Golf Course Review – Applecross Country Club

By Phil Sokol
Courtesy of The Sports Network

It’s hard to believe that one of the leading golf design firms in the world, Jack Nicklaus Design, had not penned a course in the Philadelphia region. That is, until now.

The Golden Bear’s design team, led by youngest son Michael, has crafted a venue just west of the city of Brotherly Love in Downingtown … Applecross Country Club.

Surprisingly, Nicklaus Design had built only two courses prior to Applecross in Pennsylvania, Great Bear Golf Club in the Poconos and The Club at Nevillewood in Western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh.

Applecross, penned as “Philadelphia’s only Nicklaus Design,” is the first new course to open in the region in over five years. In fact, it took four years just to build the layout and almost another 10 to create the development. When all is said and done, the entire community is expected to be completed by 2017.

Most scribes and those in the know are aware of Jack’s wonderful U.S. designs, Muirfield Village, Shoal Creek, Castle Pines and Harbour Town (with Pete Dye) to name a few, but it was his 37-year-old son Michael, who got the nod for Applecross. “Being part of Nicklaus Design, I was part of a rotation with my brothers, so it was my turn in the rotation for Applecross,” said Nicklaus.

“Being the youngest has its advantages,” continued Nicklaus, who has been involved with design projects from North Carolina to Southern Spain to Japan. “I have been able to take what my dad and brothers have taught me about their individual design styles and blend them with my own. They’ve shared their philosophies and strategies for taking undeveloped land and creating works of art that are not only enjoyable to play, but are aesthetically pleasing. This is a challenge that I have embraced. I hope people will see that manifested at Applecross.”

Recent economic times, among other factors, certainly put a damper on the immediacy of the project, but Nicklaus and company were patient, prudent and persistent. Hey, with the kind of money bandied about these days, you have to be. “We did a routing early on and I think it took them 4-5 years to get to the point where we were actually going to build a golf course. They had water commission and management issues and permit after permit that had to be in place before we did anything.”

The price tag 10 years ago was $45 million. Not bad, considering the property encompasses over 700 acres of rolling farmland, natural wetlands, creeks and thick wooded areas. “We were extremely excited about the property because of the nice rolling hills,” Nicklaus continued. “It was a real good piece of property for a golf course.”

Nicklaus’ design beliefs are similar to that of the Golden Bear. “My dad’s golf course philosophy influenced me a lot. His designs are to be played by all levels of golf. When he was younger, he may have designed courses more for the pro. He is designing courses now that are designed for everybody and that is what I tried to do at Applecross. We do that with five sets of tees, but also different course carries. Trying to work with the land, instead of against it.”

Nicklaus made several visits to the site, but it was design associate Dave Heatwole, who put it to paper. “Dave pretty much does all the actual architectural drawing,” Nicklaus added. “I am more involved with strategy, placement and overall playability. Dave would take that and translate it to paper and then he would have a construction person translate that to dirt. It’s quite a process to get it to look like you want it to.”

Located on what was Overlook Road Farm, Applecross roams through East Brandywine Township, where a residential golf community, when complete, will feature over 1,000 homes and villas. Not to mention, Applecross Country Club.

Just 376 yards in length off the back tees, the opening hole can be as simple as you want it to be. A sharp dogleg to the right, the first can be had if you’re bold off the tee. The landing area is quite wide with just one bunker guarding the corner of the bend, so if you’re conservative, you’ll have an uphill approach of about 150 yards to the green. If you decide to take a risk, then cut the corner of the dogleg and a mere pitch remains. A word of caution, as tall native grasses cover the entire right side of the hole, so any mishit tee shot is a double-bogey waiting to happen. The putting surface slopes away to the right with a large bunker guarding the left.

The second of four par-four holes on the front side under 400 yards, is quite deceiving, as it swings to the left and plays uphill toward the green. A big sweeping draw around the corner will set up a medium to short iron to the promised land. If you’re bold enough, play a power-fade off the tee, cutting the corner of the dogleg, flirting with the native-grassed out-of-bounds, and you’ll have a simple wedge in. The green slopes hard from back to front, so stay below the hole for your best shot at birdie. Framed beautifully with a fence down the left and bunkers down the right, No. 2 is the first of many signature holes.

Downhill from the tee, the third can be stretched to a whopping 233 yards from the back markers, but will play significantly shorter. With tall, majestic trees as a backdrop, a long iron should suffice, but it’s the putting surface that can create havoc. Sloping from front to back, the green is guarded in front by a massive bunker and the trap in the rear will gather plenty of attention, as balls tend to roll long. The green is quite wide, so missing on the wrong side, will bring three-putt, or heaven forbid, four-putt into play.

Birdie is a distinct possibility at the fourth, a short par four of just 311 yards. Pound a drive down the right side, away from the trees and over a ridge and you’ll be left with a little pitch to a long, but narrow putting surface. Sand left by the green and the pot bunker right, should not come into play, unless, of course, you’re a touring professional. Hey, if the author can birdie this, anyone can.

In stark contrast to the opening four holes, the fifth is a bear, no pun intended. Ranked as the No. 1 handicap hole, it also is the longest par four on the course at 469 yards. Your opening tee shot must clear a stream to a split-fairway, as it bends toward the right. Playing left to the fat part of the landing area will leave quite a long second to another long and narrow green. Cut off as much as you can off the tee, but be careful, as the wetlands down the right will come into play. A medium to long iron will be your course of action. Play toward the left side of the green, as most shots will feed toward the center of the green – not to mention, you’ll be avoiding the large bunker to the right. Par is a great score here.

The sixth is a straight-forward, uphill par three. The scorecard says 210 yards from the black markers. The range finder says, break out your hybrid or 3-metal, otherwise, you’ll come up empty, as this hole can be stretched over 225 yards. A false front deceives the player, not to mention the long putting surface, that’s blind to the eye off the tee. The sand short of the green shouldn’t come into play, but a mishit from the start, could doom the card.

Target golf is all about the seventh. A relatively easy par four of just 366 yards, you’ll need to be at your accurate-best to tame this two-shotter. Wetlands to the left, mounding and rough right and half-a-dozen bunkers through the fairway to avoid. Simple enough, right? Three metal off the tee might be the prudent play to the straightaway fairway. Your approach to the dogleg right will be uphill, but with a very short club to a two-tiered green that’s angled to the left. A back-left pin will be extremely difficult to attack, but when the pin is low and right, go for it. The seventh was one of the holes that had to be adjusted. “We had property lines set up and there was some corridors that we had set up and they had encroached upon, causing us to change some of the holes, and seven in particular was one of the holes we had to change,” Nicklaus continued. “I think seven turned out to be a nice hole, in fact, I actually really like seven.”

As John Daly once said, “Grip it and rip it” is certainly the philosophy of the eighth. A medium lengthened, downhill hole that swings hard to the left, this par four, features a wide landing area, with just one bunker down the left to avoid. From the fairway, it’s just a short iron to a well-guarded, tiered green that runs right to left. Two deep bunkers protect the right corner of the surface and certainly come into play with the pin back-right. Any approach that carries too long will run off the green into a collection area. It’s no wonder this is rated as the third-most difficult hole on the course.

Most golf course architects hate the phrase “signature hole,” but the closing hole on the outward nine can certainly earn that moniker. A sweeping, downhill roller-coaster of a hole, the ninth features all the elements. If you can sling your tee shot from right to left, around and through the quartet of traps down both sides, you’ll have a chance of getting home in two. That however, is where the fun starts. You see, from 100 yards in, the entire right side is flanked by a pond that you must cover if you want to reach in two. The smart play is to lay up down the left side with your second shot, thus leaving a mere sand wedge to a long and narrow green. Sand short and right of the putting surface will make your life difficult, so avoid at all costs. This hole can be had, if the play is right.

Originally the shortest par four on the course, a new tee has been added to now stretch the 10th to 360 yards. Playing from the practice putting green, your tee shot is one of the most difficult at Applecross. What’s in store? You start out with your tee ball that must be fashioned through a chute of trees to a minuscule fairway. Both sides of the narrow fairway are flanked with woods and wetlands, so target play is at its highest. From the fairway, a medium iron should remain to a green guarded by a trio of traps. The devilish pot bunker on the right of the green is precariously close to the wetlands on the right. It’s time to re-rate the handicap of this hole.

Although not a gimme birdie by any stretch, the 11th is rated as the easiest on the course. Just 157 yards long, it requires just a short iron to a Redan- styled green. Three traps surround the undulating putting surface. A back- right pin will get you every time, so play toward the center, and if you happen to make a putt, so be it. Otherwise, take par and move on, as a par five awaits.

If you thought the ninth was a signature hole, well, No. 12 is no slouch, either. Certainly the longest hole on the course at 596 yards, the 12th is a wonderful and challenging par five that has the appearance of a three-shotter, but can be reached in two. Doglegging hard to the left, your tee shot must travel down that side, slightly uphill and over water and sand to an ample landing area. If enough of the dogleg is cut off, then you get the green light to go for it. It’s a tall task, but worth the risk, as it’s mostly downhill toward the green. Just short of the putting surface is a deep valley which sits 40 yards shy, so from this point, it’s back up to the green. Sand right and left and one rear of the shallow putting surface receives plenty of attention, so put your foot on the pedal.

Another risk-reward hole is the sharp, dogleg right par-four 13th. One of five 400-yard-plus par fours at Applecross, lucky 13 (or unlucky depending upon your score) is a great option test. Do you cut off the corner of the dogleg, risking the possibility of ending up on sand or, worse, wetlands, or do you play out to the left to the fat portion of the fairway? Decisions, decisions. First of all, you’re on an elevated tee, so the answer is, go, go, go. As long as you don’t push your shot too far right, the worst-case scenario is 150 yards in. From there, it’s just a short iron to a sloping green that falls away to the right. Sand, wetlands and woods guard the right of the putting surface, so play toward the left and middle of the green and your ball should feed in nicely.

Rated as one of the easiest holes on the course, the 14th is anything but. One of three par three’s over 200 yards long, this one-shotter plays quite difficult. First off, from the back tees it requires at the very least a long iron and more often than that, a fairway metal. It’s a long carry over wetlands and a stream just to reach the promised land, and the putting surface is long and narrow. There is very little in terms of bailout area, as the right side is guarded by sand and the left is thick rough. If you escape with a three here, consider yourself fortunate.

Only 532 yards long on the scorecard, the 15th seems to be a pushover. Hardly. Playing uphill from the tee and usually into the wind, you’ll be hard-pressed to get home in two or have a simple pitch to the green. What makes this par five difficult is the layup play. The tee shot should be academic, as the fairway is fairly wide with just one bunker down the right. Here’s where it gets tricky, as bunkers cross the fairway around the 100-yard mark. The decision is to lay up short of the sand, leaving a longer approach, or attack and try to clear the trouble, giving yourself a really good shot at birdie. Although no sand guards the green, the putting surface is minuscule and sloped on all sides. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

From an elevated tee box, the 16th is a medium-length par four reaching 436 yards. Trouble looms in a big way down the left side in the form of bunkers, so play down the right of this rolling fairway that slopes to the right. This is the favorable side, as a successful tee ball with give you the best angle to carry the wetlands toward the green and bypass the trees on either side. The pear-shaped putting surface breaks from right to left and plays slightly uphill, so try to stay below the hole. Any shot long or left with make for a difficult up-and-down.

The 17th is one of the longest par fours on the course, reaching 445 yards, but it plays slightly shorter, as it’s downhill from an elevated tee box. There are no fairway traps to contend with, but trees down the right are to be avoided, as well as the rough left. As is the case with most courses, hit it straight and you’re safe. A medium to long iron will remain to a two-tiered green that slopes to the front. Miss short and right and you’ll be bunkered. Missing long and left is the bailout side, although it won’t be easy to make par, as a large collection area awaits. Be wary of a back-left pin, as this is no place for heroes.

Heading for home, the closing hole is a go-for-broke par five of 534 yards from the black markers. It’s one of those holes that you can realistically get home in two, even for us average hitters. The fairway is quite ample, features a downhill slope and generally plays downwind. The one caveat: avoid the bunker down the left side. Seems simple enough. Next you’ll have a decision to make, just like you did on the 15th. No fairway bunkers to mess with, but with a good tee shot, you’ll have a shot at reaching the green. As you get closer to the putting surface, the fairway tightens and the three bunkers left and right of the green really come into play. So your choice is, blast a long iron or fairway metal and let the chips fall where they may, or take your seven- iron lay up and leave a short, uphill pitch to the green. Either way, you should have a realistic birdie chance. It’s always nice to finish on a positive note.

Barely over a year old, the course fits the land like it’s been there for years. Sure Applecross Country Club needs to grow in, but in a very short period of time the course has matured beautifully. “Usually, you want it to look like it was there,” Nicklaus added. “You also want it to play like a golf course is supposed to play. For a year-old golf course, it’s in great shape.”

As mentioned before, no designer wants to put labels on certain holes as his favorite or “Signature Hole,” but Applecross has several. Everyone knows the 17th at TPC Sawgrass is its most-talked-about hole or that the “Church Pews” at Oakmont are revered by all. At Applecross, there are many favorites, like the second, seventh, ninth or 12th and 13th. The holes will keep you guessing, not to mention test your golf game.

That might be an understatement. “I think the course finishes pretty well,” continued Nicklaus. “It’s not easy on the front side, but there are places where you can score. Then, I think it’s gets a little teeth coming in. Twelve, all the way around, is a pretty good test of golf. Eighteen is a very birdieable par five and that’s good. When you’re out there playing with somebody and there’s something on the line, whether it’s pride or a dollar or whatever it might be, that give and take of holes is what makes it fun.”

Moving on, the amenities at Applecross will blow you a way.

A professional-styled practice facility, complete with putting and chipping areas, indoor and outdoor pool areas, state-of-the-art fitness center, tennis and even access to its sister-course, Talamore Country Club in nearby Ambler, Penn., and the “Piece de resistance,” playing privileges at Talamore Golf Resort in Pinehurst, N.C., which features 36 holes of golf by Arnold Palmer and Rees Jones.

Back to basics, however, the course features water and wetlands on 14 of the 18 holes, as it rolls through Southeastern Pennsylvania countryside. Sets of tees that range from just over 5,000 yards to a little over 7,000 yards, so playability for all levels is achieved.

“I like to trick people up a little bit with some of the visuals, as far as where the bunkers hang back a little more than right by the green. Having said that, I don’t like to trick people into shooting a bad score. I want the golf course to challenge them, but if you hit a good golf shot, you should get your reward. The risk-reward aspect of my dad’s design philosophy is probably one of the biggest parts that I relate to. Most of what I do has a risk-reward aspect and that’s important.”

Applecross wasn’t the easiest design to finish, as there were obstacles along the way, such as the environmental issues on the 10th hole, but, when all was said and done, the finished product came up roses. “One of the things I enjoy most about it (course design) is coming out, this one in particular, because I did see it when it was totally raw farmland and we turned it into a golf course that people are enjoying.”

Having your name on the bill, certainly puts added pressure on your ability, but Nicklaus was equal to the task. “Yes, I’m happy with it. When you go to a place and the current members are excited about the golf course that they like to play day in and day out and it’s not something they are bored with, then you’ve done a good job.”

No, it’s not a Jack Nicklaus design, it’s Mike Nicklaus and the “Apple” certainly didn’t fall far from the tree.

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