If the economy of the '80s was disastrous for farmers, it was nothing short of fabulous for golfers - especially public-course golfers.
Area courses built in the past decade on what was once farmland include Royal Oaks in Lebanon, Wyncote in Oxford - both terrific courses - and the quite decent municipal track in Warminster, Five Ponds.
Now add to that daily-fee list Pickering Valley Golf Club near Phoenixville, which the six Thompson brothers have transformed over the last decade from a dairy farm to a no-frills, mid-level public track.
``We were in the same situation as other family farms, fighting to stay aboveboard,'' said Jerry Thompson, Pickering Valley's greens superintendent, who with his brothers grew up on the 200-acre spread.
``In the '80s, when the prime rate went to 22 percent, we didn't want to let the land go, so we turned it into a golf course,'' he said.
The Thompsons, who had dabbled at golf, didn't have a big developer's deep pockets to bring in a top-name designer, so brother John got the nod. (He has gone on to participate in designing several other area courses, including Moccasin Run, Fox Chase and Spring Hollow.)
These days, all the Thompson brothers - Jerry, Ben, John, Steve, Jim and Tom, ages 38 to 52 - live with their families on or adjacent to the property, and they work at Pickering Valley.
Tom, the oldest, runs the pro shop. The rest work ``outside,'' according to Jerry. ``It's a pretty enjoyable situation,'' he said.
Pickering Valley's front side - wide-open pasture that's hilly in places - opened in 1985. The back nine - also hilly, but tighter and more challenging, thanks to trees - opened the following year.
The course is delightful in places, confounding in others. Because the Thompsons didn't have millions for giant earth-movers, Pickering Valley pretty much adheres to the terrain as laid out by nature and interpreted by John Thompson.
The most boring hole on the course without question is No. 1, a wide-open, straight-away, uphill par 4 that measures 295 yards from the white tees. Trudging up that fairway is enough to make you wonder why you came in the first place.
But Pickering Valley quickly redeems itself. The second hole, a long par 3 from a wooded, elevated tee over a pond into a green set among trees, is perhaps the most picturesque hole on the course.
The next few holes are forgettable until you come to No. 8, a 465-yard, 90-degree dogleg left that confronts the golfer with a sloping fairway and two small ponds.
It also confronts the golfer with a small sign on the tee unlike any other I've seen in more than 35 years of golf. It says: ``No cutting corners: 2-stroke penalty.''
The reason, said Jerry Thompson, is that the dogleg on No. 8 is severe enough that some golfers try to cut the corner by hitting a blind tee shot over the crest on the left, chewing the hole in half. Because of the danger posed to the group in front, the Thompsons decided they had to do something.
``That's the luxury of local rules,'' he said. ``There's the danger of a ball hitting somebody on the head.''
For my money, the back side is better. The 10th is a fun little downhill par 3 over a pond. No. 12, at only 322 yards from the blue tees, is a short, downhill par 4, but the tree-lined fairway is tighter than a corridor. No. 13 is not a bad little dogleg-right par 4.
And then you come to the 14th, a 487-yard par 5, which struck me as a metaphor for all that is right - and wrong - with Pickering Valley.
You play two or three holes that are fun and challenging, and you start to think it's a fun course. Then suddenly you hit a hole like No. 14, where there's no green in sight, no clue where to aim a tee shot, and you're left shaking your head in dismay. It's a cycle that repeats itself several times over the course of a round at Pickering Valley.
For regulars, that's not a problem. But for first-time golfers, ouch.
Whether or not you become a regular at Pickering Valley, one thing is for sure: Somewhere out there, one of the six Thompson brothers is probably watching, so for goodness sakes be sure to fix that ball mark and replace that divot.
Originally published October 27, 1996