Appeared in March 1999 LINKS
Aronimink Golf Club’s first club champion, in 1897, was 18-year-old Princeton freshman Hugh Wilson, who, 15 years later, would design the fabled East course at Merion. Aronimink’s first professional was John Shippen, a 19-year-old African-American who was arguably the first American-born golf professional and inarguably the first minority to compete in a USGA championship, the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
Aronimink is wonderfully representative of the outstanding parkland courses laid out in the 1920s by Donald Ross and his peers, among them A.W. Tillinghast, Alister MacKenzie and William Flynn. Like the best work of these gifted designers, Aronimink is characterized by naturalness, aesthetic beauty, superlative shot values and formidable challenge. There is a spaciousness, indeed, a nobility, to Ross’ routing, which took full advantage of the land’s natural features and is still nicely intact today.
The ups and downs are never abrupt, except for the plunge from the 1st tee to the valley floor. It is not studded with “death or glory” shots. There is only one water hole and little or nothing in the way of forced carries. Doglegs are graceful, unforced. The overall design is one of restraint and honesty—no tricks, no excesses. Yet even the world-class player can find himself losing a war of attrition to a frustrating procession of bogeys.
On a golf course with many excellent holes, it is not easy to select the best. One thinks of the 8th, a splendid 237-yarder that plays from exhilaratingly high down to a broad green guarded by bunkers right and left, but with a generous opening across the front. A pretty little pond, some 75 yards short of the putting surface, is merely decorative. The full-blooded shot required here manages to be both exacting and inviting, an uncommon pairing.
Of all the strong par 4s, the 454-yard 10th takes the palm. Played from an elevated tee, the hole has a bit of a roller coaster feel to it. We want to put our drive in the sand-framed landing area at the top of the first “up,” then our long second shot on the steeply terraced green at the end of the gentle second rise, for three-putting is a clear and present danger.
It almost goes without saying that by the time Aronimink hosted the 1962 PGA, the course was no longer pure Ross. In truth, it would not be easy to find a championship Ross course that has never been altered. It was Tillinghast who, in the late 1930s, was the first to lay a revisionist’s hand on Aronimink. In 1961 Dick Wilson was called in to toughen the course. In addition to lengthening many holes, he also flashed the sand up a number of bunker faces. (Ross confined his sand to the bottom of the pit.)
The club was selected to hold the 1993 PGA Championship; yhe 1993 PGA was not played at Aronimink. While agreeing with the PGA of America’s new requirement that the host club have minorities represented on its membership roster, Aronimink decided not to alter its approval process by arbitrarily moving an African-American candidate to the top of the waiting list. Instead, the club chose to step aside as host of the championship, with the understanding that it could be reconsidered at a later time.
Since then, many members have wanted to recapture the quintessential Ross features that had been lost over the years. Ron Prichard, a Philadelphia-based golf course architect who has become a prominent expositor of Ross’ philosophy, was called in to substantially reduce the number of trees the club had planted, restore the putting areas to their initial shape and size (Ross’ original greens were invariably larger and more complex), and recapture the Ross bunkering.
At least where Aronimink is concerned, Donald Ross can stop spinning in his grave. This is one classic course that has returned to its roots.
Year founded: 1896
Architect: Donald Ross
Newtown Square, Pennsylvania
By: James W. Finegan