BETHLEHEM, PENNSYLVANIA | A few weeks ago, I received a copy of my latest book, a centennial history of the Saucon Valley Country Club. It had been nearly a year since I typed the last words and moved on to other projects. The stories I recounted all those months ago were something of a distant memory.
As I leafed through the pages, I was reminded of what an interesting and important association it is and what an esteemed place it occupies in the great game. As a family club with roughly 1,000 members. As a golf retreat with three very good, 18-hole courses. And as a tournament venue that to date has hosted seven USGA championships, with the U.S. Senior Open slated to return in 2022.
Established in fall 1920, Saucon Valley occupies property that William Penn had received in the form of land grants in 1681 from King Charles II of England. Penn then meted out parcels to European settlers who began clearing the heavily forested terrain and tilling its fertile soil. A creek provided drinking water and a place from which the settlers, the vast majority of whom hailed from Germany, could harvest fish. The native Lenni Lenape tribe dubbed the waterway Sakunk, which was translated from their language to “land where small creek runs into bigger creek.” That appellation made sense considering there were two branches of the Saucon that, after converging by what today is the 18th hole of the Old Course, flowed eastward to the Lehigh River.
Club founders included executives from several Lehigh Valley businesses, and the majority held top positions at Bethlehem Steel, which emerged from World War I as one of the most powerful corporations in the world thanks to money it had made through military contracts. And the driving force behind the club’s creation was Eugene Grace, the president of the Steel, as the company was known around town.
Grace, the son of a sea captain, grew up in Cape May, New Jersey. He studied at Lehigh University, graduating in 1899 at the top of his class. Grace captained the baseball team there his last two years of school and, after earning his degree in electrical engineering, received an offer of $200 a month to play in the Boston Braves organization. But Grace turned that offer down, going to work instead for the Steel as a crane operator for a quarter of that salary. Just fourteen years later, at age 37, he was the company’s president.
Grace envisioned Saucon Valley first as a social and sporting retreat for executives at the Steel and a spot where they could recreate and also entertain customers and suppliers. In addition, he saw the club as an important amenity for the families of his managers and something that would make both the company and the town in which it was headquartered an attractive place for people to work and live.
From the very beginning, Saucon Valley offered a variety of sports. But Grace wanted golf to be the central activity and hired Englishman Herbert Strong to build an 18-hole course, which opened in the summer of 1922.
A native of Sandwich, England, Strong first found golf as a caddie at Royal St. George’s and later became a good enough player, clubmaker and teacher to work as a club professional. He also competed in several U.S. Opens, his best performance being a top-10 finish in 1913, the year amateur Francis Ouimet won. Later in his career, Strong gravitated to course design, and his credits include Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland, Ohio, and Engineers Country Club on Long Island in New York. Another of his layouts is Inwood Country Club near JFK Airport in New York. Site of the 1921 PGA Championship, it also was where Bobby Jones captured his first U.S. Open, in 1923.
The course Strong constructed for Grace at Saucon Valley was big and brawny and wildly praised for being a stern test. Its par-5s were particularly tough, as Grace insisted that they all be three-shot holes. Caddies were part of the golf culture at Saucon from the very beginning, and for decades, many of them came to the club to loop right after their shifts at the Bethlehem Steel plant. One of those, Cotton Young, caddied at Saucon for 77 years, walking by his estimation some 60,000 miles during that time.
Tall and balding, Grace was passionate about his golf. He qualified for a U.S. Amateur and shot his age when he was 67. He also worked on his game, at the club and on an indoor practice range he had installed in his Prospect Avenue mansion. He often repaired there at night to hone his swing under the watchful eye of then-head professional Ralph Hutchison, who toiled as an assistant pro at Augusta National its first few years of operation before coming to Saucon.
Grace also was a fixture on the course, and to most members he was an imposing one given his autocratic nature and heady stature in the business world. And if they suddenly saw him striding up the fairway behind them, they scrambled out of the way and let the man through.
Though Grace was quite pleased with what Strong had created, he was not one to stand still. So, in the late 1930s, he brought in Perry Maxwell, who had just made important changes to Augusta National (which counted Grace among its earliest members). Maxwell “modernized” the Saucon layout, deepening most of the existing bunkers. He also removed several bunkers he felt were no longer relevant while adding an equal number of new ones as he also constructed a handful of new championship tees.
“It is my considered opinion that Saucon embraces every requirement, every feature to test well the efforts of the present-day amateur. It has the necessary length. … It calls for accuracy. One cannot slog his ball all over the lot and escape punishment.” – Francis Ouimet
That additional length certainly came in handy when Grace induced the USGA to bring the 1951 U.S. Amateur to the club. The Association asked Ouimet to pen a piece in the program for that tournament, and he wrote: “It is my considered opinion that Saucon embraces every requirement, every feature to test well the efforts of the present-day amateur. It has the necessary length. … It calls for accuracy. One cannot slog his ball all over the lot and escape punishment.
“The short holes are excellent,” he added. “Well divided with a pleasing variety of strokes required to play them successfully. The traps are well placed through the fairways and around the putting surfaces. It is high class in every sense of the word.”
Billy Maxwell won the ’51 Amateur, and shortly after that Grace hired William Gordon to make further upgrades. A onetime seed salesman, Gordon had worked for a spell as a construction foreman to architect William Flynn and toiled on the crews that built Seminole for Donald Ross and Maidstone for Willie Park Jr.
Grace then asked Gordon and his son, David, to design a new 18 holes, with the first nine opening in 1953 and the second in fall 1957. Not surprisingly, the club dubbed the new track the Grace, after the man who had initiated its design and construction.
The club also asked Gordon to construct a Short Course while he was on property, and the par-23, six-holer that he crafted opened in summer 1954.
The Grace had a different look and feel from the original Saucon course, which had come to be called the Old. There were fewer elevation changes, and the greens were larger in size but did not possess as many undulations. It also featured renditions of several classic golf holes from the British Isles, including an Eden, Redan and Alps. Members fell hard for the new design, with many of them finding it more enjoyable to play than the Old.
Grace did not necessarily share those sentiments. But he was delighted with the addition of a second 18 holes, and with the growing prosperity of his club. Unfortunately, he did not have much time to enjoy the track that bore his name, for he died in 1960. He was 83 years old.
Six years later, club leaders asked the Gordons to lay out a third course on neighboring land the Steel owned – and that previously had been the site of a dairy farm called Weyhill. This terrain possessed more sweeping views and dramatic elevation changes than what they had found on the Grace as well as old lime kilns and an abandoned quarry.
Work on the layout began in 1966, and the first round was played there two years later. Once again, the Gordons employed design strategies of classic holes, only in this case they all came from the United States, among them the second, third and seventh at Pine Valley and the 16th at Augusta National.
At its opening, Weyhill was regarded as the corporate club at Saucon, largely reserved for executives and board members of the Steel. But that changed when club members bought Weyhill from the company in 1995 and made it accessible for all.
Through the years, Saucon has asked other top architects to enhance and upgrade their layouts. Tom Fazio led a revamping of the Old in 2008. Then, before the 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Saucon, Fazio and his design associate, Tom Marzolf, completed what they described as a “sympathetic restoration” of Weyhill, which served as one of the stroke-play courses for that event. As for the Grace, it was renovated recently by Andrew Green.
The result is an embarrassment of golf riches for Saucon Valley. “To have three such different, challenging and great golf experiences on one property is pretty amazing,” Green said.
Longtime Saucon member Faust Capobianco, also a member of the green committee, agreed. “There are plenty of golf clubs that have two great courses, like Winged Foot, Merion and Oak Hill,” he said. “But we have three.”
Those courses have given the members of Saucon Valley many reasons to celebrate during the club’s centennial, though the pandemic has certainly put a damper on their ability to do so in truly social ways. But in two years, they will have the chance to mark another milestone, with the Old Course turning 100 and hosting its third U.S. Senior Open that summer.
Now that will be a party.
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