Byron Nelson won the U.S. Open only once, in 1939 at Philadelphia Country Club’s Spring Mill Course. For every golfer who can recite that bit of golf history, a dozen more will say, “That’s the year Sam Snead blew it with an 8 on the last hole.”
Indeed, Snead had needed only a par to win, but he hooked his drive into the rough on the 555-yard finisher, then gambled with a 2-wood and thinned his second shot into a cross bunker. Failing to escape on his first try, he gouged his fourth shot into another bunker, finally gained the green in five and completed the disaster by three-putting for triple bogey.
It was the Slammer’s most famous flops at the Open, in which he went 0 for 31 attempts, including four runner-up finishes from 1937–53. But Spring Mill’s renown comes not only from Snead’s ill-fated finish, but also a rich tapestry of history, personalities and events that surrounds this wonderful parkland design by William S. Flynn.
The story begins in 1890, when Philadelphia Country Club was founded. The game made its debut a year later when a short three-hole course was laid out on the club’s lawn. Next came a regular nine-holer in 1893, and suddenly golf had captured the city’s fancy.
In 1925, with what was by then a severely overcrowded 18-hole layout, the club bought 210 acres six miles away in Gladwyne and hired Flynn to design its new 18. Spring Mill is a classic product of the Golden Age of golf design. The routing is masterly, employing to full advantage the features and contours of the land as the designer found it. Each hole has a thoroughly distinctive character, yet the course is clearly of a piece, and one is delighted to be abroad on it.
Sand provides par’s chief defense on the 6,980-yard layout. On nine of the 14 driving holes, bunkers right and left frame the landing area, though we certainly don’t feel straitjacketed on the tee shots, thanks to generous fairways. Approach shots, however, are another matter: Sand is flashed high up the faces of greenside bunkers—all the better to stare us down—and the pits practically eat into the putting surfaces. Plus, the hazards are often deep: We are literally in over our heads in no fewer than nine of these greenside monsters.
If none of the 18 holes is less than worthy, it is the par 3s that are particularly fine. The 5th, 167 yards and falling 40 feet from tee to green, is thrilling. There’s a pond fronting the green, a stream along the right side, sand at the left—all dangerously heightened by a giant beech tree that crowds in from the left, its overhanging branches hindering access to some 30 percent of the putting surface, forcing the shot right, where a steep falloff plunges toward the stream.
The uphill 15th measures 225 yards but plays very like 250. The hole is semi-blind—we can see the flagstick but not the green itself—and bunkered left and right. The first time Arnold Palmer played the course, he spotted the flag waving atop the distant rise and, according to club lore, said, “What the devil kind of a par 4 is this anyway?” His host replied, “The kind that’s a par 3.”
Snead’s collapse did not gift-wrap the ’39 Open for Nelson, who still faced an 18-hole playoff with Craig Wood and Denny Shute. Nelson and Wood shot 68s to Shute’s 76, so the following day it was Nelson versus Wood in another 18-hole playoff. The turning point came on what is now the 17th hole, but was then the 4th. Following a good drive, Nelson struck a perfect 1-iron from 215 yards. As he later described, “Sure enough, the ball went straight up to the green and straight into the hole like a rat.” This eagle remains almost certainly the single greatest full-blooded shot in U.S. Open history.