Hail, St. Martins
The charming 9-holer in Philadelphia—the author’s home course—was lauded as one of golf’s best short courses
by Michael Bamberger
Regular readers of this space may have noticed semi-regular references to the course where I log most of my rounds, a short nine-holer a mile or so from our kitchen door called St. Martins. The course is part of the Philadelphia Cricket Club, and earlier this year Golfweek declared it to be the second-best short course in these United States.
The St. Martins course is in a section of Philadelphia called St. Martins, which is located in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Chestnut Hill. Yes, this is how we do it here. We layer. Chestnut Hill has its own weekly paper, the Chestnut Hill Local, and its editor invited me to write up this honor for the St. Martins course. I was happy to do so and it seems even more relevant now, because the recent announcement by the USGA and the R&A by which nine-hole rounds, and golf on short courses, will become mainstream parts of the golf handicapping system, the one that allows you to have a match with Scottie Scheffler, at least in theory.
The story below also appears in the Chestnut Hill Local.
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-to-10 system. The only course that finished 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 first on the 2023 Golfweek ranking of classic courses. The Cricket Club’s Wissahickon Course, on West Valley Green Road in Flourtown, Pa., was No. 41.
As the saying goes: Be wary of all ranking lists, unless they serve your selfish needs.
The Wissahickon course was designed by a fabled architect, A.W. Tillinghast, whose courses are often used for various USGA championships, including the U.S. Open. St. Martins, 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 today’s greens were used in those two U.S. Opens, although they were renovated in 1914 under the direction of the legendary course architect Donald Ross (below). Many would say 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, won that Open. Both brothers were born in Dornoch, in the north of Scotland, and were members of the first generation of Scottish golfers who 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 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, the 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 and one short par-3. The par-35 course measures 2,600 yards. “Whether you’re new to the game, a junior, an older golfer, the course is just fun to play,” said Sheridan, who has fond memories of his own son and daughter taking up golf at St. Martins.
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 the gigantic (to them) hill of the 1st fairway. Middle school and high school golfers from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Penn Charter, Mount St. Joseph Academy and other schools use the St. Martins course. The First Tee of Philadelphia, a program designed to introduce golf to kids from a wide range of backgrounds, has also held events there. The Cricket Club has several major events on the course each year, including spring and fall net championships 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 that are 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 1st and 9th, 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 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: 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 flagsticks.
The course is not excessively manicured, which makes it feel more like a Scottish course and very unlike an American country-club course. (The golf course architect Rees Jones likes to say that scruffiness is a traditional golfing value.) The course can easily be played with eight or nine clubs. The pace of play is often quick. The nine holes can be played by a fast-moving twosome in well under 90 minutes.
The perimeters of the greens are ringed by lush grass that can be immensely challenging. (The green speeds, especially in fall and winter, can be wicked fast.) This high perimeter grass was once a common maintenance practice in American golf but has not been for about 100 years now. The rough is wildly inconsistent: thick in places, spotty in others, hardpan dirt in yet other places.
Interest in the course has exploded over the past 15 years or so as the club, working with golf course architect Keith Foster, has tried to reinvigorate the course. Still, tee times are not difficult to book and the course has an informal vibe that is uncommon in private-club golf in the Northeast.
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 he sang the praises for years after his 2013 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 in a recent text. “The 1st and the 9th 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, in a single round, picked up on the distinct and golfy charm of St. Martins: aiming for a distant antenna off the 3rd tee without being able to see the fairway; playing a shot from underneath the stately and lonely tree that defines the left side of the 7th hole; attempting to get a downhill putt from the back of the 9th green to stop.
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 could also be 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. The family gave the proceeds from the sale to various non-profit 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 fairways look like seagrass rugs, a khaki color you associate more with World War II uniforms than lawns in the 19118 zip code. 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 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 probably 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 believed converting to zoysia fairways could work.
The idea occurred to Meersman while driving through the Roxborough section of Philadelphia and seeing so many inviting lawns. “I knew these were not the kinds of homeowners who are going to have professional landscapers—they’re going to do it themselves,” Meersman said in a 2018 interview with Golf.com. “The lawns were beautiful, and when I looked at the grass it was zoysia.” 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 9th green at 4:58 p.m. At 5, a wedding ceremony began between the green and the starter’s shed. That’s so Philadelphia.”
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]