Drive Time
Eighteen of the top golf courses in the Philadelphia area to enjoy this spring
by Bill Donahue

Golf is a fitting metaphor for life. Both are rife with peril and opportunity, and a strong finish can make up for any missteps made along the way. Alice Cooper, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s elder statesmen and also one heck of a good golfer, put it this way: “Mistakes are part of the game. It’s how well you recover from them—that’s the mark of a great player.”

In the Philadelphia area, golfers of every skill level have an abundance of excellent private, semi-private and public courses at which to spend time doing nothing but take in the joys of fresh air, companionship and the challenge crafted by a skilled course designer. On the following pages are our picks for the best courses at which to perfect your game.

Photograph courtesy of Lookaway Golf Club

Applebrook Golf Club
This Gil Hanse-designed course offers one challenge after the next, beginning with a par-5 hole No. 1. Golfers will discover plenty of water hazards, rolling fairways and imposing bunkers throughout the course, requiring precise tee shots and confident carries. Although the course has more than its share of notable characteristics, of particular note is “the quarry,” an expansive sandy area that challenges golfers on Nos. 9 and 18. The finishing hole in particular is rewarding when the ball gets to the green, offering tremendous views of the rest of the course. 100 Line Road, Malvern,

Aronimink Golf Club
Fashioned from the earth by Scottish pro Donald Ross, Aronimink rightfully finds itself on the region’s “best of” lists every year. Golfers of every skill level will find a day on this course a test of their mettle, yet an exceptionally enjoyable one. Hole No. 16, at 512 yards a more than worthy par-5, will test the endurance of even the most skilled golfers. Given the course’s beauty and diversity in its yardage, it’s no surprise Aronimink has been a staple on the pro circuit, most recently in 2010 and 2011, when it hosted the AT&T National. 3600 St. Davids Road, Newtown Square,

Bella Vista Golf Course
Open since 2002, Bella Vista offers water hazards aplenty, but none more imposing than the lake at hole No. 14. With its precarious island green, this par-3, 152-yarder is a perennial favorite. From there, you face four more memorable holes—including all 529 well-bunkered yards of the par-5 No. 16—after which it’s time to recount your day at the Markley Grille. 2901 Fagleysville Road, Gilbertsville,

Broad Run Golfer’s Club
Course designer Rees Jones knew what he was doing when he put pen to paper in architecting Broad Run. He had terrific source material in a vast, sloping expanse of Chester County farmland. The course lays claim to one of the most breathtaking, even menacing views from the tee box on hole No. 1, and it only gets better from there. Pennsylvania Golf Course Owner’s Association named Broad Run its “Golf Course of the Year” for 2013, which says a lot about the management group that took over this once-struggling course, formerly known as Tattersall Golf Club, and turned it into one of the region’s top courses. 1520 Tattersall Way, West Chester,

Cobbs Creek Golf Club (The Olde Course)
It’s called Cobbs Creek Golf Club for a reason, as the seam of water for which it is named wends its way through the heart of several holes—Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6—making the front nine particularly challenging if you step onto this course without your best tee shot. Designed by Hugh Wilson (of Merion Golf Course fame) in 1916, Cobbs Creek makes the most of its natural beauty on the front nine and back nine alike. Bring your best driver for No. 14, a fearsome par-5 measuring 638 yards. 7400 Lansdowne Ave., Philadelphia,

The Golf Course at Glen Mills
A Bobby Weed design, The Golf Course at Glen Mills boasts a challenging creek that ends up swallowing even the most slightly misplaced tee shots and over-putts, particularly on Nos. 11 and 18. The immaculately manicured course is maintained with help from students from the adjacent Glen Mills Schools who are studying turf management and golf-course management. The course gleams with natural beauty all year long, but even more so when the fall foliage kicks in. 221 Glen Mills Road, Glen Mills,

Jeffersonville Golf Club
Another Donald Ross design, Jeffersonville Golf Club dates back to the 1930s and benefited from a restoration of its 135 pristine acres in 2001. Four sets of tees make this course playable for golfers of any skill level, even at the par-5 finisher, which spans an ominous 545 yards from the blue tees. Distance, however, is hardly this course’s defining characteristic. At just 195 yards, No. 8 is a particularly vexing par-3, with a pond on the approach to the green that seems to attract balls like moths to a flame. Sinking this hole within three strokes is an accomplishment. 2400 W. Main Street, Norristown/Jeffersonville,

Lederach Golf Club
In Lederach, Kelly Blake Moran has architected a “links”-style course built on lush, gorgeously maintained farmland. With five sets of tees suited to the strengths of any player, Lederach offers an amazing canvas that can also leave golfers scratching their heads while looking for a safe route. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the tee of No. 18. Most of the course’s hazards are of the terrestrial sort—undulating greens, grassy bunkers and plenty of other places to “get in the weeds”—but not at the finishing hole where missing the fairway assures one of taking a dip in the drink. It’s a worthy end to a course that has become a crowd favorite in a short time. 900 Clubhouse Drive, Harleysville,

Linfield National Golf Club
With its hybrid layout, pairing elements of a links-style course with a diversity of natural hazards and elevation challenges, Linfield National Golf Club offers more than 6,100 yards of excellent golf in Montgomery County. Linfield’s No. 12, a 492-yard par-5, offers an exquisite vista of the green with a gorgeous backdrop. Distance aside, golfers must traverse a sizable pond and a series of bunkers to get to the relative safety of the green. 66 Church Road, Linfield,

Llanerch Country Club
In its history, Llanerch has hosted several notable national and local golf championships, including the 2008 PGA Championship (Philadelphia section). It’s easy to understand why. The holes are diverse and challenging, including the deceptive finisher, No. 18, which spans less than 300 yards. The green here is a stone’s throw from the clubhouse, adding another layer of excitement to the mix—so close to home, with so many eyes to judge the precision of your final putt. 950 West Chester Pike, Havertown,

Loch Nairn Golf Club
Obstacles abound at Loch Nairn: copious wetlands, tree-lined fairways and undulating bent-grass greens. With ponds and bunkers galore, the back nine in particular has a number of hazards vying for the title of the course’s most intimidating. No. 10, however, just might take the cake. A shot-swallowing pond and creek combine to make this 156-yard, par-3 challenger the most imposing on the course. In other words, when you sit down for post-round libations at the clubhouse, you’ll know you’ve earned them. 514 McCue Road, Avondale,

Lookaway Golf Club
As the only Golf Digest-rated golf course in Bucks County, Rees Jones-designed Lookaway is a spectacular course with complex greens, generous landing areas and plenty of opportunities to test one’s short game. It’s also designed to give golfers plenty of elbowroom, according to general manager Bob Johns: “You almost never see players on adjoining holes.” Between 65 and 70 percent of rounds at Lookaway are done on foot, with caddies, which Johns says makes for “a much more enjoyable round of golf” due to the course’s quietness and privacy. Every hole has character, but when pressed to choose his favorites, PGA golf professional Chuck Rininger selects two par-4s: Nos. 14 (477 yards from the black tees) and 18 (434 yards). “No. 18 demands more accuracy off the tee,” he says, “and 14 is also a very good hole that was put out there for the better player.” 4219 Upper Mountain Road, Buckingham,

Meadowlands Country Club
Originally designed by the father-and-son team of Bill and David Gordon and “gently redesigned” in 1996 by the architectural firm Ault, Clark & Associates, Meadowlands is characterized by deceptive greens, well-placed bunkers and water hazards galore. No. 17, a par-5 measuring less than 500 yards, features an imposing lake that lies between the golfer and the Promised Land of the green. It’s emblematic of the kinds of challenges one will find during a day walking the course, requiring of those who play it a combination of skill, intelligence and good old-fashioned guts. 711 Boehms Church Road, Blue Bell,

Merion Golf Club
No list of Philadelphia-area golf courses would be complete without Merion, which has been home to some of golf’s most dramatic events—from Bobby Jones’ completion of golf’s “grand slam” at the 1930 U.S. Amateur to Ben Hogan’s awesome performance during the 1950 U.S Open. In fact, Merion’s East Course has hosted more U.S. Golf Association championships (including last year’s U.S. Open) than any other course in America. Designed by Hugh Wilson, Merion has become famous for its perilous bunkers, smooth fairways and well-sculpted greens, not to mention its water hazards. Early into the back nine—Nos. 11, 12 and 13 in particular—Cobbs Creek can be a round crusher. 450 Ardmore Ave., Ardmore,

Moccasin Run Golf Club
At Moccasin Run, golfers face the risk of rolling hills and challenging second shots. It’s also one of the region’s most playable courses, with only a handful of holes where the golfer will need to drive the ball more than 300 yards and have to choose another club off the tee, according to head PGA professional Rodney King. His favorite holes on the course are Nos. 15—the course’s longest par-5 at a monstrous 582 yards—and the signature 18, a 370-yarder that ends in front of the newly (and beautifully) refurbished clubhouse. 402 Schoff Road, Atglen,

Philadelphia Country Club—Spring Mill Course
PCC’s William Flynn-designed Spring Mill course has one of the richest pedigrees in the region. It hosted the 1939 U.S. Open and the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, and it also co-hosted the 2005 U.S. Men’s Amateur Championship. No. 5 is particularly vexing, given its share of hazards ranging from insidious bunkers and towering trees to the infamous Sawmill Run on the edge of the green. This par-3 is far short of 200 yards, yet getting to the pin demands the utmost precision and confidence in every shot. Good news: If you’re not quite there yet, hone your game at the club’s exceptional practice facilities. 1601 Spring Mill Road, Gladwyne,

Torresdale Frankford Country Club

To succeed at this Donald Ross design in the Northeast, one must contend with a seemingly omnipresent bugaboo: Byberry Creek. The creek eddies through half of the holes here, and its presence may be felt the most on No. 8. This par-4 clocks in at 475 yards, and the creek might urge the more cautious golfer to forgo a long carry, aiming instead for the generous fairway and going from there. 3801 Grant Ave., Philadelphia,

White Clay Creek Country Club
As a complement to the casino at nearby Delaware Park, White Clay Creek Country Club offers 18 holes with five sets of tee boxes to accommodate golfers of every sort. “Accommodating” is the word of the day here, as use of the generous practice tees and an exceptional short-game facility is included in the greens fees. Water hazards abound on the course itself, as two creeks—White Clay Creek and Mill Creek—cut through the course and ultimately intersect. Designer Arthur Hills, who specializes in wetlands, has done wonders with the property, which is not far from the casino’s thoroughbred racetrack. In fact, golfers can hear the ponies being called to the post from at least three points on the course, according to executive director of golf Ryan Kidwell. The course opened in 2005, but Kidwell says it seems much more mature: “Arthur Hills was chosen [as the architect] because he tries to leave the golf course in as natural an environment as possible, designing through the trees, the creeks and bringing them all into play. You almost get the impression that it’s been here for 20 years.” 777 Delaware Park Blvd., Wilmington, Del.,

Bonus Round: Honeybrook Golf Club
Chester County's stunning Honeybrook offers the best of both worlds: a very playable course that combines spacious links with perplexing elevations, with numerous land and water hazards to make it more than challenging. Every golfer is sure to have his or her favourite here. On the front nine, it may very well be No. 4—a daunting 552-yard par-5. Big hitters may be tempted to try their luck by going for broke … though most will take the safe shot down the center of the fairway. 1422 Cambridge Road, Honey Brook,

Starting Young
Vibrant junior programs teach kids to succeed in golf and in life

Although golf has been a gentleman’s pursuit since the game’s inception centuries ago, an ever-increasing number of women continue to take to the greens every year. Now even the very young are embracing golf with gusto, a trend evidenced by the growing number of institutions in the Philadelphia area offering vibrant junior programs.

One such establishment is DiJulia Golf in New Hope, where managing partner Ann Koloski has witnessed this boom of young golfers firsthand. 

“Coaching juniors has always been a key focus of our business,” she says. “Today more than half of our business is devoted to junior golfers. … Our youngest players are around 5 years old.”

Koloski notes she has seen a marked increase, even from the time when she was a child, in the number of talented young athletes looking to become skilled golfers.

“Golf is most definitely a game for a lifetime and like anything else, it is easiest to learn at a young age,” she says. “I would encourage any parent to provide their children with an opportunity to experience golf, to see if they like it. That said, we also recommend that children remain in several sports until age 12. We want young players to learn golf, but only to specialize if and when passion gets high after sticking with diverse activities over time.”

In addition to providing an outlet for young people to explore their athletic talent, golf hones skills that are applicable even away from the course, Koloski believes.

“Golf is a challenging game,” she says. “Like life, it involves dealing with many circumstances outside of one’s control. The golf course is fickle; some days it is your best friend and others, not so much. [Success] in golf requires perseverance, discipline, humility, integrity and respect for others. We look for opportunities to highlight these skills with our juniors because they are the same skills required to succeed in life.” —Leigh Stuart