A century ago, Philadelphia was the mecca of American golf course architecture. William Flynn, Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast and George Thomas were the core four of the "Philadelphia School of Design." Their influence was such that even two locals who merely dabbled in the craft, Hugh Wilson (Merion) and George Crump (Pine Valley), created world-class gems.
While most of the Philadelphia golf courses by legendary designers are private, there are a few examples of their work for all to play.
Jeffersonville Golf Club, a Ross design, ranks sixth among public courses on Phillygolfguide.com. The 6,450-yard, par-70 muni was tweaked in 2001 by Ron Pritchard, who restored Ross's unique design features, much like he did to acclaim at nearby Aronimink.
An hour away, Atlantic City Country Club is a Flynn classic that was updated by Tom Doak in 1999 and transformed by Harrah's from a private to a resort/public in 2005. With dramatic views across Lakes Bay of the Atlantic City skyline, the course ranks No. 1 among publics in New Jersey (Golfweek).
Classic design elements are also evident at the 36-hole Cobb's Creek Golf Club, the first public golf course in Philadelphia and host of the 1928 U.S. Public Links Championship. Designed by Wilson and Flynn, Cobb's Creek is full of fun, quirky holes that make full use of natural features. One example is the par-4 fourth hole of the Olde Course, its fairway split down the middle by a creek. It's not just any old hazard. It's the same Cobb's Creek that runs through Wilson's masterpiece, Merion Golf Club, four miles upstream.
Cobb's Creek Golf Club remains the jewel of the Philadelphia municipal system, which includes Franklin D. Roosevelt Golf Club, a rudimentary track, but the one to play before a Phillies, Flyers or Sixers game as it sits just across Broad Street from the stadium complex.
The best upscale daily fee courses around Philadelphia
For those seeking top-rung, daily-fee golf, Philadelphia has plenty to offer. The Golf Course at Glen Mills is widely recognized as the best public course in the area. On a Facebook survey by PGA.com, it was voted the top course in Pennsylvania, public or private. With tee times spaced 12 minutes apart, its little wonder why players are drawn to the Bobby Weed design where holes cascade down hillsides and around a quarry.
Adding to the allure of Glen Mills is its unique setting and mission. It shares property with the nation's oldest reform school, and its clock tower is visible from several holes. The course is staffed by students, and revenues go toward college scholarships for promising graduates.
Wealthy Chester County, west of Philadelphia, has the best collection of public courses in the area led by Wyncote Golf Club, a departure from traditional east-coast golf with its Scottish accents, heathland topography, knee-high fescue and deep, mounded bunkers. The Brian Ault design is highlighted by parallel par 5s that open both nines and share a double green.
Wyncote, rated a 4.5/5.0 on GolfAdvisor, has some worthy neighbors in Chester County, including Downingtown Country Club, a George Fazio design that hit its stride in 1995 with a brilliant renovation; unpretentious Honeybrook Golf Club, which was established in 2000 by a dairy farming family seeking a more profitable way to use its fabulous parcel of land; and Inniscrone Golf Club, the first solo design of Gil Hanse.
After opening in 1999, Inniscrone struggled as a private and then as an upscale public. But now ranks among the nation's top 50 munis (Golfweek). Inniscrone isn't for everyone. With its forced carries and knee-high rough, it was designed for good players. Those with high handicaps seeking great value in Chester County are better off at Honeybrook.
Philadelphia-native Hanse lent his expertise to another fine public course west of town. Formerly private Paxon Hollow Country Club dates to 1926 and is a decidedly retro experience at 5,709 yards and with elevated tees and greens. Hanse breathed new life into it with an extensive bunker and fairway renovation.
Golf in nearby Montgomery County
Montgomery County, northwest of Philadelphia, has the best selection of new public courses led by 27-hole Lederach Golf Club (2006); Raven's Claw Golf Club (2005), consistently ranked among the state's top 10 publics (Golfweek); and Bella Vista Golf Course (2002), which has a clubhouse barn and an island-green hole.
Golf in Bucks County
To the north in Bucks County, Makefield Highland Golf Club is another modern (2004) farmland muni and one of the few publics in the Philadelphia area more than 7,000 yards. This is another in the Rick Jacobson-design collection that appeal to a broad range of players with its wide fairways and intricate bunkering.
Also in Bucks County are Northampton Valley Country Club, a tree-lined, traditional beauty, and Five Ponds Golf Club, another farmland muni voted the best course in Bucks or Montgomery County by readers of the Doyelstown Inteligencer/Record.
More Philly area golf in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey
Scotland Run Golf Club is ranked 7th in the area currently on GolfAdvisor. It has a great mix of quarry, links and wooded holes. Others to consider in New Jersey are overlooked gem Deerwood Country Club; RiverWinds Golf Course, on the banks of the Delaware River with views of the Philadelphia skyline; and Pennsauken Country Club, a short, fun muni that was formerly private and dates to 1930.
White Clay Creek Golf Club is a modern (2005), target-golf test with water on every hole and Delaware Park racetrack next door. Also in Delaware, Back Creek Golf Club is an excellent value, while Deerfield Golf and Tennis Club and Reading Country Club are a pair of worthy privates-turned-public.
Further down I-95 in Maryland is Bulle Rock Golf Club, a Pete Dye design that would probably horrify the old Philly architects for its unnaturalness but also thrill them for its risk/reward at every turn.