As much as I like Malvern-based golf course architect Gil Hanse and admire his work, the first time I played his debut course, Inniscrone Golf Club, I was biting my lip.
For a guy whose design philosophy is predicated on a sort of rustic, anti-modernist minimalism, Hanse had managed to infuse Inniscrone with some sporty, delicious and memorable holes. But, boy, were there ever two or three clunkers in there, too.
Of course, what did I care? Back then, in 1998, Inniscrone, in the wilds of Chester County, just up the road from Hartefeld National in Avondale, was quite private and merely one of a glut of new courses, private and public, that were springing up across the region. Hey, if the members liked it, that's all that mattered.
The problem for Inniscrone, it turned out, is that I apparently was not alone in my assessment.
Inniscrone never quite took off as a hot course, despite plenty of hype and exposure for hosting Jim Furyk's Exelon Invitational in 2000 and 2001. Was it the course, with the love it/hate it reputation it had among many golfers? Or was Inniscrone's problem the smallish clubhouse that had no locker rooms, no grill room for chilling out or, come to think of it, no clubbish "feel" to it?
Whatever, by late 2003, the Connecticut company that built Inniscrone had lost it to the banks. A few month later, with virtually all of Inniscrone's members gone, four local businessmen bought the club, promising to invigorate the club and the course.
Two years later, they, too, are history, and Inniscrone is again in the hands of a new owner, this time Forewinds Hospitality L.L.C., which took over Hartefeld National a year and a half ago.
Why should we care? Because Forewinds turned Innsicrone into an upscale daily fee course (6,657 yards; 72.7 course rating, 143 slope).
That explains why, this past Thursday, when any sane person was huddled in front of an air-conditioner or floating in a pool, I was baking under the midday sun, giving Inniscrone another look.
Eighteen holes later, I still had issues with three holes: the fifth, a short, downhill par 3; the 10th, a shortish, downhill dogleg over an environmentally protected area; and the 16th, a par 4 with a split fairway that is truly unique or bizarre, depending on your perspective.
More on those later. First, the good stuff.
Like so many courses in the region, Inniscrone sprawls across (287) acres of rolling hills chock full of woods, wild grasses, the occasional creek and protected wetlands.
After a soft, lazy opening hole to ease you into the round, Hanse (Applebrook, Boston Golf Club, Rustic Canyon, Craighead) grabs your attention with back-to-back short par 4s that are a testament to his skill, even early in his career.
No. 2, at 359 yards, is a blind tee shot over a crest that quickly falls down to a dicey little green; fun hole, especially if the pin is tucked near the left greenside bunker. No. 3, only 317 yards, is eye candy from the elevated tee, playing down to a little right-to-left fairway, then to a well-guarded green.
By the time you make it through the No. 1 handicap fourth, a 435-yard tree-lined chute that is asking for trouble, your expectations are rising by the minute.
That's when you come to No. 5. A short (115-yard) straight-drop par 3, the fifth isn't so much a high crime or architectural misdemeanor, it's just an uninspired, forgettable hole that interrupts the hastening pace of the course. (Hanse wanted a longer hole but ran against an environmentally protected area).
As long as I'm complaining, my bigger beef is with the 10th, a quirky, downhill par 4 that requires a blind tee shot that must settle on a needlessly bumpy landing area just short of the quagmire. As golf holes go, this is the pits.
If you can put the 10th behind you, however, the rest of Inniscrone's back nine is chock full of good stuff, many accented by Hanse's trademark bunkers: deep, yawning nightmares, all craggy and jagged, that look as if they're straight from the Old Country.
If anything, Inniscrone gets tougher and more interesting as it goes. There are no boring holes, certainly not the 16th.
That's the uphill par 4 with the high-low split fairway and a green that's tucked pretty much out of sight.
After I played the 16th via the upper fairway, I concluded that I had played it the dumb way, so I drove back to the tee and played it again, this time down the lower fairway. I still can't decide if the 16th is a stroke of genius or madness.
But this much I do know: I'm a bigger fan of the course now than I was before Thursday. I've got my quibbles, but I'd go back again, and maybe again, until I get it right.