Stonewall Golf Club
Many inspired by Stonewall's links
So this was what all the fuss was about.
Ever since they completed Stonewall, it was impossible not to hear the talk about the exclusive, members-only "modern-day classic" golf course in Bulltown, in the far reaches of Chester County.
"Best golf course in the Philadelphia area, and I've played 'em all," one club pro I respect told me.
"Pack extra balls," another accomplished player advised. "The rough and the fescue will kill you. In fact, the whole course can wear you down, especially on a windy day."
"Golf at its purest," said another.
About the only dissenting opinion -- if you can call it that -- came from someone whose abilities as a player are overshadowed by his zest and appreciation for golf-course architecture.
"Stonewall is good, quite good," he said, "but not as good as most of the members think."
In its November issue, Golf magazine named Stonewall as the 60th-best golf course in the United States. Last week, on a warm, sunny morning, it was time to find out for myself.
Even if you've never played the course, if you follow golf in this area, it's hard not to know the story behind Stonewall.
From its beginning five years ago, Stonewall was the brainchild of Jack May, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and avid golfer (with memberships at Pine Valley Golf Club and Waynesboro Country Club) who wanted to sate his golf addiction with yet another course.
What May had in mind, he said at the time, was "an excellent golf course where you can play anytime you want, where you can play fast, surrounded by lovely views, and where the members are people you want to play with."
Moreover, May wanted a golf purist's haven: it was to be strictly a golf club, not a country club with tennis courts and a swimming pool full of youngsters. In the age of the golf cart, Stonewall was to be a course for walking -- no cart paths, no carts.
I don't know enough of the members to speak to that issue, but in all other respects May, project manager Rand Middleton, and course architects Tom Doak and Gil Hanse certainly have accomplished their goals.
It is an excellent golf course -- difficult, demanding, in superb condition. Because of its five par-3 holes and only three par 5s, it is able to boast six par 4s that are near or more than 400 yards, making it play longer than its 6,646 yards. For my money, it also plays harder than its quite respectable 132 slope.
The 247 members and their guests can play almost anytime. A busy day at Stonewall is maybe 70 golfers -- the club hasn't yet hit 11,000 rounds this year, while most area clubs will see 20,000 to 25,000. As a result, a round is also fast, as long as you have no trouble dragging yourself up and down the considerable hills.
The views are impressive, beginning with the driveway approach to the old stone farm buildings that have been painstakingly transformed into the clubhouse, somehow maintaining the exterior while modernizing the interior. From the several fairway vistas around the course, Stonewall is just as impressive, unfurling like the rolling, pristine carpet of manicured grass that it is. Beyond lies the glory of rural Chester County.
Even after only a few years, much already has been written about Stonewall. Some of the toughest golf-course critics around have come away praising its "modern classicism" and "minimalist" approach.
In 1994, Ron Whitten of Golf World and Golf Digest, perhaps the dean of golf-course architecture writers, raved about Stonewall's purity -- citing the way Doak and Hanse used the natural lay of the land, without much bulldozing, to create natural, minimalist masterpieces.
But is it the 60th-best golf course in the United States?
In being named so, Stonewall joins an elite few and accomplishes an incredible feat.
Pine Valley in Clementon is Golf magazine's undisputed best course in America, and it is on Golf Digest's top-100 list. Merion's East course in Ardmore ranks seventh. The only other Pennsylvania course near the top is Oakmont in Pittsburgh, in ninth place. Laurel Valley in Ligonier is 94th, and the widely respected Saucon Valley Grace Course is 97th.
In claiming the No. 60 spot, Stonewall vaults past a host of respected and better-known courses: Troon (65), the touted Tom Weiskopf design in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Firestone (63), the famous Akron, Ohio, course; Castle Pines in Colorado; the Ocean course in Kiawah Island, S.C.; Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla.; and Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, site of Tiger Woods' third U.S. Amateur victory, to name a few.
Given the politics and egos at stake, such a dazzling debut is bound to arouse some jealousies in country-club grill rooms across the area.
It also might raise a few eyebrows, because the man who heads Golf's top-100 list and is an unsalaried contributing editor on architecture is Doak, Stonewall's designer.
In 1995, when another of his courses, High Pointe in his native Michigan, cracked Golf's top 100, Doak tendered his resignation. The magazine refused it, saying there was no conflict of interest.
Golf's list is compiled by experienced, well-traveled "raters." In order for a course to be considered for the list, a number of raters must play and evaluate it. Their ratings are fed into a computer, which impartially spits out the results.
Cynics, of course, will be doubtful. How could the stable of 50 or so raters not help but favor a Doak design? Just the force of his youthful, intellectual and outspoken presence could influence opinion. And if nothing else, Doak brought Stonewall to the attention of many people of influence in 1995 when the Renaissance Cup, an annual tournament he hosts, was played at the course.
Doak, at work on another project in California, couldn't be reached last week. But those who know him say he never shrinks from an issue. And, they add, as critical as he is of other architects' work, he is most critical of his own.
These issues will likely never be resolved. Stonewall's appearance on the list simply makes for bragging rights for members and grist for grumbling among those less impressed.
At Stonewall, head pro Ted McKenzie said Friday that club members are in some ways surprised by the impressive rating, but in other ways they expected it.
"We know it's a very good golf course and it has what they look for: shot values, it's challenging, and it's aesthetically pleasing.
"Is it in the top 100? There are so many good courses all over the place. Everywhere you go there are great courses. We know we have a great one."
It is a fine, fine golf course, especially if you enjoy links-style golf.
Most outstanding are the par 3s. There is no weak par 3. Even the shortest and seemingly tamest, the 131-yard 17th, is unforgiving of anything less than a well-struck shot. The other four are nothing short of terrific.
Chief among them is the exceedingly brutal 197-yard fifth, a dramatically downhill long iron that is all carry over wetlands into a green protected by woods and a creek on the right side. It is an intimidating, masterful hole.
The ninth also can be beastly, especially from the tips, 215 yards out. The tee shot is also almost all carry over a lake on the right side, into a green that slopes from right to left, toward the water. Even a good shot can be in peril.
Not even low handicappers will presume par at the 170-yard seventh, which demands precise target golf from an elevated tee to a smallish, elevated green guarded by ghastly bunkers on the front and left.
Indeed, there are, by any golfer's estimation, three, maybe four, excellent holes on the front nine. In addition to the par 3s, the 370-yard dogleg par-4 fourth is a treacherous hole. In addition to being the narrowest driving hole on the course, it slopes severely from left to right down to woods, then requires a testy short second shot over wetlands into a green framed by eight bunkers.
The 442-yard sixth also will give most golfers fits. The tee is elevated, playing down to a generous driving area. The problem is that a troublesome little creek slashes across the fairway at exactly the spot where a tee shot might land. Jay Sigel, a consultant on the design, persuaded Doak and Hanse to place the tee at exactly the spot where most golfers will be torn: Play short or try to fly the creek? Either way, you're looking at a long second shot to another testy green.
For most golfers, however, the monster of the front side may well be the 414-yard eighth. It is long, it is uphill, it is generally into the wind, and it's guarded by a pond on the left and wetlands on the right. The green is receptive, but there is sand awaiting the wayward second shot.
The back nine is a bit less interesting, noted more for its rolling fairways and lack of water.
The longest haul on the inward nine is its only par 5, the 585-yard 11th, a three-shotter for all but Tiger Woods. It is complicated by a sloping fairway and a huge tree on the right side that can stymie what you thought was a well-placed second shot.
The most visually appealing hole on the back is perhaps the 15th, a 184-yard par 3. The green, tucked tightly against woods on the right, also is squeezed on the right by bunkers. Anything too far right is gone, as is anything too long.
Doak's pride of the back side, however, is the 451-yard 18th, which he stacks against the two best finishing holes in the area, those at Merion and the Philadelphia Cricket Club.
The tee shot is uphill -- be careful to avoid an expanse of bunkers on the right side -- to a crest. Assuming you make the crest, which is assuming a lot, the second shot is downhill and long, to a green flanked by more bunkers along the right side. You can bail out to the left, but par will be tough.
When all is said and done, Stonewall has 12, perhaps 13, excellent golf holes. It has three or four very good or good holes. It has no bad holes.
And it is what it set out to be -- a wonderful golf course that is utterly pleasurable to play. Is it the 60th best course in the United States?
I say Golf magazine has been generous. I can't say exactly how generous. All I know is I've played some courses that are Stonewall's equal, or not far behind, and I don't see them anywhere on Golf's list of the top 100.
Originally posted Sunday, Oct. 12, 1997