A Course Worth the Pilgrimage
Hard-to-Find Course in Southern PA is a Hidden Gem
It’s a fact. Oftentimes, the best golf courses are the hardest ones to find. Pilgrim’s Oak, tucked away in southern Lancaster County, PA, is a perfect example. There are no major towns nearby and to get there you have to share the road with John Deere tractors and Amish horse-and-buggys. But despite the directional challenges and solid-lined, no-passing lanes, the 18-hole layout has become a favorite destination for both locals and traveling golfers, alike.
The 6,755-yard, par-72 design expertly blends the subtleties of a classic links-style course with the bold design features of a modern stadium layout — all the while maintaining the “playability” of a public venue. And it offers the rank and file a chance to compete on a TOUR-caliber course but at an affordable daily-fee price.
The Pilgrim’s Oak “experience” begins long before you arrive at the clubhouse, a converted milk barn that houses a pro shop, cozy snack bar and ample space for group golf outings. It is located in Peach Bottom, PA, a town you might not find on most AAA maps. Specifically, the course is located just off Rt. 272 (about six miles from the MD/PA state line) and about one hour from downtown Baltimore. Just make sure you have your phone and GPS tracker fully charged.
The final leg of the trip takes you past real Amish and Mennonite working farms. As the road narrows, even the most experienced golf destination hunter will begin to question aloud if Pilgrim’s Oak — or any sign of civilization, for that matter — could exist in such an isolated area. Then, in a scene right out of the movie Field of Dreams, the cornfields open up to reveal the distinctive bent grass greens, fairways and tee boxes of a world-class layout.
Who would build such a hidden gem? Dr. Michael Hurdzan, of course. A retired U.S. Army colonel and renowned architect of several of the country’s most lauded layouts, his philosophy of designing courses that enhance, rather than distract from, their natural surroundings is on full display at Pilgrim’s Oak. When it opened on 1996, it already looked and played like it had been part of the Amish countryside for centuries.
Recently ranked by GOLF Magazine as the “13th Best Course in Pennsylvania,” Pilgrim’s Oak includes four sets of tees that can shrink the course to just 4,604 yards. Only those players kin to Dustin Johnson or Bryson DeChambeau will want to attempt playing from the tips, as some of the holes require carries of 250 yards or more to avoid hazards. The middle or white tees are a good fit for most, measuring in at just over 6,200 yards.
Several of the holes, most notably Nos. 3 and 11, feature dramatic elevation changes. But to Dr. Hurdzan’s credit, there are no blind landing areas off the tee. And it’s a good thing, too, because Pilgrim’s Oak is challenging enough without them. Half the holes are played either over or around water, and most of the greens are artistically protected by sand traps and grassy mounds. Golfers must also contend with three types of rough grasses if they stray too far off course.
Depending on the course superintendent’s mood that morning, Pilgrim’s Oak’s large, undulating greens can present their own unique challenges. They range in size from the smallest at about 4,500 sq. ft. to the largest at 9,500 sq. ft., which can lead to some very interesting pin placements. The green at NO. 15, for example, has over five feet of vertical drop from back to front.
Dr. Hurdzan went to extraordinary lengths to create 18 unique holes that demand the use of every club in your bag. Most of them offer a risk-reward opportunity, like the par-5, 515-yard No. 6. The hole can be reached in two, but the stakes are high as a small pond fronts the right of the peninsula-style green. Holes 11-13 form Pilgrim’s Oak’s own version of Augusta’s “Amen Corner.” Number 11 and 13 are demanding par 4s but it is the par-3, 192-yard No. 12 that demands special attention. This is the layout’s signature hole, and is played from a series of raised tee boxes, over water and a rock basin, to a large heart-shaped green. There are no bail-out areas as the back of the green is protected by wetlands and the right side guarded by tall trees and two menacing sand bunkers.
Pilgrim’s Oak closes with one of the best par 5s in the Mid-Atlantic Region. From the back markers, the 493-yard, par-5 No. 18 launches from an elevated tee, over a small ravine, to a raised fairway. From there, the hole snakes between two large ponds with the one on the right continuing all the way to the green where is curls in front. The third or approach shot calls for an accurate short iron or wedge over water to an oblong green surrounded by a natural stadium area.
The course offers just about every challenge imaginable — dramatic elevation changes, all types of natural hazards, plenty of sand and water, grass mounds and retention bunkers, and some of the trickiest greens you’ll want to find. Yet it remains a fair and honest layout, one that should appeal to golfers of all skill levels. It demands accuracy but doesn’t overly penalize the occasional errant shot. And it rewards those who make the pilgrimage there with a truly memorable golf experience.