In 1921, the world had just emerged from the 1918 flu pandemic. World War I was three years in the past. The borough of State College was only 25 years old, and, with the exception of a few blocks near campus, the surrounding area was made up of fields, woods, and farms.
This was the backdrop against which 13 residents of State College – a group of business leaders as well as faculty and administrators from the Pennsylvania State College – met to establish the incorporation of Centre Hills Country Club.
One hundred years later, as the world emerges from another global pandemic, Centre Hills is honoring its roots, even as it continues to adapt and evolve with the changing times.
The early years
Less than a month after its initial meeting, the new club had garnered 60 investors to purchase 65 acres of farmland near Lemont from Safarious and Anna Rafsnyder for $6,000. The founders hired Alexander Findlay – known as the “Father of American Golf” for his role in popularizing the game in the United States – to design a nine-hole course on the farmland. An on-site barn built in 1845 was transformed into a clubhouse, featuring large gathering spaces as well as dormitory accommodations for up to 32 overnight guests.
Membership quickly grew to 150, and early rosters include many names that now adorn Penn State buildings: Deike. Hostetter. Ritenour. Sackett. Sparks. Warnock.
Newsletters from those early years paint a picture of a vibrant social club, offering monthly dances, weekly ladies’ days (featuring bridge games with “plenty of room to sew and chat”), family picnics, Sunday teas, and, of course, golf.
The club strongly encouraged members to try the game, with an April 1923 newsletter imploring: “The game of golf is on the grow. Let’s have Centre Hills among the pacesetters. The objective is ‘Every member a golfer.’” Teams were formed to compete in tournaments against clubs from Bellefonte, Philipsburg, Clearfield, Huntingdon, Tyrone, and Altoona, with visiting teams often spending the night in the Centre Hills clubhouse.
That 1923 newsletter includes a short poem:
Mother, may I
go out to golf?
Yes, my darling daughter.
Tee your ball high on number four,
And don’t go near the water.
The poem references the fourth hole, which, like the rest of the original nine holes now known as the “Findlay Nine,” remains relatively unchanged from 1923. The par-three hole, easily visible from East Branch Road, features tiered tee-boxes stacked upon a steep hillside, facing an elevated green surrounded by sand bunkers. Slab Cabin Run flows in between the two hills.
Many people consider four to be the course’s “signature hole,” partially because of its aesthetics, according to Paul Tomczuk, the current president of the board of directors.
“In addition to that, the ‘signature’ status was probably cemented because of Dwight Eisenhower’s visit,” he says.
Eisenhower was president of the United States during the same years his brother, Dr. Milton S. Eisenhower, was president of Penn State. While visiting his brother in May of 1953, the golf-loving POTUS played a round at Centre Hills. According to club lore, the president became the first person to use a newly constructed tee box on number four, landing his shot on the green with a five-wood.
The late Franklin S. Kelly, a Penn State senior at the time, won a coin toss to earn the privilege of caddying for the president that day. He recounted the round in a 2011 letter to Centre Hills, in which he described being sworn to secrecy about the president’s golf score and the amount of his tip.
The Eisenhower brothers played with Wilmer Kenworthy, a Centre Hills member and Penn State’s dean of student activities. They had the course to themselves, and six Secret Service agents surrounded the threesome, carrying golf bags stuffed with rifles and radios.
By the end of the round, a small crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of Eisenhower from a distance. The president handed Kelly three of his Spalding Dot golf balls as keepsakes – one imprinted with “Dwight D. Eisenhower,” one with “General Ike,” and one with “Ike Eisenhower.” Kelly eventually donated one of those balls to the United States Golf Association and one to the World Golf Hall of Fame. He offered to donate the third ball to Centre Hills in exchange for a photo of himself with Eisenhower, but no such photo existed, so the club did not get the ball.
‘Championship level’ course
At the time of Eisenhower’s visit, Centre Hills was still a nine-hole course, but it was looking to expand. In 1956, the board purchased large tracts of farmland in Ferguson Township, with the intention of relocating the club and building an 18-hole course. However, those plans fell through in 1961, when the members voted against moving the club.
In 1964, the club purchased land from the Kissinger family and hired Robert Trent Jones Sr. to design a second nine holes across Branch Road from the Findlay Nine. Completed in 1967, the long, relatively flat Jones Nine is a distinctly different style than the narrow, hilly, slightly shorter Findlay course.
In 1993, the club added the Clark Nine, with its own separate entrance off of Scenery Drive in College Township. This location also features a driving range and a large practice area.
Tom Hanna was Centre Hills’ head pro from 1977 to 1985. He later worked as the director of golf and head golf coach at the University of Maryland, before retiring to State College in 2016 and becoming a member of the club where he once worked.
“The improvements to the golf course since I left were amazing. They upgraded the bunkers, they converted to bent grass, and our fairways are as good as any fairways you’ll see on the PGA Tour on TV,” he says. “The greens protect our course. The course record (63, held by Hanna himself) was set in 1978, and it hasn’t been broken since. It’s a tribute to the golf course that it’s not easy.”
“Under Superintendent Steve Craig, who is in his third year here, I would say we have raised the conditioning of this course to a championship level,” he says. “But the biggest benefit by far is accessibility. You can literally walk out onto the first tee and play at almost any time. There are no tee times, and it’s never crowded. Access to the course is unparalleled. There is nothing like it around.”
Tradition and change
Through the years, Centre Hills members have proven somewhat reluctant to stray from tradition. In 2002, when it became clear that the clubhouse was no longer structurally sound, the board proposed building a new clubhouse at the Clark Nine site, but – reminiscent of their vote to stay put in 1961 – the members voted to raze the old clubhouse and rebuild it in the same location.
Today, the clubhouse holds a boardroom and office space on the top floor; a pub, large event space, and small outdoor patio on the main level; and locker rooms, the “grill room,” and a large outdoor patio on the lower level. In the grill room, the club honors its history with large wooden plaques hanging on the walls, listing club champions, hole-in-one makers, and winners of major club tournaments.
The swimming pool is the same pool that was built in 1932, although it has been upgraded with the addition of a wading pool, expanded dining and sunbathing areas, and a new pool café. The two tennis courts have remained in the same spot next to the ninth green since their construction in 1934, but they also have changed with the times, most recently with the addition of pickleball courts.
The club has evolved in other important ways, too.
Early newsletters refer to “members and their wives,” without even a remote consideration that a woman could be a member in her own right. Of course, today, women are able to join as full members.
In addition, according to a 1948 Rules Handbook, the golf course was reserved for men only during certain hours on weekends and holidays, something Hanna says continued until the mid-1980s.
“[Members] Marilyn and Bob Mitinger finally got the rules changed. It was the right thing to do,” Hanna says.
More recent rule changes include allowing jeans to be worn into the clubhouse, and allowing children to eat in the grill room. It’s all part of a national trend of country clubs becoming more casual and family-friendly, says the club’s general manager, Paul Smith.
Smith, who spent 30 years running yacht clubs, beach clubs, and country clubs in New York and Connecticut, says the industry is changing drastically.
“Time has become so important to people, whereas in the old days, people used to show up at the club and spend all day there – have lunch, play 18 holes of golf, play cards, have dinner. Nowadays, people don’t have that kind of time,” he says.
The focus has started shifting more toward food and beverage service, Smith says – a shift that actually took the Centre Hills board by surprise five years ago, when a survey showed that the majority of the membership listed dining as a priority over golf or any of the other services of the club.
“My position was created from that survey,” says Jamie Ryan, the club’s membership and events director. “It showed a big shift from when the average age of the club was 60-something and golf was the number one priority. Now, we are getting a lot more young families, so we’re trying to include more family-oriented things.”
Even so, Tomczuk says the pandemic nudged the needle back toward golf a bit.
“Interest in golf was waning, but with COVID-19, we had a record number of rounds in 2020,” he says. “That’s across the entire industry; all clubs saw that spike. The question is whether that spike will continue as things open back up.”
The club adapted to the pandemic by offering family-style curbside meals, hosting wine tastings via Zoom, and renting outdoor heaters and a large tent to cover the front patio during the fall, allowing for comfortable and safe outdoor dining.
“The pandemic was almost a blessing for us,” says Smith. “People didn’t want to go downtown or to other restaurants to eat, but they felt comfortable coming here. We were busy, busy, busy, because people knew that we were following the right protocols and that the club was safe.”
Stretching from the edge of the State College Borough well into College Township, the Centre Hills Country Club of today is an expansive oasis of green space amidst residential development the founders never could have envisioned a century ago. The 27-hole course offers breathtaking views of Mount Nittany, and is home to wildlife like deer, ducks, geese, owls, woodpeckers, and trout that swim in Slab Cabin Run.
But Ryan uses the term “oasis” in a less literal sense when describing the club.
“State College is kind of interesting in that we’re a small town, but we quadruple in size with the students and visitors at certain times of the year. It makes it difficult to do things in town because so many of the restaurants and social venues are packed. So when I say we are an ‘oasis,’ I mean we are somewhere you can go without having to deal with the stress of those crowds,” she says.
“We’re also kind of an oasis for people who want to be a part of a community or a very large family,” she adds. “A lot of people have this perception of Centre Hills being this elite private place where nobody wants you to join, and it’s quite the opposite. People are often surprised by how welcoming the members are.”
Centre Hills employs more than 100 people during the summer months, ranging from servers to lifeguards to greenskeepers to tennis instructors. It has about 20 year-round employees, including Ryan, Smith, and Executive Chef Brandin Gray. Some employees stay for decades. Office Manager Lisa Byers has been with the club for 41 years. Jeb Boyle served as the head pro for 33 years before retiring in 2020. The club recently hired Sean Farren to take his place.
“Jeb was the consummate pro’s pro – the classiest professional you’ll ever find,” says Tomczuk. “But bringing in Sean has brought in fresh ideas. He was a pro at an extremely prestigious club in Long Island. His reputation alone is going to improve Centre Hills’ reputation and bring in more interest in golf.”
The only fully private country club in Centre County, Centre Hills currently has more than 330 members. Tomczuk says people are often surprised to learn that they can join without paying a golf assessment, giving them access to all of the club’s amenities aside from the golf course – the pool, tennis courts, dining, and special events. Members also may enjoy the use of any room in the clubhouse without a rental fee for private functions, including weddings.
Initiation fees and dues vary by the type of membership, but Hanna says they are always a great deal.
“It’s an exceptional quality facility for the price. It’s unbelievable,” he says. “This place is special, and until you leave it, you don’t know how good it is. It’s a big-time club in a small town.”
Beyond the centennial
In honor of its centennial year, the club had a new logo designed by Lee Wybranski, who has designed logos for country clubs like Merion, Oakmont, and Torrey Pines. The new logo features a rendering of the red covered bridge on the Jones Nine.
Plans for a centennial celebration have been hampered by COVID concerns, Smith says, but as restrictions ease, the club hopes to host a large event in the late summer or early fall.
As it enters its next century, Smith says the club must consider ways it can be more of a year-round facility for its members, perhaps by adding fitness facilities and/or indoor golf simulators. To that end, Tomczuk says the board is looking to engage members in forming a long-range master facilities plan.
“This is extremely exciting for the future of the club,” he says. “I can’t tell you what that future is going to look like, but I know it’s going to look like whatever the current members want it to look like.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.