Feature: Above Par: The Best Courses

Merion and Pine Valley grab all the headlines, but the truth is, there’s a lot of great golf — and folks who teach it — all around Philly. As TY WENGER roams fairways far and wide in search of the top 10 area courses, LUKE SIRINIDES tees up the 25 best local instructors. Fore!

#10: ATLANTIC CITY COUNTRY CLUB
Location: Northfield
Access: Semi-Private
Greens Fees: $65–$225
Opened: 1897
Designer: William S. Flynn
Yardage: 6,577
Par: 70
Slope: 128
Contact: 609-236-4400, accountryclub.com

[sidebar]Atlantic City Country Club was once one of the marquee courses in America, a private club with a rich history. (Trivia time: The term “birdie” was coined here in 1901.) But when Harrah’s purchased it in 2005 and opened it to public play, the detractors began to chirp. Some considered the greens fees excessive for a course of a mere 6,500 yards; when conditions began to suffer this past summer, the chirping turned to a roar.

Still, there are reasons why Golfweek magazine has named this the number one public track in New Jersey the past two years: A renovation in 1999, spearheaded by famed course architect Tom Doak, restored the beauty of its classic Flynn layout, which flirts with the marshes of Lakes Bay and affords phenomenal views of Atlantic City across the water. As for that spotty conditioning, the powers that be promise such mistakes will not be repeated.

#9: WYNCOTE GOLF CLUB
Location: Oxford
Access: Semi-Private
Greens Fees: $35–$79
Opened: 1993
Designer: Brian Ault
Yardage: 7,148
Par: 72
Slope: 130
Contact: 610-932-8900, wyncote.com

When Wyncote opened 15 years ago, it was a shot across the bow to the area’s private-course armada. (Golf Digest rated it the third-best new public course in the country that year.) Several first-rate daily-fee tracks have followed — Delaware’s White Clay Creek Country Club and Deerfield Golf & Tennis Club, Avondale’s Inniscrone — but Wyncote, though semi-private now, still earns our nod as the finest of the bunch.

A Heathland course (think “links style,” sans ocean), it challenges the golfer with piercing winds (it occupies the highest terrain in Chester County) and a battlefield’s worth of deep bunkers and gnarly knee-high fescues. Although it requires a commitment (residing, as it does, 30 miles west of the Blue Route), some 40 percent of its golfers travel more than an hour to play here, so it’s clearly worth the trip.

#8: ARONIMINK GOLF CLUB
Location: Newtown Square
Access:
Private
Opened: 1928
Designer: Donald Ross
Yardage: 7,152
Par: 70
Slope: 128
Contact: 610-356-8000, aronimink.org

It’s common knowledge that Donald Ross, golf’s most prolific designer, considered North Carolina’s Pinehurst Number Two his crown jewel. What, then, to make of Ross’s comment upon seeing Aronimink in 1948, 20 years after he’d designed it? “I intended to make this my masterpiece,” Ross said, “but not until today did I realize that I built better than I knew.” In the early ’90s, some universally reviled changes by Robert Trent Jones Sr. rendered the course something Ross might not have recognized. Thus, at the turn of the century, the club hired Ross aficionado Ron Pritchard to return the layout to its original vision. The work he completed in 2001 was superb, producing a venue that charmed players at the 2003 Senior PGA Championship.

#7: ROLLING GREEN GOLF CLUB
Location: Springfield
Access: Private
Opened: 1926
Designer: William S. Flynn
Yardage: 6,840
Par: 71
Slope: 135
Contact: 610-328-5535, rggc.org

How a classic layout by the legendary William Flynn could remain so little-known is befuddling. The course hosted the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open (in which not a single golfer finished under par), so it’s hardly a classified secret. But ask area golfers about Rolling Green, and you’ll receive a blank stare from half; the other half won’t shut up about it.

Those in the know praise the course’s collection of elevated approach shots, its plummeting and canting fairways and maddening false-front greens. And a spate of improvements during the past five years has returned the course to Flynn’s original vision. Not able to scrape together the $20,000 initiation and $4,300 annual dues? No problem. With the club’s easygoing, unassuming membership, cozying up to someone who has is hardly a chore.

#6: PHILADELPHIA CRICKET CLUB,WISSAHICKON COURSE
Location: Flourtown
Access: Private
Opened: 1922
Designer: A.W. Tillinghast
Yardage: 6,867
Par: 71
Slope: 137
Contact: 215-247-6001, philacricket.com

Most clubs would have rested on their laurels. After all, the PCC was already blessed with a classic layout (by the famed A.W. Tillinghast) that vexes golfers with its subtle contours and rewards for precise shot-making. The sweeping doglegs and cleft-lipped bunkers were penal enough to have hosted the 1998 Pennsylvania Open.

Today’s big bombers, however, like to make use of their $500 drivers, which prompted the PCC to commission designers Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry to build a behemoth “championship-style” layout in 2002 on 250 adjacent acres. Although we remain partial to the bucolic charms of the club’s original course, the net result has been a doubling of membership.

#5 THE OLD COURSE AT STONEWALL
Location: Elverson
Access: Private
Opened: 1993
Designer: Tom Doak
Yardage: 6,717
Par: 70
Slope: 133
Contact: 610-286-3030, stonewalllinks.com

Fifteen years ago, a few members of Pine Valley set out to found a new private club on a secluded 185-acre hillside an hour west of the city. When they went looking for a designer, they found a guy named Tom Doak. At the time, Doak was a relative nobody, an enfant terrible with big ideas and an ego to match. Today, the designer of the acclaimed Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers and Sebonack courses is considered a brilliant iconoclast, perhaps the game’s finest architect. The advocate of the “minimalist” design movement, he has spent decades demonstrating the value of conjuring courses from the terrain, as opposed to bulldozing it into submission. Seen in this light, the Old Course (the ­second of the two Doak courses on this list) is the work of a young genius in bloom. With slippery, postage-stamp greens punctuating fescue-lined fairways, it gambols over the grounds of a former farm, delivering a dizzying links-style treat.

#4: PINE HILL GOLF CLUB
Location: Pine Hill
Access: Semi-Private
Greens Fee: $105
Opened: 2001
Designer: Tom Fazio
Yardage: 6,969
Par: 70
Slope: 145
Contact: 877-450-8866, golfpinehill.com

Pine Hill is so often referred to as a “poor man’s Pine Valley” that one half expects to see panhandlers canvassing the tee boxes. But if the club’s owners bristle at the comparison, they have no one to blame but themselves. Located a mere mile from Pine Valley, Pine Hill is a Mini-Me Valley, boasting the famed course’s same oversize waste areas, hairy-lipped bunkers, plummeting terrain and sandy soil, albeit in a decidedly less sadistic form.

The bad news for area golfers: Pine Hill, which has allowed public play since its opening, is on its way to turning private; as of press time, only a handful of open memberships remained. The good news: Until those are sold (likely within months, not years), Pine Hill will still allow public play on weekdays. Strongly consider burning a sick day — soon.

#3: THE GOLF COURSE AT GLEN MILLS
Location: Glen Mills
Greens Access: Public
Greens Fees: $55–$95
Opened: 2000
Designer: Bobby Weed
Yardage: 6,646
Par: 71
Slope: 138
Contact: 610-558-2142, glenmillsgolf.com

How can a 6,600-yard daily-fee track — on the grounds of a reform school, no less — possibly be the area’s third-best course? Easy: Because the owners of Glen Mills have, admirably, broken the unofficial rules of golf.

The rules say you can’t construct a course with a couple blind tee shots to tumbling, slanting, sprawling fairways. (Too unfair!) Or one with a 60-yard-long, four-tiered green. (Too hard!) And you certainly can’t pamper your golfers by spacing tee times 12 minutes apart. (You’ll lose too much money!) But what all that rule-breaking adds up to is a uniquely fanciful golf experience, one that meanders drunkenly down uneven hillsides, through chutes of trees and a precipitous quarry that demand a series of triple-dog-dare shots. It’s a round you’ll want to repeat again and again—which, at $79 a pop, should hardly be a problem.

#2: MERION GOLF CLUB EAST
Location: Ardmore
Access: Private
Opened: 1912
Designer: Hugh Wilson
Yardage: 6,868
Par: 70
Slope: 142
Contact: 610-642-5600, meriongolfclub.com

Unlike Pine Valley, it looks like Merion might opt for the heretical step of putting itself under the knife. Like a nonagenarian who wakes up one morning and decides to get hair extensions and a tummy tuck, the course may be undergoing a controversial face-lift in advance of the 2013 U.S. Open.

Still, they’re hardly putting a mustache on their Mona Lisa. Indeed, golfing at Merion is something akin to taking a tour through a museum: Here’s the green on which Bobby Jones Jr. completed his grand slam; there’s a plaque at the 18th marking the spot from which Ben Hogan hit his famous one-iron during the 1950 U.S. Open. But don’t get too distracted, or you might lose sight of the subtle brilliance of this tidy Hugh Wilson design, which Jack Nicklaus called the best test of golf in the world “acre for acre.” Presumably, he knows.

#1: PINE VALLEY GOLF CLUB
Location: Pine Valley
Access: Private
Opened: 1921
Designers: George Crump and Harry Colt
Yardage: 7,009
Par: 70
Slope: 155
Contact: 856-783-3000

Some things in life don’t need to be improved: Sunsets. Puppies. The Pine Valley Golf Club. Thus, Pine Valley tops our list, as a reward for the fact that it has done … absolutely nothing. Why alter a blade of grass on a course that has consistently been rated the finest (and among the hardest) in the world? It’s all here: the immaculate greens, the astonishing variety of architectural challenges, the perilous islands of fairway, the surfeit of sandy hazards bearing such monikers as “Hell’s Half Acre” and “Devil’s Asshole.”

About the only thing new is that women are now allowed, at select times, to play the course. (Welcome to the 1910s.) Still, unless they, or you, can cozy up to one of the course’s lucky local members (there are said to be around 350), none of you will ever play here. You can, though, roam the grounds during the annual amateur Crump Memorial Tournament (this year on September 25th-28th), the one time each year the gates are open to riffraff such as you. But sorry: no cameras allowed.