Northampton Valley Country Club

This semi-private course is a secret worth telling

Sometimes you find intriguing golf courses in places you never expected. That's the case with Northampton Valley Country Club.

A semiprivate track, Northampton is no secret to golfers in and around the Bucks County town of Richboro -- at least, not judging from the crowd one afternoon last week. But its reputation doesn't seem to extend down to Philadelphia.

That's a little surprising. Although it's a bit on the short side (6,045 from the white tees), Northampton is just the kind of pleasant, medium-difficulty layout with a decent mix of holes, big and friendly greens, and well-mowed fairways that ought to make it attractive to many mid-handicap golfers.

There's quite a bit to like about Northampton. Maybe it was the children laughing and splashing in the pool near the clubhouse, or the youngsters and women out in force on the course, but the place has a wholesome, family feel to it.

"We have people who play here and then go elsewhere, but they always come back here and say they like it a lot," owner Philip Sklar said.

As for the course -- tree-lined, heavily bunkered, with five water holes and huge greens -- it's not a stern test for better golfers, but it can be a handful for mid- and high-handicappers.

From the blue tees, Northampton plays 6,302 yards to a 123 slope, right at the national average for length, but a bit above average in difficulty. Golf Digest's 4,200 Best Places to Play gives it 2_1/2 stars, the knock on the course in player comments being "flat, not very inventive" and "lots of similar holes."

That evaluation may be a little outdated. True, the course, especially on the front side, does suffer a bit from too many short, straight par 4s.

"I wish it were a trifle longer, but for the average golfer, it's enough," Sklar said.

Sklar and his son, Gary, who now runs Northampton, have made and are continuing to make the kind of improvements that could qualify Northampton for three stars.

The most recent improvement was this year's decision to turn the ninth from a very short, forgettable par 4 into the course's signature hole.

To accomplish that feat, the Sklars built a gigantic, tiered green 207 yards out from the blue tees and significantly enlarged a pond that gives a golfer fits. (The pond also extends over to the eighth hole, squeezing the fairway to about 15 yards in the driving area.)

Over the last five or six years, the Sklars have added about 20 bunkers and moved several tees back. More recently, they added a sizable fairway mound on the short par-4 11th, complicating that tee shot.

In the future, the Sklars plan to move the tees back about 30 yards on the short par-4 third and the par-5 fifth, and add a pond and mounds around the green at the short par-4 fourth. "We try to do something every year to improve the course," the elder Sklar said.

Even without the improvements, Northampton already has some fine holes. Regulars enjoy the 545-yard fifth, a dogleg up a mild crest, then downhill over a creek. Because it's so well bunkered, even big hitters will have a hard time reaching the green in 2.

On the backside, the narrow, tree-lined par-5 16th can be a nightmare if you're not straight off the tee. And the 18th, despite being only 315 yards from the back tees, is a tricky, cuttable dogleg over a small pond.

Though it wasn't what it is today, Northampton has been around since 1964, when Sklar, then a young stockbroker, took a leave of absence from his firm and convinced several friends to invest in building a course. The late Ed Ault, the very prolific Washington-area architect, handled the design.

"I got into it on a lark, and it has turned out to be the love of my life," said Sklar, who eventually quit the brokerage business.

Orginally published August 17, 1997