The Old Course, Stonewall: Tom Doak’s First Private Design

Surrounded by some of America’s seminal courses, this Tom Doak design near Philadelphia more than holds its own

For a young golf course designer looking to accelerate his career, Philadelphia is a tough town. Within 20 miles of Center City you’ve got Pine Valley, Merion, Aronimink, and others. When Tom Doak got the chance to create his first private course in the rural countryside northwest of the city, he knew its prospective members wouldn’t be easily impressed.

“The members they’d signed up at the beginning were all members of all those places,” Doak says. “And they definitely wanted it to fit in the neighborhood.”

5th hole (photo by Jon Cavalier)

The immediate neighborhood was a dairy farm crisscrossed by stone walls with a handsome fieldstone barn and outbuildings. Club founder Jack May hoped the location would serve as equal parts playing ground and pastoral retreat—a place where you could play ’til dusk, clean up for dinner, and spend the night in one of the club’s cozy overnight rooms or cottages. Members eventually got two playing grounds: The Old Course, which opened in 1993, and The North Course (also known as the “Udder Course”), which Doak added 10 years later.

The Old Course had initially been a Tom Fazio project, and to avoid refiling permits Doak and his then-associate Gil Hanse largely stuck with the original routing. But Doak made some key changes, including and especially reversing the direction of the 18th hole—one of the course’s most memorable—which sweeps down the side of a broad hill and culminates in the shadow of one of the outbuildings, hard by a weathered wall.

“They wanted to tear down that one building that’s behind the 18th green,” Doak says. “But I made everyone march up the hill and stand on the fairway and look at the building and I said, ‘You really can’t take that piece out.’”

With its smallish greens and demand for well-placed tee shots, The Old Course evokes some of the old-line Philly clubs. That’s by design. A contour on the 2nd green was inspired by one on the 7th green at Merion, Doak says, noting that players may detect other subtle homages to Philly golf.

18th hole (photo by Jon Cavalier)

The Old Course is walking only and it’s a good workout, even with one of the club’s assiduous caddies lugging your bag. If you survive the 4th hole, a splendid downhill-then-uphill par four to a shallow green reminiscent of the 12th at Augusta National, you’ll be rewarded by the panoramic views from the tee at the par-three 5th, which swoops straight back down the hill. Similarly, at the brilliant dogleg-left 8th, you drive up along a ridge line to set up a slightly downhill shot into a green fronted by a deep bunker carved into the hillside.

The North Course has its own imposing hill (and old stone walls), over and around which the course is routed—along with its own small clubhouse. But Doak’s design approach there was different.

“When you build a golf course next door to something that’s really good, whether you did it or somebody else did, you can’t help but say, ‘Okay, what do I want to do that’s different?’ At the North Course, the idea was to have more complicated greens where you still want to be below the hole, but it’s not so easy to figure out where that is.”

When the USGA chose Stonewall to host the 2016 U.S. Mid-Am, it decided to use both courses for the 36-hole final—a first. It’s understandable. They complement each other well but are distinctly different. What more could a Philly golf purist want?

Have you played the Old Course at Stonewall?