An introduction to Philadelphia
Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, is one of the largest cities in the United States, but one which belies its size in portraying a more intimate and quaint atmosphere. And despite its size, you can visit many of the main attractions in one day. Shame the same can’t be said of the golf courses in Philadelphia!
The city has a rich heritage featuring some of the most popular historical landmarks in the U.S. Places like the iconic Liberty Bell attract thousands of tourists daily. Likewise Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where Ben Franklin is buried.
There are many museums centered around art and history. The most recognised is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with its stairs made famous in the Rocky film. That notoriety is great for the museum, but sadly does overshadow the fascinating exhibitions within the building.
The city has enjoyed significant investment and a number of places have benefited from being redeveloped. The Delaware riverfront is one of those places which is now a really desirable place to wander and explore.
Cherry Street Pier is one of those places, a renovated pier which features food stalls and artists.
Philly has a mouthwatering foodie scene. Whether you head down to the urban market of Reading Terminal or alternatively Bourse Hall, you’ll find plenty to satisfy.
And you simply can’t leave Philly without trying the Philadelphia cheesesteak!
The best golf courses in Philadelphia
1. Pine Valley Golf Course
Golf in its purest form, Pine Valley Golf Club is immense.
Alongside Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula, Pine Valley is widely considered the best golf course in the world. It is also arguably one of the hardest.
The history of the club goes right back to the early 20th century, in 1912. 15 miles south of Philadelphia, is where George Crump, a hotelier in the city, began developing the course. To support him with this project, he called upon the genius of Harry Colt to help advise on the layout.
Together they created a sensational routing, through an isolated and dense woodland. Still to this day you will hear little of the outside world and nearly all the fairways are hidden from one another through curtains of woodland.
The balance of holes and crafty use of the terrain is simply divine. Likewise the green complexes are some of the best you’ll find anywhere. They are also fiercely challenging and shooting anywhere close to your handicap is nigh on impossible.
Oddly, it is the only golf course on this list, south of the city. Maybe it is that good, the others all thought they’d keep their distance!
2. Merion Golf Course (East)
The East course at Merion Golf Club, is consistently ranked as one of the world’s top 10 best golf courses.
The club occupies a compact plot of land in Philadelphia’s northwestern suburbs, just a half hour’s drive from downtown. The East course is one of two onsite, with the West course a mile down the road in another tightly-packed plot of land.
Hugh Wilson was the man and brains behind the routing here. Yet before devising the layout for the East course, he spent a period of time discovering and analyzing the finest golf courses in the British Isles.
In 1912 the East course finally opened to play. It has a par of 70 and a yardage of around 6,200 from the member’s tees. But those numbers only tell you half the story.
In reality, Merion East is a brute of a course and arguably one of the reasons it was chosen as the host venue for the 2013 U.S. Open. Eventual winner Justin Rose couldn’t even break par.
The fairways are narrow, the rough thick, and the greens are lightening. When playing here, leave your pride at home, play safe and just enjoy. You’re ultimately playing one of the finest golf courses in the world.
3. Aronimink Golf Course
The Greater Philadelphia area has a number of fine golf courses built in the early 20th century. Many of these classical designs have stood the test of time and sit in the top spots in this list.
In addition to that, more than a handful are ranked as some of the finest in the country, and Aronimink sits proudly amongst them.
The club started life in the late 19th century and after various rudimentary layouts and site changes, it finally settled in Newton Square. The club purchased a 300-acre plot of land and employed the esteemed Donald Ross to design the course.
By this time Ross was admired as one of the greatest architects of the age and Aronimink is testament to a man at the peak of his abilities.
There is ample elevation change on show and this is evident from the off. The 1st features a dipping fairway with an approach shot back up the hill to a raised green.
Unsurprisingly with a Ross course, to score well you must strike the ball well. Penal bunkers will gobble up shots whilst the rough can embarrass even the most competent players.
Over the years some great names have been involved in renovating the course, including most recently Gil Hanse. And to this day, Aronimink continues to be regarded as one of the best golf courses in Philadelphia.
4. Philadelphia Cricket Club (Wissahickon)
The Philadelphia Cricket Club has a rich and vibrant history which reaches right back into the late 19th century. And although the term ‘cricket’ exists in name, it is now far more famous for its golf offering.
The story for the Wissahickon course goes back to the early 1920s. The club wanted a second 18-hole layout and it just so happened a certain A.W.Tillinghast happened to be a member of the club.
Unsurprisingly, Tillinghast took the design lead on this special project at his home club. Incredible care and attention was taken to create one of the finest golf courses around and what was created is up there with the best.
There is plenty of movement in the land which the routing takes full advantage of. This encourages golfers to take on big shots or play strategically. The green complexes are fantastic and seem to be more often than not, placed above the fairway.
There was a period of time where Tillinghast’s design was slowly lost to over-exuberant maintenance and neglect in halting tree growth. But this was thankfully addressed by Keith Foster, who was tasked with reestablishing the original layout.
Part of the project was to also add a few additional upgrades, primarily in the form of bunkers, that Tillinghast would have inevitably wanted to add to improve the playability and challenge.
Post renovation, this is a club that has firmly cemented its position at the top of these rankings.
5. Huntingdon Valley Country Club
Like so many of the golf courses preceding it on this list, Huntingdon Valley was established in the late 19th century. 1897 to be precise.
Yet it wasn’t until 1928 that the club finally found a long-term home, settling on a hilly and wooded plot in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs. It was here that they decided to not just build 18 holes, but settle on 27 with the view they could always build more in the future.
William Flynn, well-respected for his craft, was chosen to design the course. For this endeavor he would be working alongside the engineer Howard Toomey, of which one of the nines is named after.
As I mentioned, this is a hilly site and regardless of which 9-hole combination you end up playing, you’re unlikely to get a flat lie. In fact the only place you will, is on one of the tee boxes!
The Flynn 9-hole course runs around the edge of the site whilst the inward nine make their way through the central part of the property. Precision off the tee is so important here, firstly to ensure you’re able to attack many of the elevated greens. But especially on the back nine where a stubborn creek seems far too keen to get involved in the fun.
6. Philadelphia Country Club (Spring Mill)
Tucked inland from a bend in the Schuylkill River, approximately 20 minutes drive from central Philly, is the esteemed Philadelphia Country Club.
This was one of the first ‘golf clubs’ in the country, dating back to 1890 and at the time, it was known simply as ‘The Country Club’. Golf club is in inverted commas because it actually started life as a polo club. Hence why its logo features a horse’s head.
It did finally create a 9-hole course although that was some five years later in 1895.
Seeing the game of golf increase in popularity, the club decided to move to a new location and build a championship course. William Fynn, a man who inspired so many of the great tracks around Philadelphia, was hired.
In 1927, the Spring Mill course opened for play. It was highly acclaimed and due to the hilly terrain, presents a considerable challenge. No wonder in 1939 it was chosen to host the U.S. Open which was claimed by Bryan Nelson.
The green locations are divine, something Flynn would often start mapping out first, before routing the fairways.
The yardage from the back tees is just short of 7,000, but don’t be fooled. There is no shortage of hazards, blind shots and tricky approaches. Many of these are facilitated by the moving topography and a defensive mindset would serve you well the first couple of rounds here.
7. Rolling Green Golf Club
Philadelphia is genuinely blessed with the number of top drawer golf courses surrounding it. Rolling Green Golf Club is yet another which flies just under the radar, but one which many of the locals will argue should be ranked higher.
This is another William Flynn and Howard Toomey combination and opened for play in 1926.
One thing I’m sure the locals will agree on is Rolling Green surely features the most movement in topography. This is one hilly course. Not to a point of literally trekking up and down fairways, more just the constant undulation of the land.
Despite this movement, impressively none of the holes feel forced into the landscape. Throughout the 157-acres, there is a congruous relationship between the routing and nature.
There is also a fantastic variety of holes, especially with the greens complexes positioned either high or low. Subsequently, there is a real emphasis placed on accurate approach shots as you won’t want to be leaving yourself with too many long putts.
Tournaments of note hosted here include the 1976 US Women’s Open and the 2016 US Women’s Amateur.
8. Applebrook Golf Club
What a fun course and one of the newer layouts in the Greater Philadelphia area. Applebrook Golf Club is nestled away up in Chester County, under an hour’s drive from downtown Philly.
Opened in 2001, the course was designed by Gil Hanse, one of golf’s foremost minimalist designers. Time spent in Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design clearly left a mark on the gifted Hanse.
The plot Hanse had to play with was not vast and no doubt required clever routing to make it work. But make it work he did and the routing flows serenely from one hole to another.
Part of the experience playing at Applebrook is the walking-only policy. Another feature which adds to the simplicity and classical feel of the course.
As for the layout, it is only 6,800 yards from the backs. But there are doglegs on 16 of the 18 holes, so hitting long is not part of the game plan. Picking the right line off the tee and precision is far more valuable than brute force.
Beautifully contoured greens and authentic looking bunkers make this private club a rare treat.
9. Manufacturers’ Golf & Country Club
Located in a valley in the Fort Washington neighborhood, is the superb Manufacturers’ Golf & Country Club. The club is tucked away in a 250-acre plot of rolling hills and elegant hardwoods.
This is another William Flynn creation, one which opened in 1925 so one of his earlier designs in the Philadelphia area. It is also one which doesn’t necessarily get the credit it deserves.
Jumping back in time, the club was initially started by a group of industrial leaders in 1887. Those leaders originated largely from the manufacturing and textiles industries, hence the name of the club.
It wasn’t until 1923 that the club relocated to the site in Ridgewood Farm, where it continues to reside today. It was also this time William Flynn was commissioned to design the 18-hole layout.
The opening nine holes are tucked along the western boundary of the club with some fantastic elevation changes to contend with. The short par-4 8th hole over the quarry is a perfect example of this.
The inward nine offers a sten test with some really challenging holes to keep your scorecard intact.
10. Gulph Mills Country Club
North west of Philadelphia, towards King of Prussia and Conshohocken, is where you’ll find Gulph Mills Golf Club.
Yet another of Philly’s ‘Golden Age’ golf courses, Gulph Mills was originally designed by Donald Ross back in 1919. Ross had to plot the course over rolling hills and made good use of the few water hazards and creek.
Over the years there has however been change. Perry Maxwell, William Gordon and Robert Trent Jones have all had some involvement in tweaking the layout. Arguably, Maxwell’s mark may be the one which is most felt to this day. Many of the middle holes are largely credited to him.
Most recently, the genius of Gil Hanse was brought onboard to help with the restoration. A key outcome was to re emphasize the course’s more classical age features, i.e. Ross and Maxwell’s designs. Improving the flow and bringing some continuity to the routing was another objective.
Typical Ross-style back to front greens were beautifully restored whilst hundreds of trees were removed opening up views previously hidden away.
There are some wonderful holes including a whopping par-3 over a deep quarry to a stunning Ross shaped green.
This really is a wonderful course yet the club remains fiercely private. If you do get a round here, you won’t see many other people on the course. Nor will you see much of the outside world, so hidden away the club is. Without doubt another of Philadelphia’s best golf courses.
What is the best golf course in Philadelphia?
The best golf course in Philadelphia is Pine Valley Golf Club, located 15 miles south of Philadelphia. The course opened for play in 1912 and was designed by George Crump, a Philadelphia hotelier. He was supported in the project by Harry Colt.
How many golf courses are there in Philadelphia?
Within 20 miles of Philadelphia, there are just under 100 golf courses. Over half of these are private and just a handful are municipal courses.