Lancaster Country Club
Green Keeper: Todd Bidlespacher
Please note: Lancaster Country Club owns 430 acres upon which are found the Old Course, the Highlands Nine, The Sunset Six course, tennis, pool facilities and a fair amount of unused land. This profile is strictly contained to the Old Course.
What differentiates one inland course from another? Clearly, the answer is twofold. First, there is the property and its defining characteristics such as soil, topography, and natural hazards. Second, there is the golf course architect’s work layered upon the naked property. How did he elect to incorporate the various landforms and natural hazards into the holes themselves? How do the holes connect and what variety of challenges is asked of the golfer?
Thus, all courses are not created equal. Courses built on land blessed with an abundance of natural features have – literally – a natural advantage over courses built on less feature rich properties. In addition, certain architects are more skilled in how they interact with nature than others.
One of the best marriages of a property with a master golf course architect occurred in the rolling hills outside of Lancaster in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside in 1919. Indeed, this was a long term marriage as architect William Flynn returned annually to the course until his death in 1945. Over this sustained period, the club led by Green Committee Chairman Roy Eshelman and William Flynn worked closely together to pull and tease the best aspects out of the property. However, understanding the progression of the course’s design is not but so easy. As Wayne Morrison, the leading authority on William Flynn, says, ‘Lancaster is far and away the most complicated architectural evolution of all of William Flynn‘s courses. Routing progressions changed and hole designs changed, some as many as seven times. Furthermore, some holes were abandoned while still others were incorporated on different parts of the club’s vast property.’
Initially, a golf professional laid out nine holes on the clubhouse side of the Conestoga River in 1913. According to Jim Finegan, the golf pro was John Reid, who is also credited as the initial designer of Huntingdon Valley, Atlantic City, Riverton and Philmont South. After the horrors of World War I concluded, the club desired to improve the nine and expand it to eighteen holes. William Flynn, who had gained famed as the Green Keeper of the West and then the East Course at Merion Golf Club, had started devoting his energies to a career as golf course architect. He was brought in but times were tough and the relationship didn’t start out smoothly. In fact, as found in the well done club history book by John B. Eshelman (Roy’s nephew) and William Mehler, Roy Eshelman once noted, ‘Unfortunately, William Flynn didn’t have the best opportunity to show his skill in building the new nine holes. We didn’t have the money to carry out his plans as laid out and furthermore, we didn’t have too much confidence in a golf architect. We took the attitude that a farmer would take toward a city boy telling him how to farm. We did pay a price later as we learned more about what constituted a good golf course.’
From this inauspicious start, Lancaster evolved into one of William Flynn‘s most heralded designs. Unlike his other high quality designs in the greater Philadelphia area, this one enjoyed national exposure in Golf Digest’s golf course rankings for two plus decades. In addition, Tom Doak shined the spotlight upon Lancaster by including it in his Gourmet’s Choice of thirty-one courses when he published his leather bound book critiquing golf courses around the world in 1994. When asked by Jim Nagle why he included it, Doak responded along the lines that the course possesses all the design features that made William Flynn such a great architect.
One such feature that the course embodies that William Flynn would later espouse is the concept of limited run with one’s tee ball. Though a staunch supporter of firm and fast conditions around the greens, William Flynn increasingly throughout his career became concerned that technology was making courses play too short. For instance, he threw out for discussion the notion of watering landing areas off the tee just enough so that the tee ball a) wouldn’t pick up dirt but b) not bound too far forward. He wanted golfers to have plenty of long approach shots as a way of testing their full repertoire.
As this relates to Lancaster, nearly half of Lancaster‘s fourteen tee shots hit into upslopes that range from slight (e.g. the ninth and sixteenth fairways) to abrupt (e.g. the third and eighteenth fairways). Other times, he used side slopes (e.g. the second and fifteenth) in the fairway to send uncontrolled tee balls into less than desirable places. According to Morrison, ‘On championship designs in particular, William Flynn required specific shot tests. He wasn’t concerned with optional ways to play a hole but rather he wanted to reveal the best strategist (mental) and the best executor of the strategy (physical). Essentially, he wanted to pose the complete test. With canted fairways, William Flynn asked the golfer to shape shots to hold the fairway and gain the correct approach angle. With reverse doglegs, he asked the golfer to realize that the long way home may be best.’
Ironically, today’s highly regarded course didn’t even begin to take its final shape until nearly twenty years into its history. In 1938, Eshelman purchased farm land on the east side of the Conestoga River and offered to sell to Lancaster a portion of it for the sake of building golf holes. The club opted to buy nearly twenty-two acres at a cost of $4,360 (!) and Eshelman worked with William Flynn in developing what are today’s third, fourth, fifth and sixth holes on the ‘other side’ of the Conestoga.
Confusion has existed for years as to who deserves architectural credit for these four holes. As they are so memorable and as they lend Lancaster much of its unique character, it is not for nothing that it matters who designed them. Credit has gone to William Gordon, who started off as William Flynn‘s assistant and by then was a partner in the firm. For certain, Gordon oversaw their construction. However, to be sure, William Flynn designed these holes as a drawing of the third hole by William Flynn himself was recently uncovered. Though his drawings of the other three holes don’t exist, as the third leads the golfer to nowhere without the other three, it is nonsensical to think that he designed that single hole and not the others. Morrison points out conclusively that ‘throughout William Flynn‘s career, he was the only designer for the firm. Gordon, Lawrence and Wilson worked for the contracting engineers firm, Toomey and William Flynn. All design work was done by William Flynn.’
Though the four holes opened in 1941, play was intermittent as Pearl Harbor shifted attention elsewhere. With his death in 1945, William Flynn never fully saw how the membership appreciated the addition of these four holes. Perhaps not surprisingly, Eshelman retired as Green Chairman the next year after William Flynn‘s death.
Morrison makes the point that, ‘During his design career, William Flynn participated in far fewer designs than many of his contemporaries. While this may have diminished his national recognition, it did allow for much greater personal attention on this and other courses over an extended period of time. It is no surprise that several of the finest courses we associate with William Flynn such as Merion, Cascades, and Philadelphia Country Club are ones where he had lasting consulting relations. At Merion and Lancaster, William Flynn worked more than twenty-five years at each, improving and perfecting each course.’
Still, time marches on and every golf course is a living breathing thing. Trees grow and multiply, fairway lines shift to accommodate unchecked tree growth, bunkers become tired, and frequently some of the more interesting hole locations are lost as putting surfaces shrink in from the corners and sides. To turn back the effects of time, Lancaster reached out in 2005 to Ron Forse Design. In particular, there was the express need to rebuild the twelfth and thirteenth greens and bunkers as well as the bunkers around the seventeenth. So compelling was the work carried out by Ron Forse and his assistant Jim Nagle that the club had them rebuild every bunker on the course over the next two years. Long time fans of the course, Ron Forse and Nagle became more and more intrigued by William Flynns design as their involvement with the club stretched from weeks into months and then into years.
In particular, Ron Forse and Nagle appreciate both that Lancaster evolved as William Flynn evolved as an architect and that Lancaster evolved based on changes to the game itself. As the country’s economy improved after World War I, so too did the fortunes of the club and more and more of William Flynn‘s bunkering schemes were added throughout the 1920s. Conversely, remarkable improvements continued to be made with the rubber core ball and indeed, William Flynn began writing about the need for slowing down the unchecked improvements in technology. Otherwise, he thought 8,000 yard course would become the norm (imagine writing – and reading that – in 1927 which was still during the age of hickory golf clubs!). Starting several years later, steel shafts gained favor over hickory and the modern game of today took root. Throughout these changes in equipment as well as those in agronomy, William Flynn was here at Lancaster helping to shepherd the club from one era into the next. The result is a set of holes that are just as engaging to play today as when William Flynn first roamed the property.
Holes to Note
First hole, 435 yards; Similar to numerous Golden Age designs, the clubhouse occupies the high ground of the club’s property with the first hole falling downhill away from it and the Home playing uphill toward it. This is the first of only four times whereby the approach is played from above the level of the putting surface. Conversely, the golfer faces uphill approach shots on ten occasions. Thanks to the club’s intelligent tree removal program over the past several years, William Flynn‘s design features dominate the eye, in particular the large scale of his bunkers. On a property full of broad slopes, small bunkers would quickly look cluttered and forced by man upon the land. The scale William Flynn selected compliment rather than compete with the landscape and lend the holes strategic appeal.
Second hole, 375 yards; Lancaster is a fascinating course for William Flynn students to study as there is so much of him throughout the design. After all, he worked here for twenty-six years, so there ought to be! Having said that, there are three notable exceptions to this being a pure William Flynn design and the first occurs here at the second where then Green Chairman H.H. Haverstick (a superb amateur golfer) moved William Flynn‘s green location some forty yards to the left. In William Flynn‘s day, the second played as a straightaway par four. In 1966, the club displayed good sense in pursuing Haverstick’s idea of shifting the green away from a cluster of mature trees to the more open site high along the river bank. In doing so, the hole now doglegs left around a deep hollow with its green location taking maximum advantage of this dramatic spot on the property. Also, the green has ever since enjoyed better sunlight and circulation (and therefore better turf) than in William Flynn‘s location. Today, though long views are afforded from the green over the course and out to the countryside, such views would be all the more breathtaking if the club removed more of the oak and scrub trees along the river bank. A clean backdrop to this horizon green would surely help make this one of the more spectacular spots in the golf rich state of Pennsylvania.
Third hole, 400 yards; Some of Ron Forse Design’s very best work occurred here, making this perhaps the hole that has most improved in the past five years. Jim Nagle describes its transformation as such, ‘The 3rd hole was long known as a medium length par 4 with a very narrow tree lined fairway. As a hole, there was little interest as you just hit your drive and hoped it a) landed in the fairway and b) was far enough to get to the upper slope. In July of 2005, Rick Gibson, the club’s golf professional, brought forth a small treasure – a late 1930’s plan from William Flynn for this very hole! The bunkering plan was never implemented but it revealed the intended strategies designed by William Flynn which included three bunkers in a diagonal echelon along the right that were nestled into a natural upslope. Two bunkers were intended to the left parallel to the line-of-play eliminating a bail-out area and providing ball containment. Our plan carried out the three bunkers right and one bunker left and numerous trees were removed. We opted to not place two bunkers left as there is plenty of challenge for shorter hitting members. Those not able to reach the upper level of the fairway have a daunting uphill shot to a green surrounded by large deep bunkers. It was a good thing the 2nd bunker was not added to the left because the amount of rock encountered in constructing the one left bunker was excessive. The fairway had to be greatly expanded to the right creating a reward landing area for those negotiating the right bunkers. The tree removals, bunker additions and a new tee have taken a hole described as “not interesting” to one involving risk, strategy and great interest. One can challenge the right side bunkers and be rewarded with a shorter slightly elevated (allowing greater visibility of the green) approach shot. Golfers playing away from the right side must think about the one bunker but also do not see as much of the green as those to the right. The greenside bunkers had been masterfully restored by Gil Hanse in the late 90’s leaving very little work to be done.’
Fourth hole, 315/395 yards; For decades, this hole has been viewed as one of the great short par fours in the game. Though a new tee added in 2000 pushes it to nearly 400 yards, this sadly is what is required to make the fourth play as a three wood/pitch hole as it did in William Flynn‘s day of hickory golf clubs. Like he did at the sixth hole at the Cascades at the Homestead in the Virginia mountains, William Flynn routed the fairway to the left of the water hazard (a tributary of the Conestoga called Stauffer’s Run) and placed the green on its other (i.e. right) side. His real genius at both holes occurs at the greens which are both long but narrow. The advantage is squarely gained by the golfer who hugs the water hazard, thus enjoying an easier pitch down the length of the green. As you play cautiously away from the hazard, the approach shot becomes both longer and from a progressively worse angle.
Fifth hole, 390 yards; Golf design at the highest level makes golfers think. If everything is laid out cleanly, then the golfer merely has to execute shots as if on a driving range. Standing on the tee, the golfer is aware that the green is left past a ridge and the inclination is to be lured into taking a short cut in that general direction. Once past the ridge, the land does nothing but fall away toward the tree lined creek. Position ‘a’ off the tee is actually on the outside of this dogleg left. Also, it is worth noting that this is the one time on the course where William Flynn routed a par four or par five from high ground to high ground from the tee. Though this is a typical practice of many Golden Age architects, the golfer finds out in full force on the back nine that William Flynn had no compunction in placing his fairways well lower off the tee, leaving taxing uphill approach shots.
Sixth hole, 180 yards; The principle is simple yet effective: give the golfer one main hazard with which to contend and then provide him plenty of room on the opposite side so he can steer clear of it. Here the ten foot wide tributary snakes its way between the tee and the green before hugging the green’s left side. At some point in the golfer’s downswing (or is it backswing?), he makes the determination not to go left and consequently, some gosh awful swings send tee balls well right of the green. At one point, a bunker was mistakenly added after William Flynn‘s death front right but that only served to help the golfer focus on hitting the green. Once again, it is just grass and golfers are quick to seek this area as their bail-out. From there, an up and down is unlikely as William Flynn, of course, made sure that the green slopes from right to left toward the creek. Congratulations are due to William Flynn for devising a modest length downhiller that is simple in appearance yet that elicits more fours than it should.
Seventh hole, 530 yards; A tale of two tees, with one set providing a classic diagonal carry across the Conestoga River while the other plays from up high on the river bank on the other side of the river. Though distinctly different, both tees are compelling and offer their own sense of drama. Further ahead, a water hazard defends this reachable par five green. Though notable examples of William Flynn using a water hazard greenside at a par five include the penultimate holes at Cherry Hills and the Cascades, he did not build this one. An aerial from 1947 (i.e. two years after his death) shows William Flynn’s green to be at and slightly right of where the pond now is. When exactly the club added the water feature and moved the green is unclear but it is likely tied to the addition of the pump house near the area that William Flynn‘s green once occupied.