Philadelphia: The City of Golferly Love

by Joe Logan

Call me a homer, but I submit to you that Philadelphia, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, is one of the great golf towns in America. Perhaps the ultimate golf town.

I know, you think I’m nuts. Your image of Philadelphia may harken back to the tough, blue-collar neighborhoods in Rocky, or the rowdy crowds on Monday Night Football, or perhaps you hold it against us that we once pelted Santa Claus with snowballs. It could be that you simply believe America’s golf locale must be one of those highly marketed golf destinations like Myrtle Beach, Pinehurst, Scottsdale, or Bandon Dunes.

Don’t make me laugh. I’ve got Tar Heel roots, but Philadelphia, my adopted hometown for the past three decades, bows to no golf destination when it comes to quality courses.

For starters, we have two Top 10 courses in Pine Valley and Merion, plus an embarrassing abundance of wonderful, classic-era parkland courses, several of which would be the best course in another city if they could be picked up and moved.

Don’t take my word for it. No less an authority than Ben Crenshaw, the player turned respected architect, has been quoted as saying that only metropolitan New York has as many first-rate courses as Philadelphia and its suburbs. Herbert Warren Wind, the late, great bard of golf writing, believed that only Chicago rivals Philadelphia. And Robert Trent Jones, the dominant architect of the first half of the 20th century, said no American city could match the depth of courses in and around Philadelphia.

It doesn’t end there. Philadelphia has golf history and tradition in spades, we’ve produced our share of top players (male and female), we have a great caddie scholarship program, the oldest regional golf association in the United States, plus we boast the most remarkable legacy of golf course architects, past and present, ever produced by a single city.

In fact, there is something known as the “Philadelphia School of Design,” which refers to five men who left the American golfing landscape with an indelible imprint of courses from coast to coast, but mainly here at home: George Crump (Pine Valley), Hugh Wilson (Merion), A.W. Tillinghast (Winged Foot), George C. Thomas (Riviera), and William S. Flynn (Shinnecock), to name-drop just a few of their contributions.

The collection of Flynn courses alone would put many cities to shame. There is an actual annual Flynn Cup, a competition among Flynn-designed courses, each better than the next. And let’s not forget the 10 or so courses Donald Ross designed or renovated.

In his book The Golden Age of Golf Course Design, Geoff Shackelford marvels at the Philadelphia School, calling it, “if not the most prolific, certainly the most creative, daring and influential of all the schools of design.”

Case in point: Merion Golf Club, its East Course hosting this month’s U.S. Open, in the leafy suburb of Ardmore on Philadelphia’s famous and wealthy Main Line. This is stately stone-mansion territory, the stomping grounds of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story, and not to be confused with the mean streets of South Philly and football-stadium yahoos.

This is the fifth U.S. Open (1934, ’50, ’71, ’81) at Merion East and the 18th USGA championship in its 100-year history. It has hosted six U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Women’s Amateurs, a Girls’ Junior, a Curtis Cup, and a Walker Cup: The club has hosted more USGA championships than any other and, by itself, more USGA championships than 29 states.

By the way, as fabulous as Merion’s East Course is, it is generally regarded as the second-best course in town, behind the exclusive and mystical Pine Valley, across the river in South Jersey but still very much in the Philadelphia golf orbit. Among the very privileged few, a golf trip to Philadelphia consists of flying into town on a private jet, a round at Pine Valley, bunking overnight in the club’s “dorm” or one of its cottages, Merion the next morning, followed by lunch on the terrace overlooking the first tee before heading to the waiting jet for the trip home.

And still, Pine Valley and Merion are merely the tip of the golf iceberg in and around Philadelphia. Just a couple of years ago, PGA Tour players plus Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo were gaga over Aronimink, the Ross layout that hosted the AT&T National while Congressional prepared for the 2011 U.S. Open.

We locals recognize that Aronimink is good—very good—but it’s not as if it stands head and shoulders above a dozen or more other nearby classics. The standard line is, Pine Valley is number one, Merion is two, and there’s a 15-way tie for third, among them Philadelphia Country Club, Gulph Mills, Huntingdon Valley, Manufacturers, Philadelphia Cricket, Whitemarsh Valley, Rolling Green, Green Valley, Torresdale-Fankford, Riverton, and Philmont—and that’s just the old courses. Toss in modern gems like Philadelphia Cricket’s Militia Hill course, Trump National-Philadelphia, ACE Club, Applecross, Stonewall, and Glen Mills, and you begin to get the picture.

Glen Mills is a particularly heartwarming story, and not just because it is ranked among the top daily-fee courses in the state. The Bobby Weed design, which opened in 2000, is owned and operated by the Glen Mills Schools, the oldest reform school in America, founded in 1826. At the bag drop, you hand over your clubs to a kid who could be doing 18 months for armed robbery or some other offense. All revenue from the course goes to college scholarships for the students.

Besides the old-time architects, Philadelphia lays claim to two of the modern greats: Tom Fazio grew up in the suburb of Norristown; and Gil Hanse, currently at work on the Olympics course in Rio de Janeiro, lives in Malvern. Hanse, a Long Island native, moved to Philadelphia in the early 1990s to assist Tom Doak in designing Stonewall Golf Club. He fell in love with the place and never left, citing, among other things, the “rich living museum of classic old courses” he could study.

We’re pretty good on players, too. The first America-born player to win the U.S. Open, in 1911 at Chicago Golf Club, was a Philadelphia kid, Johnny McDermott. Only 19 at the time, McDermott remains the youngest U.S. Open champion. He also defended his title the next year at the Country Club of Buffalo. Sadly, things were all downhill for McDermott after that: In 1914, he suffered a “mental breakdown” and spent most of the rest of his life in the State Hospital at Norristown.

After McDermott, our most accomplished golfer is Jay Sigel, best known these days as a Champions Tour player. But Sigel, who didn’t turn pro until 50, had an amateur career record that rivals Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods. Sigel pulled off the rare feat of winning back-to-back U.S. Amateurs in 1982 and ’83, while in his late 30s; he also won three Mid-Am titles and competed on nine consecutive Walker Cup teams, serving as playing captain in 1983 and ’85. His other amateur titles are too numerous to list here.

Then there’s the late Bill Hyndman, who won two U.S. Senior Amateurs and played on five Walker Cup teams; and O. Gordon Brewer, still alive and playing, who won two U.S. Senior Am titles, captained our team in the World Amateur Team Championship, and served on the USGA’s Executive Committee. In his spare time, he was president of Pine Valley for a decade or so.

Among current players, one of the most dominant female amateurs in the country, Meghan Stasi, winner of four U.S. Women’s Mid-Ams, lives in Florida but grew up in Philadelphia. Her name was Meghan Bolger back when she was racking up seven straight Philadelphia Women’s Amateur titles a decade ago. On the PGA Tour, Sean O’Hair, rookie of the year in 2005 and a four-time winner, has lived in the area ever since he married a local girl.

The constant in all of this—while the clubs, courses, people, and history have changed—has been the Golf Association of Philadelphia, the nation’s oldest regional golf association. Founded in 1896, it is the second-oldest golf organization in the country, two years behind the USGA.

More than just old, GAP is good, the model for such associations around the country. Every year, GAP conducts the Team Matches, which involve 130 clubs and 320 12-man teams over three weeks, as well as another 60 tournaments, qualifiers, and events. The association also administers the J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust, which has given $15.1 million to more than 3,000 caddies since 1958.

I’ll probably kick myself tomorrow when I think of something or somebody I left out, but you get the point. Philadelphia is a damn good golf town. Maybe the golf town.

Joe Logan owns and edits the website