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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Bensalem a cozy, challenging layout

Written by Bob Oliver on .

The players come from throughout Bucks County, Philadelphia and New Jersey. They are scratch golfers and high handicap duffers alike, all in search of fairways and greens while swatting at a little white ball that all too often makes its way to high grass, sand and sometimes a watery grave.

 

They don't come to the Bensalem Township Country Club for its world class architecture or opulent clubhouse. Cart attendants don't surround you in the parking lot. Its fairways aren't immaculate, its greens aren't U.S. Open perfect.

 

Yet patrons return time after time because the compact 6,130-yard course located on Brown Avenue just a bit off Street Road is a special haven for them.

 

It's friendly. It's cozy. It's home.

 

"My older brother worked at the club and helped me become a cart boy at a time when I was a baseball player and knew little about golf," explained three-time defending club champion Matt Foust. "Everyone was so receptive with me. I didn't know a lick about the game but everyone was willing to help me get involved with the game."

 

Foust works at the club today, playing it several times a week and still finds it "challenging and fun."

 

bensalem.jpgTwo-time men's champion Joy Myers has fond memories of Bensalem. "I saw the course for the first time in 1974. I was 11 and my father brought me along for his round of golf. Over the years I learned how to play the game here. I've made hundreds of friends, talked business with others, and had some laughs."

 

"It's a special place," admits six-time men's champion Naz Gagliardi. "The course is a lot of fun to play, and you get to know its quirks. It gives a little, takes some, but always is a challenge and fun."

 

Back in 2003 there weren't a lot of laughs around the course as rumors of the layout's demise ran rampant. Then owner Al Bader had for years discussed the sale of the property, to Bensalem Township and others. Outside developers saw the potential value of a 145-acre site just a mile from I-95.

 

Things came to a head when developers offered between $11 and $12-million for the property during an auction. The land - Bader had owned 121 acres and had leased the remaining 24 acres from the Township - was zoned recreational and would require zoning changes to develop.

 

For a while it appeared the golf course could go the way of the Bristol Golf Farm and Warrington Country Club --- being closed as a golf course and transitioned to a housing development or shopping center.

 

Ultimately the Township purchased the property in 2006 and kept the professional staff in place to manage the popular layout.

 

"There was a time then when people would call and ask if we were still in business, it was great when we could say everything was resolved," explains Jim Bogan, a man with 46 years at the club --- 37 of them as head golf professional. "Since the Township has become involved we've been able to take the course to another level. We have had continuous improvement in the facilities and the golf course."

 

That level includes conditioning at the hands of course of golf course superintendent Jim Stauring, who had left Bensalem for Philmont Country Club before being lured back. The club has also upgraded its dining facilities.

 

Bogan started as a caddie at the club at age 12, moved over as a cart boy and later pro shop attendant before graduation from college and his career in the golf business. He assumed the head professional position in 1972 and has presided over the golf operations since that time.

 

Bensalem was originally christened the Cornwells Country Club in 1960, the design of famed golf course architects William Gordon and son David Gordon. That twosome, disciples of famed architect Donald Ross, designed the Grace Course at Saucon Valley, Seaview's Pines Course and White Manor in Chester County among dozens of others.

 

Originally a private course owned by Fred Hansell, it was sold after his death to Bader in 1984. The Bensalem Country Club was semi-private for a couple of years before being opened fully to the public in 1987.

 

Never a candidate for a berth atop Golfweek's listing of America's Best Courses, Bensalem does offer a challenge with its tight fairways and quick, expansive greens that Stauring and his team keeps in excellent shape. The club has a good practice facility and in recent history added an irrigation system and Bensalem Township has devoted time, energy and money into improvements at the club.

 

The course was never meant to be a high end daily fee layout. It's more a traditional shot-makers course, one that requires a player to think strategy as well as execution. It caters to a core of public links players who have an intense love for the game.

 

"You don't attack the course," said 11-time men's club champion Keith Wilson in a 2000 interview. "It's a thinking man's course."

 

Wilson moved his game to Bensalem in the 1990s after his former club, Hi-Point, went private as Spring Mill C.C. He never looked back.

 

"This course can be nice to you and your game, but it can also eat you up...all in the same round," explained Bogan, who knows nearly every blade of grass at the course and admits to once seven-putting one of its treacherous greens.

 

The pro should know. He still holds the course record of 64, notched with nine hole scores of 30 and 34 in a 1970 round...before he turned professional. Former assistant Gary Hardin once bested the back nine with a 28 on his way to a 66, while Mike McGinty scored a front nine 29 on his way to a 67.

 

Hall of Fame golfer Johnny Miller, an NBC television analyst who captured the 1973 United States Open at Oakmont, played Cornwells numerous times in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s while dating a local girl. He called the 220-yard, par-3 14th hole, which requires a drive over a valley to a well-bunkered green, one of the most difficult tests he'd played. Former Philadelphia Eagles great Irv Cross called the course home for years.

 

Bogan's most memorable moment regarding Miller had nothing to do with golf. "Johnny came into the pro shop after fishing at the course and showed us a huge fish. He was more excited about the catch than his round that day.

 

Once opened to the public, thousands of area golfers have come to know Bensalem as a friendly, challenging layout. More than 200 men and women are dues paying members of the Bensalem Golf Association, which holds regular tournaments.

 

Myers moved away from the area after college but returned in 1993.

 

"I was away for 8 or 9 years but when I returned it was as if I had never left," said Myers. "Folks were coming up to me and saying "hi" and asking where I'd been. The staff, the people who play there, everyone is so friendly. You can always count on friendly staff and a good game."

 

That's the beauty of the hilly, tree-lined layout. It has some challenging holes, especially Numbers 11, 14 and 18. It's greens are spacious and offer numerous hole placements, and bunkers are well placed to guard the putting surface. What Bensalem "bogeys" in length it birdies in character.

 

bensalem16.jpg"We have some outstanding golf holes and the course offers a challenge to all levels of player," explained Bogan. "Our 16th hole (par-5, 515-yards) can be a monster. It's a hole where par is a great score."

 

At a modest 6,131-yards from the tips, Bensalem is does not require a Dalyesque drive repertoire; rather, it's a thinking person's course. There are places to be and places to avoid, and then there are the quick greens that can bedazzle the best of players.

 

"You can be playing in cruise control and then an errant shot wrecks your round," explains Foust. "There are strategically placed hazards that come into play and cause havoc."

 

The 16th is a 3-shot hole for most players, requiring a precise drive, delicate layup then an approach up a hill to a well protected green. Big hitters can strike their drive down the left side of the fairway and go for the green in two. Many try but few are successful.

 

Another monster is the par-3, 220-yard 14th hole that requires a shot from an elevated tee over a ravine and to a sloped green that is protected by bunkers. When the breeze is blowing from any direction than behind it's a dastardly test.

 

Over the years Bensalem's 11th hole, a par-3 of about 146-yards has seen 31 hole-in-one shots reported over the last 12years. A well struck iron and a little luck seems to get a number of aces. Still, many bogeys are recorded as the hole is well bunkered and the green has numerous difficult pin placements.

 

"Strategy at Bensalem is important, and one has to think about what they are trying to accomplish," adds Bogan. "There are places to avoid, places to be. It's a classic design that was build using the lay of the land. If you play within yourself it's a fun place to play."

 

The 5th hole is a good example of the deceptiveness of Bensalem. A par-4 of only 320-yards from the tips, one might think it's an easy birdie opportunity. Think again. The fairway is pitched slightly right to left, so balls hit down the left side of the fairway can find rough. The green is protected by a sand bunker to the left and mound to the right, and once on it putting can be tantalizing.  Wayward shots can find their way blocked by trees which blanket the hole.

 

Bensalem Township Country Club is a friendly layout that is fun to play. You use all the clubs in the bag, and can enjoy a beverage after your round in the cozy Owl's Nest.

 

It's not the most difficult course in Bucks County, but it offers a great opportunity to play a fun course with challenges at a reasonable price.

 

Don't miss playing it.

 

Bensalem Township Country Club earns a solid B as a place to play.