Finding a golf course that offers you the opportunity to challenge the upper reaches of your skill level while rewarding the cautious course manager may not be a rarity, but it’s still a delight when you find one. Such is the find at the inviting—and invitingly thought-provoking—Downingtown Country Club in Downingtown, Pa.
A mid-’60s, parkland-style layout by George Fazio, Downingtown plays at a compact 6,642 yards. At first, you might think you’re in for a straightjacket of a round of either being straight and accurate or playing recovery shots from among the trees. But Downingtown is surprisingly generous for the golfer who has an eye on playing it safe, while still offering opportunities for the average player to score well.
“Accomplished golfers may play the first five holes thinking they should be one or more under par,” says one veteran of the course. “They’re tempted, then, to take it up a notch—and that’s when they hit the sixth and seventh, which can make or break their round, depending on just how much risk they’re willing to accept.”
This is not to say that the first five holes are cupcakes. Fazio’s tendency here to construct trouble left and right as the primary challenge to shotmaking is visible on the first hole, a seemingly benign 397-yard “starter” par 4. While the pond on the left is primarily an optical defense, its presence may push tee shots farther right, where fairway and greenside bunkers suggest something less than the ideal path to the green and an opening birdie putt or safe par.
The 369-yard second hole continues Fazio’s left-right theme, with a sloping right to a tree-lined landing area that will block a straight approach to the green. A bunker at the top left side of the sloping fairway, however, may steer your target landing to that limiting right side. The plateau green will shed anything that’s off target.
The course’s first par 3, a mid-sized 187-yard one-shotter at the third, features a deep green framed by bunkers left and right, demanding accuracy off the tee.
So, you have the one-under round going as you approach the sixth tee? The sixth and the seventh pack Downingtown’s one-two punch, which can send an anticipated personal best either to the canvas or ultimately dancing in the middle of the ring.
These holes are the only back-to-back lengthy par 4s on the course, and represent the No. 1 and No. 3 handicap holes on the front. (The 476-yard 11th is the longest—and maybe the straightest—par 4 on the course, but it is framed by a short par 4 and a medium-length par 3). There’s no question that survival here is the launching point for a great round of golf.
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Visually, the 403-yard sixth offers an expansive look from the tee, a sort of summary view of the course’s overall physical attractiveness. But beauty quickly turns to beast, as a rightside fairway bunker defends against the safety drive, while a tight, treelined leftside teasingly offers the shorter path to the green for your approach. But landing in jail in those trees, and a partially hidden, reedy lateral hazard greenside left, leaves the risky drive with little reward if not perfectly executed. Your first double awaits, should you choose the road less traveled down the left.
The seventh appears to offer a respite from accuracy off the tee with a wide open fairway look. But the tee shot is upslope and blind, and the approach is to another elevated green tucked among a copse of mature hardwoods. Bunkers right provide the final gravesite for this pair of do-or-die challenges as you look ahead to the next third of your round.
Much is mentioned about the trees so far, but it should also be noted the oak and fir that mingle amid the dominant maple are well-pruned around the bottom, and while thickly positioned, offer ample opportunity to escape back into play. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew in a recovery shot—try to remember that swing that got you there in the first place.
The back nine features three of Downingtown’s four par 5s, two of which offer scoring opportunities to get your game back on track or accelerate it forward.
The back nine also presents golfers with the most visually attractive par 3, and is Downingtown’s signature hole. A 170-yard one-shotter, it’s all carry over a shimmering pond. The tee shot requires both accuracy and distance control. The face of the green will spit short hits back toward the pond, while tee shots hit too long will bury in the far reaches of a green that runs diagonally away from the golfer.
The par-5 18th, the course’s longest hole at 562 yards, is a great finishing hole that offers one last challenge for that record round or one last opportunity to play it smart.
Water on the left side steers your drive and second shot out to the right lying, rolling fairway, where the hole will play slightly
longer, but safer. The elevated green has bunkers protecting left and right, and a par here will feel like a birdie.
Ken Dixon, who became the club’s head pro over the winter, says he’s excited to get out on the course that he’s played only a handful of times. “I’m really looking forward to it because it’s the style of golf course I really enjoy playing,” he says.
Downingtown is a fair test of golf, and with peak fees topping out at $84 with a cart, it remains moderately priced for the quality. One additional attraction is that walking is allowed at any time.
For more, visit golfdowningtown.com or the club’s page on Facebook.