In the borough of Langhorne, in lower Bucks County, sits the oldest public golf course in the Philadelphia region. Built in 1913, Middletown Country Club has retained a lot of old-school charm despite several changes over the years. Like many municipal courses, Middletown certainly needs some TLC (tree management), but provides fun and affordable golf to the community. A rare par 69 course, it measures 6,217 yards from the back tees and a modest 5,746 from the middle tees. Rates peak at $49 during the week and $58 on the weekend (which includes cart). They feature a small pro shop and a grille on the lower level of the clubhouse.
When I played in March of 2019, it had been nearly 20 years since my last visit. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for old courses so I was eager to get back. On a crowded Friday, I was able to walk the round in just under four hours. After moving well on the first nine, the back nine was backed up and waited on most shots. The club staff was very friendly and helpful. For late March, the course was in good condition, especially the recently rolled greens. While I won’t be adding the course to my regular rotation (mostly due to proximity), I very much enjoyed my round despite the challenges I’ll describe below.
Middletown was founded as Bucks County Country Club in 1901 with a simple 9-hole course. As membership grew, a full 18-hole course was needed. Alexander Findlay laid out the first 9-holes of the current course in 1913 and added the second nine in 1916. Findlay also designed area courses such as John F. Byrne, Walnut Lane, Reading Country Club and Pennsauken CC.
In the subsequent years, the club became Langhorne Country Club and had a significant impact on the history of the national golf scene. In 1960, George Fazio took over ownership of the club. Fazio was a professional golfer turned architect, famously losing in a playoff to Ben Hogan in the 1950 US Open at Merion. Fazio would become head pro at Pine Valley before purchasing Langhorne. Fazio designed local courses Downingtown CC, Kimberton GC and Westover GC. Gary Player is also connected with the club, winning the 1961 Masters as playing professional of Langhorne CC. Fazio formed a friendship with Player and sponsored him through part of the 60s. Nephew Tom Fazio, the famous course designer (Shadow Creek, Karsten Creek, Pinehurst No. 8), started his career serving in various capacities at the club. In 1988, the Middletown Township purchased the property and renamed the club.
Twelve of the original holes remain as designed. In the late 50s, the 1st and 2nd holes were altered to build a pool and additional parking. Then in the 1970s, part of the course was sold and developed into townhouses (to the left of the 9th). The current holes 5, 6 and 7 were added to replace the developed property and the 3rd was lengthened into a par 4.
There are two areas in which Middletown is a bit stuck. First, too many of the par 4s are too short, not having withstood two major advances in equipment technology. When Findlay built the course, golfing equipment was relatively rudimentary. Distance expanded rapidly in the 1910s and early 1920s, rendering many courses obsolete and requiring redesigns. The technology revolution of the 2000s (which included solid core balls like the ProV1, over-sized drivers and game improvement irons) further shortened these holes. From the middle tees, there are three holes of 300-310 yards (3, 9 & 18) and two holes of 240-260 yards (11 & 17). The two shorter holes have little fairway, so going for the green is about the only option. The longer 13th and 16th holes also have greens situated behind water hazards. These factors combine to significantly slow play on from the 9th through the 18th hole.
The second and more considerable issue is the overgrowth of trees. As you can see in the accompanying pictures, the trees have encroached on tee shots, narrowed the fairways, and often hang over the greens, blocking approach shots. It’s hard to tell in March, but I’m sure it also results in turf issues once the leaves come in. With the contract expiring in 2022, there isn’t a strong incentive for the management group to invest in the course. It looked like little had been done to improve the course over the winter, in stark contrast to my recent return to Jeffersonville.
The township has $175,000 budgeted for improvements to two greens in 2019, but that money would be better spent consulting with an architect and removing trees. With a little planning and perhaps re-routing, strategic tree management would make a significant difference. Tree removal doesn’t have to be expensive, as some work can be done by existing staff.
Even with its flaws, Middletown remains a fun, sporty course. The holes fit exceptionally well over the rolling land, offering great variety. Fazio did a very good job with the changes over the years, as the new holes fit the character of the rest of the course. The downhill, par-3 6th hole reminded me of Findlay’s 15th at Reading CC. The stretch from the 13th to the 16th is particularly good, with three long par 4s and a challenging par 3. Unfortunately the original bunkering has been lost, having disappeared or evolved during the 50s, 60s and 70s to become the large-round-oval style, sapping away character from many of the holes. While the bunkers were well maintained, this style doesn’t fit the course at all and feels very out of place (particularly holes 8, 14, 15 and 18).
While it won’t challenge the low handicap player, Middletown a very good option for seniors, women and juniors. The course was relatively easy to walk, with tees near preceding greens and only one major hill to climb (between the 13th and 14th). While I enjoyed my round, particularly the old-school feel of the course, I’m not in any rush to get back. I could see pace of play continuing to be an issue as the weather warms. I hope Middletown Township takes the time and money to invest in the great asset it has in the coming years.