Philadelphia boasts golf courses designed by most of the great Golden Age architects. We have numerous contributions from Donald Ross, William Flynn and A.W. Tillinghast. However, there’s only one surviving local course with the design influence of either Perry Maxwell or Alister MacKenzie – JC Melrose Country Club in Cheltenham, PA – and it’s open for public play.
Growing up in nearby Fox Chase, I would pass Melrose nearly everyday on my commute to High School as I drove down Tookany Creek Parkway, which bisects the course today. At the time is was a private club so I would look on in envy, wondering if I’d be able to play it some day. I knew little of its history, but from the road it seemed like a cool, old course. Like many country clubs in transitioning neighborhoods, the membership could not be sustained, the club was sold in 2005 and has been open to the public for about the last decade.
I’m thoroughly confused by JC Melrose. In almost every aspect of its golfing experience there are two opposite sides. It’s relatively affordable but feels overpriced. The greens fees max out at $60 on the weekend, but never dip below $35, there are no 9-hole rates, and walking is not permitted. Depending on the time of year, conditions can be pretty good for public golf, but it often suffers in the summer months. There’s a mix of excellent holes and some terrible holes. There’s a beautiful clubhouse that’s used for events, but the pro-shop is sparse and the grill room is dated. I live close by but have rarely played it. In the end, I don’t really know if I like it or hate it.
JC Melrose was founded as The Curtis Country Club, established by publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis for the employees of Curtis Publishing Company (which produced the Saturday Evening Post). Opening in 1916 and originally not a golf course, it featured a grand clubhouse, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a track (still visible in old aerial photos), ball fields and bungalows on 150+ acres. Much of Melrose’s golf course history was lost when the club historian passed away a number of years ago. It appears that Perry Maxwell was the primary architect brought in during the late 20s to add a golf course to the property. Maxwell was also in the region to build Chester Valley Golf Club in Malvern (very little remains of the original), maximizing his time in Philly to also design a very challenging course in Cheltenham. MacKenzie likely had little influence on the original design as the two had started their partnership after most of the design and construction was completed.
Not long after opening, Tookany Creek Parkway was constructed, running through the heart of the property and wiping out a number of the original holes. In 1947 the name was changed to Melrose Country Club. For a brief time, a field to the south of the course was used for temporary holes before today’s routing was completed. Canadian architect Robbie Robinson is credited with a remodel of the course, perhaps in charge of making the changes from the original to current layout. Ian Scott-Talyor completed a renovation in the late 2000s and developed an new routing that hangs in the pro-shop (not implemented).
I’ve poured over aerials new and old, and Maxwell’s original routing drawing to try to figure out what exists of the original design. What remains today is a mix of brilliance and blah. It’s pretty easy to tell which greens are relatively original (and amazing), compared to those that are newer or heavily altered (and pretty boring). From what I can tell the following hole corridors are used are from the original routing: 1, 2, 6, 7 (new tee), 8, 13 (new green), 15, 16, 17, 18. The 3rd, 5th and 14th green sites were used with different hole routing and the 10th originally played past the current green to the 14th green as the closing hole. With many of the holes, so many changes were made over the years that it’s hard to say what of the course is original. The pictures below show Maxwell’s drawing, a 1939 aerial (post road) and today’s layouts.
Perry Maxwell is a lesser known, but very influential Golden Age architect. Prolific through the central states of the country and especially in his home state of Oklahoma (Southern Hills, Prairie Dunes), some of his best work came in conjunction with MacKenzie (Crystal Downs, University of Michigan Course) or by renovating other courses. Known for outstanding greens, he made important updates to championship courses like Augusta National and Merion, Pine Valley and Philadelphia Country Club. Perry’s son Press joined him co-design dozens later in his career.
JC Melrose is a course that certainly divides opinions. In a golf text group, I have one friend that loves it and another that hates it. My own opinion is equally split. The businessman in me hates the way it’s run. Why not allow walking? There’s a long distance from the 9th green to 10th tee, but otherwise little distance between holes. The course is hilly, but at least give golfers the option to walk. Why not have 9-hole rates or junior rates or membership options? In a part of the region with limited public golf, the course should be packed. Only 15 minutes from my home, I’ve only played there four times in the last six years (twice in 2019), if that tells you anything.
As a golfer, I do like a lot about the course. There is variety in the holes, with elevation changes, varying hole lengths and shapes. Robinson made a strong effort to re-route the course to the current layout. Many greens are well guarded by bunkers requiring good shot-making to score well. The course makes you play many different shots and challenges you to think through the round. It’s also a very pretty course, with the creek in play on a number of holes and the elevation changes providing many great views.
However, there is plenty not to like about the golf. For long hitters, there aren’t many driver holes. Either due to forced layups, narrow corridors or doglegs, only the most accurate driver will gain an advantage. The newer greens, like 9, 11, 12, and 13, are uninteresting and out of character with the rest of the course. The back-to-back par-3 3rd and 4th holes require basically the same shot. Mostly, Melrose suffers from tree over-growth. While it doesn’t always affect the playing corridors, it results in narrow fairways of about 25-yards and has severely hampered turf conditions in the summer. It’s difficult to get light and air to the greens to keep them healthy all year long. One example of the tree overgrowth affecting play is the par-5 15th, with the left side blocked out and a large tree narrowing the right.
With the recent closings of two nearby courses, and the continuing saga in the redevelopment of neighboring Ashbourne Country Club, it looks like Melrose is safe for a little while. As such, there’s opportunity to invest in a historical golf course and thrive, like many public and private courses in the area have. Melrose reminds me of a terrific private course I was able to play last summer called Rolling Green Golf Club. Rolling Green is a thriving club with a wonderful William Flynn-designed golf course, set on a similar piece of undulating property. It provided me a vision of what Melrose could be. I would advise the owners to take a look at Rolling Green, Lulu Country Club and Jeffersonville have done and follow suit. Even if it takes a number of years, as progress occurs, golfers will notice.
So should you visit JC Melrose? I think it’s worth a round in the spring or fall to experience a quirky, historic course while turf conditions are generally good. Otherwise, it can get rough in the summer, and the course is closed in the winter. I’ve also found the bunkers to be poorly maintained no matter the time of year. Additionally, I wouldn’t say the staff service has been particularly friendly in any of my visits, so it’s not the most welcoming place.
In the end, I’m still confused. I want to like Melrose. I just don’t.