Twice as Nice: Penn Oaks and Rock Manor Reborn

Two local courses get facelifts.

The Greening of Penn Oaks

Turning around a golf course takes time. At Penn Oaks, it’s been worth the wait.

The DiMarco brothers have helped transform Penn Oaks Golf Club into a great place to play golf—and socialize. Dick Kearney remembers when West Chester’s Penn Oaks was in such a state of disrepair, he was ashamed to take a guest there.

“The ground was hard and bare from a lack of proper irrigation, the condition of the greens was inconsistent throughout the course, and the fairways and tees were in rough shape,” says the 54-year-old, who has seen three owners during his 22 years of membership there.

That third ownership group, however, has made a real difference. “There’s no comparison,” says Kearney. “The course is in great shape. The food service is much improved.”

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The latter is significant. There’d been a time when even the members wouldn’t eat in the grill room—that’s if the members had decided to remain members in the first place, which many didn’t. “I was close to leaving, myself,” Kearney recalls.

But Kearney saw something in the group that took over the food service in 2003. “The new ownership demonstrated that it would spend the money necessary to bring the course back into shape,” he says.

Those owners, entrepreneur Steve DiMarco and his brother John, had to prove they knew what they were doing, both to the ownership of the time, then to themselves. They did.

“I knew the food business,” Steve DiMarco says, “and in the first year of running food and beverage there, we turned a loss into a profit.”

The DiMarcos would soon purchase the course and the many pieces of the Penn Oaks puzzle began to take shape. The first physical improvement was building a restroom on the course for women. The male membership had a fit.

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“They couldn’t understand how we could spend $40,000 of club money on a bathroom,” DiMarco says. “But the spike in new women members more than made up for the cost.”

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Then, as Kearney tells it, attention to the little things caused former members and guests to admit the place had changed for the better. In addition to removing about 1,500 trees, which has helped turf growth, the owners renovated the bunkers and installed new irrigation.

“We’re currently spending in the neighborhood of $650,000 per year on maintenance,” DiMarco says, “where previously it amounted to less than half that.”

Membership has remained affordable since the DiMarco group took over, with a $1,500 initiation fee and annual golf rates from $3,100 to $4,600. As a result, membership has doubled. DiMarco says most of the profit will come from food sales.

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“We want to maintain a family friendly and strong social environment here,” DiMarco says. He cites the example of players from two nearby high schools who have permission to play for free. “The coaches told me they wanted to show how much they and their players appreciated Penn Oaks, so they offered to help take care of the course free of charge.

“About 25 students showed up and were soon joined by about 75 of our own members,” DiMarco says. “Others went home for equipment, and we wound up putting in about 3,000 man hours all together, fixing divots, ball marks and grooming bunkers.”

Kearney says members appreciate the effort and money the partners put into redoing the grill and restaurant for similar social reasons.

“Now we have husbands bringing their wives for dinner, and they make friends with other spouses, and before you know it, they’re all playing golf together,” Kearney says.

The club remains an ever-expanding hive of activity and energy, and the members are happy. They have learned to appreciate, among other amenities, the convenience of an on-course restroom.

“I can’t find a single negative thing to talk about,” Kearney says. •
 

Page 3: Rock Solid | Rock Manor is not the same course it used to be. Prepare for some memorable holes.

 

All of Rock Manor’s tees, greens, bunkers and fairways were renovated and mounds were added throughout the course.Rock Solid

Rock Manor is not the same course it used to be. Prepare for some memorable holes.

When Steve Brady invited members of Atlantic City’s Brigantine Golf Links to visit the renovated Rock Manor Golf Club in Wilmington, he knew they’d be impressed. Rock Manor’s general manager had previously worked at Brigantine, so he was keenly aware of what $6 million in renovations could do to turn an old course into an attractive, modern track.

“By the time we had all reached the sixth hole here,” Brady says, “one of the Brigantine members asked, ‘So what’s the greens fee here, about $100?’”

When Brady told him the top weekend fee was $59 for Delaware residents ($69 for non-residents), the Brigantine boys were understandably impressed.

“If the Rock Manor of today were located at the Jersey Shore, it could easily command $100 fees,” Brady says.

Which makes the new city-owned Rock Manor, at U.S. 202 and I-95, one of the great municipal bargains, one sure to attract golfers from all over the Delaware Valley.

Rock Manor represents the green space component of the local transportation department’s Blue Ball Project for economic development. The course’s original 1921 layout, once playing at over 7,000 yards, was truncated by the construction of I-95 in the 1960s, which at 5,800 yards, makes it into a shadow of its former self.

Under architect Lester George, who redesigned the track at nearby DuPont Country Club, Rock Manor was virtually rerouted (only three holes have kept original routings) and lengthened to 6,405 yards. “Players of the old course will recognize current holes 10, 11 and 14 as the old 1, 2 and 6,” Brady says. A new clubhouse and lighted driving range complete the new facility.

All tees, greens, bunkers and fairways have been renovated. The addition of mounding across the course is Rock Manor’s most evident topographical feature.

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“The mounding creates hole separation, as well as adds an elevation challenge for golfers that wasn’t present before,” says Brady. “Overall, the mounds give Rock Manor a links-style look and feel.”

Golfers who remember the old layout, as well as newcomers, will find plenty to challenge them. Brady points to a few holes that players should find memorable enough to draw them back again and again.

“The fourth hole is a 562-yard par 5 (all distances are from the back tees), requiring a 185-yard carry over a waste area to a fairway that moves diagonally right to left,” Brady says. “Lateral hazards line the right and left sides of the fairway, making it an intimidating tee shot.”

Brady says only the longest hitters will reach the elevated green in two. “For me, this is one of the most visually pleasing holes on the course.”

The 424-yard par-4 11th requires another forced carry over water and past a waste area on the right. The left is out of bounds. A right to a left sloping green with two levels means making a two-putt par depends on the accuracy of your approach.

A similar challenge awaits at the 333-yard par-4 14th, where a risk-reward drive over a waste area must carry 193 yards, Brady says. The 15th has an open fairway, “but it’s the green that makes the hole,” he says. “It’s very undulating, and off-target approaches will roll off to the left.”

So how are the old-timers taking to the new track?

“We had a Frostbite Open here back in January (2008),” says Brady. “And golfers that go back 15 years or more playing here said simply it’s just not the same golf course.”

Looking over a layout that appears lush, though it hasn’t grown in yet, those old-timers mean that in a good way.

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