach shot, you quickly get a sense of how special the routing is across the land.
Eastern Pennsylvania has no shortage of William Flynn golf courses, but amazingly, they continue to offer unique holes with outstanding strategy. The closing 3-hole stretch is mighty with a downhill par 4 smothered with bunkers, a dogleg right pitched fairway on the 17th (Bryon Nelson holed a 1 iron from this fairway to win the 1939 US Open) and a par 4 18th climbing back up to the clubhouse. This course is relentless, but an inspiration of how well it has stood the test of time.