My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences
The Golf Bucket List
After we finished, it was a trip to the locker room to clean up, and then on to the Mens' Grill to enjoy an I.P.A. and a cheese steak. It was fun to compare cheese steaks with Merion. I liked Merion's just a touch more, but I'd be just fine eating Aronimink's every day. After lunch, I was convinced to try the Heath Bar Ice Cream, an Aronimink tradition. It was delicious as well! This is a really strong club. Even though they're in Merion's shadow, the members here have a great golf course in their own right and have no reason to feel inferior. This could be the best golf course for hundreds of miles in most other parts of the country, but is a bit overlooked being in the shadow of Merion, Pine Valley, and others. The bunkering was outstanding with gorgeous grass faces and fantastic shaping. The greens were a great test, and the contours of the course were interesting with lots of ups and downs. Is it even with Merion or Pine Valley? No, but Aronimink is solid, and if you're in the area. and especially if you're a Donald Ross fan, you definitely need to check it out.
#14, "Iroquois," Par 3, 188 Yards
With the namesake of this hole, The Iroquois Nation being located in the Finger Lakes area of Upstate New York, I'll use this as my chance to say that if there's any course I'd compare Aronimink with, it would be Monroe Golf Club in suburban Rochester, New York. It's not perfectly similar, but there were a handful of holes that reminded me of holes at Monroe, and coincidentally (or maybe not coincidentally) #14 was one of them. I think it was the 16th at Monroe that I was reminded of, with bunkering in the front and tall trees in the rear. Anything on the left half of the green is a good play to avoid the deep bunker to the right.
#13, "Blackfoot," Par 4, 351 Yards
The shortest par 4 from the Middle Tees. Two aiming bunkers are right in front of you from the tee. Splitting them is the way to go. The fairway is very tight in the landing area and difficult to hit. The green is also quite narrow on the front portion with two bunkers protecting it, and a bit more generous in the rear.
#10, "Cherokee," Par 4, 411 Yards
If I had to pick my preferred 9 holes at Aronimink, I think I'd say that I preferred the front side. However, the back nine is surely no slouch--just didn't seem to have as much variety as the front. Nothing wrong with the 10th hole though. After climbing the hill to get up to the 9th green, you get to turn around and head back downhill on the 10th. From the tee, it seems like the fairway bunker on the right side is pretty close to the green. Ross played tricks on you and really messes with your depth perception here, as this bunker is nowhere close to the green. A pond fronts the rectangular green and definitely comes into play for any ball on the left side of the fairway. This is good design. The right side is the ideal line, but if you don't execute a good shot on that side, the bunker and trees are waiting to punish you. As I mentioned at #8, the green on #8 and #10 are near double greens, with a small section of fairway in between them. Lots of undulation on this green, and many of the others on the back nine. Definitely a tough par.
#7, "Shawnee," Par 4, 376 Yards
Definitely my favorite hole on the course. An old farmhouse sits left of the fairway up by the green, and it's really cool that they left it there. Some great contours on this hole. The tee shot is blind, and the fairway bends to the left. Once you get to to your ball, it should be a short iron or wedge to a small, well defended, and heavily sloping green with deep bunkers in the front. This is one of the few holes at Aronimink that demand an aerial approach and will punish the ground game badly.
#4, "Seminole," Par 4, 418 Yards
The fourth straight par 4 is another tester. Long, and again with staggered bunkers where the fairway bunker on the left is longer and more in play off the tee. From there, it's a mid iron into a relatively small green given the length of the hole. If you can get through the opening gauntlet of four holes at Aronimink somewhere near level par, you're bound to have a good day.
#2, "Pueblo," Par 4, 372 Yards
A dogleg left with a tee shot to a blind landing area that slopes from left to right. A draw is the perfect shape from the tee, and driver isn't necessary. After avoiding the two bunkers at the elbow of the dogleg, it's a short iron into a generous but well-sloped green with two bunkers guarding the front. Collection areas stand guard on the right and rear of the green.
Looking back at the First Tee.
#1, "Apache," Par 4, 414 Yards
A long and straight hope begins your day at Aronimink. The tee shot goes downhill, but then the approach into the green requires an uphill climb. We walked the course with caddies, as we did at Merion. The caddies carry doubles at both courses and did a great job at both clubs. Back to the first hole--a fairway bunker borders the right side of the fairway, and two greenside bunkers sit on either side of the front of the green. The green extends diagonally back and to the left with a collection area behind the back left of the green. Leaving this green with a par is a great start. Three of the hardest holes on the front side (by handicap) are placed in the first four holes, so the beginning of this course is far from a "gentle handshake."
#17, "Seneca," Par 3, 179 Yards
A par 3 over water here. The green is rectangular, but angled by 45 degrees so that it is in the shape of a diamond off the tee. I've never been to a tournament at Aronimink, but I'd think this is one of the best places to sit. You can see many holes from this vantage point, and you've got a pretty hole to watch right in front of you as well. The second photo below looks across 17 green, then 10 green, then 8 green, and then the 11th hole beyond that. Awesome!
#18, "Aronimink," Par 4, 400 Yards
Like the 9th hole, it's an uphill climb back to the clubhouse. However, in this case, it's a par 4 rather than a par 5. The hole is shaped a bit to the right. It's fairly wide off the tee, but the effective width of the hole is actually smaller due to the narrowness of the approach to the green. If you're not fairly straight from the tee, you may be blocked by trees on your way to the green. The green is extremely large, so even being on the surface in two doesn't guarantee a par. Definitely a challenging finishing hole.
#15, "Lenape," Par 4, 426 Yards
With a refreshment station between the 14th and 15th holes, it's time to load up on energy to finish strong. Plus, #15 will require every bit of strength you've got. At 500 yards from the Back Tees, and 426 yards from the Middle Tees, this is the longest par 4 at Aronimink. Like on #13, two bunkers stand in the way of the fairway and act as aiming points (split them). They shouldn't come into play in either case. The fairway is plenty wide for a hole of this length, though the green is a bit on the small side.
#12, "Saginaw," Par 4, 420 Yards
There isn't much shaping to the holes on the back nine. They're quite straight, with doglegs being subtle, at best. I guess that's why I prefer the front nine with more bending to it. The bending on the back nine is really created by the fairway bunkers, which require some shaping off the tees, even though the holes are right in front of you. #12 is just long and straight with staggered bunkers throughout. With a recent renovation, the club expanded the green to the left and front, and squared off the edges. A chipping area sits on the left and rear of the green to catch shots that aren't too precise.
#11, "Kiowea," Par 4, 388 Yards
Just like the outward nine, the inward nine begins with four straight par 4's. The 11th goes straight away, with a green that sits above you on the approach and is cut into a natural amphitheater. Bunkers off the tee are only down the right side, but the green side bunkers front either side of a shallow green.
#9, "Kickapoo," Par 5, 517 Yards
With the clubhouse sitting on the high point of the property, it's an uphill climb to the green on the 9th. It's 605 yards from the tips, but luckily our tees were almost 100 yards in front of that. The hole is just long and straight with staggered bunkers in the landing areas for both the first and second shots. Much of the hole slopes from left to right, so a draw into the slope is the ideal shot shape. The beautiful clubhouse sits behind the green.
#8, "Sitting Bull," Par 3, 204 Yards
There is something unique at each Top 100 course. Sometimes it's on the golf course, sometimes it's in the clubhouse, and sometimes it's somewhere in between. One of the unique things at Aronimink was the two unattended refreshment stations out on the course. Coolers awaited with waters, sodas, and Gatorades. Snacks where there for the taking too. All were free (well, free with your paid dues I guess). A really nice touch. After grabbing a Gatorade and some crackers, it was time to take on the 8th. This one is a long and downhill par 3 where picking the right club is critical. Another really cool feature of this golf course is how the 8th and 10th greens are so close together. It's almost a double-green, but with a small section of fairway cut between them. As is usually the case with handicap shots on one-shot holes, this is marked as the 2nd easiest hole on the side, behind the par 3 5th. I would not agree with that statement...this one is plenty tough.
#6, "Comanche," Par 4, 381 Yards
Avoiding the bunkers off the tee is the key to this dogleg right uphill par 4. From the fairway, it's a good chance to score. From the tips, there is only one par 4 shorter than this hole, so for the pros, it's even more of a chance to score.
#5, "Mohawk," Par 3, 149 Yards
Time for a breather after that nasty opening stretch, and the 5th provides it. The green is huge for just an 8 or 9 iron, but that doesn't mean it's an easy two putt. This is a classic Ross par 3. Bunkers guard the front portion of the green and require an aerial shot. A really nice looking hole with awesome bunkering. While you're walking around Aronimink, it's clear that there has been a lot of tree clearing done. There are many long vistas where you can see many holes from one spot. Seeing the 12th green behind the 5th green is just one example of this.
#3, "Navajo," Par 4, 416 Yards
The number one handicap hole comes early here. Staggered bunkers flank either side of the hole and the landing area off the tee is difficult to see. Aim it a bit to the right of the fairway bunkers on the left; there is a bit more room on the right than it looks, but it's a tight driving area. The pin we faced is a sucker pin. Keep it in the middle of this wide but relatively shallow green.
Imagine yourself on a vacation to Orlando, Florida. You have two days to spend. On the first day, you go to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World--one of the best and most famous theme parks in the world. Then comes the second day...do you go back to the Magic Kingdom again and see things that you might have missed the first day, or go to EPCOT? This is similar to the decision I faced in Philadelphia in 2014.
When I got invited to enjoy a day at Merion, I was thrilled. However, when the member at Merion suggested that he could probably set up a round for us at Aronimink the following day, I couldn't imagine the trip getting any better. I'd check off two courses from the lists, see one of the Top 10 courses in the USA, and see one of Donald Ross's most famous courses, all on the same trip. However, a tough decision posed itself at dinner after playing Merion. In between by Turtle Soup and Cheesesteak, the member at Merion asked us whether we'd prefer to play Merion again rather than playing Aronimink the following day. Another gentleman and Merion member wondered aloud why we were so interested in seeing Aronimink. Admittedly, we gave it a little thought. Like my scenario above, do you go back for another time around one of the world's best courses, or see something a little different. See, Aronimink is in a tough spot in Philadelphia. With Merion and Pine Valley so close, it's spent it's entire existence in the shadows of some of the world's best. However, Aronimink is no slouch. In fact, if you moved it to a different city, it would undoubtedly be the highlight course and crown jewel of the area. However, in Philly, this Donald Ross classic is an afterthought.
Why did I want to see Aronimink so much? It goes beyond the fact that it would check off another course. No, in this case, I wanted to see it because of what Donald Ross had to say about it. Ross is credited with designing over 400 golf courses in his life. Of course, it's been disputed just how many of those he ever visited and/or spent meaningful time at. But, of those 400 courses that he routed, there were only seven courses that he bothered to mention in his writings that were captured in his book, Golf Has Never Failed Me, and Aronimink is on that short list (Skokie, Seminole, Inverness, Oakland Hills, Pinehurst, and Dornoch are the others). On Aronimink, Ross wrote, "I intended to make this course my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize I built better than I knew." If Ross thought so highly of this golf course, how could I pass it up?
So, on Sunday morning of my trip to Philadelphia, a day after playing Merion's West and East Courses, it was time to take on Aronimink. While the origins of Aronimink date back to 1896, it wasn't until 1926 that the club moved to its current property in Newtown Square, and hired Donald Ross to design what you see today. While Aronimink calls itself a "Golf Club," all the amenities on site really qualify it to be called a "Country Club" instead. You can do it all here, including tennis, (indoor and outdoor) swimming, platform tennis, and oh yeah, there's a pretty great golf course. The course has a history of championship play that began with the PGA Championship in 1962, won by Gary Player. After that PGA, the club has hosted a US Amateur, US Junior Amateur, Senior PGA, and two AT&T National's, benefiting the Tiger Woods Foundation. The club was scheduled to host the 1993 PGA Championship as well, but withdrew its name after the PGA of America asked it to create a more diverse member base. The club refused, and the PGA Championship went to Inverness Club in Toledo instead. Aronimink has since resolved its membership shortcomings, and is back in consideration for future majors.
Each hole at Aronimink has a Tribal, or otherwise Native American name. I'm not going on opine on that...just saying that it does. The course has four sets of tee boxes. The Back Tees extend to 7,190 yards and play to a 74.4 and 130 rating a slope...and all of that with a par of 70. If you're not up for the PGA Tour tees, and we sure weren't, the Middle Tees, provide enough of a test from 6,522 yards and a rating/slope of 72.1/126. I'll quote those below.
#16, "Sioux," Par 5, 512 Yards
Finally, a crooked hole. This one bends to the left and provides a definite scoring chance. The rough on the left was some of the thickest on the course, and should be avoided. Laying up short of the bunkers is the wise play for the 2nd shot, though big hitters might think about giving it a go. A par or birdie is definitely what you should be looking for on this one.