Originally published May 21, 2000
Golfers in Bethlehem probably won't appreciate my revealing their little secret, but they have one heck of a first-rate, dirt-cheap municipal course up there you ought to know about.
It's called Bethlehem Golf Club , and it's owned by the city, which means there's nothing fancy or pretentious about the pro shop or the clubhouse. We're talking "muni" facility here, but so what?
You won't care much as you play your way around a course that is long (7,017 yards), plenty tough (73.6 rating, 127 slope), affordable ($36 on weekends with cart for non-residents), well-maintained, and has a kind of large-scale sweep to the holes that you won't find on any of the city-owned municipal courses in and around Philadelphia.
Just how good Bethlehem Golf Club is came as a surprise to me. I had heard of it, even heard some talk that it was good, but it was hardly on my must-play list. But as I was headed up there last week, I happened to talk to a golf buddy who used to spend a lot of time in Bethlehem.
"Great course, man. You're going to love it," he said. "And nobody down here knows about it. " This from a single-digit handicapper, who these days plays the finest private courses around Philadelphia and is not given to fawning.
As I stood on tee after tee the other day, facing yet another par 4 of more than 400 yards (nine par 4s exceed 400 yards), I suddenly knew what he meant. The course boasts one solid hole after another and big, sweeping, rolling fairways that run toward well-bunkered, undulating greens that often slope away from you.
It has uphill holes, downhill holes, and holes with sloping fairways. It has short, lazy doglegs and long par 5s. It has a couple of par 3s that stack up against some of the best in the region. It's just a fun, playable course that tests most every aspect of your game.
The whole time I was playing, I was trying to think of how best to describe Bethlehem GC. I kept coming back to the term "poor man's major-championship course. "
I don't mean that as a slap at the course or at the people who play it. It's just that Bethlehem struck me as the kind of large-scale course demanded by a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship, minus all the trappings of wealth and privilege you find at a Congressional Country Club or a Pebble Beach.
Hole for hole, Bethlehem can hold its head high. It's not just me who thinks so. In the just-released edition of Golf Digest's Places to Play, Bethlehem GC got bumped up from 2 1/2 stars to 3 1/2. If you ask me, it's better than several of the courses in the area that rate four stars.
There's not a drop of water on the course, nor are there any long, forced carries that so intimidate high-handicappers. In fact, the fairways tend to be wide and accommodating. But if you play from either the back tees (7,017 yards) or the second tees (6,674), you had better be prepared to hit some quality, long iron shots into the greens.
That said, Bethlehem isn't overly penal. It's not one of those courses on which the slightly errant approach shot quickly spells doom and an 8 on your card. Indeed, it's straightforward and fair. Recovery shots are possible. Catastrophe is avoidable.
The course has been open since 1956. It was designed by father and son William and David Gordon, who also did Hawk Valley, Locust Valley and Saucon Valley's Grace course. Bethlehem has never hosted a big-deal tournament, although you will find that many local club pros respect the course. So do daily-fee golfers around town who swarm the 18-hole "Monocacy" course and the nine-hole sister track just across the street. (I didn't play the nine-hole course, but I have heard good things about it. )
If I have a reservation in recommending Bethlehem, it's that it's packed from cheek to jowl on weekends with locals who play for only $15. I played on an overcast Wednesday afternoon, when the course was nearly empty. Unless you have time to kill, the smart move might be to sneak up for a midweek round.
Joe Logan's e-mail address is email@example.com
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Bethlehem Golf Club is located at 400 Illicks Mill Rd., Bethlehem. From Philadelphia, take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Lehigh Valley exit (33). Follow Route 22 East to Route 512 South. Follow Route 512 South for 1.5 miles to Illicks Mill Road. Turn right on Illicks Mill Road. The phone number is 610-691-9393.
Greens fees: For non-residents of Bethlehem: weekends, $25 to walk, $36 with cart; weekdays, $18 to walk, $29 with cart. For residents: weekends, $15 to walk, $26 with cart; weekdays, $12 to walk, $23 with cart.
Carts: Walking permitted any time. Club rentals and pull carts are available.
Spikes: Nonmetal only.
Amenities: Well-stocked pro shop, driving range, three practice putting greens, casual restaurant and snack bar, small locker-room facility. Outings welcome.
Rating: First-rate municipal facility. Terrific course that is well-kept, long and demanding, without being too much for the high-handicapper. Unpretentious, low-key atmosphere. A must-play for anybody seeking to sample the region's quality daily-fee courses.