The following is a guest post from Graeme Sanderson of New York, NY.
Having been given the opportunity to contribute to Epic Golf, I was looking forward to the chance to play a course that warranted a detailed review (I also had to remember to drop a camera in the bag before heading off to the course, which for me is not yet instinctual). Any course I reviewed would have to stand side by side with the likes of Taconic, a golf course I have the highest regard for, and Tetherow, a new challenge that based on pictures alone I expect could put most public tracks in my area to shame.
As I am based in New York City, the opportunity to play a daily fee course of distinction is few and far between, but with the golf season rapidly drawing to a close for all but the heartiest among us, I found myself outside of West Chester, Pennsylvania in late November with a spare morning, and it was there that I found my subject: The Golf Course at Glen Mills, a Bobby Weed design ca. 2000.
In the days leading up to the round, I reviewed the course’s tidy website, complete with the Golf Digest Top 100 2005-2006 seal of approval prominently displayed, as well as the following introduction: “Our golf course at Glen Mills is directly linked to the Glen Mills Schools…the oldest existing residential facility in the country for troubled youth.” The site also provided the link to a recent article on myphillygolf.com which provided helpful background. I woke early that Saturday excited to get to the course.
After a scenic drive past Pennsylvania homesteads, I turned at the decommissioned Glen Mills train station and pushed on up and past the hill that the school itself sits on, down into a valley where I saw my first golf green (which I would later learn was the 18th) and through the gate for the winding drive up to the clubhouse crowning a hill of its own. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s mental fortitude and ability to work a golf ball, the wind was also up to greet me, blowing at a constant 20 mph, while the temperature was a brisk 42 on the 1st tee.
As I was running a few minutes late, I did not have a chance to fully experience the facilities, but what I did see was first rate – tastefully appointed public spaces and a deck that would offer a foursome an excellent place to convene after a round.
Riding in the cart (more on that later) up to the first tee, I flipped through the yardage book, happy to see the introduction from the school’s director:
“We are dedicated to providing a true to life vocational training facility for our students in turf management and golf house operations.”
was given top billing, while Weed’s welcome wishes appeared near the end. Given Bobby’s bluster about both the need for a ‘strategic plan’ and the course’s ‘innovative strategy’, I immediately figured I would have a difficult time shoehorning his track into the Epic Golf pantheon, but that is not to say I teed off (into the teeth of a particularly strong gust) with anything other than an open mind.
Side note: the yardage book was extremely helpful, faithfully recreating Weed’s design team’s artwork, while also providing a ‘Profile’ of each hole’s elevation changes near each page’s margin.
374/ 265 Yards
The first tee shot at Glen Mills is the most straightforward on the course, allowing the golfer to feel loose and confident due to the width of the landing area. As is often the case though, this can lead a golfer to abandon the steady swing thoughts from the practice tee, resulting in a sprayed drive and missed scoring opportunity on what is otherwise a relatively easy hole. From the tee box the green is hidden from view by an undulating fairway that ends in a relatively steep slope down to the green. A stand of trees and a gaping fairway bunker on the right provide definition, yet it is the second shot that first got this golfer’s pulse racing. Standing at the top of the fairway (after a piercing drive down the center) and surveying a short iron ‘drop shot’, I found myself fixating more on going long than worrying about the pot bunker that divides the green’s apron. Thinking back, I wonder whether Bobby intended this or thought the real penalty was lying two in a favorite sod wall bunker.
Safely on, the green revealed itself to be expertly tended, which made for an enjoyable day of putting.
431 / 304 Yards
The 2nd hole was a complete about-face from the tee. No longer is the golfer presented with an ample stretch of green, but instead a blind carry over a string of bunkers. Choosing the proper line is difficult for the first time player, but after a quick fact finding mission in the cart, the tee shot proves to be far easier than at first blush.
I want to pause to address the motorized cart’s impact on Glen Mills. While the terrain can be extremely hilly at points, the layout is not overly expansive such that one needs a golf cart to navigate between holes (a la the 8 minute drive through the swamp one encounters at Tiburon). On the majority of holes, tee boxes have been nestled quite close to the previous greens, while the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside beckons the golfer to get out and walk. I neglected to inquire about a caddy program, which would seem a natural fit for the course. The damage has already been done, however, as a ribbon of pavement now traces its way through the 18 holes. The only benefit I could think of is the cart affords the first time golfer the ability to scout out the blind shots and check yardages for a few key landing areas (on a warmer day I might have had the discipline to do just that).
From the 2nd fairway, the view of the green is obscured by the coffin bunker 70 yards in front of it. The false front effect the namesake bunker creates, coupled with a horizon green and its backdrop of the school on the distant hillside, plays with the golfer’s head, making the approach shot planning all the more difficult.
394 / 277 Yards
Stepping off the 2nd green and directly onto the 3rd tee, the golfer is presented with a right-to-left hitter’s dream. I would have loved to play the hole when its fairway was firm, but after a week’s worth of rain the course was not giving up much in the way of roll — though I should note its drainage system performed admirably under the circumstances. The approach is played to a relatively large oval green guarded by a large bunker front/right. In retrospect, the size and shape of the 3rd green is unique in its ordinariness–throughout the course Weed frequently opted for narrow, geometric shaped putting services stretching 40+ yards that play much smaller than their size; the extremities would only be appropriate for the most devilish tournament pin placements.
I expect the 3rd hole is overlooked in favor of its design-heavy neighbors, or as simply a vehicle to transport the golfer to the 4th tee. It deserves better.
572 / 441 Yards
The double dog leg 4th begins with a seat belt-fastening tee shot that provides ample room distance-wise for a well struck driver, ever a pet-peeve of mine for 550+ yd holes. The landing areas for the second and potentially third shots, however, are a different story, as the fairway gets far tighter as it bends its way down to the green below in the distance. To make matters worse, the lay-up shot to the second elbow of the fairway must be expertly judged so as to carry the appropriate distance without running long into a large bunker. The net effect is that the golfer is encouraged to hit a fairway wood onto the green in two, one of the two bunkers short right or the rough that surrounds them, as opposed to playing the hole as a sturdy 3 shotter. Disappointingly, it appears this is what Weed encourages with his dressing up of the quarry/carry with pockets of bunkers, as opposed to letting the area grow wild and look even more penal.
181 / 101 Yards
The first par three at Glen Mills is a steep step down with bunkering that enhances the optical illusion of a blind false front. It’s a fun shot, and provides an interesting test if the last full swing the golfer made was a 3-wood and everything in his bag from 260 on 4. It also marks the golfer’s departure from the hilltop meadow (and “quarry”) he has been circling and entrance into the old growth forest, the setting for the next four holes.
547 / 415 Yards
The 6th tee shot presents the golfer with a narrow corridor with trees encroaching on the right and a fairway that bends hard enough right to mean the dreaded 250 yd straight ball will be in the rough or into the trees. It the golfer is able to slot a left to right play, the second shot is pretty enjoyable, as the fairway tightens down towards the green. A brook peeks out from the shadows of the right trees, brought into play only by the fact the paved cart path is lurking over there as well.
The green is protected by a depression short and bunkering to its right. I watched multiple golfers plod down the left hand side of this fairway and the left hillside rough, unable to bring themselves to swing away from a ball-below-the-feet stance and risk losing a fade/slice into the right trees and creek.
221 / 129 Yards
One can’t properly appreciate a 56-yard-long, narrow mutli-tiered green built into a shelf of a steep hillside without viewing it from the cart path above. Don’t get me wrong, I love stinging a low 3 iron into the wind from 210 yds, but given the pins had not been set according to one of the course’s predefined placements (that morning the gentleman in the pro shop had advised us to just play to the high point on the green (?!)), this hole was a lot to ask.
The “Hell” bunker staring the player in the face begins 40 yds out from the green and is the only thing between a fade staying relatively close to the level of play and running down a lie in the woods 30 feet below. Adjust your Par for the hole accordingly.
325 / 244 Yards
I found the sightlines for the tee shot on 8 to be unique – angular, with a grass-covered ledge jutting out from the shoulder of the hillside. Downwind the hole screamed scoring opportunity, but as the ramp to the green is quite narrow, the prudent play is something in the neighborhood of 200-220 yards, long enough to get over the rough cuts, humps and bumps, and to the widest section of the fairway. Short of the green, the apron ramps up and one would guess many attempts to find the green in one end up backtracking their way down to the collection area without gaining a foothold on the 20 yd. deep strip of putting surface.
From the 8th green the golfer enjoys a grand view of the Glen Mills campus across the valley, but perhaps more engaging is what lies below as he has a chance to take stock of some of the back nine’s most thought provoking and at times frustrating terrain.
433 / 301 Yards
Heading for home, the tee shot on the 9th requires the golfer to favor the right side (or even right rough cut) to enjoy the best angle of attack at the shelf green built into the hillside below the clubhouse deck, as the approach from the left hand side of the fairway is partially obstructed by a crop of trees. A strong right to left wind can help swing a well struck approach closer to the pin.
207 / 111 Yards
I loved this one-shotter that opens the back nine – a mid-iron from an elevated green to a 54 yd. long diamond green with marsh intruding on the right. While a left-to-right shot that trickles off the right side of the green will stop safely short of the marsh, a wildly mis-struck ball lines into that lateral hazard.
376 / 281 Yards
Running parallel to the 17th, No. 11 is described as the most controversial hole on the course, as well as the most difficult. While I would agree with the former I managed to turn it into a scoring hole thanks to an aggressive tee shot. The accompanying pictures attempt to illustrate the issue I have with the hole and how I came to the decision to blast a driver and bring birdie into the mix.
The first captures the disorienting tee shot from the back tees, as there is only a mere suggestion of the problems down the left side, while the hill to the right of the fairway (capped with the ever-present paved cart path) appears to offer a natural backstop. Between the visual evidence and the diagram, I decided I wanted to have plenty of carry to take the elbows of the hazard (image #2) out of play, even if it meant running up to the side of the hill. By contrast, the club tees provide a clearer view of the troublesome creek that winds down the entire left side of the fairway. If presented with this full frontal view, I expect I would have been more inclined to pick a yardage and play 11 as a target golf hole. What this would have meant, however, is that I would have left myself with a shot of ~150 yds to one of the narrowest greens on the course. Again, the shaved hillside appears to be a viable option.
The 11th is certainly a fun hole to traverse, and if the golfer is able to card a par or better he is going to leave the hole with great swing thoughts for the more manageable holes to come. But if the golfer achieved that score by overpowering the hole, the satisfaction is tempered a bit. The 11th’s corridor of play is almost too narrow to accommodate the windy creek and surrounding marsh and still have room for parallel holes, not to mention the infrastructure that accompanies them.
339 / 234 Yards
After the absorbing 11th, the 12th felt relatively benign, despite quite literally a sea of blue in view. The tee ball is played onto or ideally over a rise in the fairway that the right bunkers have been shaped into. A well-struck ball has the chance to run down the slope and stop quite close to the green. I would imagine Weed thought of this hole as a half-par for the golfer who is able to block the right side’s dangers out of his mind and swing freely.
453 / 308 Yards
From the tee (and on the scorecard) the 13th can seem a bit daunting, stretching out 75-100 yds longer than the previous hole. Here, however, Weed has done an excellent job of arranging the tees to create the appearance (at least from the back tees) of a forced carry, where in fact the hole never really runs over the marsh. There is far less trouble than the overhead view would suggest: whatever carry the chosen line requires is fairly manageable, while the fairway bunker is (likely) not reachable. From squarely in the middle of the fairway from off the tee, the golfer now realizes that his drive has traveled a good deal further then he initially thought as the hole actually runs downhill to the green. The approach is played to an ample green whose front apron is bunkerless. The course’s second longest Par 4 thus proves to be another good scoring opportunity.
161 / 98 Yards
Wedged back into a corner of the property, this mid to short iron Par 3 plays all carry to an elevated green that runs from front right to an extreme back-left corner hole location that I would have loved to have played. The hole featured the redan’s right-to-left green contour, with the right side apron free of bunkering, but the apron was far too steep a slope for the player to feel that he could confidently execute a running play. This makes the back left pin placement all the more intriguing: drawing the ball in would seem to make the most sense, since coming up short as a result of underclubbing would leave a pitch that only Pete Dye could love, but how to execute a draw in such a confined space, and to such a small target? I chuckled upon seeing an absurdly tiny collection area past the back corner, wondering if Weed actually thought he was giving the golfer a break.
529 / 403 Yards
As I have never been a fan of fairways bisected arbitrarily by large swaths of rough to hem in the long driver, I was pleasantly surprised to find just how much I enjoyed playing 15 tee to green. The tee shot is played out of a chute behind the 14th green, with a large trap on the right to give the golfer pause. Making the right corner, the golfer looks down on an awesome collection of bunkering and landing areas. Depending on the wind the hole is quite reachable in two shots, so the question is whether to lay up to 100 and bring the right traps into play or fly a long fairway wood to pin high. Surprisingly, the diagram of the green complex neglects to mention the deep swale that runs across that putting surface.
156 / 89 Yards
The final par three’s name suits it well enough. All carry and sod-faced edges, the holes feels natural enough. Given the size of the green I might have liked to play it at 180+ as opposed to a mid-iron into the wind, but I appreciate that under that scenario its moniker would have gobbled up even more nervy swings.
483 / 381 Yards
From the tee, 17 feels like it is going to be a raw beast. The carry pictured covers the most rugged terrain on the course. Despite the short yardage, the uphill run of the hole means reaching in two is not a guarantee. Unfortunately, upon reaching the landing zone the golfer discovers the hole’s midsection is extremely technical and narrow. Instead of rough, roll and sand, the ribbon of elevated fairway is bordered by the valley creek and accompanying marsh hard on its left, separated only by the paved cartpath. The green complex, on the other hand, is an elevated treat, with a prominent pot bunker that demands attention. All in all, the hole has too much going for it to be sardined in alongside 11 in a valley wide enough to accommodate only one great hole, and is done the double disservice of being scarred with a cart path that deflects marginally off-center tee shots into the hazard.
464 / 321 Yards
The 18th reminded me a bit of the final hole at Pacific Dunes – long and slightly disappointing. A long drive is required to carry trouble short left and attain the proper level of the fairway. From there the golfer tacks home to a par or bogey, likely remembering 14 or 15 holes ahead of it. I think it is unfortunate that Weed did not elect to reverse the pars of the final two holes and design a slightly shorter 17th, followed by a stretched out 18th, a Par 5 where he could really show his stuff, as in the case of 15. It appears that he would have had plenty of room to do so. But instead the golfer finishes up near the country road and is faced with the worst commute of the day, up the steep hill near the entrance and back to the clubhouse.
For all the fault I found with Bobby’s work, I was in the end enchanted by Glen Mills and look forward to playing there again, albeit on a warmer day. Part of that has to do with the course’s mission statement and the great attitudes of the students who handled bags on a cold Saturday morning, even with school on break for the holiday. But the course itself deserves its due – it is expertly maintained and provides no shortage of challenge, variety and thrills. Perhaps with a bit less ‘design’ it could have earned its place among the truly Epic courses, but it is still a great course and should be added to Northeasterners’ list of ‘must-plays’.