Downingtown Country Club near Philly has had its ups and downs
DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. - If you search the Web for information on touring professional-turned-course architect George Fazio, you're likely to find most of the references to his name embedded within pages devoted to his famous course-designing nephew, Tom Fazio.
George Fazio turned to golf course design in the early 1960s as his successful competitive career wound down. He was the touring pro for several years playing out of the mythical Pine Valley, and in 1950, he was runner up to Ben Hogan in the U.S. Open at Merion. He took his 19-year-old nephew Tom under his wing, and the elder Fazio's firm went on to design and build some of the nation's premier tracks, including Hershey East in Pennsylvania, Jupiter Hills in south Florida, Pinehurst No. 6 in North Carolina, and 18 holes at PGA Village at Florida.
Rebirth at Downingtown Country Club
Among the roll-call of George Fazio designs, you will not find Downingtown Country Club listed anywhere. This is curious, given that on the golf course's own web site, Fazio is mentioned prominently as the architect. According to Downingtown Head Professional Peter Lovenguth, "[George] Fazio will never recognize that he did this course." When asked why, Lovenguth shrugs and answers simply, "It used to have stingy owners. They never paid him."
In 1995 - 30 years after its construction - Downingtown Country Club was purchased from said cheapskates by Jack Lowe, a developer who built several of the numerous retail outlets surrounding the course. Thus dawned a new era of pride at Downington Country Club, and a series of large-scale improvements were undertaken.
Dick Bellis, who has worked at Downingtown Country Club since 1995 and played there years prior to that, describes the fairways and greens as having been "basically shot." He goes on to enumerate the renovations since the change in ownership: "Mr. Lowe put in a new irrigation system, bent grass fairways and greens, and added or rebuilt over 95 sand bunkers, which made the course a lot harder." The clubhouse, an ancient once-abandoned farmhouse, was remodeled and expanded. Its stately facade today often leads people to believe that Downington Country Club is private. Luckily for the golfing public, it's not.
Downington Country Club shares its entrance with a sprawling strip-mall, which also owes its existence to Jack Lowe. Shoehorned into this upscale retail district in the tony Philadelphia suburbs, the course doesn't feel overly tight. But the collection of short par 4s and the omnipresent rumble of diesel engines betray the proximity of the rat-race just beyond the OB stakes.
What urban sprawl taketh away, however, it also giveth. Jack Lowe's developments have funded by what is by all accounts a remarkable transformation. Although open to the public, Downington Country Club has approximately 200 members. Two of these, Ray and Bill, both members for three years, were happy to share their feelings about the club.
"It's easy to walk," said Bill. "It's not a bomber's course - you need to think your way around it."
Both men agreed that the staff is always pleasant, and that the maintenance had improved greatly after "a few years of spotty conditions." "It's still not great," admitted Bill, "but it's a public course."
By comparison to any course, public or private, the landscaping around the 6,642-yard, par-72 layout is lush. Flower beds and ornamental bushes surround most tee boxes, and swaths of wild flowers and other native foliage frame greens and fairways.
Most prominent, though, is the seemingly endless parade of bunkers. Imaginative bunkering was the trademark of George Fazio designs. He and nephew Tom built a variety of shapes into their traps, including butterfly, flashed ovals, and even clover-leafs. Being gently tipped toward the line of play, the bunkers remained visible from the tees, helped define landing areas and offset monotonously green links.
Downingtown Country Club boasts trademark Fazio bunkering
Fazio's bunkering is immediately recognizable at Downington Country Club, and Lowe's restorations have been painstakingly true to "the Pine Valley look" that both Fazios' designs have since become famous for. The bunkers here are penal - flash-faced, with over-hanging shaggy lips. Dotting the artfully contoured and rather self-consciously unkempt edges of the traps are clumps of longer grass. Often players would rather be in the sand than just outside.
The front nine starts off rather easily, with the first five holes ranking as the 11th, 5th, 17th, 15th, and ninth-easiest, respectively - and the 369-yard par-4 second is by no means a round-breaker. In fact, only two par-4s on the course stretch over 400 yards - the 403-yard sixth and the 476-yard 11th. The latter plays a more manageable 431 from the blues, however.
Alas, the ever-present din and frequent views through the trees of warehouses, dumpsters, and loading docks remind golfers that we are too much of this world, even when immersed in a joyous better-ball scramble. Take, for example the par 3, 170-yard 12th, which requires a carry downhill over a pond and fountain to a right-to-left canted green. Directly behind this otherwise delightful hole is the back wall of one of the local malls, which tarnishes the mood somewhat.
One feels similarly encroached upon on the otherwise strong, and vexing, par-5 13th. With retail OB just beyond the foliage to the left, and overhanging limbs on the right, the tee shot must be threaded through a claustrophobic corridor. The hole plays longer than its 497 yards, as the fairway climbs languidly uphill toward a green perched precariously atop the surrounding trouble.
The 208-yard, par-3 17th has escaped the clutches of progress. The tee shot must be struck across wetlands thick with cattails. If they are walking, golfers then amble past a small waterfall over a wooden bridge to the undulating green. At this point, one might wonder if George Fazio perhaps should have acknowledged his hand in the design after all. For the most part, it is something to be proud of.
Downingtown Country Club: The verdict
Downington Country Club is not for golfers who feel that they've been ripped off if they don't get to rip their drivers on every par 4. If you enjoy the challenge of deciding between 5-iron to 3-wood off the tee, this is your kind of track. The routing is quirky, with just one par-3 and one par-5 on the front nine, but three of each on the back. This eccentricity forced by the small acreage doesn't really disturb the flow of the round, though. The greens, while not fast, are exceptionally true and smooth. Rates might be a touch high, but not severely out of step with the local market.
Stay and Play
Downington Country Club does not offer any packages, but the area is well worth an extended visit. Nearby West Chester is both hip and historical, riddled with trendy eateries, intimate inns, and upscale boutiques. Up Route 30 toward Melvern is the Desmond Hotel (desmondgv.com, (800) 575-1776).
Many of the aforementioned eateries are BYOB, so be sure to grab a nice bottle of wine or other adult beverage on your way to dinner. One of the most popular restaurants in ritzy West Chester is High Street Cafe (highstreetcafe.com, (610) 696-7435, $13-$25), which specializes in Cajun fare - you can't go wrong with the blackened catfish and jambalaya ($19). Also in the clubhouse itself is the Mill Town Grill, which Lowe converted from a dinner theater into fine dining.
March 24, 2006