A Major Barn Raising Lancaster

A Major Barn-Raising

Lancaster Country Club's unlikely ascent into a home for women's golf

Depending on the size of the horses, the Amish can fit four, maybe five buggies in the designated parking barn at the Costco in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This is not a stop on one of the many tours for visitors who want to see the windmills and hand-churned butter of the largest Amish settlement in the world. They may adhere to a famously humble lifestyle, but the Amish need toilet paper and cleaning supplies too. They’ve lived in these rolling, bucolic Central Pennsylvania hills since the early 1700s, and the community of 20,000 is woven into Lancaster’s daily life. They aren’t some Disneyfied curiosity; they are farmers, entrepreneurs, nannies and, yes, golfers.

There is no buggy parking at Lancaster Country Club, but Amish influence sweeps across this classic William Flynn design. It’s imbued into the club’s ethos: industrious, independent and fiercely proud. That attitude has enabled Lancaster to rebound from disrepair to pull off one of the great upsets in USGA history; host the best-attended  U.S. Women’s Open; and, if the club’s leaders have their way, use the 2024 U.S. Women’s Open as a springboard to become a permanent home for the women’s game.

The roars sound different at a major championship. But even the players were surprised by the volume here. In the summer of 2015, raucous cheers slalomed over and through the dramatic slopes of Lancaster’s fairways and pitched greens. In Gee Chun, just 20 years old and making her U.S. Women’s Open debut, had birdied the 17th hole—her fourth birdie of the back nine—to slingshot herself into the lead. She seemed impervious to the pressure of the moment, smiling and high-fiving the massive throng of fans.

Amy Yang, who had begun the final round three shots ahead of Stacy Lewis and four clear of Chun, felt it. She stumbled out of the gate, and after a bogey on No. 14 she was in a three-way tie at the top with Lewis and Chun. Lewis doubled the 15th to fall away, and Chun surged ahead. Yang had a chance to force a playoff with a par on the difficult uphill 18th, but could manage only bogey. Chun became the fourth player ever to win the U.S. Women’s Open on her first attempt.

A Major Barn Raising Lancaster
In Gee Chun found a new home when she captured the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open at Lancaster Country Club. Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

In the post-round ceremonies, she spoke glowingly of the atmosphere at Lancaster, where more than 134,000 fans had turned out—a USGA record that still stands. 

“Even though I’m Korean, here American fans supported me a lot,” Chun said. “They gave a lot of claps. That has put me in the great rhythm of play, and I enjoyed that.”

Hers were the final words in a chorus of event accolades from the players—a notoriously tough group to please, especially at a USGA setup—throughout the week. Lewis called the number of fans “unbelievable.” Annika Sorenstam praised the course. Michelle Wie West described the crowds as “amazing.” Juli Inkster consistently raved about the quality of the layout and the galleries.

It all felt like a pleasant surprise; coming into the week, the wider golf world didn’t quite know what to expect from the Pennsylvania club. Eyebrows were raised across the industry when Lancaster was announced as the site. Since opening in 1919, it had hosted some regional events, but nothing anywhere near a major championship of this size. None of it was a shock to Jerry Hostetter. He had known for years that something special was in the offing. 

The USGA doesn’t just hand out any of its championships, let alone a jewel like the Women’s Open. The standard procedure for clubs that aspire to host big events functions like a ladder: Start small with qualifiers, prove it with junior or amateur events, and then, if a complex series of stars align, it just might be rewarded with a professional event. Some never get there at all. So how did Lancaster jump to the top of the list? Like all great sports upsets, it needed a little luck.

Jerry Hostetter (right), chairman of the 2015 and 2024 U.S. Women’s Opens at Lancaster Country Club, knew it would be an ideal venue for LPGA stars like Brittany Lang (left).

Mike Davis, then the executive director of the USGA, grew up in Chambersburg, less than a two-hour drive from Lancaster. A true student of the game, and especially of golf course architecture, Davis had known about the Flynn design up the road since he was a boy, and he had a desire to put LCC on that USGA ladder.

“We had a meeting with Mike back in 2008,” Hostetter tells me from the bustling patio of the Lancaster clubhouse. “He was a big proponent of the golf course and wanted us to host some junior events.”

Most clubs would have jumped at the opportunity. Hostetter said no. He is from the area too—native to Lancaster, but not its country club. He came up middle class; his first job was installing in-ground pools as a 16-year-old. Hostetter was intimately familiar with the Amish community and got into farming in the hills outside of the city. He focused on the hog business in 1990, starting with just a few. By 2003, Hostetter Management Company was one of the largest independent hog producers in the nation, managing 1.7 million animals per year and employing more than 400 people.

Along the way, he became obsessed with golf, particularly with what is now his home club. He happily joined Lancaster in 1996, but in the following years became disillusioned with the organization’s practices. It was clear to him that the club, especially the course, had been neglected to an alarming degree.

William Flynn, whose credits include Shinnecock Hills, Merion, The Country Club at Brookline and Cherry Hills in Colorado, didn’t just design Lancaster. He fell in love with it. He returned to tinker with the layout every year until his death in 1945. Ran Morrissett of golfclubatlas.com wrote that Lancaster is “one of the best marriages of a property with a master golf course architect.”

A Major Barn Raising Lancaster

The course received high praise throughout the mid-1900s and landed on myriad top-100 lists. But by the time Hostetter arrived, it looked dramatically different from the one Flynn left in the 1940s. The aging membership had been resting on the course’s laurels, allowing trees and vegetation to grow unchecked and falling behind modern maintenance techniques.

“There were hedges, flowers and pine trees on every tee box,” Hostetter says. “There were thistles growing under trees. You couldn’t stand on No. 1 and see any other part of the golf course. From the 18th tee, you couldn’t even see the clubhouse.”

By 2001, Hostetter found himself at the head of a movement of younger members who wanted to take the golf course back to its glory days. At a board meeting that has since gone down in club lore, Hostetter stood in front of an open mic and made his case.

“I told them that I respected this property so much,” Hostetter recalls. “And that I admired William Flynn and the forefathers of the club. I told them that this was no longer the premier, private club I’d joined. It was worse than some of the public courses out here and I was embarrassed for this club and our membership.”

He received an ovation—and a seat on the club’s board in 2003. That began a years-long renovation during which millions were spent on bringing the amenities into the 2000s and pulling much of the golf course back to the 1940s. By the time Davis sat down with Hostetter in 2008, the club was on an upward trajectory. Davis was impressed. But Hostetter wasn’t thrilled with the USGA chief’s offer.

“I told him I couldn’t sell junior events to our membership,” Hostetter says. “I explained that we were heading down a path where this course was really coming alive again and the Women’s Open was the only thing we would want.”

Davis replied that the club had never hosted anything on that level before. How could the USGA trust them? Hostetter assured him Lancaster would meet the challenge.

“I said, ‘Either we get an Open or I don’t want to do any of it.’ It was a respectful conversation. He eventually came back and said, ‘What about 2015?’”

The club launched into prep, more hell-bent than ever on shaping the course into the best version of itself. But there was a missing component that would be vital for the event’s success.

“One day in 2013, [future club president] Ted Bloom and I were driving home from a round of golf,” says Rory Connaughton, an influential board member. “He said, ‘This event will have a $25 million impact on our community. Aren’t we obligated to get everyone involved?’ That became a galvanizing moment. From there, when we went out to talk to people we wanted to get involved, we’d say, ‘This event revolves around three things: community, community and community.’”

Hostetter led the charge, speaking to any company and social club in the area that would have him, explaining that this tournament would be Lancaster’s chance to show off in front of the world. The message resonated. Club officials knew that a wave of fans was coming. But it wasn’t until Monday of tournament week that it hit Hostetter. “Barry Deach, our great tournament director, came to me and said there were thousands of fans on the main road waiting to come in,” Hostetter says. “Michelle Wie said there were more fans on Monday here than at a regular LPGA event. And she wasn’t wrong. I just shook my head. It was incredible how the community supported it.”

The effect of that week in 2015 still feels fresh as we sit on the Lancaster Country Club patio. Young children from new member families scurry around. The improved sightlines allow Hostetter and Connaughton to point out some of the bunker work being done in advance of the 2024 U.S. Women’s Open. The club is reemerging in the rankings of glossy golf mags and getting rave reviews on the cool architecture blogs. And they’re thinking bigger.

“We really believe women’s golf has a long-term home here,” Connaughton says as we discuss the club’s ambitious plans to parlay their upcoming major championship into more professional events. “The community’s relationship with the women’s game has grown exponentially since 2015.”

Indeed, Chun was so taken by the club’s embrace that she has worked with it to found the In Gee Chun Lancaster Country Club Educational Foundation, which provides scholarships for local students seeking to achieve their educational and vocational goals. Inkster has returned multiple times, joining with Hostetter—who has resumed his role as tournament chairman—to cajole local business and community leaders into making the ’24 Open even bigger.

Accomplishing that and pulling even more events out here will be steep challenges. But the club has a simple strategy built around being industrious, independent and fiercely proud. It’s worked in these hills for centuries.

A Major Barn Raising Lancaster