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Women's Open Puts Lancaster, Flynn in Spotlight

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jul 2, 2015 | LANCASTER, Pa.

The par-4 fifth hole at Lancaster Country Club provides a stern test from tee to green, despite not featuring a single bunker. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

The 2013 U.S. Open marked Merion Golf Club’s 18th USGA championship, and Oakmont Country Club will host the U.S. Open next June, its 16th USGA championship. The two clubs have combined to host more USGA events than all but nine states, and are a major reason the Keystone State heads the list with 82 USGA championships.

Enter Lancaster Country Club, a Pennsylvania course which will host its first USGA championship, the U.S. Women’s Open, from July 9-12. It doesn’t sit on Philadelphia’s tony Main Line, like Merion, or near the state’s other major metropolis, Pittsburgh, as Oakmont does, but this William Flynn design garners high praise from many architectural experts.

Acclaimed modern designer Tom Doak put Lancaster on his list of the top 31 courses in his 1994 book, noting that the course possesses all the design features that made Flynn such a great architect.

Course architecture website Golf Club Atlas called Flynn’s work in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside “one of the best marriages of property with a master golf course architect.” Keep in mind, Lancaster is a traditional parkland course that meanders over gently rolling terrain.

However Lancaster is perceived, there’s little question that Flynn belongs in the conversation among the classic designers of his era. But he seems to fly under the radar next to A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and Seth Raynor, perhaps because he didn’t produce the volume of courses of his contemporaries.

According to author and Flynn historian Wayne Morrison, only 39 original Flynn courses are still in existence. That’s a relatively small number compared to Ross and Tillinghast. Then again, Flynn provided consultations on many original designs by others, most notably Pine Valley in southern New Jersey, often considered one of the world’s best courses.

Two of Flynn’s most heralded designs – Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., and Cherry Hills in suburban Denver – have each hosted multiple U.S. Opens, with Shinnecock hosting its fifth in 2018.

Lancaster Country Club- a William Flynn Classic

Philadelphia Country Club, another Flynn design, hosted the 1939 U.S. Open and more recently, the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur. The Kitansett Club, in Marion, Mass., hosted the 1953 Walker Cup Match.

Raised in Milton, Mass., Flynn competed as a schoolboy against future U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet. Flynn’s career break came when Hugh Wilson hired him to assist with the completion of Merion’s famed East Course. Wilson’s failing health prevented the two from having a long-standing business relationship, so Flynn partnered with Howard Toomey shortly after World War I, with Flynn handling the course design and Toomey the engineering.

It was at Lancaster that Flynn spent the most time, constantly tinkering with the design from 1919 until his death in 1945. Morrison said that some hole designs changed as much as seven times, while other holes were abandoned and some “incorporated on different parts of the club’s vast [430-acre] property.”

Anyone who has played Lancaster knows they are on a Flynn course before their opening tee shot. A plaque dedicated to the designer greets players near the first tee. Once on the layout, the Flynn features begin to unfold, from the bunkers to the subtle green complexes.

“The phrase for Flynn is he was a routing genius,” said Ron Forse, a Flynn aficionado who, along with his design associate, Jim Nagle, has spent the past 10 years restoring Lancaster to its original look. “He was so good at that. It’s unbelievable how he could see golf holes and take advantage of the ground.”

The Flynn/Lancaster relationship began in 1919 when Green Committee Chairman Roy Eshelman brought the architect to Lancaster to expand the existing nine-hole layout into an 18-hole course. But the club didn’t have the financial means to carry out the plan in the immediate wake of World War I. It took years before Flynn could shape the course to his liking.

Lancaster’s current look didn’t take shape until 1938, when Eshelman purchased farmland on the east side of the Conestoga River and sold the property to the club for the sole purpose of creating golf holes. In exchange, according to longtime member Rory Connaughton, the club gave up some of its property to Eshelman, which he used for real estate development.

The land swap completely changed the look of Lancaster, creating the current third through sixth holes.

While some have credited William Gordon, a partner in the firm, for designing Nos. 3-6, Connaughton and others dispute that notion. The club found a Flynn drawing of the par-4 third hole, and Connaughton asserts, “These are definitely Flynn holes.”

“They were built by Gordon,” said Nagle. “We haven’t seen the plans for 4, 5 and 6, but … Flynn was responsible for the routing of those holes. Gordon – because [the finished product came] after Flynn’s death – implemented those plans.”

Other tweaks have been made over the years, but Forse and Nagle both said Flynn would clearly recognize the layout today.

His ability to use the land contours is clearly evident, especially on the four later holes.

“Some people feel [his style] doesn’t jump out,” said Forse. “His greens have broad-sweeping contours that have melded beautifully into their surrounds. He found very natural green sites. Most of the time, he didn’t perch greens like other architects. It extends to his ability to route a golf course.

“There are so many complexities built into the routing and the green design and in its strategies. He was different than Ross or Tillinghast in that he didn’t have the volume of projects, so he took more time on-site as well as the guys who [worked] underneath him such as Dick Wilson and the Gordons (William and David).”

Nearly half of the tee shots at Lancaster – excluding the par-3 holes – are hit into upslopes, where the player gets minimal roll. Flynn was one of the few designers of his era to see that the game was changing through technological advancements, and that he needed to construct more stout layouts to combat those enhancements. Robert Trent Jones Sr. followed suit in the post-World War II era.

“Flynn was big and broad,” said Forse. “I think he had an Americanized, athletic mindset that comes out in his designs.”

Added Nagle: “He saw the need to [lengthen] because the game was changing with the shaft and ball. He had the ability to mix a good strategic short par 4 and slightly undulating long par 4s.”

Half of Lancaster’s 12 par 4s will measure 400-plus yards for the U.S. Women’s Open. But the shorter par 4s won’t be pushovers. The 392-yard fifth is a sweeping dogleg left featuring an uphill tee shot. It’s also one of two holes – the par-3 sixth is the other – without a single bunker, a rarity in today’s game. No. 14 at Augusta is among the more famous holes without a sand hazard. Forse and Nagle point out that bunkers are often employed to define and beautify golf holes.

The fifth hole still forces the player to think hard off the tee. Chew off too much of the dogleg, and trees and rough make the approach to a green protected by a creek nearly impossible. Playing too far to the right will add as much as two clubs to the second shot.

“That par 4 is one of the best bunkerless [holes] in existence,” said Forse. “His ability to use the land, his eye, was just incredible.”

When Lancaster decided to undertake some renovations, club superintendent Todd Bidlespacher recommended Nagle, whom he had gotten to know from his work at Kirtland Country Club in Willoughby, Ohio, near Cleveland. It began with rebuilding bunkers and a couple of greens. Club members liked what they saw and Forse and Nagle have continued to work with the club to this date. It is one of nine Flynn course restorations that the design firm lists on its website, including Philadelphia Country Club and Rolling Green Golf Club, in Springfield, Pa., site of the 2016 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

“Ron and I have discussed many times what a pleasure it has been to work on so many Flynns,” said Nagle. “We’ve worked [at Lancaster] for 10 years now and it never hit me until the other day that there are five holes in a row (Nos. 3 through 7) on a classic course where water comes into play. You see that more on modern courses.”

The recent work by Forse and Nagle, which included regrassing the greens, hasn’t gone unnoticed. Ben Crenshaw, who has produced many modern gems with partner Bill Coore, dropped by Lancaster one day and left a handwritten note that read, “I want to congratulate Ron Forse [and Jim Nagle] for doing such a diligent job in the restoration. Protect this course!”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at

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