Philadelphia’s LuLu Country Club, a Restored Gem You Can Play

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I distinctly remember my first visit to LuLu Country Club in Glenside, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia. It was back around 1963 and it was also one of my first visits to play a private club courtesy of my adopted golfing grandfather, George Thorpe, Jr. Mr. Thorpe was tall slender, freckled, bald left-hander with a great smile and had been quite a baseball player in his younger days. Unfortunately, that never translated to his golf where he played the biggest slice you ever saw. Nevertheless, nearing 80 he had this wonderful heart just bubbling with youthful enthusiasm and he adopted me as his little golfing buddy. He had worked with my grandfather for many years and just happened to also share my love for baseball (another story) and would watch me play Little League baseball. He was there again when I began taking an interest in golf. As a newcomer to the game, I wasn’t much better than him, but we always had a great time and Mr. Thorpe was also a member at the LuLu Country Club.

Having graduated from the chip-and-putt and par-three courses with him, Mr. Thorpe figured that I was ready for 18 holes and LuLu was one of the great places to play in the area. What a start to golf! Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead had just played an exhibition there and the Club was so highly regarded in local golfing circles, even sandwiched in with illustrious nearby neighbors like Manufacturers, Huntington Valley, Philmont, North Hills, Whitemarsh Valley, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, Green Valley, and Sunnybrook. We had great fun, Mr. Thorpe and me. It was a warm summer weekday and traversing Lulu’s perfect fairways and immaculate putting surfaces with my south-paw partner talking baseball and with a caddy was like being in heaven. I believe that day I just barely broke 100 which was pretty fair for me and I probably won by more than twenty shots. My, LuLu was gorgeous, the most beautiful golf course I had yet to step foot on, and Mr. Thorpe remained my dear friend and golfing buddy until he passed a few years later.

Over the years, I revisited the Club several more times and as I was physically maturing and improving, succeeded in piercing 70 there several times if I was on my game. Nonetheless I was always intrigued by the strategy and execution LuLu mandated. I learned that the course was architect Donald Ross’ first course to be designed in Pennsylvania – 1918 and completed the following year. It seemed tight, tricky, and a bit on short side, but with lots of personality, trouble, and good looks – always interesting and perpetually among the best conditioned in all of Philadelphia. Considering the pedigree of the neighboring courses, it was a quiet, if not an understated gem. It was not quite splashy or famous enough to attract golfers from outside the region and lacked the championship dimensions of say a Merion-East, Aronimink, Philadelphia Cricket Club or Philadelphia Country, hence its lack of national notoriety.

According the Club’s website: “A  farm bordered by Limekiln Pike and Jenkintown Road was the birthplace of the LuLu Country Club. George S. Cox owned the farm, and during the first decade of the new century he would invite his fellow Shriners from LuLu Temple, together with their families, to join him there for picnics on weekends. The LuLu Temple Automobile Club also met there for rallies. Dinners featuring roast pig and fried chicken were the high point of these gatherings, which also included horseshoe pitching and baseball games.

One Sunday in the summer of 1907, William H. Ward, who had just returned from a visit to England, showed up at the Cox farm with a golf club under his arm. Few of the picnickers had ever seen one, but in short order a number of them were demanding the chance to take a swipe at a golf ball. That farm’s days of producing corn and tomatoes were numbered.” Suffice it to say, LuLu became an integral golf club within the Philadelphia golfing scene.

LuLu's designer Donald Ross

LuLu’s designer Donald Ross

Frank Meehan, a fine local amateur golfer who had dabbled in golf course architecture, designed the first nine holes (assumed to be the current first seven holes across the road from the Clubhouse) when the Club was established in 1912,  but the esteemed Donald Ross was brought in to enhance and expand the layout to 18 holes in 1918 essentially making for a new design.

Moving away from Philadelphia in the early 1990’s to work for the Northern California PGA, I’d periodically ask my local golf buddies what was happening at LuLu Country Club. The reports were always changing, but it soon appeared that the Club had gone downhill and was losing members as more new private golf clubs were being added nearby. The course had been neglected. The turf had deteriorated and tree growth was choking the hole corridors. Then it was rumored to be restored. Indeed architect Ron Forse made improvements in 2002 that restored much of the Ross characteristics, shapes, and dimensions thanks to some early aerial photographs of the course. This included the recovery of 29 lost bunkers previously eliminated to save money, eight new teeing areas, and the removal of trees that had been planted, grown, and subsequently obscured Ross’ design features. Sadly, this was not the panacea for the club’s survival. Not long thereafter, I’d hear that the Club was again financially distressed and might be sold for housing. Next I heard that Upper Dublin Township or alternatively a local golf/real estate developer might buy the 110-acre club, but its future seemed in doubt. Still across the Country, I didn’t hear much more, let alone positive news. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that LuLu Country Club had closed.

The good news is that LuLu Country is quite alive! New ownership took over in 2012 and in spite of the stately old clubhouse burning down in October of 2015, this gem is alive and well, and has had a nice repolishing. The golf-only facility now allows public play they term “Member For A Day,” but also features true bargain rates for annual memberships.

lulu#8The “Punch Bowl Green” on the par-four 8th hole. (Pictures from LuLu Country Club)

At a par-71, 6,433 yards from the tips with pleasantly rolling terrain, LuLu poses more than enough distance for most of us. Cross and side bunkers in addition to bold mounding and subtle green surfaces add to the challenge. In older times, the area featured many limestone quarries. Adjacent Manufacturers and nearby North Hills CC possess such memorable quarry holes and LuLu is no exception. Its tiny 112-yard par-three 4th may be the shortest, but also the most intimidating of the lot (and possibly the only remaining Meehan-designed hole). It is an all-or-nothing affair to a plateaued green perched above one of those abandoned limestone quarries. Miss this green and you may require an adding machine. LuLu is an easy walk with greens and tees usually close to one another with just enough scenery, variety, and challenge to hold your full engagement. Just as importantly, this is one of the rare classic courses in the region that anyone can play that has also been restored to most of its original architectural luster – still a “hidden gem” to borrow the popular term.

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The little “Quarry Hole” then (above) and now (below.) (Photos from LuLu Country Club)

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While it’s been some time since my last visit to LuLu, I have been told that they have continued to have trees removed thus opening up the attractive vistas and improving the turf. And fellow golf architecture critics all seem to have a warm spot for LuLu. I do as well!

Check things out yourself; go visit and play LuLu Country Club. For more information, refer to www.lulucc.com.

 

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