During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to play at the Gil Hanse designed Applebrook Golf Club in Malvern, Pennsylvania. I had looked at a lot of photos of the golf course via Twitter and Instagram and was extremely excited to get my first taste of up and coming architect Gil Hanse.
Formerly farmland owned by Robert Williams by way of a land deed from William Penn in 1702, Applebrook Farm has a rich history that includes playing a role in the American Revolution.
Fast-forward to early 2000, and the founding members of Applebrook were able to come to terms with a bank to take over the land and build their dream golf course. They hired local legend Gil Hanse to design the course. At the time, it was one of his first solo projects, and today, Hanse calls Applebrook his home course.
About the architect:
Gil Hanse was recently thrust into the mainstream golf spotlight with his Olympic Course design in Rio, but golf course architecture enthusiasts knew of the rising star long before his work in Rio. Hanse came up in the golf course architecture world by working for Tom Doak and his design firm Renaissance Golf Design before going out on his own and starting Hanse Golf Design in 1993. Since then, Hanse has been a prominent figure in today’s minimalist design movement that focuses more on playability and fun rather than the challenging and grueling designs of the 70’s-90’s.
Applebrook’s facility is all about golf. They have a beautiful, but modest clubhouse that has locker rooms, food service and a nice pro shop. The driving range and practice facilities are good, but the majority of the focus is where it should be, on the golf course.
The Golf Course:
The basics - 6815 yard, par 72 layout with 4 par 5’s and 4 par 3’s
Hole by Hole:
Hole 1 - 552 yards - par 5
The par 5 opener at Applebrook gives you a glimpse of what’s to come as it offers up a good birdie opportunity, but can bite an over-aggressive player. The tee shot is semi-blind to a wide landing area setting up a decision on a player's second shot. Go for the green and bring the water on the right and fescue on the left into play or layup short of the cross bunker. The entire fairway short of the green funnels towards the green and water, making a safe play to aim left and run the ball onto the green.
Hole 2 - 366 yards - par 4
The dogleg left par-4 2nd offers another chance at birdie with a good tee shot. From the back tee, the deep bunker on the right is about 250 yards to carry. A good shot on that line will leave a longer player a flip wedge into the tough green complex. I played my 3-wood off the tee to take long and left out of play and it worked out perfectly leaving me about 80 yards in. The green complex is great for a short par 4. The pin we played on the right side is guarded by a steep run off area. Hitting a wedge at the flag requires excellent spin control and accuracy or you run the risk of having a difficult short-sided uphill chip shot.
Hole 3 - 310 yards - par 4
One of my favorite holes on the course is the short par-4 3rd and the best way to describe it is fun. The tee shot is blind and it plays like a par 3.5 for the longer player. A good tee shot carries over the bunker and will kick down into the punchbowl green complex. Miss the green and disaster can ensue quickly as there are very few conventional chip and pitch shots around this green.
Hole 4 - 418 yards - par 4
On to the slight dogleg right par-4 4th which typically plays into the wind. The driving area is wide off the tee at about 260 yards but narrows significantly where a long hitter will play driver. The challenge comes on the second shot to the small and undulated pushup green complex. It's extremely important to leave your shot in the correct position to have a good look at birdie.
Hole 5 - 211 yards - par 3
The first of Hanse’s four par 3’s is the 5th hole, a long uphill par 3 shot to a heavily bunkered green. Hanse does a great job of deceiving players with his front bunkering that appears to be pushed up on the green, when in actuality, it allows for a long-iron to land short of the green and run up.
Hole 6 - 396 yards - par 4
A shortish par 4, the 6th has another blind uphill tee shot that is pinched where a driver is hit. A good drive leads to a short-iron approach to a spectacular green complex that features runoff areas on all sides and a severe false front.
Hole 7 - 466 yards - par 4
The first ballbuster par 4 is the downhill 7th which requires two excellent shots. A very generous fairway doglegs slightly to the right. While there is plenty of room on the left side, Hanse entices a player to shorten the hole down the right side of the fairway, but makes that play risky with tall grasses and a lake. A good tee shot will then leave a mid to long-iron into the green, a safe passage to run the ball up on the right side but a deep bunker guards the left side. Something I love about this hole is that Hanse employed a switchback design, where off the tee a left to right shot is preferred, but into the green a right to left shot is ideal, a subtle way to challenge a great player.
Hole 8 - 581 yards - par 5
The par-5 8th makes for a tough birdie opportunity as it plays uphill and requires a strong tee shot to get home. The tee shot needs to avoid the bunker on the left and the hazard on the right, before a choice of going for it or laying up is made. A good layup plays short of the left fairway bunker, while a go for it in two needs to carry over the same bunker.
Hole 9 - 149 yards - par 3
The front 9 ends with a beautiful shorter par 3 with the clubhouse as a backdrop. While the green is a big target, accuracy is extremely important as the green has a lot of slope and segments that make two putting from long distances very tough.
Hole 10 - 573 yards - par 5
Teeing up from just under the clubhouse, the par-5 10th gives you a great look at the beautiful Applebrook property. The downhill tee shot has plenty of width letting you swing away and challenge the par 5 in two. A good drive avoids the creek down the right side and will leave a decision on whether to go for it or layup. The layup is hardly an easy one as the creek cuts through the fairway at about 100 yards out.
Hole 11 - 121 yards - par 3
A short par 3 that tests a player’s wedge game. The 11th has a long and narrow green that is heavily protected by bunkers requiring a precise shot to make birdie.
Hole 12 - 370 yards - par 4
The short dogleg right par-4 12th presents a decision on whether to lay back left of the fairway bunkers or challenge them to get close to the green. The green is pushed up and has considerable slope making pitch shots around it a challenge.
Hole 13 - 453 yards - par 4
The 13th marks the start of the toughest stretch of holes at Applebrook. The long par 4 doglegs slightly to the left and a big tree protects the ideal line on the left making a much safer play out to the right side. From there, a long-iron approach is needed to a green that slopes heavily from right to left.
Hole 14 - 444 yards - par 4
After the tough par-4 13th, you move to the challenging 14th which has a cape style tee shot that forces a player to decide how much to bite off. From there, an uphill iron shot is left to a challenging green with the left side allowing for a shot to run up and use the slope to funnel it back to the right.
Hole 15 - 224 yards - par 3
The beautiful, long par-3 15th has a challenging green and is a great test of golf. Hanse left the front part of the green unprotected to allow for shots to run up which is a nice touch for an already challenging hole.
Hole 16 - 578 yards - par 5
Once again, we see Hanse force a player to make a decision on the par-5 16th which has a creek that runs through the fairway on a longer hitter’s tee shot. To carry the creek on the left (shorter side) is about 270 yards with the carry lengthening the further right you go. If a player is able to pull off the tee shot over the creek it leaves a long-iron approach. For those who choose to layup, they are then forced to make another layup shot that avoids heavy fairway bunkers and another hazard that runs in front of the green. The green is flanked by bunkers behind and is pushed up causing any shots that come up short to have a difficult uphill pitch shot.
Hole 17 - 179 yards - par 3
The uphill par-3 17th features a blind approach to a subtle punchbowl green. It's important to know where the pin is in relation to the green to avoid short siding yourself on this slick green.
Hole 18 - 454 yards - par 4
A spectacular finisher, the 18th is an uphill par 4 that again features a wide landing area and great view of the clubhouse. The second shot to this green is absolutely spectacular. A deep bunker guards the green, and a massive shoulder creates a redan type green complex behind the green allowing players to hit a lower shot in that runs up the shoulder and funnels back to the flag. Hanse also allows for players to bail out left away from the hazard and play a pitch shot in from the left side. This was probably my favorite hole on the property.
I thought Applebrook was a great piece of modern architecture. What stood out to me was that the course never dictated a specific way that a player had to play the hole. While a highly skilled player who can fade and draw the ball is rewarded for their skill, an average player who isn’t able to pull those shots off is never punished. This gives you endless shot options and its countless risk/reward holes were a ton of fun to play. Applebrook is an excellent example of how new courses should be built as it gives every type of player opportunities to make birdies. In fact my aunt, who shoots in the 80’s-90’s, made 4 birdies on the front 9 alone! Applebrook is a place I would love to play everyday, because it challenges a good player but allows for good scores when a player executes shots. Hanse’s Applebrook may get overshadowed with all of the great options in Philadelphia but it is definitely worth a visit.