By: Wil Barnes
As a wee lad growing up outside Philadelphia, I was privileged to work as a caddie at some of the best golf courses in the area including Rolling Green CC, Manufacturers CC, Merion GC and Aronimink GC. Besides the money we earned, which at the time was roughly $5 a bag, the Monday playing privileges for caddies were equally as much the lure. Young loopers like myself didn’t always get the best players or the best tippers, but the knowledge gained was priceless. This July 4th weekend, Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, will be on display for all to see as it plays host to the AT&T Championship, hosted by Tiger Woods. The tournament that was founded in 2007 has been played at prestigious Congressional CC in Washington D.C., but as it prepares to host the 2011 U.S. Open, Philadelphia gets the nod, and rightly so. After all, it is Independence Day weekend and Philadelphia is where the country was founded by a small group of congressman with brave intentions 234 years ago at Independence Hall.
About thirty minutes by car or a short train ride west of that national monument, to the posh suburbs of old mansions, old money and old golf courses is Aronimink GC, a Donald Ross gem that opened in 1928 and remains one of the city’s most prestigious private clubs. With a magnificent, old, European, stone clubhouse similar to the one at Winged Foot in New York, Aronimink is a great test that is sure to get rave reviews from the Tour’s top players including the host, Tiger Woods. Aronimink has hosted numerous big tournaments including the 1962 PGA Championship won by Hall of Famer Gary Player. Most recently it hosted the 2005 Senior PGA won by long hitting John Jacobs, who used his length to his advantage on wet soaked course that year. In between Aronimink has held the 1977 U.S. Amateur and 1997 U.S. Junior Amateur. It was scheduled to host the 1993 PGA but failed to comply with the PGA Tour policy of admitting a minority member, so it was swapped out to Inverness CC in Ohio.
Aronimink has a lengthy history. The original 9 holes were built at 52nd and Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia, then a sprawling farmland, where today it is a tight, relatively poor neighborhood. The original clubhouse was a small; frame farmhouse lived in by a Lenape Indian tribe chief named Arronomink. When the club moved for the fourth time to its current location in Radnor Hunt country, Ross was commissioned to design the 18 holes in 1926. Of the course, Ross is quoted as saying, “I intended to make this my masterpiece, but not until today did I realize that I built better than I knew.” Aronimink was host to the first Philadelphia Club Championship in 1897 won by 18 year-old High Wilson. And if that name sounds familiar it should. After traveling to Scotland in 1911, he returned to take the lead in designing the famed Merion East course that has hosted 11 USGA events and will again host the U.S. Open in 2013. The walls of the Aronimink clubhouse are lined with photos of charter members the names of which include Tatnall, Findlay, Pigott, Huey and Townsend, some of the wealthiest families of Old Philadelphia.
Both courses are outstanding layouts and as a caddie, they are quite tedious to walk a couple of times a day. Aronimink opens with “Apache,” a 420-yard, par 4 that drops dramatically from the tee, before escalating severely to the green, where an opening par is a welcome achievement as putts from the back can easily roll off the green if the flag is in the front. The 7,200-yard plus, par 70 holds only two par 5’s, the 556-yard, 8th and the menacing 545-yard, 16th. The Ross design is complimented with a number of short par 4’s, over 100 bunkers, a bevy of doglegs, tall pines and oaks lining fairways and a creek that meanders about half the course. The greens are pretty large, offering numerous pin placements, but almost all are tiered, rarely benign, most notably the 9th.named “Kickapoo” by Ross. Best chances for scoring are on the front side as the back can play very long, like the 465-yard, uphill 12th and the 497-yard, 15th, both par 4’s. Some shelves on the fast greens will cause worry of certain three-puts, especially the final three holes, where the tournament can change leaders quickly. Aronimink is a gorgeous golf course, a masterpiece of sorts and regal in its lineage. It is truly a members club.
Most of the players this week, the 120 man field, will have to become familiar with Aronimink because most have yet to set foot on it. Four of the top 10 from the recent U.S. Open, Woods, Alex Cjeka, Brandt Sneddeker and collapsing Saturday night leader Dustin Johnson join 11 major championship winners, including Vijay Singh and two time winner this year Jim Furyk. One player familiar with the course is Sean O’Hair who lives in nearby West Chester. “I am familiar with Aronimink,” he said following his finish at Pebble Beach two weeks ago. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ll have a number of friends and family there, kind of like a home game for me. It’s a great course.” JJ Henry said, “I don’t know anything about it other that it’s an old, traditional, tree lined Ross design, which I love. We don’t play enough of those great old courses out here.” Familiarity isn’t always a bad thing some players say. “Sometimes just showing up at a place we don’t play can be a good thing,” said Aaron Baddeley. “No one is familiar with it so we will all have to do some homework early in the week.”
Tiger is the defending champion having defeated Anthony Kim by three in ’09 at Congressional and is also host. He has only played five events this year but his only Top 10 finished have come in the two majors. Woods and everyone else will have to be patient and bring their best short game to Aronimink. As a former looper, my first tip is on the first hole; take an extra club on your approach. I witnessed many a ball roll back down that fairway leading to a horrible start to what should be a wonderful walk in the woods of Radnor Hunt country. Golf has been missing a regular tournament in Philadelphia for a long time and golf fans have sold out the event well in advance. The often, chided Philly fans should supply a little extra hoopla to the AT&T Championship, where anything can be heard or seen. At least it’s winter so there will be no snowballs to be tossed at Santa Claus. There will be a huge military presence however as the host plans on dolling out some 30,000 tickets to members of the armed forces. “My dad was in the military. It’s in my family and I just think it is something we should do to say thanks for all they do,” said Tiger. Personally, I cannot wait to see how the world’s best handle the old beauty, the Old Belmont Golf Association – Aronimink Golf Club.
In the posh suburbs, the Main Line of Philadelphia sits a Donald Ross gem that hosts the 2010 AT&T Championship.
By: Wil Barnes