By: Bruce Kish –Virtually every avid golfer has put together a bucket list of courses he or she would love to play before holing out the final putt on this side of the fairway to heaven. Unfortunately, some of these dream venues are too expensive (Pebble Beach), have a prerequisite handicap range in order to play (St. Andrews, Old Course) or are just too exclusive (Augusta National).
Fortunately, one lesser-known site that is open to everyone is the “Oldest American Golf Course in Continual Use,” Foxburg Country Club, which opened in 1887 and earned its distinction through inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Tucked away along a wooded ridge overlooking the Allegheny River and the Borough of Foxburg, the course is four miles south of Interstate 80, Exit 45 (Emlenton.St. Petersburg) in Clarion County, Pa.
Foxburg is a nine-hole, par 34 course that measures 2,688 yards from the blue tees and has a USGA course rating of 65.5/113 for men and 67.6/115 for women. Founded by Joseph Mickle Fox, the country club is located on lands that included portions of his family’s summer estate.
Fox, scion of an old Philadelphia family connected to Pennsylvania founder William Penn, was the beneficiary of his family’s fortune in land and oil in the northwestern part of the state and a member of the leisure class. A player on the Merion Cricket Club near Philadelphia, he attended a series of international matches in Great Britain in 1884. After the finals in Edinburgh, Scotland, the Americans were invited to St. Andrews to watch a demonstration of golf and Fox instantly fell in love with the sport. He was befriended by the club pro, Old Tom Morris, who gave some instruction and sold him equipment and gutta percha balls to take back to the States.
Upon his return to the family summer estate, Fox built an 8-hole layout on the property and enthusiastically taught the game to curious friends and neighbors. Demand increased and he decided to construct a new facility to accommodate the oil barons and industrialists who had taken to the game. After donating 50 acres and some buildings, Fox was voted president of the newly chartered Foxburg Golf Club in 1887. The initial course was a five-hole layout and the four other holes were added the following year.
Fox’s cricket teammates also became golf enthusiasts; however, the venerable Merion Golf Club on Philadelphia’s Main Line, scene of famous U.S. Open triumphs by Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Lee Trevino, wasn’t opened until 1896, nine years after the Foxburg layout.
Early conditions at Foxburg were crude. The first cups were quart-sized tin cans. Until proper grass could be obtained, the greens were sand and had to be smoothed after the golfers holed out by dragging a length of burlap nailed to a piece of lumber. Until the 1960s, trains presented another playing hazard from a B & O Railroad spur that curved in front of the 5th and 7th greens and 6th and 8th tees. The only surviving remnants of the early era are the concrete troughs in the tee boxes which are now used as flower beds; formerly they contained water and sand for players to fashion tees.
While the holes have been reordered and gradual improvements made, the layout remains mostly unchanged since its creation. Foxburg is an old-style course, whose fairways and greens follow the natural contours and gentle slopes of the terrain unlike modern cut-and-fill layouts created through extensive mechanical earth moving. Small groves of oaks and a number of other native tree species define immaculately trimmed fairways.
While not as long as modern courses, Foxburg puts a premium on accuracy with approach shots and shots around the greens. A few of the greenside bunkers, constructed within grassy mounds, are evocative of the dunes incorporated into the layouts of Scottish seaside links courses.
The clubhouse, acquired in 1942, is a rustic Adirondack dwelling that was constructed in 1912. Its second floor houses the American Golf Hall of Fame and an extensive artifact collection of nineteenth century golf equipment.
Foxburg’s membership rates are based on distance from a golfer’s residence, with those living more than 100 miles away getting the lowest. A semi-private club, Foxburg is open to the public and offers stay-and-play packages. Nearby attractions include the Allegheny National Forest, the Allegheny and Clarion Rivers, and the town of Foxburg which features a winery, luxury hotel, and riverside restaurant.