In the early 1920’s, a group of wealthy Philadelphia Quakers set out to build a golf only refuge similar to the likes of the Merion Golf Club. The idea was quite popular as Rolling Green Golf Club quickly filled up its 335 memberships and found a beautiful property to build the golf-centric facility in Springfield, PA. The 157 acres of land had dramatic rolling hills and a meandering creek which would allow a top-flight architect to build a world-class golf course.
The man pegged to build the much-anticipated course was the highly-sought after William Flynn who was making quite a name for himself after his collaborative work at Merion and Pine Valley as well as his solo designs at the Kittansett Club, Lancaster C.C., Cherry Hills C.C. and Philadelphia C.C. to name a few. Flynn was a member of the famed Philadelphia School of Architecture, and his storied career and illustrious list of golf courses make him one of the most underappreciated architects of all time.
Rolling Green’s land site fit Flynn’s strong routing skills and propensity to create natural challenges through the land, and as expected he delivered the goods. Upon Rolling Green’s much-anticipated opening in 1926, it quickly ascended to the upper echelon of Philadelphia golf courses. Flynn’s flair for the bold and dramatic led to Rolling Green being a stern championship course with laborious par 3’s, treacherous par 4’s, and an unheard of 615-yard par 5, quite the test in 1926.
Over the years, Rolling Green fell victim to an overgrowth of trees, shrinking greens and technology rendering many of the original hazards outdated. In 2009, the membership hired the popular restoration firm Forse Design to bring back Flynn’s original intentions. The firm set forth on an aggressive tree removal project, reworking bunkers, expanding greens and adding a new set of championship tees to make the course a formidable test for the area’s best players. The project was a resounding success. The new tees have returned Rolling Green to one of the sternest tests in Philadelphia.
My experience at Rolling Green Golf Club
I had the opportunity to check out Rolling Green on the second of my two summer trips to Philadelphia. With all of the great golf in Philadelphia, it’s a course that often flies a bit under the radar, but deserves its due as one of the finest courses in the country. Earlier in the summer, the club had hosted the U.S. Women’s Amateur, it’s first national championship since the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open. Unfortunately, the stress that the championship put on the course had caused some of the greens to die out a bit. While the greens weren’t in immaculate shape, you could still see how great and challenging the complexes are.
Tucked off of a busy street, the understated entrance to Rolling Green is a sign of what’s to come, a club that is focused one thing only, golf. The drive in gives you a quick look at the dramatic terrain of the property and the natural perches that Flynn found for the greens.
On this trip to Philly, I was getting ready to play in the U.S. Mid Amateur, so pictures weren’t my forefront focus. Luckily, Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) was able to help me fill in the gaps. For those who don’t already, I highly recommend following Jon as he regularly posts spectacular photos of America’s best golf courses on both Twitter and Instagram.
On to the course
Something that becomes evident from the start at Rolling Green is the necessity to stay below the hole. Rolling Green’s putting complexes feature Flynn’s signature severe sloping greens that will give the best putters fits if on the incorrect side of the hole. The course plays to two different pars depending on what tees are played. The back tees (black) which I played measure out to a par 70 at 6,941 yards, and the rest of the tees play at a par 71 with the blue tees being 6,695 yards and the white tees 6,353 yards.
Hole 1 - par 4 - 419 yards
Flynn opens up Rolling Green with a medium length par 4. The green slopes severely from back to front and right to left, making the left side of the fairway ideal. From there, a player is tested with the first of many uphill approach shots to a green defended by an extremely deep front bunker.
Hole 2 - par 4 - 450 yards
After the relatively benign opener, Flynn presents players with the first of many strong holes, the 450 yard par 4 2nd. The long par 4 doglegs left and heads back towards the clubhouse and the first tee. While there is ample room to the right, the ideal approach comes from the left-hand side of the fairway, which is challenged by a fairway bunker. From the fairway, another severely sloped green from back to front confronts a player. Missing long leaves a speedy chip shot, I speak from experience.
Hole 3 - par 3 - 175 yards
The first of Rolling Green’s 5 par 3s, is the 175 yard 3rd which plays downhill and along the roadway in. Any miss long at the 3rd is likely to tumble down the steep hill and out of bounds, making a back pin very tough to get to. The 3rd green has some redan characteristics, sloping hard from the right to left side around the bunker, but it’s short and downhill nature limit a player’s ability to funnel the ball in towards the hole from the right side.
Hole 4 - par 4 - 394 yards
After the downhill par 3, Flynn heads players back uphill with the par 4 4th. A relatively wide corridor gives players plenty of room on the right side to avoid the creek that comes into play on the left. While this makes the right side inviting, it is important to find the fairway in order to control distance and spin on the uphill approach. The green has a severe pitch from back to front, making an uphill putt necessary for anyone with birdie aspirations.
Hole 5 - par 4 - 426 yards
After the uphill trek of the 4th, the par 4 5th sits on the high point of Rolling Green’s property and is a rare flat hole. On this hole, Flynn creates unease on the tee shot with a small knoll that runs through the middle of the fairway about 250 yards from the tee. A good drive gets some added distance from the knoll and the left hand side of the fairway is the ideal angle to approach the green.
Hole 6 - par 3 - 207 yards
The 2nd of the brilliant par 3s is the tough 6th which requires a precise long-iron shot to a perched green. The 6th is a great example of how Flynn was a master of using the land as a defense. He perched the 6th green atop a ledge, guarding the green with severe hills in front and also in back and throwing in two extremely deep bunkers on the right side that flow effortlessly with the land.
Hole 7 - par 5 - 515 yards
Relief is given as player’s finally are given a great birdie opportunity at the short, downhill par 5 7th. The dramatic downhill tee shot at the 7th is certainly picture-worthy as Flynn moves downward from the property’s high point. A creek cuts diagonally across the fairway and is reachable only for the longest hitters. As often is the case, the ideal tee shot is down the left side, which Flynn protects this time with out of bounds. The beautiful approach shot is influenced by the natural slope that careens balls from right to left towards the green. The green has a tremendous slope from right to left, making any miss right of the green a tough up and down.
Hole 8 - par 4 - 444 yards
After the scorable 7th, players head to the tough par 4 8th and start one of the toughest 3 hole stretches anywhere in golf. A creek cuts diagonally through the par 4 8th fairway, forcing most players to lay back short of the creek at about 265 yards. From there, players are faced with a challenging severely uphill approach to the 8th green which also features a false-front to make things just a little tougher. Short is not a good place to miss and long isn’t any better as the green has a lot of back to front slope, making it possible for a ball to roll off the front and down the hill. The 8th is one of the toughest par 4s in Philadelphia.
Hole 9 - par 5 - 617 yards
Things don’t get much easier as players head to the brawny par 5 9th. Amazingly, this hole opened in 1926 at its current yardage of 617 yards. Beyond the length, what makes the long 9th difficult is the rolling fairway that will give players sidehill and downhill lies, making hitting a fairway wood or long-iron extremely difficult. A fairway bunker on the left at 100 yards forces players to be wise with their second shots and once again, the approach is played to a heavily canted green from back to front.
Hole 10 - par 3 - 258 yards
Many joke that the start to the back 9 is a short par 4, but it’s actually a brute par 3. From the back tees, the 10th measures 258 yards and runs uphill, making the shot play much closer to 270 yards. The slopes allow players to avoid the bunkering by playing to the front right and letting the ball funnel left from there. A par picks up a half a shot on this brutally tough par 3.
Hole 11 - par 4 - 450 yards
After the tough three-hole stretch of 8-10, Rolling Green moves on to my favorite stretch of holes with the beautiful and dramatic par 4 11th. The hole moves downhill and then back up to the green, accentuating the magnificent terrain that Flynn was given. A great drive will leave players with a mid to short iron approach to the perched green. Just as you would expect from the natural slopes, the green moves hard from the left to the right.
Hole 12 - par 4 - 361 yards
From the dramatic 11th, players move to the photo worthy short par 4 12th. The 12th is all about strategy. Long hitters can shorten the hole by driving the ball up the right side, but bunkers come into play and it could leave a difficult half wedge shot. I opted for an iron up the left side which leaves a wedge approach to the small and challenging uphill greenscape. This hole is particularly tough with a back pin, where a miss long is dead. It’s a great short par 4.
Hole 13 - par 4 - 442 yards
On to the 13th and a rare blind tee shot from Flynn. The key off the tee is getting the ball far enough left to avoid your 2nd shot to the green being obstructed by the trees on the right. The 14th is another example of Flynn’s skill in protecting a hole using the land as the 14th green is protected by just a small left-hand bunker.
Hole 14 - par 3 - 235 yards
One of the signature holes at Rolling Green is the beautiful par 3 14th which stretches to a lengthy 235 yards and plays over a massive valley. The signature iron bridge runs down the left side and frames the hole that requires a precise long-iron to a narrow and heavily sloped green. The green moves from back to front and is protected by a bunker on the left side (not a good spot) and a front right bunker.
Hole 15 - par 4 - 384 yards
After the tough par 3, Flynn gives players some solace and a birdie opportunity with the short dogleg left par 4 15th. The tee shot calls for a draw as fairway bunkers protect the inside of the dogleg. A good drive will lead to a wedge shot into the uphill green that has a front and back tier. This green presents a test for players in both distance and spin control as a back pin makes it easy to spin it onto the incorrect tier.
Hole 16 - par 3 - 170 yards
Following the fun 15th, players move to the 5th and final par 3, the beautiful 16th. Again, the shot plays over a valley to a perched green whose primary defense is the land. A front pin has a narrow landing area and requires a precise shot to a green that has a lot of subtlety to it.
Hole 17 - par 5 - 501 yards
For players playing the back tees, the 17th is the last good birdie chance as the hard dogleg left par 5 is very gettable with a good tee shot. Off the tee, the key is to avoid the fairway bunkers on the left side, if done, a mere mid-to-long iron will remain to get home in two shots. For those that have to lay up, the ideal position is on the left side of the fairway in order to play into the left to right sloping green.
Hole 18 - 493 yards - par 4
The final test is the lengthy par 4 18th which plays as a par 5 for all tees except for the blacks. The challenging dogleg right requires players to choose how much of the dogleg to bite off. The bunkers present the defense off the tee and the fairway slopes away to the left. A good tee shot will leave a mid to long-iron approach to the final perched green. The green has a lot of back to front slope making it wise to stay below the hole.
Walking off the 18th, every player is certain to have had their game tested at Rolling Green. One of my favorite aspects of the design was the wide playing corridors which allows players of all skill types to feel like they have a chance to succeed. For the skilled player, the tee shot becomes much more about finding the correct position in the fairway to attack the heavily sloped and often elevated green sites.
William Flynn’s architectural skills are on full display at Rolling Green as the land site allowed for his strong skills in routing, variety and naturalness to shine. At Rolling Green, you never play a hole similar to the last and every hole seems as though it was meant to be built exactly as it was. While it often gets lost amongst the abundance of great golf courses in Philadelphia, Rolling Green is one of the best examples I have found of a course that is both playable for the average player while presenting a difficult championship test for the skilled.