John F. Byrne Golf Club

Forgotten course worth getting to know

I'll be honest. Driving to John F. Byrne Golf Club for this review, I wasn't exactly excited, and I wasn't expecting much.

It's not that I'd heard bad things about Byrne. Truth is, I hadn't heard much of anything about it. I'd never set foot on the golf course before, and all I really knew was that it was one of the city's six municipal courses, it was across the street from Torresdale-Frankford Country Club, and frankly, it didn't look all that inviting from the street the times I'd passed it.

Shows you how wrong you can be.

At a glance
Getting there: John F. Byrne Golf Club is located at 9500 Leon St., off Grant Avenue in the Northeast. The phone number is 215-632-8666.

Green fees: Weekends, $24. Weekdays, $20.50. Seniors, $12.

Carts: Walking is permitted anytime. Carts are $15 per person.

Spikes: Metal spikes permitted. Amenities: Moderately stocked pro shop, snack bar, practice putting green. No driving range. Outings welcome.

Rating: Hilly, fun layout with a variety of holes. A working stiff's golf course in look and feel. Good walking course. A challenge for all but single-digit handicappers.

Information accurate as of 8/15/2002

I'm not going to get carried away here and say Byrne is some classic layout in pristine condition. It is neither. But I will say it is a heck of a lot better golf course - with more potential - than I ever imagined. It was enough to make me wonder if the reason you don't hear much talk about Byrne is because all those golfers in the Northeast want to keep outsiders away.

While it's not to be confused with Torresdale-Frankford, the rolling, tree-lined Donald Ross layout a stone's throw away on the other side of Grant Avenue, Byrne does benefit from the same hilly terrain that practically begs to be turned into a golf course.

Fortunately, Alex Findlay, who also designed Walnut Lane in Roxborough, did just that in the 1930s. The result is a short course - Byrne is just 5,234 yards from the back tees - but with plenty of twists and turns, elevated tees and greens, fairways that roll, and mildly devilish par 3s, making for a course that plays tougher than its 107 slope. If Meadowbrook Golf, the company that took over management of the city courses last summer, will make a few improvements to the conditions, Byrne could be a delightful track.

"It's a shot-maker's course, and I think it has character," said pro Dan Hoban, who grew up on Henry Avenue and was the golf equivalent of a gym rat at Walnut Lane.

"It gives you different looks. It gives you some risk and reward shots, and on a few holes you run the risk of knocking in the water or out of bounds. There are four greens out there about the size of a Volkswagen. All the greens are challenging, which I think makes up for the lack of length."

All true.

Byrne's strongest feature is the wonderful kind of rolling ground that even today a fleet of earthmovers couldn't produce if you gave the developers a $5 million cost overrun. Add plenty of trees and a couple of decent creeks meandering through the property, and it's hard not to come up with a decent golf course.

I got no farther than the first tee before I realized Byrne was going to be better than I expected. Unlike Walnut Lane and Franklin D. Roosevelt, which start with straight, flat, boring holes, Byrne gets you thinking and sweating right out of the blocks. The first, a 340-yard par 4, plays from an elevated tee, over a creek and back up hill. The 10th is a very similar hole.

The weakest hole on the front is the third, a short, flat, ho-hum par 4, which I feared was a bad omen for what lay ahead. Not to worry. While there are no par 5s on the front nine to test your driver, your long irons and possibly your fairway woods will get a workout on the three par 3s, which measure 205, 176 and 190 yards. The ninth, the No. 2 handicap hole, is the beast of the front nine - 385 yards, elevated tee, uphill fairway onto a blind green that is protected by large bunkers that squeeze it from the left and right.

The back nine is where you'll find both of Byrne's par 5s: the 12th (522 yards) and the 16th (470). Neither is a particularly dramatic hole, but neither is easily reachable, either. The back nine, however, is also where the only bum hole on the course is to be found: the forgettable little flip-wedge 13th, which is more like something you'd find on a par-3 course.

While the 18th is a toned-down version of the ninth, the best hole on the back nine is the 17th, a 375-yard par-4 dogleg right with trees up the left side, out of bounds up the right, and a waste area short of the green.

If Byrne has problems, it's in the conditioning, not the layout. Like the other city courses, years of neglect have left Meadowbrook scrambling to improve life for city-course golfers. Hoban is encouraged.

"Budgets are increasing, things are getting mowed on time, and every week they want to know what piece of maintenance equipment is broken," he said of Meadowbrook.

As for other improvements, Hoban said Meadowbrook's first move was to fill the bunkers with sand - a good sign - and company officials have plans on the drawing board to build badly needed cart paths.