Galen Hall Country Club

Old master Tillinghast's partial stamp is on Berks Co. course

Orginally published June 16, 2002

With the U.S. Open going on up north at the Bethpage Black course, one of the most celebrated designs of A.W. Tillinghast, it seemed a good time to check another example of the old master's handiwork, Galen Hall Country Club in Berks County.

If you have heard of Galen Hall , it may well be because of the Tillinghast connection. Around these parts, the Philadelphia native's legacy lives on, thanks to such respected courses as Philadelphia Cricket, Winged Foot and Baltusrol, among others.

Although Bethpage Black has long been attributed to Tillinghast, last month's Golf Digest questioned his involvement in the course, positing that new evidence suggests that "Tillie" was actually more of a consultant, not the man with the design plan.

At a glance
Getting there: Galen Hall Country Club is on Galen Hall Road, Wernersville, Berks County. Phone: 610-678-9535.

Directions: From the Turnpike, take Exit 21, then turn right onto Route 272 north. At the first light, turn left at Route 897 north. Go two miles, then turn right at the stop sign at Fritztown Road. Go about a mile. After the railroad tracks, take the second left, Vinemont Road. Follow to the stop sign at Galen Hall Road. The course is on the left.

Green fees: Weekends and holidays, $38 with cart, $25 to walk; weekdays, $28 with cart, $20 to walk. Twilight and senior rates available.

Carts: Mandatory weekends and holidays, from May to September before 2 p.m.

Amenities: Moderately stocked pro shop, driving range, putting green, casual but comfortable clubhouse and restaurant, halfway house; outings welcome.

Rating: Course designer A.W. Tillinghast had a hand in this partly classic, partly confused layout. Short but sweet in places, sour in others. A must-play for fans of classic architecture.

Accurate as of June 2002.

At Galen Hall, like Bethpage, Tillinghast's contribution is inarguable, if also somewhat unclear after more than 50 years and a major renovation since his last visit.

"He basically did nine holes," said pro Eric Tripp, who has been at Galen Hall for three years and is still learning about its rich history.

When it opened in 1910, in the scenic foothills around South Mountain, Galen Hall was a posh resort and playground for the monied. In the days before air conditioning, wealthy Philadelphians would summer there; stars such as Fred Astaire reportedly made occasional visits. One of the attractions of Galen Hall was a nine-hole course designed by the respected Alex Findlay, a Scotsman who immigrated to Philadelphia. (Galen Hall's era as a resort ended when the hotel burned in the early '60s).

In 1917, as his reputation was growing, Tillinghast was brought in to add a second nine. He did, including what might be the original island hole in the United States: the par-3 15th, known locally as the "moat" hole.

Moat does seem apt, given that the 15th's green doesn't jut out into a lake, like the famous 17th at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, but rather sits like a grassy, sloped castle, encircled by a 10-foot-wide creek, which must be traversed by one of three wooden footbridges.

From the back tee (193 yards), the moat hole can be intimidating and unforgiving, which is why some regulars have been known to lay up short of the creek and play the 15th as a short par 4.

The 15th is Tillinghast's most lasting and distinctive contribution to Galen Hall .

"Mostly, what Tillinghast did was build the loop," said Tripp, referring to a string of holes that were out beyond the original nine and now compose most of the meat of the reconfigured back nine.

The problem for any devoted Tillinghast fan looking for the master's imprint at Galen Hall is that at least portions of his work were stretched, tweaked, and otherwise revised during the mid-'50s, when William and David Gordon, a noted father-and-son team of architects (Saucon Valley, Sunnybrook), were brought in to lengthen the course to its current 6,271 yards, increase par from 68 to 72, and somehow make it all fit together.

The result, even a half-century later, is a golf course that has the look and feel of a timeless classic for a hole or two, then takes on an awkward, forced or bland feel the next.

Case in point: No. 2, a 475-yard par 5, is one of the most dubious golf holes you'll find. It begins with a blind tee shot over a crest, then tumbles downward harder than a bunny slope (careful not to bounce one off the road dissecting the fairway), then it suddenly swerves left at almost 90 degrees for no good reason, before playing into a green of utterly no distinction.

"Worst hole in Berks County," Tripp conceded.

And yet, that worrisome mess is followed by a nice short par 4 and a terrific white-knuckle par 3 into a tricky green fairly choked by a menacing creek across the front. It gets better, it gets worse again, and it gets better still toward the end.

If all this intrigues you rather than scares you, you might appreciate Galen Hall .

Contact Joe Logan at 215-854-5604 or