Walnut Lane Golf Club

Worn, city-owned jewel in much need of polishing

Pointing out the shortcomings of Walnut Lane Golf Club is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Aside from the fact that it's woefully short -- 4,509 yards from the back tees -- it's too often packed cheek to jowl with golfers. Then there's the conditioning, even at the height of spring -- no sense in beating a dead horse when it comes to the course's lack of care and feeding of the grass on the tees, fairways and greens; the weeds in the bunkers; or the trees badly in need of care.

Yet, in spite of it all, you would be hard-pressed to find a golf course in the area that has provided more enjoyable rounds of golf to more people than the city-owned Walnut Lane.

Inexpensive and conveniently located in Roxborough, Walnut Lane is a neighborhood course to thousands of golfers, a place for others to sneak in a quick round after work. For countless golfers, a round at Walnut Lane is their introduction to the game.

Best of all, even as short as it is, even in its sad state, there is no denying that Walnut Lane boasts more than a few fun and creative holes.

For now, the biggest hope for Walnut Lane is Meadowbrook Golf Group Inc., which last week took over management of the city's six municipal courses. If Meadowbrook lives up to its promises, Walnut Lane could be transformed into a small golfing oasis in the city. If Meadowbrook fails -- well, let's hope it doesn't.

"We've got plans and proposals for it," Joe Zaleski, vice president for Meadowbrook, said last week.

Chief among the plans is to improve the abysmal condition of the grass, from tee to green. That alone could vastly improve the environment at Walnut Lane. Meadowbrook will do what it can for now, Zaleski said, but the best time for major overseeding is in the fall.

For now, the company will get to work on what it can: repairing a leaky clubhouse roof, repairing a bridge on the course, clearing fallen trees, and installing benches around the course and signs on each hole. An overall cleanup is also in the works.

Other long-range improvements and enhancements will be hammered out in meetings with Fairmount Park officials.

"I think within 30 to 60 days, people will be able to see a difference," Zaleski said.

Once a semi-regular at Walnut Lane, I hadn't played there in more than a year until a week ago. Its condition contributed to driving me away, as did the challenge. At only 4,509 yards, it has no par 5s and 10 par 3s; the longest hole on the course is 370 yards.

But last week, with a chance for another evaluation, I came to understand the charm and appeal the course holds for so many regulars. True, better golfers can easily leave their drivers in the trunks of their cars, but the course is rich with tough par 3s and short but testy par 4s.

The first hole is about as ho-hum as golf gets: a short, straight, flat par 4. But the fourth and fifth holes -- 228 and 200 yards, respectively -- can hold their own with most any par 3s in the area. The fifth, with its elevated tee over a ravine into an elevated, bunkered green, is especially dicey. The eighth, a 360-yarder with major tree intrusion from the right, is a classy little par 4. The ninth, at 237 yards, is certainly no pushover par 3.

The real fun doesn't begin until the back nine, home to several short, tight, tree-lined dogleg par 4s that pitch and roll. Here, you have to work to make pars.

The best of the bunch is a toss-up. No. 11, a 336-yard par 4 over another ravine, requires an accurate drive to have any chance to go for the well-protected green. The 13th is the only truly lousy hole on a coarse, 140-yard par 3 that plays drastically uphill into a blind green. Bad idea for a golf hole.

All is quickly forgiven, however, at the 14th, a 337-yard par 4 that swings left and up a hill like a banked turn on the NASCAR circuit. Short but nice -- and difficult.

None of the par 3s on the back nine compares with the fourth and fifth holes, but other than No. 13, they are fun and fair.

Along with Nos. 8 and 14, the other serious candidate for best hole is the 17th, a 340-yard dogleg par 4 that begins from an elevated tee and swoops down and around to the right. It's a little short but still a terrific golf hole.

Walnut Lane is not a championship course by any means. But it can be a fun and challenging track, especially for mid-handicappers on up. No matter who you are, you had better be accurate off the tee and with your short irons.

Now, if they would only spruce it up so it can reach its potential.

Originally published April 25, 1999