Rolling Green will always be the golf course.
I have been fortunate to tee it up around the world, playing every links in Ireland and Scotland, and trying my hand at professional golf in places as far-flung as Ontario and Australia, but when I hear the words golf course, my imagination will forever conjure glimpses of fairways in Springfield, Pa.
I grew up at Rolling Green, as a golfer and as a young man. My father was a member for 40-plus years, and I spent my summers caddieing at the course in the afternoons and playing it in the evenings, going around its loop of holes a thousand times before I reached college. It was my second home, my summer camp, a place where I learned the values of work and play and endeavored to make a career out of both. I write about golf for a living today, but I doubt that would be the case if my mom had not dropped me off at Rolling Green every morning from June to September. Summers spent at another course might have shown me golf to be hard, fun, frustrating or fulfilling, but at Rolling Green I learned that golf was extraordinary. The golf I played and witnessed as a young man was fascinating and fickle. Rolling Green was a golf course special enough to spark a life-long obsession with the game, and for that, I owe these holes a great deal.
I probably spent more time waiting to caddie than I did carrying a bag, and in those hours awaiting a loop, my friends and I would sometimes debate which hole on the course was best. Everybody had his own signature hole; consensus was impossible. Later in life, when I started to work in the pro shop, after closing I would sit around a table of empty beer bottles with the assistant pros and deliberate over which courses in the area topped Rolling Green, going hole for hole through its layout and searching for weak notes. They were difficult to find and made for long, impassioned arguments. We were lucky in Philadelphia to share a golf section with Merion, Pine Valley, Aronimink and the like, but when it came to the subject of which course we would want to play everyday for the rest of our lives, none of the bigger names beat Rolling Green. We felt fortunate for knowing this, as if the place was our own secret. And as I’ve traveled the golf world, I have experienced the pleasure of knowing this secret, when someone hears that I’m from Philadelphia and asks if I’ve played all the usual suspects. When I mention that I grew up at Rolling Green, they usually don’t know the name, but for the rare few who do, you see that pause and look in their eye, Rolling Green, a silent recognition of something truly special.
As for what makes Rolling Green special, some will point to its 90-year history and its designer. Founded by Quakers who wanted a place to enjoy their spirits outside of dry Swarthmore (there may be more noble roots to the club’s origin, but that was the story dad always told me), the course was laid out by the legendary William S. Flynn, architect of Shinnecock Hills and Cherry Hills who had a hand in the design of both Merion and Pine Valley. Flynn is one of the pillars of the Philadelphia School of golf design that influenced golf courses the world over, and experts will tell you that Rolling Green exhibits the finest characteristics of his work.
Others will point to Rolling Green’s challenge, evidenced in the 1976 U.S. Women’s Open where 8 over par was the winning total, and where JoAnne Gunderson Carner won in a playoff with a score of 76. But for me, there are 18 reasons why Rolling Green is special, with its blend of thoughtful golf shots that taught a kid who once thought golf was boring that it was everything else.
Course-raters reference shot values and variety, playability and difficulty in assessing a golf course. Rolling Green ranks high on all such meters – from five par 3s that could not be more distinct from one another, to a nearly reachable par 4, to an entirely unreachable par 5, to ups and downs and twists and turns – level lies are rare, the greens are unyielding, and you may call on every one of your 14 clubs at Rolling Green. Distance is rewarded but not required, shot-shaping is essential, and best of all, none of the above feels tricky in the slightest, an organically found golf course from an era when imagination shaped golf courses instead of bulldozers. Metrics aside, I judge a course’s quality by how many shots I recall that evening as I drift off to sleep. How many shots still haunt or excite or puzzle you long after the round has been played? Memory knows best when a golf course is great, and at Rolling Green, my memory recalls every shot, and every yard.
I remember the first tee for its nerves and for the opening drive that disguises itself as generous but pushes thoughtless swings right toward trees and sand. One of the more straight-forward holes at Rolling Green, it is sneaky tough with steep greenside bunkers and one of the most punitive greens on the course. (It’s wise to stay below the holes on these old greens, almost all of them running back to front in old-school drainage style, but the first is especially severe.) From the tee, one looks like a warm-up, but I don’t think I’ve parred any hole at Rolling green fewer times.
Two wakes a golfer up to the drama that is Rolling Green, with a drive pointing you into a hillside with bunkers guarding the aggressive line. It is another hole that seems to offer you plenty of space to hit it, then makes you wonder why you are hacking out of the right rough. The par-3 third looks simple enough, unless you find the sand on either side that turns a gimmee front flagstick into an impossible up-and-down. Hitting the green does not guarantee 3, either, as three’s green holds an optical illusion where balls seem to move more quickly uphill and slower down.
The par-4 fourth demands accuracy to find the slanted fairway with an unseen creek bed left, and the uphill approach is always tough to judge. Its elevated and sloped green is one of a number at Rolling Green where, should you come up short or fail to control your spin, you can find a solidly struck approach running back down the hill toward you like a kid who forgot his lunch. Driving over the crest on the blind fifth is the rare chance at Rolling Green to swing away if you are confident on your line, but birdies are tough to come by on its large and fickle green.
Six begins one of the most challenging, dramatic ends to an outward nine that you will find anywhere — from a meaty par 3 where you need to carry every inch up to its perched green on six, you often arrive at seven coming off a bogey, eager to make birdie on a reachable par 5. But nowhere on the course does double and triple bogey come more into play than on the seventh, with a tee that nudges you toward water and out of bounds left, and a green that runs so quickly away from you that smart players will test their links game and land approaches short, running their balls into the green. The stout eighth asks you to drive to an island or dare to cross two streams before trying to hoist an approach to a mountaintop, two-tiered green where this week, you will see some very good players putt their balls from 20 feet and have 80 yards coming back.
Nine is the hole most visitors recall when they remember Rolling Green – after the stress of the last three holes, a 600-plus-yard side-hill, uphill par 5 with a slickly sloped green feels like rare punishment. Golfers who navigate six through nine around par will have done very well for themselves, but the challenge begins quickly on the back. Ten is a par 3 that would be a par 4 on some courses, though this uphill hole quixotically plays shorter than its card length if you are able to use the right side and scoot your ball into the green. For my money, the most striking vista on the course is on the 11th tee where a deep par 4 runs away from you into a yawning valley, but should the view distract you, there are plenty of vulnerable windows lining the right side to get your attention. The short par-4 12th is likely Rolling Green’s signature hole where a well-placed layup is key, a great thinking hole where the closer you drive it to the green, the harder your approach might be.
The Amen Corner of Rolling Green begins at 13, perhaps the toughest hole on the course. The par 4 requires a precision drive to the top of a hill and an approach over a creek and valley to a tabletop green with more nasty back-to-front slope. Short approaches leave un-comfortable chips up to an invisible flagstick where few get up and down for par. Four feels like a birdie on 13, especially when you step up to another card-wrecker, the par-3 14th where players often need a wood (in 1976, many in the U.S. Women’s Open came up short with driver) to cross a deep ravine and reach the putting surface. Fourteen will also test players’ vertigo as they cross a tall trestle footbridge from tee to green, one of Rolling Green’s defining features. If a player’s score has survived through fourteen, the drive through a shoot of trees on a hard dogleg-left with a creek guarding the right side of 15 will have knees knocking. (One of the things I appreciate most about Rolling Green is that while creeks often come into play, there are no large bodies of water on the course. The challenges at Rolling Green are more inspired than a big duck pond; I find no shot less imaginative on a golf course than one tossed into a drop zone.)
Sixteen is a chance to catch your breath, but again, the green is harder to hit than it looks -- the elevation and carry makes the distance a head-scratcher, and while the hole asks you to play a cut into a back flag, too much cut will take balls to very dark places. Some folks criticize RG’s finish for closing with two par 5s (though 18 is now often played as a par 4), but I always appreciated the chance to fight for two much-needed birdies coming home, and while they are of similar, reachable length, they could not be more distinct otherwise. Each bends in opposite directions, and where 17 requires a drawn drive and bombed approach, on 18 the scenario flips, allowing you to swing away one last time from the tee box, then finagle an approach around a corner and attempt a big cut off a big hook lie. They are classic match- play closers, where birdie and bogie are both in play and high-handicappers have a chance to put their shots to winning use.
A subtle, stunning, thinking golfer’s golf course – players won’t know Rolling Green’s challenge and its grace until they have golfed their way around its hills and charted their way through its nuances. But after doing so, they won’t have a hard time recalling their shots or planning tomorrow’s. All 18 come back to you. For some of us – the lucky ones – they come back for a lifetime.
Tom Coyne is the New York Times bestselling author of “A Course Called Ireland”, “Paper Tiger” and “A Gentleman’s Game”, which was adapted into a motion picture starting Gary Sinise and was filmed in part at Rolling Green Golf Club. His next book, “A Course Called The Kingdom”, will be released in 2017 from Simon & Schuster. He is an assistant professor of English at St. Joseph’s University, and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters.