Like the gold-tipped fescue that abuts their emerald fairways, the cluster of relatively new, high-end golf clubs straddling the border of Chester and Berks counties near Elverson contrasts vividly with the vast sweep of surrounding farmland.
All designed by world-class architects, these three remote private facilities form an unlikely golfing haven in the midst of a ragged, rural landscape that John Updike, the novelist who was a native, once described as “acres of knolls and undulations draped with grey fences.”
These clubs’ founders were drawn there by relatively inexpensive real estate, a desire for privacy and the verdant open spaces interrupted only occasionally by a farmhouse or stone wall.
“You’re kind of in God’s country,” said Thad Fortin, French Creek Golf Club’s owner. “You can relax. It’s very different from what you’d get at a Main Line club. You see things on this course and you say, ‘Wow, where am I? Nebraska? Iowa? Scotland?’ ”
But while French Creek, LedgeRock Golf Club and Stonewall, which has two 18-hole courses, are rich in amenities and as scenically pleasing as any in the region, none are immune from the business and participation declines troubling golf.
French Creek, Fortin said, lost money in 2016, though it should break even this year. And despite its relatively elite membership, Stonewall, said general manager Paul Mauer, “is still feeling the effects that every club is.”
Given their isolation and proximity to each other, some wonder whether all three can long endure. Are there enough golfers willing to make the long drive? Will the clubs begin to cannibalize each other? And when development inevitably reaches them, will they benefit or suffer?
“No way too predict,” said Greg Nathan, chief business officer for the National Golf Foundation (NGF), a golf research organization. “All golf is local. Regardless of trends, these places are going to make it or not on their own merits.”
They aren’t carbon copies. French Creek, a 6,725-yard Gil-Hanse design that sprawls over three townships near Elverson, was created as part of a housing plan that the 2008 recession stalled. LedgeRock and especially Stonewall were intended as isolated golfing retreats.
All three are golf-only facilities. No tennis. No swimming. Just places where those devoted to the game can play an unhurried round in unspoiled surroundings.
Some of their combined 900 or so members live within a 30-minute drive. Others are refugees from shuttered Reading-area country clubs. Many are Main Liners with second memberships there. And Stonewall has attracted out-of-town members, adding two cabins and several clubhouse suites to accommodate them.
“Originally, this was a second club for about 80 percent of our members” said Stonewall’s Mauer. “Almost all came from the Main Line courses — Overbrook, Waynesborough, Merion, Aronimink. Yes, it’s far out, but Pine Valley was far out once, too.”
Two of these clubs — and three of the four courses — are bunched within a 5-iron of each other along Bulltown Road in sparsely populated East Nantmeal Township. In fact, the 12th and 13th holes at French Creek are so close to Stonewall that the neighbors often exchange golf carts and caddies.
“The only thing separating us is that little road,” said Fortin.
The newest course is LedgeRock, a 7,245-yard Rees Jones layout near the tiny Berks County borough of Mohnton, an easy 15-minute drive to the north.
The oldest is Stonewall, its Old Course debuting in 1993. But its North Course, French Creek and LedgeRock all opened between 2002 and 2006, at the end of the Tiger Woods-charged golf explosion. That boom increased the number of U.S. courses by 40 percent, according to the NGF. The subsequent slump has reduced that total by 6 percent.
With the loss of millions of golfers and with clubs — including some in the Philadelphia area — being sold, shut down or scaled back, these three remote neighbors, each in its own way, must work to remain relevant and economically viable.
“I’m sure they’re all great places, but the Philadelphia area has so many great and historic clubs,” said Nathan. “They have to compete with the Merions, Pine Valleys and Philadelphia Cricket Clubs of the world.”
Perhaps their biggest marketing advantage is the geography, the gently sloping hills and expansive green fields that provided such inviting canvasses for their big-name architects. Each feels like a golf island surrounded by a sea of open space.
“We don’t get a lot of play, maybe 13,000 rounds a year,” said French Creek’s Fortin. “You can scoot out here in the morning or after work and play with no trouble. It’s never crowded. We like to say you could play naked here and nobody would see you.”
With 230 acres to work with at French Creek, Hanse, the Malvern-based designer who built the 2016 Olympic course in Rio, was able to separate and individualize the holes.
Across the street, Tom Doak easily fit Stonewall’s two courses into a 1,200-acre dairy farm, utilizing its massive stone barn as a clubhouse.
“Having the chance to build the first tee and 18th green right up against that stone barn was a unique opportunity,” said Doak.
And LedgeRock’s architect, Jones, who has been called on to redo seven U.S. Open courses, was attracted by that 212-acre property’s dramatic elevation shifts.
“It’s just a great piece of ground,” said Jones.
French Creek is privately owned, while Stonewall and LedgeRock are traditional equity clubs. Stonewall, more corporate than the others, has about 450 golfing members who after their equity investment pay about $9,000 a year.
LedgeRock arose just as two old and exclusive Berks County clubs, Reading and Berkleigh Country Clubs, were converted from private to public. Its website describes it as “a personal sanctuary where each and every visit will be a rewarding and memorable experience.”
LedgeRock officials did not want to be interviewed, but in 2012 it was reported its three co-founders had put up $250,000 each. The stake for 13 others was $75,000 apiece, and the next 234 members got in for $40,000 each.
French Creek’s initiation fee for its 175 golf members, Fortin said, is “around $5,000.” Annual costs average about $7,000, and second-club memberships go for $4,500. Unlike the other two clubs, it promotes itself heavily as a wedding and dining venue and has a large social membership of 275.
“A lot social members live nearby. There’s no place to eat around here,” Fortin said. “And driving on [Route] 401 at night is like being in a video game. There’s always stuff jumping out in front of you.”
Fortin and wife Mindy — whose 51 percent stake makes her one of the few female majority golf-club owners — purchased French Creek from a Chester County real-estate developer in 2015. By building a successful dining and event business there, he said, they hope to sustain the golf.
“If this were a business that I had to depend on a lot, it would be very difficult. I just want to get to a break-even point,” said Fortin, the retired CEO of a West Chester-based global supply chain business. “We’re always going to be a golf course. We’re not going to convert it into a country club or anything like that. But we’ve got to focus on the off-course experience.”
Befitting a club set on an estate once owned by the Pew family of Sunoco wealth, Stonewall has a grander vision. Ostentatiously unostentatious, its only entrance is a small gated driveway where its name is barely visible. That name is just “Stonewall,” no golf or country club affixed. Most members prefer a leisurely walk in the countryside, though the North Course permits carts.
“We don’t have many social members,” said Mauer. “It’s all about the golf. The founders wanted a nice little retreat where they could get away and play golf with the people they like to play with.”
One of them, John May, previously had co-founded Waynesborough Country Club in Paoli. He began to scout the area for suitable property in the late 1980s.
“The courses on the Main Line were getting so crowded that he started looking out here,” said Mauer. “Real estate then was pretty affordable.”
When Arthur Pew died in 1965, his farm on Bulltown Road (Route 345) was sold to his accountant, Howard Guess. May originally liked the French Creek property but was drawn to the massive dairy barn, believing it would make an ideal clubhouse.
May and Stonewall’s other founding partners bought the property in 1992. After an initial flirtation with Norristown-born architect Tom Fazio, Doak was hired. The Old Course was ready to play by the summer of 1993, the North Course a decade later.
Stonewall has had to confront the same dilemma that all three of these remote clubs continue to face.
“It was tough getting members,” Mauer said. “We had people come out from the Main Line. They’d say, ‘I love this place. It’s phenomenal. But it’s just too far out.’ ”