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USGA goes old school for U.S. Women's Open at Lancaster

LANCASTER - Though United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis is himself a Central Pennsylvanian, the USGA and bucolic Lancaster appear to make for an odd coupling.

The par-4 10th hole is considered the toughest at the Lancaster Country Club. The course was designed by William Flynn, who was also responsible for some of the East's best-known courses. (Fred Vuich/USGA)
The par-4 10th hole is considered the toughest at the Lancaster Country Club. The course was designed by William Flynn, who was also responsible for some of the East's best-known courses. (Fred Vuich/USGA)Read more

LANCASTER - Though United States Golf Association executive director Mike Davis is himself a Central Pennsylvanian, the USGA and bucolic Lancaster appear to make for an odd coupling.

The USGA, after all, is the blue-blazered embodiment of an elite Eastern establishment that has championed and ruled golf since the game crossed the Atlantic in the 19th century. Lancaster, meanwhile, brings to mind buggies, bacon gravy, and barley.

But while that juxtaposition of old money and fresh manure figures to lend this week's 2015 U.S. Women's Open a unique flavor - and, possibly, scent - the Lancaster Country Club course where it will be contested would fit in easily on the Main Line or in the tony suburbs of Boston and New York.

"In my opinion, this is a top-five course in Pennsylvania," said the USGA's Ben Kimball, the tournament's director.

If that's the case, then Lancaster is also one of the state's least-known top-tier facilities.

The 95-year-old layout that occupies a snug but handsome slice of land between New Holland Pike and the Conestoga Creek doesn't have a big-tournament pedigree. Though this will be the 83d USGA event conducted in the state - by far the most of any - it will be Lancaster's first.

Its staid membership traditionally has shunned big events, though in the late 1940s LCC's Billy Haverstick defeated Arnold Palmer, 4-3, here in the final of the Pennsylvania Amateur.

Ben Crenshaw and Walter Hagen played here - a framed letter from the former, praising its classical design, hangs in the clubhouse - and a young Jim Furyk honed his game at Lancaster while a member of Manheim Township High School's golf team.

But what Lancaster did have, and what sets it in a class with many of the East's most renowned courses, was one of the best and most prolific designers from the golden age of golf architecture.

William Flynn, 29 at the time and the greenskeeper at Merion Golf Club, began mapping out LCC early in 1920 for a weekly fee of $44.92. The course opened 10 months later, but he would spend the next 25 years tweaking and refining his creation.

Flynn's other work includes some of the East's best-known courses. He not only helped Hugh Wilson with Merion East, he designed the Country Club in Brookline, Mass; Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne; Huntington Valley in Whitemarsh; and Shinnecock Hills and Westchester Country Club in New York.

He was particularly active in the Philadelphia area, where he established his design business. In addition to Merion, Philadelphia Country Club, and Huntington Valley, he laid out Bala, Cobbs Creek, Gulph Mills, Manufacturers, Atlantic City, Springhaven, and Sunnybrook. Flynn also was one of many architects who contributed to George Crump's South Jersey masterpiece, Pine Valley.

"He's got a really impressive resumé," Kimball said, "but I think you can make a case that [Lancaster] may be Flynn's best course."

In this week's 70th Women's Open, the world's best female golfers - many of whom already have visited, played, and lauded the course - and an anticipated 100,000 spectators will get to judge for themselves.

What they'll discover at LCC are hills, valleys, broad creeks, natural and man-made hazards, and elevated greens subtly incorporated into a par-70, 6,440-yard layout. Its signature and most difficult hole may be the 10th, a 481-yard dogleg par-4 that respectful members call "Big Bend."

Since Flynn's three primary considerations were always accuracy, carry, and length, No. 10 demands a long and straight drive and a precise approach to a well-protected, sharply sloping green.

"This place is in some ways very similar [to Oakmont] in the sense that it's old-style," Paula Creamer, who won the 2010 Open at that Western Pennsylvania course, said after a June practice round. "You've got to hit all the shots in your bag with the uphills, the downhills, and all the various lies you get."

The many sloped fairways will make unbalanced lies commonplace. Players will have to navigate carefully around bends and doglegs and deal with Lancaster's frequent elevation changes and undulating putting surfaces.

"Flynn looked at every hole as an individual test," Kimball said. "That's also what we enjoy about Oakmont and Saucon Valley [two frequent Pennsylvania sites for USGA events]. And that's the case here, too. Lancaster Country Club is 18 individual tests of golf, not just one test all the way through. This will be a total examination of playing ability and mental stability."

For decades, Lancaster's membership, comprising the area's business and agricultural leaders, was slow to modernize and, as longer and more ornate designs began to be the norm, the club's reputation slipped.

"During that period when the Pete Dye- and Robert Trent Jones-type courses were what everyone wanted, the shine kind of came off Lancaster's apple," said member Rory Connaughton, the club's unofficial historian.

But a casual conversation and the renovation project that ensued have pushed it back into the golf world's consciousness.

Since the 2009 and 2010 Women's Opens were played in Pennsylvania, many were surprised that it will return to the state this summer for a third time in six years. But the puzzle becomes clearer when you understand the relationship between the USGA's Davis and LCC member Steve Butterbaugh.

Davis and Butterbaugh were friends and classmates at Chambersburg High School.

"I've got this hunting cabin upstate, and Mike, to get away from the public eye, likes to come there from time to time," said Butterbaugh, this event's vice chairman. "We were there together in 2006 and he said he really thought Lancaster ought to host a USGA event some day. He said that in his opinion it was the third best course in the state, behind only Merion and Oakmont."

Butterbaugh consulted club members and representatives of the local community, the overwhelming majority of whom enthusiastically agreed with the idea of bringing a major event to the area.

"We'd never really sought these kinds of tournaments in the past," Butterbaugh said. "But the idea took hold. One local resident said that by having a Women's Open here we'd make him proud. I think that's how almost everyone felt. This is huge for this area. If it were in Philadelphia, it might get overshadowed by some other sporting event. But for Central Pennsylvania, it's probably going to be the biggest thing ever.'

To prepare for the Open, LCC underwent a series of renovations over the last decade. All the bunkers were redone, the greens were replanted, and the putting surfaces on the 12th and 13th holes readjusted.

"It's a classic golf course," said Jim Nagle, a native of nearby Lititz who worked with Forse Design on the project. "We restored something that was designed in [1920], so you're starting to restore, renovate, reinstate things that were there a long time ago. In some instances, because of modern play, we added some features here and there.

"We've heard it time and time again from players who have been here," he said. "They love these Northern classic courses because day after day it changes. It's never the same course."

And so, surrounded by the farm-charm that continues to draw tourists here, the world's best women golfers will for a first time this week come face to face with William Flynn's rolling green gem.

"This golf course," golfer Christine Kim said after a recent practice round, "is perfect. "There's no other way to put it."