A. W. Tillinghast is said to have worked on more than 250 courses during a prolific career between the two World Wars and he designed around a dozen of these in his home state of Pennsylvania, one of which was Sunnehanna Country Club.
The golf club evolved from the Cambria Country Club which had been established at the end of the 19th century. When new land became available in 1920, a club was formed the following year, taking its name from the Native Indian term for a local waterway, and by 1923, Albert Warren, or “Tillie” as he became known, had laid out a course for the members.
Located in the hills to the west of the Keystone State, Sunnehanna originally played to a par of 72 but alterations made in 1960 – when the 6th was both lengthened and reduced to a par four and the 14th was changed from a short par four to a long par three – considerably increased the scoring averages. The par threes, which vary in length from 171 to 240 yards, are particularly strong here.
Greens are quite generous and well bunkered, requiring accurate approach play. Constructed way before irrigation systems were thought of, they were designed for golfers to make use of the bump and run shot to hard and fast putting surfaces, accounting for the open entrance to most of them.
The Sunnehanna Amateur began in 1954 and the tournament was the first 72-hole stroke play competition sponsored by a country club for amateurs in the USA and winners have included famous names like Ben Crenshaw, Jay Sigel, John Cook and Scott Verplank.
A bunker renovation was carried out by Ron Forse in 2002, when greens and fairways were also expanded to improve the playability of the course. A decade later, Brian Silva was called in to upgrade bunkers on three of the holes and this project, along with a program of tree removal, is still ongoing.
Mr. Top 100, the intrepid “Rudo,” visited Sunnehanna
in August 2018 and commented as follows: “This is an outstanding course! It plays
only 6,880 yards (par 70) from the tips but there are simply no weak holes and
so so many great ones. The land has major slopes and the clubhouse sits on top
of hill with the course circling the clubhouse site. There are six big downhill holes (1, 3, 4, 7, 10 and 17) and six
major uphill holes (2, 6, 9, 11, 15 and 18).
Five holes dogleg to the right, four dogleg left and there’s one “S”
shaped par five (15). I guess the best
holes are #2, 6, 7, 9, 11, 12, and 15 and the par fives are outstanding despite
Tillie having a reputation for weak par fives.”
The spotlight for exemplary golf is often riveted on the plethora of private layouts that dot the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP) region and rightly so. Ditto the deserved fanfare for the smaller elite grouping of courses that call the greater Pittsburgh area home.
The comments from both Fergal and Ryan on the merits of Sunnehanna are spot on. It regularly astounds me how few people ever really mention the course when layouts from the Keystone State are discussed.
The detailing of the design accentuates well-played shots and just as ruthlessly sorts out pretenders who cannot avoid the razor wire of potential mishaps. To top matters off is the vexing greensites that are the hallmark of any Tillinghast effort. Pity the hapless chap who has a few twitches with the putting stroke because the pain will be relentless.
Tillinghast was famous in saying all human bodies look fairly similar from neck down except when one focuses on the respective faces. The same is true for his architectural efforts -- the detailing of the greens sports varied looks - some more obvious than others and always serving clear notice that approach shots must be consistently executed and placed in the correct spot. Without any doubt, Sunnehanna does not suffer fools on its putting surfaces.
The tree removal and bunker updating has been a real added sign of self-awareness with a rich embrace to its original roots.
Sunnehanna does have a few low moments. The par-3 10th and par-5 11th are mediocre when held against the more stellar holes. And the closing hole is merely acceptable and rather anti-climactic.
Overall, Sunnehanna is a clear testament in how classical architecture can shine without the incessant bombardment of obvious overkill features found on a number of modern courses. What might help many shake off the coat of ignorance is making the trip to Johnstown and seeing how a community known more for its historic flood has a golf course that truly swims so marvelously.
M. James Ward
Dear Mr. Ward ~
I am heading out this week to see how Sunnehanna G. C. is doing.
A revered Amateur Championship is played here every year going back decades. Many of the greatest names and winners in the game have played here and won. This might be the most underrated Tillinghast course in the country, with arguably the fastest greens I’ve played on in years, or ever. The fact that I feel more comfortable on Oakmont’s or Shinnecock Hills’ greens compared to Sunnehanna only begins to tell you how ferocious these putting surfaces are. Without doubt, Johnstown’s best kept secrets.
Conditioning is among the purest you’ll find from tee to green, with a routing that is relatively intuitive as you flow from one to the next. There’s a healthy mix of uphill and downhill holes that traverse the huge slopes, with an even number of dog-legs in both directions. The course never lets up and maintains a consistent level of challenge all the way around. I loved every minute of how natural every hole sits on the landscape that has always been there. The best golfer is identified as the player who can judge the elevation changes. Generally speaking, downhill holes can be just as fierce as uphill, and in my opinion at Sunnehanna CC, the downhill shots are much more challenging given the big bounces you get at this mountainous venue. It almost becomes a skills competition.
With progressive tree removal and multiple bunker upgrade projects, there’s no question in my mind why this venue is perfect for the best amateurs in the nation since 1954 and has Tillinghast’s best talents on display with the presentation of the par 3s. If you can keep your nerve on the treacherously fast greens, and accept that you may 3 putt most of them, you’ll still walk away with boat-loads of admiration for this Pennsylvanian classic. It’s hard to call it a hidden gem given the tournament that’s played here, but for those who are lucky to experience it, it’s widely accepted as one of the most underrated historic courses in the country.
Great historic clubhouse with photos of the Sunnehanna Amateur where The Who’s Who of Golf have played, Palmer to Nicklaus to Tiger, Phil, Jordan, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler. The greens were very impressive, rolling perfectly, with a nice release to them. A great parkland course that flies a bit below the radar. Fun and very fair. The staff were very welcoming. Highly recommend it.
During 1889, a hunting club operated by Andrew Carnegie and friends made alterations to a local dam, weakening its resolve and ultimately causing a massive flood that devastated the city of Johnstown. The separate golf club Carnegie looked to establish above the city was handled more properly on all levels, thank God, and the results of that project shine on today.
Carnegie, of course, made most of his fortune in Pittsburgh, just a few hours West, so it’s little surprise that he may have sought some points of comparison from that city’s classic courses. Although Tillinghast himself expressed disapproval for the geometric tendencies of MacRaynor, it’s worth considering whether input from his wealthy employer may have influenced Tillie in the slightest. Oakmont is the toast of Pittsburgh, of course, and Raynor would have been constructing Fox Chapel at the exact same time as Tillie’s work at Sunnehanna. Understanding the latter’s success is a matter of measuring Tillinghast’s fingerprint on Raynor’s aesthetics.
It would be absurd to suggest the greens play as anything but Tillinghast, with considerable humps and scale to make both putters and pitchers sweat. Your correspondent’s caddie reported a Stimp-score of 13, and our broken dignity tends to agree. The architect was better known for longer templates—i.e. Great Hazards and Reefs—but two of the Par 3s at Sunnehanna are subtle twists on classic ideas. The more dramatic example is No. 5, which is rather square compared to the classic “Redan” green. But the optimal shot will catch the front left and funnel toward the flag at the center, performing rather like a Reverse Redan. It’s unlikely any shot will funnel hard enough to catch the pond on the right, but the thought will linger off the tee. No. 10 is elevated and plays to a traditional “Short” template distance, but only has bunkering at the left and right bunker. Understanding how Tillinghast opposed bunkers fronting his greens, it’s reasonable to consider the deep trench at the fore to be his alternate take on the “Short.”
The logistics of lugging sand uphill may have prevented any true Great Hazard, but there are subtle indications Tillinghast tried his best on Nos. 11 and 15, both of which feature sizable bunkers that cut at least halfway into the fairway from the right. No. 11 features a pit of significant depth, which is invisible until once crests the peak off the uphill tee shot. It will take GIR off the table for those blindly fading right. The biggest hitters at the annual Sunnehanna Amateur could conceivably play too aggressively and drive into the pit, essentially taking a penalty for its depth. After a good tee shot, the approach will not be long, but it will roll downhill into a green that moves from front to back—one of many on the course that behaves this way. It’s an uncomfortable tactic for the average and, when the greens play as quickly as stated, an eagle approach quickly can become par. No. 15 (which fulfills Tillighast’s “Double Dogleg” template) features a “Great-Ish Hazard” of its own, jutting across the fairway with a shape more natural to Tillinghast. Every bunker on this Par 5 deserves credit, however. The tee shot must contend with three at the corner of the dogleg, staggered and rising in altitude with the hill. Finally, the deepest bunker on the course sits at the left of the green, its steep walls bordering on Charles Banks.
Many of the bunkers mentioned across this review, and to great measure on holes such as Nos. 6 and 17, are invisible to the player during the shot. It’s a classic tactic that punishes those who play brashly, and a psychological tool to cast doubt, even upon well-struck shots. It’s a wonderful strategic move, if not a photogenic one. That may be the Sunnehanna’s first sin in a nation where course raters place undue emphasis on prettiness. A second, more legitimate complaint is the disappointing conclusion to the round...a relatively bland Par 4 on a course with very few bland holes.
I heard suggestions for future improvements at Sunnehanna, and for what little your correspondent’s opinion is worth, they sound excellent. Sunnehanna may not quite merit Oakmont and Fox Chapel status, but it does deserve more than “little brother” status. After all, Johnstown’s Conemaugh River floodwaters are not influenced by rainfall in Pittsburgh. Quite the opposite, in fact.