I recently had the opportunity to play at Philadelphia Cricket Club’s Wissahickon Course in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. The A.W. Tillinghast design served as host to two high profile events, the 2015 Club Professional Championship and the 2016 Constellation Senior Players Championship, drawing high praise from constestestants in both. One of the first things you notice when you arrive at the Cricket Club is the lack of trees on the golf course, but it wasn’t always this way.
In 2013, the Cricket Club closed down its Wissahickon course to do a restoration. The goal was to bring the course back to A.W. Tillinghast’s original vision, commissioning Keith Foster as an architect and historian Phil Young to consult on how Tillinghast would have redone the course. They were able to do a masterful job, and the result is a course that anyone would enjoy playing everyday.
The History of Philadelphia Cricket Club
The Cricket Club is not short on history. Established in 1854, it holds the unique distinction of being America’s oldest country club. As the name would suggest, the club’s focus was originally cricket, not golf, but that all changed in the late 1800s with the popularity of golf exploding in the area. The Cricket Club moved its home to nearby St. Martins before the club purchased a plot of land in Flourtown, PA in 1920. The land was selected with the help of Tillinghast who then went to work on building a great golf course, which he finished in 1922.
Tillinghast was a Philadelphia native and already known as a great architect having designed many great courses including the Pittsburgh Field Club, Quaker Ridge Golf Club and North Hempstead C.C.. The Philadelphia Cricket Club was special to Tillinghast as he would call it his home course for the duration of his life. Tillinghast wasn’t the only notable architect that called Cricket home. The great George Thomas (responsible for LACC, Riviera and Bel-Air to name a few) also called the club home.
Over the years, The Cricket Club had fallen victim to the overgrowth of trees and technology that hid and diminished many of Tillinghast’s design features.
The membership at Philadelphia Cricket Club jumped headfirst into the restoration project that was led by Foster and head of grounds, Dan Meersman. After the completion of the 2013 U.S. Open at nearby Merion, the Cricket Club started fresh with the Wissahickon course, opting to rebuild every aspect of the course from scratch, leaving only a few landmark trees. The benefit of Foster and Meersman’s strategy was that they gained full control of every aspect of the course and were able to accomplish the task rather quickly, reopening the Wissahickon Course on Memorial Day of 2014.
After the renovation, the Cricket Club regained its rightful place with Pine Valley, Merion and Aronimink as the elite courses in the Philadelphia metro area. It provides a challenging and fair test of golf for players of all skill levels and an architectural value that I place great importance on. I was able to see this first hand as the skill level in our group ranged from a plus handicap to a beginner, all of whom enjoyed the course thoroughly.
My favorite aspect of the Cricket Club is how generous the driving areas are which gives golfers of all skill levels the feeling of having a chance on every hole. This plays into how the golden age architects liked to reward strategy and shotmaking skills. While a poor drive at the Cricket Club will rarely result in a penalty stroke, it will lead to an incredibly difficult shot due to angles and hazards around the green. In order to score well at this championship test, a player must hit their shots in the right spots of the fairway in order to leave the correct angle of approach to the challenging and well protected green complexes. After a poor drive, you will almost always still have a shot to the green, albeit not an ideal one, but at least hope. Let’s get onto the course!
Hole 1 - Par 4 - 424 Yards
I played the back tees, and the first hole offers a unique and intimidating tee shot because the tee box is an extension of the putting green! A cool feature you don’t see at many courses which makes you wary of messing up the green.
The uphill dogleg right opener requires a tee shot that avoids the fairway bunker on the right side. The approach allows a player to hit any type of shot with no bunkers in front, but they must avoid a miss long, which will leave an extremely fast putt or chip shot.
Hole 2 - Par 4 - 423 Yards
One of the most picturesque holes at the Cricket Club, number 2 is a downhill par 4 that runs back towards the men’s locker room with the green sitting just a few paces from it. A tee shot will stop short of the creek that runs 310 yards from the tee, leaving a player with a wedge into the elevated green and well protected green.
A player’s second shot is challenged by bunkering on the right and left and the illusion of a back bunker which is actually on the 10th hole. During the restoration, significant shrubs and trees were removed restoring this visual trick Tillinghast created for players.
Hole 3 - Par 3 - 122 Yards
A terrific short hole, that Tillie would call “Tiny Tim’s” provides an early birdie opportunity for players of all skill levels. This hole embodies the short hole mentality of hit it or pay the price, as the green is heavily protected with deep bunkering. The green complex has heavy slope to it making longer putts a challenging two putt.
Hole 4 - Par 4 - 517 Yards
A former par 5, the 4th hole is as tough of a par 4 as you will find. My favorite aspect of this hole is the “switchback” strategy that is employed. The tee shot calls for a draw around the bunkers, but the ideal second shot is a fade. This subtle design strategy is why Tillinghast was a championship course genius, as it tests the best of players by requiring them to move the ball both ways.
Hole 5 - Par 3 - 215 Yards
One of my favorite aspects of the Wissahickon course is the variety of shots the par 3’s require. Here, a player’s long-iron game is tested with this beautiful par 3. The hole is reminiscent of St. Andrew’s 8th hole and Macdonald’s Eden template as the severely sloped green is flanked by right, left and back bunkering. A wise player will keep his approach shot below the hole to avoid a slippery downhill putt.
Hole 6 - Par 4 - 498 Yards
Another spectacular and challenging par 4 and a hole that underwent significant change with the restoration. Believe it or not, this hole was completely tree-lined down the right and left sides and is now opened up, giving players a beautiful vista and a look at the old Reading Railroad.
A good tee shot will move left to right and avoid the right and left fairway bunkers that sit right in the landing area. The uphill approach plays about a club longer and requires a precise long iron to make a birdie.
Hole 7 - Par 5 - 553 Yards
Another hole that underwent significant change during the restoration was the 7th in an effort to bring back one of Tillinghast’s favorite designs, “the Great Hazard.” Tillinghast wanted to be able to replicate the impact that a water hazard has on play through mass bunkering. His intention was for “the Great Hazard” to come into play when a player misses either his drive or his second shot. Along with the 7th at Philadelphia Cricket Club, Tillinghast also used this design at Bethpage Black, Baltusrol and many believe to be his design of the 7th at Pine Valley.
A good tee shot on the 7th gives the long hitter a chance at hitting the green in two. However, it’s not an easy shot as the 7th green is guarded by deep bunkers in front, requiring players to hit a high, soft long iron in, which very few have. It’s a terrific par 5 design.
Here's a closer look at the front bunker that protects the 7th green.
Hole 8 - Par 4 - 365 Yards
A player can finally sigh a breath of relief after the challenging stretch of 4-7, but this short par 4 can bite a player, as it did to me. A drive down the left side of the fairway is preferred as everything on the 8th slopes right. From there, players are tested with a semi-blind uphill wedge shot to a green that slopes heavily from left to right.
A miss in the bunkers is a big mistake, as they are extremely deep and make for a challenging up and down.
Hole 9 - Par 4 - 373 Yards
This short par 4 is an excellent example of how Tillinghast challenged players with angles. An ideal tee shot is down the left side of the fairway, but that route brings the out of bounds into play, leading the majority of players to bail to the right side of the fairway.
From that side, you are forced to fly your approach over deep bunkers into the green, whereas the left side will allow a player to run the ball up to this green that slopes front to back.
Hole 10 - Par 3 - 172 Yards
The par 3 10th offers a great backdrop of the men’s locker room. The green features an infinity complex that allows it to appear much smaller than it is. Protected by bunkers on the front, left and backside makes for a tough up and down for any miss.
Hole 11 - Par 4 - 427 Yards
This uphill par 4 provides players with a birdie opportunity if they are able to hit a good tee shot that avoids the tall grasses on the right and fairway bunker on the left. To spice things up, Tillinghast challenges players short-iron approach with a semi-blind uphill shot making distance control a taller task.
Hole 12 - Par 5 - 546 Yards
If you are looking to shoot a good number, it’s wise to pick up a shot at this par 5. The blind tee shot from the back tee requires a player to pick the right target on the sharp dogleg.
A good drive will lead to a great opportunity to get home in two as the front of the green allows for a shot to run up. While a layup shot needs to be well placed to avoid the bunkers that lie on the right and left sides of the fairway about 125 yards out.
Hole 13 - Par 4 - 447 Yards
Among all of the great par 4s at Philadelphia Cricket, the 13th is often lost, but it is a spectacular two shot hole. This dogleg right requires a great tee shot to avoid the fairway bunker that cuts in at the turn of the dogleg.
A player is then tested on their approach with deep bunkers on the right and left side that will catch any wayward shot.
Hole 14 - Par 4 - 435 Yards
I am starting to feel like a broken record, but the 14th is another great par 4. It offers players a wide driving area that narrows slightly on the right because of the tree which comes into play for long hitters.
What makes this hole is the downhill approach shot to the heavily bunkered green. During the restoration, several bunkers were added to match Tillinghast’s original design. The shot into the back left pin position we played was quite intimidating.
Hole 15 - Par 3 - 240 Yards
I always love a great redan hole, and the 15th is just that. Playing at 240 yards, the 15th matches the original design intention which requires players to hit a long-iron or fairway wood approach that utilizes the slope to get the ball close.
Hole 16 - Par 4 - 426 Yards
The start of Philadelphia Cricket’s closing trio of tough par 4’s, the 16th offers golfers a beautiful vista of the back 9. The beautiful fairway bunkering forces players to hit a good tee shot down the right side of the fairway to set-up an approach to the green.
I hit my shot left which shows how just the angle alone makes for a tough approach as the deep bunker that guards the left side of the green is much more in play.
Hole 17 - Par 4 - 449 Yards
As a player who moves the ball right to left, this uphill dogleg left really fit my eye. A good tee shot hugs the left side of the fairway, avoiding the bunker and will setup a mid-iron approach.
The 17th offers a spectacular second shot from one of the high points of the course. The approach to this green that seemingly floats is guarded by bunkering that forces a player to hit a strong approach to have a good look at birdie.
From the green, players are able to look back and reminisce on the great holes at Philadelphia Cricket Club
Hole 18 - Par 4 - 487 Yards
For players looking to post a good score, 18 provides possibly the toughest test on its final hole. The 18th is a long downhill dogleg left. An ideal tee shot moves right to left and will leave a player with a long-iron approach to a well guarded green.
If a player doesn’t hit a good tee shot, they will be faced with the decision of laying up short of the Lorraine Run creek or trying to hit it over and leave a chip shot 3rd. This routing is masterful as it forces a player to hit the fairway in order to have a legitimate shot at reaching the green in regulation.
After having time to digest my round at Philadelphia Cricket Club, I can’t think of many other courses I have played that have provided as fair and as strong of a test. I don’t think there is a weak hole at Philadelphia Cricket Club as its short par 4’s and par 3’s present unique challenges for players if they miss in the slightest. Tillinghast’s design forces players to hit every club and shot shape in their bag well to have success. It stands as one of my favorite courses, and I believe it belongs in the top 50 courses in the United States.