The 1776ers: Philadelphia golf

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The PGA Championship will head to Philadelphia in 2026 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We visited the City of Brotherly Love

Independence Hall cuts an understated yet stately figure in Philadelphia’s “Old City”, just across Chestnut Street from where its retired Liberty Bell is set in grand repose, six blocks west from the Delaware River. Modern, sky-scraping America surrounds the Old City today, but back in the 18th century Independence Hall—or the Pennsylvania State House as it was then called—emanated regal grandeur, hope and authority from the heart of this City of Brotherly Love. More than that, built between 1732 and ’51, at the time it was the most ambitious construction project ever undertaken across the 13 American colonies.

The Liberty Bell

Of course it is what happened inside Independence Hall that was of towering significance, led by the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, to mark the birth of this country. A year before, in 1775, George Washington was there appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, in 1777 the design of the American flag was agreed and it is where the U.S. Constitution was drafted and signed in 1787. Not even Phillies legend Mike Schmidt could beat that for a grand slam.

And so it made perfect sense last December when the PGA of America adjusted its forward schedule to bring the PGA Championship at nearby Aronimink Golf Club—slated for 2027 originally—ahead to 2026, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 [painting by John Trumbull]

Nestled deep in the tranquil, wooded Montgomery County suburbs yet less than 20 miles west from the Old City, Aronimink is the ideal destination for such a milestone celebration and the club had preferred 2026 from the start. Aronimink is among the truly great old golf courses of America’s northeast and a Donald Ross design, which also benefitted from a careful restoration by Gil Hanse.

Aronimink is a proven venue for golf’s biggest championships. It was here in 1962 when Gary Player won the PGA Championship to complete his career Grand Slam (which was historic but still not a scratch on Ben Franklin & Co.) and most recently it staged the 2018 BMW Championship last September. This was the penultimate tournament of the PGA Tour’s FedExCup Playoffs, when American Keegan Bradley picked up the theme to repel the British old guard—in this dramatization played by Justin Rose—in a sudden-death playoff. It was the first win on the PGA Tour in six years for Bradley and as a major champ at the 2011 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, he will have run his highlighter through May 2026 on his calendar already.

Independence Hall

“Aronimink has got an incredible history and we were thrilled to see it was on the schedule,” said Vermont native Bradley, 32, after his emotional return to the top step of the podium. “Everybody loved it. It’s a great golf course, good old-school course. I didn’t hear one negative thing about it [from players this week] and it was just a joy to play. The fans were great. It was a really, really fun week.”

Three kings of Valley Forge

Aronimink may still have seven years until the PGA Championship rolls through its gates but it will become a major venue again much sooner, when the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship arrives at the Newton Square club.

“The PGA Championship and the KPMG Women’s PGA going there too, this is big news. It’s fantastic,” says Ed Harris, Chief Marketing Officer for the local Valley Forge Tourism department. “These will be great opportunities to showcase the beauty of Aronimink and these tournaments deliver a positive economic impact to the whole region. Events like these attract visitors to stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, visit some of our historic attractions and hopefully play some golf at one of our 53 golf courses. We have lots of great golfing options.”

The three kings of golf in the Valley Forge area, covering Philadelphia’s western suburbs, are Aronimink, Merion and Philadelphia Cricket Club; all famous private clubs with long histories and majors heritage.

The 7th hole at Philadelphia Cricket Club

Merion Golf Club is less than eight miles from Aronimink, heading back towards Philly and past Villanova University, near the town of Ardmore. The East Course here was designed by Hugh Wilson and opened in 1912 and despite Wilson’s lack of design experience—he was an insurance broker by trade—he crafted what probably remains the world’s finest golf course of limited dimensions, as it occupies a 125-acre plot of what had been farmland.

The East Course has staged the U.S. Open five times. It was here where Bobby Jones completed the 1930 Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Amateur title and 41 years later, on winning the U.S Open, Lee Trevino uttered one of his countless great one-liners: “I love Merion and I don’t even know her last name.” England’s Rose, by the way, defied the weight of the region’s Revolutionary War history in 2013 and was the last golfer to lift the U.S. Open trophy at Merion.

From Merion to the Philadelphia Cricket Club is only another 10 miles, heading across the Schuylkill River and up to Chestnut Hill to the north of the city. This is the oldest country club in the United States, founded in 1854 by alumni from Penn State—some with English descent—and so cricket and tennis were the original members’ pursuits before the club’s first nine-hole golf course was built in 1895. Once the club had an 18-hole layout—opened in 1897—it came onto the radar of the USGA and subsequently became the 10th golf club to host the U.S. Open, in 1907 and again in 1910. In 2020 the Cricket Club will host a USGA tournament for the first time in 110 years when it stages the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball.

As for the tennis, Philadelphia Cricket Club boasts 30 outdoor courts, 21 of which are pristine grass, making it one of the finest tennis facilities in the country.

Completing an impressive majors record in these parts is Philadelphia Country Club, a 27-hole club in Gladwyne, just six miles north of Merion and not much further from Aronimink. Member-owned Philly CC dates back to 1890 and in 1939 Byron Nelson won his solitary U.S. Open title there.

It can be difficult for non-members and non-guests to get on the tee at these clubs but not impossible. Corporate groups can sometimes get lucky as long as they inquire far in advance but as with most of country club America, success is usually down to who you know.

About half of the 53 golf courses in Montgomery County are private and with limited visitor access, although Raven’s Claw Golf Club near Pottstown—25 miles north from Aronimink—is a fine public course with a fast-growing reputation thanks to hosting a tournament on the LPGA’s developmental Symetra Tour.

Raven’s Claw opened in 2005 and hosted the inaugural Valley Forge Invitational last May. Sweden’s Louise Ridderstrom set a new course record of 63 in the final round to win by four and pocket a first prize of $15,000, and in 2019 Ridderstrom is hoping to break through on the main LPGA Tour.

Merion GC

“The Valley Forge Invitational was a tremendous success, but wouldn’t have been possible without the strong support and guidance from the Valley Forge Tourism & Convention Board,” says Mike Nichols, Chief Business Office for the LPGA Symetra Tour.

“Their involvement and leadership helped to create a solid sponsorship foundation and media presence. We are looking forward to many years of partnership as we prepare the next generation of LPGA stars.”

The second Valley Forge Invitational will unfold at Raven’s Claw from May 31 to June 2.

“The 2018 Valley Forge Invitational was great,” adds Harris. “It had a high-class international field and we are excited the tournament is returning this year. The event is very important for us and it is helping to build awareness globally for the breadth of quality golf we offer here. Some of our public courses are beginning to get a lot of attention.”

One of the country clubs attracting many of the area’s 26,000 annual golfing visitors is Blue Bell CC with its 18-hole Arnold Palmer Signature course, located just to the north of Philadelphia Cricket Club. Stretching over a beautiful, rolling tract of wooded parkland, Blue Bell has been boosted by improvements to the tune of $2.5 million over the past year.

Philly—Old City and New—Aronimink and Valley Forge will be decked out in red, white and blue come the summer of 2026, just like the city’s basketball team which is named after that seminal year. It is good to know there will plenty of high-quality golf to be enjoyed then, and in the meantime too.

Philadelphia
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