A Look at Lederach Golf Club

By: Jay Flemma

Can you tell golf course architect Kelly Blake Moran is a Texan? He may not wear a 10-gallon hat, but boy is he proud of the Lone Star State. Call him Amarillo Slim in a wind shirt.

"And I'll tell you another thing!," he roars disapprovingly. "Those Oklahoma teams that won those national championships a few years ago? I'll give you one guess where half their roster is from."

He doesn't wait for an answer. "Texas, that's where! If I had my way, those players that crossed the border would lose their citizenship and never be allowed back!" Funny thing about it is most of Texas is laughing and saying, "He's right, you know." Moran is so proud of his Texas heritage, he even wore a jacket, tie and cowboy boots to dinner at fabled Muirfield in Scotland.

Happily, Moran's sense of humor and reverence for ye auld sod is spilling over into his work and the results are commanding the attention and respect of the golf world. Half an hour north of Philly, his latest effort, rough and tumble Lederach Golf Club (pronounced "let her rock"), is the most affordable and interesting daily-fee course in the region, possibly even the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Rejecting the doctrine of framing, Moran instead showcases enormous, steep-sided, center-line bunkers or rough-covered mounds directly in the middle of the fairway, giving the player the options of playing around, short of, or over the hazards. Ordinarily this might be enough to send casual golfers to the psychiatrist's chair or the mumble tank, but Moran was just getting started. Fairways are severely canted, so uneven lies are the order of the day, requiring shot-shaping, proper planning and, most importantly, patience to score well. Finally, the adventure only begins upon reaching the greens as they cling to hillsides and feature severe, intimidating contours.

Good luck trying to find a straight putt at Lederach. Accordingly, the course keeps the Stimp reading around 9 to 9.5 to bring that contour into play. Instead of your 10-foot putt sliding 8 feet straight past the hole, at Lederach you'll have a 10-footer with 3 feet of break and a 5-foot comebacker that breaks a foot.

Tough, but fair, you have to think your way around and carefully analyze every shot - just like the great courses in the UK and Ireland that are so close to Kelly's heart. "Not a day goes by when I don't try to use something I learned at St. Andrews," he says fondly.

As a result, purists love Lederach. The design draws from the quintessential elements of UK links: randomly-placed bunkering, fairway undulation and greens that are anything but flat. Moreover, it's minimalist. Kelly only moved about 140,000 cubic yards of earth, but that estimate may be high. This is even more astounding because the property itself, while hilly and undulating - ordinarily terrific terrain for golf - is shoe-horned between houses and irregularly-shaped water-collection areas that restricted where the corridors of play could be placed. Unable to move these intrusions, he cleverly routed outstanding golf holes over and around the tight corners, making lemonade out of the lemons he was given.

Moran has also read Mackenzie's "The Spirit of St. Andrews," believes in the concept of the "Line of Charm" with adamantine certainty and, with far-sighted vision, has hitched his professional reputation to promoting the theory. He's also developed an original, passionate and intellectual style.

He first tested his ideas at nearby Morgan Hill Golf Club, about a half-hour north of Lederach. Completely different from anything in the area and refreshing in its boldness without being overstated, the golf cogniscenti praised Moran's work. Cut to two years later, Moran further expounded and refined the theories he tried at Morgan Hill. Now, Lederach's unique and endearing personality is derived from the fairway bunkers being positioned either directly or at least oriented perpendicular to the line of play. Instead of being a bomber's paradise or "second-shot golf course," Lederach's players must plan carefully from the tee and execute with precision. That's the second reason purists love Lederach: it makes you think and think hard - golf's rejoinder to the New York Times Sunday crossword.

Take, for example, the now famous "blind bunker" on the par-5 third hole - a hazard either reverently celebrated or bitterly cursed by players, but which in every case commands attention. As you approach the green the bunker is completely hidden, lying just under the lip of a hill, lurking like a hungry crocodile, invisible but treacherously lying in wait. Victims scream bloody murder, protesting they should be able to see all the hazards of the hole. But the cries fall on deaf ears at Lederach because you actually get to see the bunker from the tee box on the previous hole.

Holes two and three had to be routed around a drainage ditch and pond. Not only did Moran design excellent holes around one of the most restrictive portions of the property, he also treated us to a design feature prevalent at St. Andrews and put in a blind bunker 40 yards short of the green. Herein lies the genius: as you stand on the second tee you see both the third green and the blind bunker from the second tee. Everyone knows about it and talks about it, so unless you're a first-timer and a single and not very observant, you saw the bunker. It's as plain as the nose on your face. Now the ball is in your court to remember that's it's there when you come back down the third fairway.

People genuflect and bless themselves and tithe at such things when they see them in the UK, but whine like Nancy Kerrigan if it's in the U.S. That's hypocritical. "He makes me think too much," moaned one Schlitz-drinking, mock-turtleneck and backward baseball cap-wearing stooge. "What is he playing a joke? I have to think now when I play golf? That's too much."

Moran gives us a number of other memorable moments as well. With its giant hillock partially obscuring the green, the par-5 sixth hole calls to mind the famous "Alps" holes at Prestwick and National Golf Links of America. Moran's only partially obscures the green and omits the customary cross-bunker in front of the green, but the hole wakes players up with a thunderclap.

The short but severely uphill and danger-riddled par-4 eighth features a wicked false front that will funnel balls back down the fairway 30 yards or more when hit short. The shallow-but-wide green tests the distance control of your short irons. At the par-4 10th, a gate of trees frames the green. Again, playing fair, only shots that are far off-line will be punished. These are not "bunkers in the sky" but instead an interesting use of two specimen trees.

The long par-4 15th emulates the design strategies of another excellent hole, the fifth at Bethpage Black. A diagonal cross-hazard dares the players to cut off as much as they dare, but the hazard must be challenged in order to have a clear second shot to the green. Shorter hitters can bail out left off the tee, but face an excruciatingly long second shot that requires a draw. Heroic design to be sure, although happily for amateurs Moran did not build a pedestal green like Bethpage Black's fifth. Moran also requires long, straight drives on the dogleg par-4s at four and 13 in order to reach the knee of the dogleg and clearly see the green. In fact, driver is often required on many holes, but it must be long and straight. If you miss the fairway, it's a vicious fight for par as up-and-downs are a serious challenge because the green complexes are so turbulent.

Lederach is not a course for the faint of heart, but Kelly's steadfast refusal to "dumb down" the course makes it succeed and stand out, despite the fact that the advanced design features may have outrun the casual fans and raters. Candidly, three drawbacks come to mind. First, Moran tries to give you ground options, but the soft clay earth doesn't cooperate. It's tough to play the ground game because the green surrounds are soft. But most of the time he keeps one side open, so you can at least try.

Next, a great 18th hole is supposed to be a summation of all that came before, but at Lederach closer us underwhelming. Too tight and too dictatorial off the tee and featuring a severely tilted fairway, the hole was originally No. 9, but it switched places with the present-day ninth so golfers could be closer to the grill room at the turn. "We did it for business reasons," explained one course employee. "Plus it speeds up play considerably."

My only concern is that I wish on 11 and 18 Kelly gave us even a bit more room on either side on those bifurcated fairways. They are just a bit too tight and, since Kelly cants his fairways fairly steeply (steepest I've seen all year - a good thing ordinarily as flat lies are for pansies), a little more room would help contain the ball for us. They also will keep the fairway roll a bit more in check.

Finally, at the risk of Moran grabbing a lasso and hog-tying me, Lederach is not a pretty golf course at all. For starters, the backdrop is frequently dominated by houses. To Moran's credit, he avoided the homes as well as anybody could. While visible in places, they never crowd the fairway. Utilizing the same idea Tom Doak used to hide tenements and power lines at The Rawls Course in Lubbock, Texas, on certain holes Moran built a berm to hide or partially obscure the houses from sight. Additionally, the natural setting is mundane. Rolling muddy farmland just can't compare to other ecosystems on which to plan a golf course.

Nevertheless, the course still triumphs. After all, look at Yale Golf Club and Sawgrass. Those are two of the ugliest natural settings for golf and yet the strategic design still places them firmly in the pantheon of America's greatest courses. Natural settings are nice, but it takes a back seat to the architectural design considerations every time. Moran's design theories are the cornerstone of Lederach's success. If he had not employed the center-line hazards and rumbling green contours, this would be just another cookie-cutter housing community course.

So what if the course doesn't have waterfalls, striated red-rock canyons or inkblot-shaped bunkers? The three par-5s, probably the hardest holes to design properly, are all beefy showstoppers with myriad options. That's a tough trick to turn on an irregular piece of property. In that respect, Moran is an East Coast version of Jim Engh or Doak, both masters of building intriguing par-5s with great angles and numerous ways to get to the green.

Further, Moran's "random bunkering" - placing bunkers where they fit the land and in the center line, not just 290 left, 270 right and penal bunkers greenside - means you never know what to expect and can play Lederach every day and never have the same shots twice. The course and the greens are hilly, but it's not a difficult walk. Moran put undulations in the fairways as well as the greens, so there will be crazy bounces all day, and your patience and chipping will be tested. The price is $75, which is perfectly reasonable for such a fine and intriguing outing.

Maybe the casual fan and TV golf crowd won't "get" Lederach for its best features. After all, the the steep-sided bunkers and severe greens may be anathema to them. Our friend - the beer-swilling local I introduced you too earlier in the article - moaned, "I can't just hit my driver, I have no idea where it will end up." When I pointed out that this design concept originated in the UK and Ireland he cried, "But this is Pennsylvania, not Scotland."

Regardless, Lederach resonates with intrepid, open-minded and experienced golfers. Competitively priced and never overcrowded, Lederach is a nice getaway for a weekend, especially when coupled with another area courses such as Architects Club, Gettysburg, Beechtree or Bulle Rock.

Morgan Hill made people hear his name, now Lederach is Moran's coming-out party. He had some interesting things to say and executed them. He took risks and experimented and it worked out well, especially on a difficult parcel of land. He created a course that is memorable and which players return to play over and over.

Better still, Moran built a fascinating minimalist test on time and under budget. Plus, he grasps Mackenzie's concepts and implements them on the ground. You give Moran some time, some money and some great terrain for golf and watch out: He'll make a big score . . . sooner rather than later.

Lederach Golf Club
900 Clubhouse Drive
Harleysville, PA

Architect: Kelly Blake Moran
Par: 36-35=71
Design - Six stars
Natural Setting - Three stars
Conditioning - Four ½ stars
Cost - $75 peak, $45 reduced on weekends, weekdays $50/$35
Yearly Memberships - No
Value - Six stars
Overall - Five ½ stars     

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.