An introduction to Pennsylvania
The Keystone State as Pennsylvania is known, is a fascinating state jam-packed with historical landmarks. It is also home to some stunning scenery as you move from one side of the state to the other. And finally, there are some superb golf courses in Pennsylvania as we’ll discover later.
Its largest city is Philadelphia in the southeastern Delaware Valley, followed by Greater Pittsburgh. The state capital is the quaint and historical city of Harrisburg, a couple of hours drive west of Philly.
Pennsylvania was one of the original 13 colonies of the United States. Its name derives from the surname of Admiral Sir William Penn, and the latin word for woodland, Sylvania.
Some of its most noteworthy claims to fame are the fact it was here the Declaration of Independence was signed. It was also where the Liberty Bell was erected, a symbol of American Freedom.
The state is a history enthusiasts’ heaven, with so many other sites and attractions to visit. Places like the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Independence National Park and Gettysburg National Military Park are hugely popular tourist attractions.
It also boasts some stunning natural scenery. Places like the Allegheny National Forest and the Poconos Mountains are vast reserves providing endless hours of trials and sites.
The best golf courses in Pennsylvania
1. Oakmont Country Club
No golf course has held more major championships aside from Augusta National in Georgia. There are also arguably no courses more penal and challenging than Oakmont, a badge of honor it wears proudly.
The course was built in 1903 in East Oakmont, in the Greater Pittsburgh suburbs. It was designed by Henry Clay Fownes who was the son of wealthy English immigrants. The family owned a large iron business, which Henry grew into a hugely profitable empire.
But golf was where the real passion lied, which led to the acquisition of this land and Henry himself designing the layout.
Within this barren landscape, lurks one of the most brutal tests in the game of golf. Tight fairways with ankle-deep rough, drainage ditches which snake across fairways and hugely penal bunkers.
Wherever you would hit your drive, expect bunkers. Wherever you would hit your approach, expect bunkers. The most notorious bunker is the ‘Church Pews’ bunker, which is over 100 yards long and sits between the 3rd and 4th holes.
Once you’ve successfully (or not), managed to get to the greens, they are even more demanding. Undulations which follow the natural contours of the land and lightning fast, there are no gimmes here.
2. Merion Golf Club (East)
In Philadelphia’s suburbs, is one of the finest golf courses in the world. And no, for once we’re not talking about Pine Valley, which is an hour or so south of the city. This time we’re talking about Merion ‘East’, in Philly’s northwestern suburbs.
Merion East is without doubt one of the finest golf courses in the world. It is consistently ranked in the world’s Top 10 golf courses by most respected golf publishers.
Hugh Wilson was the brains behind the layout and his inspiration for Merion’s routing came after a seven month stint visiting the best golf courses in the British Isles. The East course finally came to life in 1912.
Unlike many of the great golf courses in the British Isles, which are sprawled across large plots of coastal land, Merion has one of the tightest acreages to contend with. This clearly has an influence on the courses’ par of 70 and a yardage of just over 6,200 from the member’s tees.
But don’t let this deceive you. The fairways are ridiculously tight whilst the rough is some of the toughest you’ll ever find. This is wrist-breaking rough for overzealous, or more precisely, over-confident golfers. Take your medicine and find the fairway at the earliest opportunity.
The green complexes are wickedly fast, with slopes and contours making every putt lethal.
It says a lot that upon hosting the U.S. Open in 2013, the eventual winner Justin Rose couldn’t even break par.
3. Aronimink Golf Club
Another golf course in Philadelphia’s north western suburbs, and yet another high quality, high caliber design.
Aronimink’s rich history dates back to the late 19th century, when members played on various rudimentary course layouts. But the course in play today first came into existence in 1928, two years after the club purchased a 300-acre plot of land in Newton Square.
In 1926 the club commissioned the highly respected Donald Ross to devise the routing for Aronimink, and what a job he did.
What has been created at Aronimink is regarded as the ‘supreme’ test for ball strikers. To score well here, it is all about positionnement off the tee. Avoid the penal bunkers and find the right spot on the narrow fairways. You also want to avoid the rough at all costs, which is even more brutal.
The land has quite a lot of elevation change, with this on show right from the off with a testing drive down into a valley. You then have a challenging approach up the hills to an elevated and well protected green.
Over the years there have been a number of renovations to the layout. Esteemed architects including George Fazio, Robert Trent Jones, Dick Wilson and more recently Gil Hanse have all left their mark on Aronimink.
This is not just one of the best golf courses in Pennsylvania, this is one of the finest in the U.S.
4. Philadelphia Cricket Club (Wissahickon)
The site at Wissahickon has no cricket facilities; those are found in the ‘ancestral’ home some 4 miles away. Here at Wissahickon, it is just pure unabridged golf. And a special golf course it is too.
One of golf’s finest architectural minds, A.W.Tillinghast, happened to be a member of the Philadelphia Cricket Club. So when in 1922 the club wanted to create a new 18-hole layout in Flourtown (as it was known back then), Tillinghast was the obvious choice.
Clearly being his home club and course, this was a special project for Tillinghast. The course eventually opened for play in 1922 and is widely considered one of the finest examples of classic golf course architecture, as well as one of Tillinghast’s greatest accomplishments.
Over the years, the course suffered from a slight loss of vision. Trees grew, greens shrunk and the identity was very much lost from its original design.
In 2013, the club decided to bring in Keith Foster, a man who has built a reputation renovating classic courses. Hundreds of trees were removed, bunkers were added and the greens were restored to their initial size.
So highly regarded is Philadelphia Cricket Club, it is up there with Aronimink and Merion as one of the finest golf courses near Philadelphia.
5. Fox Chapel Golf Club
Anyone offered a round at Fox Chapel should consider themselves truly blessed. This is one of the finest classical golf courses in the U.S. and one of the finest private golf clubs in Pittsburgh.
The course was designed by Seth Raynor, one of the primary architects in golf’s ‘Golden Age’. There is surely no better endearment to Raynor’s ability than the number of his designs in the United States’ top 100 golf courses rankings.
Fox Chapel is located in a serene and leafy suburb, north of the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. There is a fair amount of movement in the topography, something which Raynor seamlessly integrated into his design.
Many ‘template’ holes can be found, including the 2nd which is a Punchbowl, and including the likes of Eden, Biarritz, Redan and Short. Such creativity and intrigue, this truly is a sensational layout.
From the back markers, the course measures 6,700 yards. This may be considered short in today’s standards, but this is a welcome relief from the ‘get the big dog out on every tee’!
Fox Chapel is a ball striker’s layout, one where strategy and craft are critical, allowing you to plot your way round the course. This is a delight to play and without doubt one of the best golf courses in Pennsylvania.
6. Country Club of Scranton (Old)
Located in the borough of Clarks Summit, north of Scranton, is the highly admired Country Club of Scranton.
The club was founded in 1896 and some 30 years later, the club commissioned Walter Travis to design the 18-hole layout.
Travis was a figure who was largely responsible for elevating golf course design in the early 20th century.
Golf courses were very rudimentary in nature up to that point, with holes formulaic and simple in design. He challenged that status quo and started implementing some of the finer aspects from the great golf courses in the British Isles.
He was also a big believer in emphasizing the putting element of each golfer’s game. Therefore inevitably Travis greens were big and bold and this is no more evident than at C.C. of Scranton. Large ‘shaped’ mounds and subtle undulations dominate the green complexes with distinct and diverse bunkering throughout.
The routing is flawless, on what is a relatively hilly site. In 1988, the 18-holes were joined by another 9-holes designed by Michael Hurdzan. The three nine are called Pines, Willow and Falls, and allow for three different 18 hole loops.
Yet it is the Old course, the original Pines and Willow, which gets the acclaim, and rightly so. The course is fabulous and is deserving of being ranked so highly in Pennsylvania.
7. Lancaster Country Club (Meadowcreek & Dogwood)
Between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, is the Red Rose City, more commonly known as Lancaster. It is one of the oldest inland cities in the United States.
Within this modest city is one of the best golf courses in Pennsylvania, Lancaster Country Club.
The club came into existence in 1900 and in 1913 moved to its current site just off New Holland Pike. A rudimentary 9-hole layout was created by a relatively unknown golf professional.
It was six years later in 1919 the club approached William Flynn to design another 9-holes as well as improve the existing 9. Flynn is now revered as one of the most influential architects of his age and at Lancaster he excelled himself.
The appropriately named Flynn course is made up of the Meadowcreek and Dogwood nines. Both expertly embrace the existing terrain, with each nine offering a slightly different challenge.
Meadowcreek has a routing that is far more meandering, requiring accuracy off the tee and placing a premium on strategy. Dogwood is similarly a shot-makers’ course but with the main challenge coming in its length.
8. Saucon Valley (Old, Grace & Weyhill)
Set within a vast 850-acre plot is the impressive Saucon Valley Country Club with its three 18-hole championship courses.
It is located just south of Allentown in eastern Pennsylvania, approximately an hour and a half’s drive north of Philadelphia.
The club was formed in the 1920s, opening the first of the three courses, the Old Course. It was designed by Herbert Strong, an architect who originated from Royal St Georges in Kent. The course is elegantly simple, one which works seamlessly with the natural movement of the land.
Soon after World War II, the Grace Course opened having been designed by William Gordon and his son David. Throughout his career, Gordon Sr. worked with some of the finest names in classical golf course architecture. Toomey and Flynn at Shinnecock Hills, Donald Ross at Seminole and Willie Park Jr. at Maidstone.
He was therefore considered a safe pair of hands and one who could introduce some classical features common at the time. Fortunately for those in charge at Saucon, the course was so much more than just ‘safe’.
The father and son combo designed a course which was until the mid-90s, consistently ranked in Golf Digest’s ‘Top 100 golf courses’ ranking.
Following the celebrated Grace course, the Gordon’s were once again hard at work. Saucon Valley decided to build a third 18-hole layout, the Weyhill Course.
On this occasion, the acclaimed duo were presented with a completely different canvas. The site featured dramatic elevation changes, offering unique opportunities for hole creation. An abandoned quarry was partly to do with this stunning topography.
It comes then as no surprise Weyhill has the most spectacular views out of the three courses.
So which is best?
That’s a damn good question and one which none of the major golf publications can agree upon. One list will have the Old Course firmly supplanting the others. Yet look elsewhere and the roles will be reversed.
So sod it, I’ll feature all three. Get an invite to play any of the three and count yourself lucky. Without doubt some of the best golf courses in Pennsylvania.
9. Huntingdon Valley Country Club
Yet another special golf course in Philadelphia’s outskirts, Huntingdon Valley Country Club oozes old-school class.
The club first came to life in 1897 and like so many other golf courses of the age, started life with just 9-holes. Some 31 years later, the club relocated to its incumbent spot, a magnificent spot, heavily wooded and hilly.
The celebrated architect William Flynn was commissioned to design 27 holes working alongside the engineer Howard Toomey. 27 holes seems a slightly odd decision, but there was the understanding a further 9 holes could be built to eventually house two 18-hole layouts.
Regardless of which 9-hole layout you are playing, you’re in for a hilly ride. The course simply demands a degree of precision from the tee if not there will be occasions where you’ll have a heck of a recovery shot.
The Flynn nine runs around the outskirts of the property whilst the inward nine sits within the center of the property. At no point are you going to have a flat lie and even when you reach the green, they feature a number of contours and subtle movement.
This is such a joy to play and will be a memorable round of golf.
What is the best golf course in Pennsylvania?
The best golf course in Pennsylvania is Oakmont Country Club, located to the east of Pittsburgh. The course was designed in 1903 by Henry Clay Fownes and has hosted numerous major championships over the years.
How many golf courses are there in Pennsylvania?
At the time of writing, the state of Pennsylvania has 695 golf courses. Most of these are located around the two major cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.