Golf Bucks County

By Bob Oliver

Middletown Country Club

Middletown is a compact 80 acres of challenging golf, with rolling hills and large specimen trees that have watched many golfers travel its fairways over time. It has retained its old time feel with tees and greens in close proximity, allowing golfers to walk the course if they choose.

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Slice of Pine Valley in back yard

Written by Bob Oliver on .

It's a rainy day that could become a snowy one if there was any snow to be found on the east coast, and my mind is wandering. For some reason I was thinking about the Warrington Golf Club and how I nearly had a hole-in-one there some 30 years ago.

 

Of course the Warrington layout is long gone, a fallen victim to the developer's bulldozers. Area courses like Island Green, Center Valley and the Bristol Golf Farm have suffered the same fate. It's not a Delaware Valley thing, as less than 20 new courses were constructed in the United States over the last year while more than 150 have met their untimely death, according to the National Golf Foundation. The NGF also revealed that for the sixth consecutive year golf course closures outpaced course openings.

 

Yet on a rainy day thoughts becomes questions, and questions lead to memories, and, well, nostalgia sets in. When I was growing up, baseball statistics were a big part of my life, and I would run through them in my mind listening to the Philadelphia Phillies.

 

Over the years, that statistical fanaticism moved over to golf, and I have reams of records, including scorecards, from my visits to more than 900 golf courses in 36 states and five foreign countries. There have been 94 courses played in New Jersey, 92 in South Carolina and 87 in Pennsylvania.

 

I don't know, it might be that I think in the back of my head that once I get to 100 courses played in a state I will have reached the maximum and never again set foot on a golf course in the state again.

 

Thinking of Warrington got me to look at those records. After a little research, I calculated that more than 50 of the courses I'd played have been plowed under since my lousy swing had knocked golf balls around their layout.

 

I mean, I've always wanted to bring a course to its knees, but seriously, having it shut down after I'd played it? Well that's a tough assignment. I'm betting that's the reason a  number of course owners run and hide when I call for a tee time.

 

There are dozens of fond memories of Warrington etched into my head, but probably more from Laurel Oak in Voorhees, N.J. where I played round-after-round over the years before it bit the dust, making way for a business park. Had three "near" hole-in-ones there, shots that ended up less than an inch from the hole. Guess it had to close before I bested that place!

 

It was at Laurel Oak where Evan "Big Cat" Williams dazzled us on the par-4, 365-yard opening hole by driving his tee ball over the green in an exhibition. He was a long drive champion before long drive champions were an industry of its own.

 

Blue Heron Pines (East) was a fine layout in Galloway Township, N.J., a summer favorite that played host to the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. It's gone, although the original Blue Heron Pines (West) is thriving across the street. Another set of twin courses that is non-existent these days is Horsham's Hidden Springs. Those courses hosted the LPGA George Washington Classic for six years and saw players like Jane Blalock, Sandra Haynie, Carol Mann and Judy Rankin score victories. And Horsham Valley was long a favorite of area players seeking an inexpensive, low key round of golf. 

 

Delaware Valley layouts such as the Valley Forge Golf Club, near the King of Prussia Mall, was the site of a fun round in near-freezing December conditions back in the 1990s. These days, Valley Forge is merely a memory with structures instead of flagsticks throughout.  Ashbourne Country Club in Cheltenham had a storied history, but closed several years ago. Ponderlodge near the Jersey Shore met its match in development as well.

 

Memories exist of each layout, good and bad, but thinking of their demise brought forth even more examples of courses I've played and never will again.

 

The Moors, near Pensacola, Fla., found me playing in a Champions Tour pro-am, while Beachtree (Md.) was where I hit balls alongside amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, who a year before was runner-up to Se Ri Pak at the U.S. Women's Open. Jenny was nice enough to give me a couple swing tips.  Both courses are historical entries in my play book.

 

blueheronpines.jpgFormer Bucks County area pro Sam Timms went south to North Myrtle Beach where he oversaw the three courses at the Bay Tree complex. All have been plowed under, as more than 25 courses that I've played along the Grand Strand are mere memories.

 

There was a time when I played the opening of the 100th Grand Strand course. That number increased to the 120s before dropping well below the 100 mark. Heck, one day I can play a new "100th Course" in the Myrtle Beach area. Déjà vu all over again, or is that Groundhog Day?.

 

I was lucky enough to play a round with "The Open Doctor", Rees Jones, at his Belle Terre layout years ago. It, and the executive course there, no longer exist. Rees is designing golf courses, but with the economy just not as many as his heyday. Also gone are Deer Track (North and South), Burning Ridge (East), Brick Landing, Robbers Roost, Raccoon Run, Ocean Isle Beach and another Island Green.

 

Speaking of Rees Jones, he was also was the architect of another defunct Myrtle Beach course, Gator Hole.  There's a rumor that a certain Myrtle Beach lass who now appears on Wheel of Fortune opposite Pat Sajak, used to frolic around that course at night, but we aren't going into tabloid mode.

 

There are fold memories of the North Myrtle Beach Island Cypress Bay where, after a morning round at Possum Trot, my foursome traveled a new miles north and played a one-club tournament. Two members of our foursome played with one club, one of us a four iron, one a five iron. The others used every club in their bags. When the dust settled I had the low 9-hole score of 44. Take that! The good news is both Russell Breedon courses still exist.

 

An annual favorite of my Myrtle Beach foursome, Marsh Harbour, is long gone, as are Brick Landing, Robber's Roost and the pair of courses at Deer Track.

 

The Pit, a Pinehurst area favorite, apparently has met its match. It has not been plowed, but it is not open. The Pit was where my father stepped to a tee that required a long drive over a lake to fairway. He watched the rest of the foursome hit their tee balls into the water and just threw his golf ball to a watery grave. "If you guys can't hit over, I can't." With that he led us around to a drop area on the other side of the lake.

 

Out west Reflection Bay near Las Vegas has departed, while in Virginia Beacon Hill, Fair Oaks, Kiln Creek and Carper's Valley are among my list of closed played courses. A nice course found halfway between D.C. and Ocean City, Md., was called Upland but is now called defunct.

 

At Fair Oaks my son Liam scored his first birdie, while at Carper's Valley I drove a green on a par-4 hole. I could continue the course closing list, but it would just be too painful.

 

Thinking back to my near miss at Warrington, where my ball hit the bottom part of the flagstick and bounded dead right....and out of bounds, is painful enough.

 

The economy has made its mark on golf courses. Many are falling by the wayside, and even big name designers like Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman do the majority of their work offshore.  Innovation keeps Ron Garl employed around the world, but even "Mr. Optimism" knows the game is struggling. "We've got to think about our game a little different," said Garl in a recent phone interview.

 

The trend is toward the less is more thought, as the NGF reported that 107 golf courses were closed in the United States in 2010.

 

I am pondering how many of those have had me taking divots on their fairways. One of those divots --- from Pine Valley --- made its way into a baggie in my golf bag along with a sprinkle of water. That little slice of turf from heaven was replanted in my back yard and nurse back to life. No worry, though, as Pine Valley isn't going anywhere.

 

As I continue my drive to having played 1,000 golf courses, I have to ask: do courses that have been closed still count?

 

I'm nodding my head a vociferous "YES."