A putter’s dream: Golfweek ranks historic St. Martins course

by Michael Bamberger
Posted 11/16/23

Golfweek's list of the top 40 short courses in the United States lists the nine-hole St. Martins course in the heart of Chestnut Hill as No. 2.

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A putter’s dream: Golfweek ranks historic St. Martins course


Golfweek, a bible of the sport noted for its exquisite taste, recently published its first list of the top 40 short courses in the United States, and the surprise second-place finisher was the nine-hole St. Martins course in the heart of Chestnut Hill!

Regarding the exclamation mark above, the use of the word exquisite and all that follows, reader beware: your correspondent has played this wee course, owned and operated by the Philadelphia Cricket Club, hundreds of times and has bored many with descriptions of its 19th-century charms.

Still, the news is the news, and nobody saw it coming, not even the person who oversees course rankings for Golfweek.

“St. Martins was not a course I had heard a lot about,” the rankings editor, Jason Lusk, said in a recent interview. “But the rater comments about it were consistently outstanding.”

Golfweek has about 300 amateur course raters who submit ratings to Lusk on a regular basis, judging courses on a subjective 1-10 system. The only course to finish ahead of St. Martins on the Short Course list was the short course at Pine Valley, in southern New Jersey.

The main 18-hole course at Pine Valley was ranked first on the 2023 Golfweek ranking of classic courses. The Cricket Club’s Wissahickon Course, on West Valley Green Road in Flourtown, was No. 41 on that same list.

As the saying goes: Be wary of all ranking lists, unless they serve your selfish needs.

The Flourtown course was designed by a fabled architect, A.W. Tillinghast, whose courses are often used for various USGA championships, including the U.S. Open. The St. Martins course, designed by Willie Tucker and opened as an 18-hole course in 1898, was the site of two U.S. Opens, in 1907 and 1910. Tillinghast, an amateur golfer and Cricket Club member, played in both of those Opens.

Six of the greens used today were used in those two U.S. Opens, though they were renovated under the direction of the legendary course architect Donald Ross in 1914. Many would say that the St. Martins greens are some of the most subtle, confounding and beautiful greens in all of golf, with a range of shapes, square and round and in between.

Ross, by the way, finished 10th in the 1907 U.S. Open. His kid brother, Alec Ross, won that Open. Both brothers were born in Dornoch, in the north of Scotland, and were members of the first generation of Scottish golfers that imported the game to the United States. The winner of the 1910 Open, Alex Smith, was born in Scotland, too.

Lusk explained that the detailed judging system the raters use for the Classic Course list is different from the one they use for the Short Course list. For the former, the raters submit 1 to 10 grades in 10 different categories. “For the Short Course list,” Lusk said, “we ask for just a single number, and it really comes down to, ‘How much fun did you have?’”

Unprompted, Tom Sheridan, Cricket Club president, picked up on that same theme. “Everybody can enjoy playing St. Martins,” Sheridan said in a recent interview. The course is gentle, not harsh. It has eight par-4s that are roughly between 250 and 350 yards long and one short par-3. The par-35 course is 2,600 yards long. “Whether you’re new to the game, a junior, or an older golfer, the course is just fun to play,” Sheridan said. 

In the heat of summer, you’ll often see Cricket Club campers, in loose shorts and sneakers, carrying small bags of clubs as they climb up the gigantic (to them) hill of the first fairway. Middle school and high school golfers from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Penn Charter, The Mount and other schools use the St. Martins course. The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia, a program designed to introduce golf to kids from a wide range of backgrounds, has also held events at St. Martins. The Cricket Club has several major events on the course each year, including a spring net championship, a fall net championship and an event in which the contestants may carry no more than four clubs.

The 2013 National Hickory Championship was played on the course, using small sand tee boxes still in place today. The NHC organizers hope to return to St. Martins someday.

“The greens are archetypal of late 19th- and early 20th-century courses,” said Pete Georgiady, the event’s self-described czar. “We loved the tricky greens, the earthen tees, the antique bunkering and the holes requiring shots across the road on the first and ninth, plus all the history. It was a priceless golf experience.”

Georgiady, who sometimes plays golf in a bow tie (once a common occurrence at St. Martins), noted how welcoming the St. Martins staff was. Many who have played the course, the Golfweek raters surely among them, have made the same observation.

The tiny, antique pro shop is operated by an eclectic foursome comprised of John Esher-Hagel, the head professional, working alongside Glenn Perri, Steve Spross and Peter Yun. All four are avid golfers who have an appreciation for St. Martins and its quirks, including tee markers made from cricket balls, small wooden rakes and heavy cloth flags on top of the nine flagsticks.

The course is not excessively manicured which makes it feel more like a Scottish course than an American country club course. (The golf course architect Rees Jones likes to say that scruffiness is a traditional golfing value.) The St. Martins course can easily be played with eight or nine clubs. The pace of play is often quick.

The perimeters of the greens are ringed by lush grass which can be immensely challenging. This was once a common maintenance practice in American golf but has not been for about 100 years now. The St. Martins rough is true rough and wildly inconsistent: thick in places, spotty in other places, hardpan dirt in yet other places.

Interest in the course has exploded over the past 15 years or so as the club, working with the golf course architect Keith Foster, has made an effort to reinvigorate the course. Still, tee times are not difficult to get and the course has an informal vibe that is not common in private club golf in the Northeast. The nine holes can be played by a fast-moving twosome in well under 90 minutes.

Over the past decade or so, several accomplished PGA Tour players have played St. Martins. The late Dewey Arnette, who once made eight straight birdies in a PGA Tour event, was a co-winner of a casual autumn event at St. Martins and sang the praises for years after his 2013 St. Martins visit. Mike Donald, the runner-up in the 1990 U.S. Open, has played St. Martins a handful of times and remembers it in stunning detail. Brad Faxon, the former Ryder Cup golfer who is now a golf broadcaster, course designer and putting coach, played the course in 2016 while competing in a senior event at the Cricket Club’s Flourtown course.

“The St. Martins nine is really the essence of golf,” Faxon said recently by text. “The first and the ninth parallel each other and leave and return to a magical clubhouse. Between them, you will find almost every feature you need for fun and interesting golf: elevation changes, blind and semi-blind shots, bunkers and cross bunkers, small greens and large greens, with a decision to be made on every shot. Can’t wait to go back!”

Faxon came of golf age in the 1970s in Rhode Island, where there are many courses with old-fashioned Scottish sensibilities. As he describes St. Martins, he is also describing some of the courses of the Ocean State – and many courses in Scotland. The 41-acre course is also used for high school cross-country meets, dog-walking (on its perimeter) and husband-and-wife strolls on warm summer nights. Scottish courses are often used in similar ways.

The fact that the course exists at all, given the intense demand for developable land in northwest Philadelphia, is a testament to the vision and generosity of the Woodward family of Chestnut Hill. The Woodwards owned the land under the course going back to its start and leased it to the Cricket Club for a nominal fee. In 2015, the Woodwards sold the property to the club for $600,000, even though it was worth millions of dollars. The family gave the money from the sale to various nonprofit groups, including the Natural Lands Trust. The property, under a preservation easement, cannot be developed. However you look at it, the course is a gift to greater Chestnut Hill.

If you have been by or on the course in winter, you may have noticed that the course’s fairways look like seagrass rugs, a khaki color you associate more with World War II uniforms, not 19118 lawns. That’s because St. Martins does not have bent, rye or fescue grass fairways, as most area golf courses and lawns do, but a chiefly Southern grass called Zoysia, which is pale green in summer and light tan in winter when the grass is dormant. It’s a thick-bladed grass that requires little watering. Zoysia is to grass what the camel is to the animal kingdom, an efficient water retainer.

A golf ball sits up on zoysia invitingly, making for a superb playing surface for beginning golfers especially. Playing off Zoysia is almost like playing off a driving-range mat. The Golfweek raters, evidently taken with the St. Martins fun factor, might have been more influenced by a decision made some years ago by Dan Meersman, the Cricket Club’s director of grounds, than they could likely know.

In 2012, Meersman had the idea to convert the fairways to Zoysia. He knew of no course in Pennsylvania, or north of Pennsylvania, that had tried to use the grass. But in the interest of water conservation (the Cricket Club’s St. Martins campus buys the water it uses from the city of Philadelphia), and while noting that the Philadelphia summers are nearly as hot as Southern summers, he thought converting to zoysia fairways could work.

A lot of good things, and good approach shots, have come out of Meersman’s grass-growing experiment. Zoysia is forgiving to the duffed shot and rewards shots that are struck crisply.

It should be noted, as we wrap up here, that the Golfweek recognition is not the first time St. Martins has been praised for a national readership. For some years, John Garrity, a former Sports Illustrated writer, published a wildly popular top-50 course list that routinely had 51 courses on it. That’s because whatever course Garrity had played most recently would get temporarily ranked 51st, if not higher.

In 2013, Garrity played in the same fall event at St. Martins where Dewey Arnette played so well. In Garrity’s subsequent report, he sang praises to the course and wrapped up his account, as we will here, with these sentences:

“Tournament play concluded on the ninth green at 4:58 p.m. At five, a wedding ceremony began between the green and the starter’s shed. That’s so Philadelphia.”