Words by Tom CoynePhotos by Christian Hafer, Nick Rose
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It’s a funny place for match play to have ended. The PGA Championship had been decided by bracket until 1958 when Llanerch Country Club outside Philadelphia hosted the first stroke-play version, won by Dow Finsterwald with a tally of 276 (-4). The club’s longtime pro Marty Lyons was said to have lobbied for the switch, which seems strange given that Llanerch’s holes offer match-play magic, mixing drivable par 4s with remorseless par 3s and greens that simmer with three- and four-putts. Whatever the reason, Llanerch was the first site of a new-look PGA, but such an honor should have come as no surprise. It had already hosted a dozen pro events, including the seventh notch in Byron Nelson’s famed 11-tournament winning streak in 1945. It had been played by Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and Ben Hogan; it sits on what might be Philadelphia’s original golfing grounds, and most of its holes were designed by Scotsman Alexander Findlay, whom some describe as “the father of American golf.” So you might be wondering—why haven’t I heard of Llanerch? And why don’t I have a clue how to pronounce it?
If you happened to be at The Golfer’s Journal’s Showcase in June, you know the answer to the latter (Lan-erk, taken from a Welsh word meaning open space), but may still wonder about the former. Chalk it up to the same fate endured by Rolling Green and Manufacturers and Whitemarsh and Huntingdon Valley, names that would inspire Twitter awe and envy if not for the long Philadelphia section shadows cast by Merion, Aronimink and Pine Valley. Following a recent renovation by Brian Schneider that cleared its conifer problem and enlivened the layout via bolder bunkering, chocolate drops and punchbowl kickers, it seems more deserving than ever of a spot among the Philly elite. Whether it gets there or not, nobody at Llanerch seems too worried about it—they already hold the title they’re after. They’re proud of their golf course, but truth be told, Llanerch places its hat on a different peg: being the best damn golf hang in town.
“An 11 out of 10,” says head pro Chris Wilkinson when asked to score the social scene at Llanerch, and I suspect he’s being modest. Llanerch’s roots as an outpost for rare camaraderie and minor vice run deep, all the way back to Prohibition. There’s nothing unusual about a golf or social club that kept the taps on when America went dry, but at Llanerch they were more dedicated to the cause than most. As the story goes, word got out that agents were on their way to raid the club, so head pro Lyons commandeered a bus from the local parish school and filled it with Llanerch’s stash. He piloted the provisions safely across town and hid all the booze in his coal bin. He figured the Prohis would never pull over a school bus, and he was right.
I’d sampled my share of heroic 19th holes both home and abroad, plus a few I can’t locate or recall without the help of deep hypnotherapy. That research produced a just-right recipe for post-round indulgence, and age is certainly a factor. No designer chairs or fresh wallpaper ever had any fun; the walls should know tobacco smoke and belly laughter, and an air of unfussiness should recall days when cards lasted twice as long as golf, even if you only have 20 minutes now before your kids are due at soccer. A spot like Llanerch can make those precious minutes count.
Location and layout can’t be overlooked when ranking a hangout, and Llanerch tops the Philadelphia section for both. With three bars and two tiers of seating overhanging its 18th green—a green so close to the clubhouse that a Charles Barkley approach once shattered a grill room window—live entertainment walks by every 12 minutes. Add a row of Adirondacks and a new pizza-oven patio, and the arena surrounding Llanerch’s wicked little closer (300 yards to a green pitched like a cornhole board) is abuzz with spontaneous wagers (no way she makes that) and abuse rained down from above (Hey Jimmy! Twenty bucks you chunk it!). According to Llanerch and Broken Tee Society Member Dan Kelly, “There’s more action happening on the patio than in the group that’s playing golf, no doubt. Three-putts, up-and-down, will he leave the pin—people will bet on anything. And they’ll let you know that they bet against you, which always makes it interesting.” No wonder the place has produced some of the section’s best players—they’ve been forged by its balcony gauntlet.
Llanerch Country Club sits in a small town called Manoa, in the township of Haverford, in the County of Delaware, a region that Irish immigrants and speech therapists have reduced to a potent one-word label: Delco. Head a few miles east and you’ll find one of Philadelphia’s tougher neighborhoods; a few miles west, and you’re ensconced in its toney Main Line. It’s one of those between places—both city and suburb, blue and white collar, immigrant and multi-generational, old-school and up-and-coming—that were once the American ideal but have suffered from the pressures of suburban sprawl. Most of the golf courses that once anchored these city-adjacent sections moved to larger pastures (see Aronimink, Oak Hill, Baltimore CC, St. Andrews GC), but not Llanerch, and that matters when it comes to a great hang. Sure, the locker room at Sea Island is a cathedral to lingering, and nowhere will you see more smiles in one room than at the Dunvegan in St. Andrews. But the laughs and jokes and drinks and bets mean more when they hold a purpose bigger than just passing time. And at a course like Llanerch that sits in the literal heart of a neighborhood, they’re central to the lore and character that binds a community.
“We’re basically the armpit of the Main Line,” says Pat “Stumpy” Coyne (no relation) of his hometown. “But I mean that with love.” He’s a former Llanerch caddie and now frequent Llanerch guest who owns the Manoa Tavern across the street from the club. “Half the houses around here, they’re owned by Llanerch members. Or their kids caddied here. Nobody in my family played golf, but the caddie program ingratiates all the kids in the neighborhood to Llanerch. And then when you caddied here during the GAP (Golf Association of Philadelphia) matches, you got to see the best players in Philly because they all wanted to play here. Not for the golf course necessarily, but for the afters.”
Yes—the envy. It can’t be overlooked in evaluating an apres-golf destination. A great hang must inspire visitors to come and indulge and then preach word of what they’d found. At Llanerch, it was the GAP’s annual interclub matches that spawned and nurtured the legends. I’ve seen the lobster piles and can attest—there’s a dash of gluttony in the DNA here, where a work-hard, golf-hard, party-hard ethos prevails. Visiting golfers saw how they did it—the ample spreads of surf and turf, the bartenders who worked the room with the speed and skill of Samurai, and the spontaneous outbreak of Llanerch One-Club (just as it sounds—grab one club, a stack of cash, and head to the tee with a dozen other guys who won’t be driving home, either)—and Llanerch’s position atop the good-times ladder was set.
As the accolades for Llanerch’s layout grow (they should and will—I had always thought of Llanerch as a long day of pinecone punchouts; Schneider has turned it into a too-short day of joyful, unexpected shots), one wonders if Llanerch’s unapologetic afters will suffer at the expense of golf glory and aspirations for Main Line kinship. I think not. A great hang is the product of the place it inhabits, and as a product of that place myself, we don’t put on airs in Delco. Jorts and Flyers jerseys, yes, but not airs. Dan Kelly says it best about the Llanerch scene: “It’s a ‘I won’t have seven more, but I’ll have one more seven times’ kind of crowd. The mentality here is basically, if you’re having a good time, go with it.”
No wonder the Main Line golfers leave in wonder—they can’t possibly hang with that kind of hang. And judging from the show Llanerch put on for TGJ, the party pecking order isn’t changing anytime soon.
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