375 Bulltown Road
Elverson, PA 19520
Architect: Tom Doak
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That is its name, its full and official name. It is not Stonewall Golf Club or Stonewall Country Club or Stonewall National Golf and Country Club. Just Stonewall, inspired by the handsome and sturdy Pennsylvania fieldstone wall, about two feet thick and running the length of the farm buildings.
Almost as uncompromising as the club’s name is its address: Bulltown. Here, in East Nantmeal Township, a remote rural corner of Chester County about a half-hour’s drive from Paoli, is a 185-acre tract where dairy cattle once grazed and corn once grew. And where golfers now walk—all of them: there are no golf carts.
A 1996 photo of the Stonewall clubhouse.
The co-founders of Stonewall are A. John May and C. F. (Bud) Fretz, who were among the four founders of Waynesborough Country Club, back in 1964. Both men are also members of Pine Valley. It was May who conceived of this club, and it is his personal vision of Stonewall that has been realized. "I want an excellent golf course," he declared at the outset, "where you can play any time you want, where you can play fast, surrounded by lovely views, and where the members are people you want to play with."
Remarkably, that last requirement was not a way to make the club elitist or exclusionary. May, a prominent Philadelphia attorney, made it clear that women would be welcomed to full membership. So would representatives of minority groups. A candidate for membership would have to be a "nice person" of some means (the entrance fee was $35,000) who loved the game and shared May’s vision of what a good golf club should provide. For most members—as is the case at Pine Valley, for instance—Stonewall is a second club, the one where golf alone is the attraction.
If Stonewall was the dream of Jack May, it was Rand Middleton who, as project manager, brought it to reality. Middleton, in his late 30s when it all began, had once been a caddie at Waynesborough, where he had frequently carried May’s bag. And when Middleton became a stockbroker, it was May who gave him his first business. In the late 1980s, learning of May’s desire to start a club and build a course, Middleton, a very good (3 handicap), very passionate, and deeply knowledgeable golfer, set out on his own to find suitable land. The search, which took about two years, culminated with Middleton’s discovery of the 185 acres in Chester County.
Rand Middleton moved into a farmhouse beside what would become the 1st tee and proceeded to live, 24 hours a day, with his cherished assignment. He shepherded Stonewall through the long months of signing up members (a slower process than had been anticipated), of choosing an architect, of constructing the course, and of converting the barn and stables into a clubhouse with locker rooms and pro shop. Driven by the compulsion to create a world-class course—and club—Middleton demonstrated a single-minded dedication to the task that would have done credit to Hugh Wilson and George Crump.
The third key figure in the Stonewall story is Tom Doak, just 30 years old when May and Fretz commissioned him to design the course. A 1982 graduate of Cornell with a degree in landscape architecture, he had used a postgraduate grant from the university to study, first-hand, the classic courses of the British Isles. At the time he got the Stonewall job, Doak could point only to the design of two courses in northern Michigan, High Pointe and the Black Forest Course at Wilderness Valley, and two courses at Myrtle Beach. It was not a long list. He had also done some restorative work at Garden City Golf Club and at the Camargo Club, in Cincinnati. The masthead of GOLF Magazine showed Doak to be its architecture editor. He had turned out two books, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (a provocative and sometimes amusingly abrasive rating of all the courses he had played from New England to New Zealand) and The Anatomy of a Golf Course, in which he explained and illustrated (often with his own photographs) his design philosophy. Still, his was scarcely a name to prompt a flood of membership applications. And, in fact, he was not the first choice of May and Fretz and Middleton, who had originally tapped Tom Fazio for the ass
Doak is recognized today as the leader of the minimalist school of golf course architecture. He believes firmly in what has been called the "lay-of-the-land" approach, which calls for using the existing contours of the ground to the fullest effect and, conversely, moving as little dirt as possible. Stonewall is a reflection of this thinking.
Par is 70. From the championship tees, the course measures 6,700 yards; from all the way forward, 5,300 yards. Most members will choose either the blue markers (6,322 yards) or the whites (6,062). There is plenty of challenge from both.
Sand (104 bunkers) and water constitute the chief hazards. Interestingly, there is no water on the second nine, but on the first nine every hole with the exception of the 7th is defended at some point by either a pond or a stream or wetlands. Still, these hazards rarely call for a long forced carry. They are there to punish the slice or the hook.
The outbound nine, an irresistible mixture of open and wooded holes, contains two of the finest holes on the course, the 180-yard 5th, where the dramatically falling shot from the top of a great hill must traverse wetlands and avoid a stream on the right and a bunker on the left; and the strong 6th, a 442-yarder played from another very high tee. Here, carrying the creek at the bottom, which crosses the fairway on the diagonal, calls for stout hitting. The hole is Sigel’s particular favorite.
At the 8th we find ourselves emerging onto the open terrain once again, and there we stay for the rest of the round (except for the semi-blind and tree-framed green down in the corner of the cunning 176-yard 15th). We roam under the big sky, reveling in a sense of freedom and spaciousness that calls to mind some of the exhilarating seaside courses of the British Isles. So do the opportunities to bounce and run shots onto greens that are often open across the front. Three times on the inward nine—at 14, 16, and 18—the shot to the green is spectacularly downhill, with the consequent problem of choosing the right club. And at all times the distant rural vistas—rolling meadows and woodlands, neither a house nor a highway in sight— are captivating.
The finale at Stonewall is a grand finale, a 442-yarder that, downhill every foot of the way, is reachable in two. Penal bunkers right and left flank the generous landing area for the drive. However, it is the sand blockading the entrance to the green, far below, that gives pause, even though these bunkers are some 70 to 80 feet short of the putting surface. Sand also awaits to snare the shot that drifts ever so slightly right. And the green slopes away from front to rear. Backdropping the green complex are the barns and the stables and the wall that gives the club its name—a setting worthy of Constable or Turner or even Andrew Wyeth. So arresting is this finishing hole that Tom Doak may perhaps be forgiven for choosing it as the 18th on "The 18 Best Holes in the U.S." in The Confidential Guide.
The course opened for play on Thursday, July 24,1993. Ted McKenzie, formerly of Waynesborough, had by this time come on board as head professional. There was no elaborate ceremony, no accompanying fanfare. Jack May and Bud Fretz had simply let it be known to the members that this was the day they could begin to play. At the close of the day Dick Darlington had shot the best round, a two- over-par 72. It was, however briefly, the unofficial course record.