BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Indirectly, Saucon Valley Country Club, site of the 34th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, is responsible for the construction of iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler Building, Hoover Dam and New York’s Madison Square Garden.
How did a sleepy private facility in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley play a role in these structures?
It occurs when your club is comprised almost entirely of employees from the country’s second-largest steel company.
While Bethlehem Steel never owned Saucon Valley, its membership rolls for many years made up for nearly 90 percent of its management.
It started out 95 percent [Bethlehem Steel] with a couple of doctors and lawyers, said Barry Treadwell, a 34-year Saucon Valley member who is the general chairman for the 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur and relocated to the area from Boston to work at Bethlehem Steel. I can remember when I joined in 1980, my next-door neighbor was an oral surgeon. He was a member and I asked how long he waited to get in. He told me seven years and asked him if that bothered him. He said no because, ‘I knew it was the home of Bethlehem Steel and there weren’t that many outsiders who got in.’ And when you did get in, you were happy.
Eugene Grace, the second chairman of Bethlehem Steel, was responsible for Saucon Valley’s golf prominence. Before Grace joined the company in 1916, he had two options. He could play baseball for the New York Yankees or serve as the assistant to the first president of Bethlehem Steel, Charles M. Schwab, who formed the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in 1899 with Joseph Wharton.
The company itself dates to 1857 when it was called the Saucona Iron Company. The name changed to the Bethlehem Iron Company in 1861 and was incorporated as Bethlehem Steel 38 years later.
Under Grace’s leadership, Bethlehem Steel became the largest shipbuilder in the country. During World War II, Bethlehem Steel promised President Franklin D. Roosevelt it would build a ship a day via the company’s 18 shipyards. It exceeded its commitment by 15 ships.
After the war, Bethlehem Steel developed the wide flange steel beam, which allowed buildings to be constructed more than two stories high. The Chrysler Building in New York City was an example of that new steel technology.
Grace was such a golf enthusiast that he made sure there were management courses in every city in which Bethlehem Steel owned a plant. In the Lehigh Valley, The Steel Club (now Silver Creek Country Club) was the course for the plant managers. Saucon Valley served as a corporate club. When the club’s growth in the early 1950s required a second golf course, it was Grace who brought in architect David Gordon to design what is now called the Grace Course.
Treadwell told the story of how Grace would have his secretary alert Bethlehem’s chief of police when he left the office and headed to the club, about five miles away.
He would have all of his officers control the [traffic] lights so he had green lights all the way down, said Treadwell.
Another story involves the 1951 U.S. Amateur conducted at Saucon Valley. Grace was standing near the 13th tee and watched as player after player hit their tee shots down the left-hand side. Bobby Nichols told Grace the hole was a breather on the highly challenging Herbert Strong layout that has been renovated over the years by such architects as Perry Maxwell, and the duo of Tom Fazio and Tom Marzolf from the Fazio Group.
Hearing this talk, Grace called in some Bethlehem Steel employees to have them construct several bunkers to the left of the fairway prior to the start of the championship. It was akin to the USGA installing a tree on the Inverness Club’s par-5 eighth hole in the 1979 U.S. Open to prevent the long-hitting Lon Hinkle from taking a shortcut down the adjacent 17th fairway.
Working overtime, the bunkers were installed in time for the competition.
Nobody is alive to refute that story, said Treadwell. We’re telling it and sticking with it.
In the 1960s, some Bethlehem Steel executives thought Saucon Valley was getting too big, so they purchased land at nearby Weyhill Farm and had Gordon design the Weyhill Course, which opened in 1968. Weyhill, which was recently renovated by The Fazio Group, served as the companion stroke-play qualifying venue for the Mid-Amateur.
If you were a member here [at Saucon Valley], you could play Weyhill for like $5, said Treadwell, who played ice hockey at Harvard University in the 1960s. They thought it was getting too crowded over here and they wanted [a club] that was more exclusive for their customers. They would do a lot of entertaining on the golf course.
But when Bethlehem Steel started its decline toward bankruptcy in the early 1990s, Saucon Valley, whose membership had diversified in the last quarter-century, purchased Weyhill in 1995. They also later purchased the Weyhill Guest House, which has newsContents to 1790. The Guest House has 13 unique guest rooms and was utilized during the Mid-Amateur.
Today, the club has nearly 1,000 members and features three championship-caliber courses, although all seven USGA championships contested at Saucon Valley have been played on the Old Course. Membership wanted to have Weyhill serve as the companion qualifying course to showcase the recent renovation, but some believe the Grace Course is the most challenging from the back tees.
The scoring averages between the two qualifying venues were almost identical. The Old Course, which hosted the match-play portion of the championship, played at 77.7, while Weyhill was 0.6 strokes lower.
When asked which course is his favorite, Treadwell opted for the political response.
It’s the one I am playing that day, he said.
Some remnants of the Bethlehem Steel days remain on the Weyhill Course, including limekilns that were used to make fertilizer. Two holes also traverse an old quarry.
But very little else is left from the Bethlehem Steel days. Treadwell, 71, is one of the few members with ties to the company.
Nevertheless, the club, with a tad fewer than 1,000 active members – 450 of whom are full-time members – still maintains a love for conducting elite competitions. Treadwell has been around for one U.S. Junior Amateur (1983), one U.S. Senior Amateur (1987), two U.S. Senior Opens (1992 and 2000) and one U.S. Women’s Open (2009). This week, he has been traversing the grounds, helping out in a variety of roles. He was even running caddie bibs to the tees.
Saucon Valley attracted 600 volunteers, enough to utilize a scorekeeper and forecaddie for each group during stroke-play qualifying, a first in the 34-year history of the Mid-Amateur.
It’s been a wonderful week, said Treadwell. I can’t say enough about the players and how they appreciated all of our volunteers. We’ve had a good percentage of our membership volunteering. And we got help from the Lehigh [University] kids.
I don’t know how the entire membership [at-large] feels about [the championship], but it’s been good.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.