From Lord Byron to Slamming Sammy, From hickory to graphite
Reading Country Club, located just east of the city of Reading in Berks County, Pa., is a pristine example of golf course architecture from the games “golden years.” Designed by Alexander Findlay, a Scotsman known as “The Father of American Golf”, the RCC layout remains a true shot-makers course that has challenged golfers from the era of hickory shafted niblicks to today’s titanium and graphite technological wonders. That the course record 63, shot by hall-of-fame golfer Sam Snead, has stood since 1949 is a testament to a venerable golf course that has resisted par for nearly 100 years.
The club was chartered in Berks County, Pennsylvania, on June 6, 1922, as a not-for-profit corporation. The club purchased 237 acres of land, consisting of two farms and four additional tracts in Exeter Township. The golf course, consisting of nine holes, opened in 1923. A second nine, designed by Alex and his brother Fred, who established a flourishing course design business of his own, opened for play in 1925. The present clubhouse was completed in 1931.
The Nelson years. In 1937, Byron Nelson was hired as the club’s golf professional. He arrived at Reading Country Club that spring after winning the Masters. He told a fellow professional that he used his $1,500 first-place check from the Masters to stock the pro shop. That summer he finished 20th in the U.S. Open and played on the first Ryder Cup team to win on British soil. While in England he finished 5th in the British Open. Later that year he won $3,000, the largest first prize on the PGA Tour, by beating Henry Picard in the finals of the Belmont Match Play in Massachusetts. He won twice on the PGA Tour in 1938. In June 1939 he won the U.S. Open at the Philadelphia Country Club’s Spring Mill Course by defeating Craig Wood and Denny Shute in a play-off. Nelson left RCC to become the professional at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio in 1940.
The Poe legacy. Henry Clay Poe followed Nelson as the professional at RCC. He came from Winged Foot Golf Club where he had been working as Craig Wood’s assistant. Poe served RCC until 1965, pausing only to work in a defense plant in 1943 and 1944. In 1953, he was elected president of the Philadelphia Section PGA and held the office through 1956. Poe left RCC in 1966 to build and manage golf courses in Alabama for the Vanity Fair company. While working in Alabama he was elected president of the PGA of America for 1975 and 1976. During his term in office he was instrumental in changing the Ryder Cup matches to include all professionals from Europe instead of just Great Britain and Ireland, which turned the matches into one of the world’s premier golf events. He was elected to the Philadelphia Section PGA Hall of Fame in 1996.
The Slammer’s Record. In July 1949, Reading Country Club hosted the $15,000 Reading Open. Byron Nelson’s course record of 65 was broken twice during the first round on Thursday, July 7. Sam Snead fired a 63—a record that still stands—and Lawson Little came in with a 64. After three rounds it was Snead and Dr. Cary Middlecoff, tied at ten-under-par 200, leading the field by four strokes. Middlecoff, the winner of the U.S. Open that June, holed a side-hill six-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to gain a one-stroke lead on Sam Snead. Snead, playing in the last pairing right behind Middlecoff, reached the 72nd green with a chance to force a play-off. With a gallery of 3,500 watching, Snead faced a four-foot side-hill birdie putt for the tie. He missed the putt, giving Middlecoff the victory. Middlecoff shot under the par of 70 in every round with scores of 67-68-65-66 for a 266 total and won $2,600.
The Ryder Cup comes to RCC. In September 1953, RCC hosted a two-day Ryder Cup challenge match pitting the U.S. Ryder Cup team against a team of PGA touring professionals, led by Jimmy Demaret. The Ryder Cup Team, led by playing captain Lloyd Mangrum, defeated the challengers 12 1/2 to 7 1/2. They competed for $15,000 of which $3,000 was set aside for traveling expenses for the trip to England.
Ch-ch-ch-changes. From its original equity-based ownership organization, the club fell into bankruptcy, and in 1944, a group of 20 businessmen bought it. Ownership changed several times after that. In 2006, Exeter Township acquired the property through eminent domain to forestall a 525-townhouse development planned for the site.
Under township ownership, Reading Country Club is open to the public, providing broad access to this historic and challenging golf course.