Donald Ross’s Aronimink is often held as one of the crown jewels alongside the many creations of the “Philadelphia School” of golf course architecture in the crown of what may be America’s best golf city. Historians would be wise not to forget that Ross blessed the city with other routes as well, with St. David’s Golf Club being among them.
The property was actually one of the original six members of the Golf Association of Philadelphia, however it reached its full potential when Ross arrived during 1925 to design the current layout, with that course opening during 1927 after the acquisition of further property.
Its renown may have been hampered by the unavailability for expansion as technology improved, however the course remains a testing use of 6,600 yards, with numerous long par fours. The membership has been sure to maintain its prize over the years, as Brian Silva led a bunker renovation during the ‘90s and Ron Prichard has since conducted a full restoration.
As a note to Philadelphia school fanatics: No. 9 was originally a short par four, however local architect A.W. Tillinghast made the recommendation it be shortened to a long par three.
St. Davids Golf Club is a lovely Donald Ross designed course. In the Philadelphia area it is rarely a “first thought” for visitors coming into the area to play the many fine golf courses. It is easy to understand why St. Davids is overlooked as the greater Philadephia area is in the top five areas of the USA for the quality of its golf. Pine Valley, Merion East, Aronimink, Philadelphia Cricket Club Wissahickon all are included in the top 100 in the USA. This is followed by Huntingdon Valley Toomey/Flynn, Philadelphia Country Club Spring Mill, Gulph Mills, Rolling Green, Applebrook, Manufacturer’s, and Stonewall Old. Stretch the area a bit further and you pick up Lancaster, Lehigh, and three terrific courses at Saucon Valley. Llanerch is a hidden gem with Lookaway not too long of a drive away.
I play at St. Davids typically 4-5 times a year due to two dear friends being members of the club, one of which has been there more than 25 years.
Perhaps no club in Philadelphia has done more to their course to improve it than St. Davids. In my opinion, only the work of Keith Foster at Philadelphia Cricket Club Wissahickon course exceeds it. My first round here was on June 7, 2002 so I have seen all of the changes, particularly to their clubhouse which I think is the finest “modern” clubhouse in the area after they tore down the previous one.
It is a solid course with at least three treacherous greens, really good land movement, a mixture of short and long par 4’s, three very difficult holes, and generally easy par 5’s. It is a short course due to having five par 3’s and only three par 5’s, so if one were to adjust the yardage for a fourth par five you would see the remaining holes have adequate yardage.
I once got into trouble sharing my opinion of the course. I stress that I like it a lot as it is fun and difficult in spots. Yet due to the number of courses I have played and the quality of them I do not rank it highly on my own personal ranking list. I was once invited in 2015 to a nine-day trip to Ireland with seven members of St. Davids as a last minute replacement for another member who suffered an injury. On the third day over dinner I was asked my opinion of the course. I praised it. At the time I had played just under 500 courses, but many of them were the finest courses in the world/area. The next day I was pressed to give where I had ranked it on my list of nearly 500 and I responded 342. Two of the members didn’t speak much to me the rest of the trip. As of today I have played 787 different courses and I have it ranked #530 on my personal list. Yet I consider it very much worth playing and when I host people at Aronmink I often encourage them to go have a second round at St. Davids to experience two Donald Ross courses in the same day. They are only 15 minutes apart.
The main drawbacks to St. Davids are four and then one more I will discuss a bit later. First, you have to cross a busy road twice. While not as terrifying as crossing the road at Worplesdon, every now and then you will face the “I’m not slowing down or stopping to let the golfers cross.” Second, the weak holes are weak and while a weak opener is often understood, a weak finishing hole is not. Third, the reason there is a shortage of yardage resulting in the weaker holes is that the club through the years had a chance to acquire adjacent land and consistently failed to do so. Finally, the greens surfaces are too similar.
On the plus side, the routing is very good for the land that it is on. The routing takes almost maximum advantage of the land that it has to create many holes with elevated tees or greens, or at least finding the higher ground. Doglegs go in both directions, sometimes severe and sometimes gentle.
I will admit to being pleased that when I first looked at the course in 2002 and my host asked me my thoughts, as the club has basically done everything I thought they should do including placement of new bunkers and relocating existing bunkers. I am not pretending to be a golf architect myself as I think these changes under the guidance of Ron Prichard were obvious (although I do disagree with the fairway bunkers on the left on sixteen).
As for the final criticism, the original routing of St. Davids had the thirteenth hole as a downhill par 3 to a green placed on the side of a hill. The next hole was a par 4. That par 3 was eliminated and the thirteenth has played as a sharp dogleg left bending around trees on the left to a tilted fairway and a very sharp back to front right to left green. The fourteenth is a par 3 uphill where the green has been re-worked three times since re-built. I think the club should return to the original routing with that beautiful downhill par 3 of approximately 175 yards. The next hole would play as a longer par 4 basically uphill the entire way to the existing green. Combined with the twelfth, a notoriously difficult hole at St. Davids, these three holes might become the best consecutive three holes in the Philadelphia area with the “new” uphill par 4 being one of the best holes in the area. To do so would mean sacrificing the existing green on thirteen and could possibly bring the par 3 green into play for the poor shots coming up twelve, but I think the course would be considerably improved.
As mentioned, the course has a wonderful routing with twelve holes on one side of the road and six on the other. There are several substantial rises on the property as well as falls. There are many doglegs on the course, two of which are 90 degrees. The doglegs go in both directions. It is rare that one finds a straight hole.
For the most part the bunkering is good both in placement and depth.
The green surfaces are a bit too similar, relying on a back to front slope. Only a few of the greens are more interesting in their contouring. Several of the greens have nice small land forms nearby. It is only on a few of the greens where one must find the right place to land the ball due to a sideway slope or an internal swale. There is an inadequate use of fall-offs near the green’s edges.
From the Black tees the course is 6608 yards, par 70, rated 72.3/134. The Silver tees are 6324 yards, rated 70.5/132. There are two sets of lesser tees. This is a course that will not consistently challenge the top player but it is a course that will adequately test the 8-20 index.
1. Par 4 – 385/371. The beginning hole goes straight out with scattered trees on both sides and the driving range to one’s right. A large bunker is left which sits slightly inside the line of the fairway which goes a bit to the left after this bunker. Another large bunker is on the right side at the end of the tree-line. Up ahead is a center-line bunker more from the left roughly 40 yards from the green. It is a deeper bunker so recovery becomes difficult. The green has two deeper bunkers on its left side. The green has an overall back to front tilt with the lowest point being the front right. It is an okay starting hole but good players will be looking to birdie.
2. Par 4 – 444/436. Playing towards the Valley Forge Military Academy, this longer par 4 has a large tree on its left side followed by a smaller one with two bunkers between them. Farther up on the left side are two bunkers placed inside the fairway with two more large trees after them. If one is coming in from the left side, they will have to navigate these bunkers but more so the trees. The right side of this fairway used to have trees near its edge but they have been all cleared out. A good drive will catch a speed slot on this hole as it falls a bit towards the hole about 210 yards off the tee. The large green is sharply tilted back to front with front flanking bunkers. This hole uses the trees perfectly as a part of its defense with a green that is resistant to making birdies or saving par if one is above the pin.
3. Par 4 – 349/339. This hole has changed substantially since I first started to play it due to a removal of a large number of trees from both sides of the fairway that made this hole feel separate from the second and fourth. Now the hole is almost wide open, with only two large trees on the right side one about 115 yards from the green and the other placed near the right front. These two trees should not be in play on the hole, yet they are should one go anywhere near the right edge of the fairway. Opposite these trees is a large bunker on the left side and then two on the right side. This hole is a dogleg right due to the tee being placed off to the right. The correct tee shot is to aim at the left bunker if one is a short hitter but if one is longer the better play is to play off the corner of the first right bunker. For a short hole, the small green is well constructed as it is elevated, with four surrounding deep bunkers and a substantial fall-off if one goes long. One should try not to go long as the green is sloped substantially back to front with a swale on the front right side. For a short hole, they have maximized its potential. A possible idea is to place a back tee on the other side of the entrance driveway adding another twenty yards and bringing those fairway bunkers into play.
4. Par 4 – 372/361. This hole plays downhill to the green as a dogleg left. There is a fairway bunker left with a steep face and two bunkers off to the right. Longer hitters will fly these bunkers but they have to take into account trees to the left and right which are large. If one can thread the middle of the fairway they will pick up some extra yardage on the rollout. The green has a small bunker on the left front and a large bunker on each side. There is good land movement near this green site. The green is sloped back to front and right to left with very few easy pin positions to make birdie, but this should be a par hole.
5. Par 4 – 428/416. While three of the first four holes offer birdie opportunities for the better player, this hole increases the difficulty although its challenge has been reduced. Playing from an elevated tee after crossing the entrance road, this dogleg right has an early bunker before the start of the fairway more in play for the women and juniors. At the inner turn there is a bunker as well as a tree on the right. Anything hit into the right rough will likely result in a pitch out to get back into position. There is a single tree on the left that can also block one’s line to the green. The green is elevated with a substantial false front. It has three deep bunkers on the right front with a front left bunker and right side bunker. The green is tilted back to front. However, the green has been substantially softened as it used to be very sloped and nearly impossible to stop one’s ball if one was putting from above the green. Too often putts from above the pin used to go all the way off the front of the green down the slope, but now the speed has been dulled a bit too much.
6. Par 3 – 148/137. Probably the weakest hole on the course is next despite the two fronting bunkers and a bunker on both sides. The green slopes back to front with various swales at the front.
7. Par 4 – 464/429. This is the most difficult hole on the golf course. This dogleg left plays downhill from an elevated tee with a pond placed at the inner corner. Years ago I could easily carry the pond but now it is unlikely so the play for the average length player is to play to the right of it. Bigger hitters will fly it by 40-60 yards and be left with an uphill shot of perhaps as little as 130 yards depending on the dryness of the course. For the longer hitters who are playing slightly away from the pond down the right are two bunkers. Recovery from there is very difficult due to the uphill nature of the hole which adds a minimum of 20 yards to any shot. There are a couple of trees off to the right and a bunker about 60 yards short of the green. The green is placed close an out-of-bounds on the left with thick trees as well as two bunkers placed in front of the green. A single bunker is on the right side of the green. As if this was not enough defense for this hole, the green is steeply banked back to front with various swales on the front half. It is now probably the third steepest green on the golf course. Simply put, it is one of the harder par 4’s one will play and I often think it should be converted to a par 5 by placing a tee behind the sixth green and adding 40 yards. It would likely make par an easier score for the average player, while the longer hitters would have to make a decision as to whether they still want to try to carry that pond.
8. Par 5 – 490/472. From an elevated tee much like the fifth hole, one plays downhill to a broad fairway. Like the fifth, this hole has two bunkers placed center before the start of the fairway, more in play for the juniors and women. This hole mirrors the dogleg/angle of the fifth hole. This hole previously was heavily tree lined and now is fairly open with the longer hitters having to worry about the bunker on the right and a tree as well as a single tree on the left (which might be removed). Much like the seventh, the eighth green is placed atop a hill resulting in a blind shot whether trying to reach the green in two or laying up in front of the three bunkers, including one center before the green. If laying up for the second shot before the rise, one has to avoid a bunker on the right side which comes into play due to the tilt of the fairway towards it. The green is also steeply sloped back to front with various undulations. Much like the seventh, it is a significant mistake to go long with one’s approach over the green. The green also has a raised center left mound that influences the final resting place of an approach shot. There is twenty yards of short grass before the green. Overall, this is often a birdie chance for longer hitters and a likely par for other players.
9. Par 3 – 232/220. The tee is the best view of the course, seeing many holes as well as the clubhouse from its elevated height where the hole play 10-15 yards shorter. This is a very good hole. If one is trying to run the ball onto the green, albeit unlikely given the height of the tee, they have to avoid a bunker ten yards short of the green on the right front. The green is cleverly angled right to left with bunkers on both sides. Once again, the green is steeply sloped back to front but there are some interesting swales more so on the front right. If one misses the green, the better side to miss on typically on the left side given some trees near the tenth tee relatively close to those bunkers. While I think this to be the best par 3 on the course, the tenth hole typically plays more over par for a foursome.
10. Par 3 – 177/168. This hole plays uphill and typically is at least one club more. You are playing almost to the height of the eighth green and ninth tee. This hole has a large front bunker right coming into half of the fairway about ten yards short of the green. There is a smaller bunker on the right side and two bunkers on the left side which are somewhat deep. Additional difficulty comes on the left side as the cart path is close to these bunkers and can propel a ball into a bad spot. Out-of-bounds lurks close behind a long green that is somewhat thin. All of that spells trouble, but the real trouble is the green which is sharply banked back to front with a bit of contouring on the front left side where there is a small plateau. It is debatable which green is the steepest on the course, the tenth or the thirteenth (some might mention the seventh but there are “flatter” parts). I have seen a five putt here and three putts is often an outcome even if one has chipped onto the green.
11. Par 5 – 545/526. After crossing the busy road, the tee is atop a manufactured raised tee and one plays downhill all the way to the green. This is another fairway that used to be heavily tree-lined but most of the remaining trees are on the left, although thinned out. The right side offers a single annoying tree which is placed opposite a bunker on the left side of the fairway. Longer hitters carry the left bunker and get a favorable release of another 40 yards down the slope. A bunker is placed on the right about 30 yards in front of that tree. As one moves down the fairway it is imperative they get to the middle as two trees serve as goalposts about 80 yards short of the green. The cool aspect to the green complex is the downhill slope to a narrow opening that one can use to run a ball onto the green. There are three bunkers here and they are deep due to the raised green, taller at the back. If one goes long, it is only a back pin position that is problematic. This is a definite eagle chance for better/longer players and often no worse than a par for most.
12. Par 4 – 455/439. Arguably the second hardest green to reach in regulation on the course, this dogleg left plays uphill with scattered trees on the left ensuring one should not cut the dogleg. The number of trees have been reduced but plenty remain. The right side has a bunker and a large tree. For players who find the middle of the fairway they can likely get a favorable roll of as much as another 50 yards of roll as the land goes downhill to a valley before it rises sharply again to the green. The green has two small bunkers on the front right and one on the left front. A ball landing short of the green has no possibility of finding the green due to the slope and the height of the rough. The green sits in a bit of a bowl on three sides and is again sloped back to front. The shorter hitter is typically hitting a short pitch up the green for their third shot, which will be a blind pitch due to the severity of the slope. A par here feels like a birdie.
13. Par 4 – 420/404. This is a sharp dogleg left with out-of-bounds down to the left side as well as heavy trees with a few branches that seem to reach out. A stream also goes down the left side before disappearing. The fairway has a right to left slope. The only fairway bunkers is placed on the right inside the fairway about 110 yards from the green. The green has a long thin bunker on the entire left side and a fronting bunker on the right front. This is a steeply sloped green and I have often said it is unfair. Members seem to love it as a talking point but as mentioned, since I would change holes twelve and thirteen, this green would become the point where many drives would end on the resulting par 4. I would not lament the passing of this green.
14. Par 3 – 165/160. This hole plays as a blind uphill and one needs one-two more clubs depending on wind direction. This green has a small false front and its bunkers are all deeper due to the raised green. There are two bunkers on the left and one on the right front. For me the difficult one is the right front bunker. The green has been changed numerous times but finally I think they have it right in terms of its undulations. It is the rare green that is not overly influenced by a back to front slope. Surrounding this green is perhaps the best green surrounds on the course.
15. Par 4 – 451/425. This is perhaps the most under-rated hole on the golf course and one that I admire. Playing from an elevated tee, one plays downhill to a fairway steeply sloped left to right. A ball landing in the middle will likely roll into the first cut unless one can find the downslope of the higher ground on the left side of the fairway. However, if one plays too far left off the tee they will likely find the few trees placed there. There are no fairway bunkers but there are two on the front right and one front left. This green is sneaky as one might believe it is dominated by the back to front slope but there are various degrees of left to right slope and plateaus. I think it is the most interesting green on the golf course.
16. Par 5 – 504/485. Despite this feeling like another short par 5, much like the eight it plays uphill with the difference being it plays uphill all the way, making the hole feel like it is 30-40 yards longer. There are two bunkers on the left side very much in reach off the green. These bunkers are inconsistent with the fairway bunkers on the rest of the course as they are too deep. There is a plateau to the fairway on the right side before another fairway bunker pinching in about a third of the fairway. Only the longest hitters can carry all of this. The left side of the fairway has a few scattered trees where it is best to play away from them for recovery instead of prioritizing length. For most players, the second shot will need to be short or play over bunkers on either side of the fairway about 160 yards from the green that are also somewhat deep. The green is raised and two tiered, sloped back to front with both a right and left side bunker. It is a nice hole as the green is sizeable and tricky if coming from behind or a side putt.
17. Par 3 – 184/154. After crossing the busy road, this is a “new” hole, replacing a par 4 that used to be here and was a bad hole. The beauty of the hole is that the green is angled right to left which brings the two deep bunkers on the left into play. The right side has a bunker about 15 yards short of the green. The green has a vertical spine running through the middle and can be tricky as to speed. Missing long here is sometimes preferred.
18. Par 4 – 394/382. One usually takes a cart to get from the seventeenth green to the eighteenth tee. This hole is a sharp dogleg right with out-of-bounds in the form of the driving range down the right as well as perhaps the thickest line of trees on the course. The left side has two bunkers that are deep just before the turn. If one tries to cut the dogleg there is a final bunker placed inside the fairway. The green is angled right to left with a back to front tilt and several plateaus. It has flanking front bunkers and one on the back/right. Overall this is often a birdie opportunity or a good chance to finish with a par.
St. Davids is a fine golf course, very much in the shadows of the many top-rated courses nearby. It certainly takes advantage of the rises and falls of the land. The tee and greens are well placed. The average player will likely score 1-3 shots worse than their index due to the severity of some of the slopes on the greens unless they have a good day with their approach shots. If one is in Philadelphia and cannot get on one of the top rated courses, they will not be disappointed here.