In Good Company

While Baltusrol grabs the glory, four neighboring classic clubs primp for their own close-ups--or not
September 07, 2005

The great golf clubs of northern New Jersey are defined not by what they are, but by what they are not. They are not Pine Valley, which sits in southern New Jersey and atop various rankings as the best course in the U.S. And they are not Baltusrol, which next week will host the PGA Championship, adding to a rich history that includes 15 USGA national championships. ¶ But Mountain Ridge, Plainfield, Ridgewood and Somerset Hills--each of which is within a half hour of Baltusrol--are among the best courses in the New York City area. They have distinguished pedigrees (designs by A.W. Tillinghast or Donald Ross) and histories that include hosting everything from the Ryder Cup to the U.S. Amateur to the U.S. Senior Open.

Yet in the hypercompetitive, status-obsessed world of old-line East Coast clubs, these northern New Jersey courses have been left on the outside looking in. Next year's U.S. Open at Winged Foot will mark the fourth major championship in five years to be played in the vicinity of New York City, and Baltusrol alone among New Jersey courses will have shared in the glory. As the gulf widens between the haves and the have-mores in Jersey, the strain is increasingly evident behind the hedges.

In fact, the members of North Jersey's other high-end courses seem to agree on only one thing: Although the PGA will be staged on Baltusrol's Lower course, there are much better courses to be played just a few miles away. Meanwhile, a longtime caddie at Baltusrol couldn't contain a snort when all the sniping was replayed for him. "We don't brag because we don't have to," he said tartly.

When I visited Plainfield Country Club in May--part of a five-day stretch during which I played 117 holes at five clubs--the driving range was abuzz with the news that the superintendent was leaving for another course, a departure that may or may not have been related to Plainfield's having fallen from 45th to 95th in the recently released Golf Digest rankings of the nation's Top 100 courses. Plainfield's plummet could largely be explained by the magazine's decision to eliminate the Bonus Tradition category that had rewarded the club for hosting the 1978 U.S. Amateur (won by John Cook) and the 1987 U.S. Women's Open (Laura Davies). This explanation did little to comfort the members who were convinced the drop was a repudiation of the extensive work that has been done in recent years to the 1921 Ross design.

Plainfield is a graceful layout across beautiful rolling terrain, and it features some of the most fearsome greens this side of Pinehurst. Beginning in the late 1990s about 500 trees were removed, numerous bunkers rebuilt and tees expanded. "I like to think of it as a restoration, but we've been accused of doing a renovation," says architect Gil Hanse.

In late May, shortly after the rankings were released, Hanse says he was "hastily summoned to the club" to draw up even more plans. Beginning this fall, Plainfield will chop down another 80 trees and expand more tees to add up to 150 yards, potentially bumping the par-72 course to 7,200 yards and making it a more attractive candidate to land another significant tournament. Plainfield was supposed to host the 2005 U.S. Senior Open, but when Baltusrol was awarded the PGA, there was concern whether the market could bear two big golf events within two weeks and 10 miles of each other. In the ensuing shakeout this year's Senior Open wound up at NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio. Says Hanse, "There is definitely an anxiousness at the club to do whatever it takes to get another big tournament."

Designed by Tillinghast in 1929, Ridgewood Country Club, in Paramus, has also embarked on a series of improvements with an eye toward landing another attention-getting event. Since 2001 the club has shed about 1,200 trees while also expanding tee boxes and greens and restoring bunkers to their original appearance. All of the work, which was also overseen by Hanse, has been noticed by the right people. According to a USGA source, there have been discussions about bringing a U.S. Women's Open to Ridgewood, perhaps in 2011, the next available date. The club has a lot to offer in the way of infrastructure, including the stunning clubhouse designed by noted architect Clifford Wendehack.

In the meantime, lest you forget for even a second the club's previous brushes with the big time, every scorecard, caddie bib and paper place mat in the dining room is adorned with a list of the important tournaments held at Ridgewood, including the 1935 Ryder Cup (Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen led the U.S. rout), the 1990 Senior Open (at which Lee Trevino outdueled Jack Nicklaus) and the 2001 Senior PGA Championship (Tom Watson did the honors, his first senior major).

Ridgewood is composed of three distinct nines: East, West and Center. Its tournament history is testament to the course's top-to-bottom quality. For the Senior Open the Center and West nines were used, though most members think the East is the toughest of the bunch. Overall, Ridgewood is a tight, twisty test, with dramatic elevation changes and exacting green complexes. The Center features one of the best holes in the state, the 291-yard par-4 6th, which has one of the tiniest greens in creation. Members call it Five and Dime because if you don't make a 5 on the hole, you're liable to make a 10. Ask a group of Ridgewood members to assess their rival clubs, and they spit out one word: "Overrated."

The difference between Ridgewood and Somerset Hills Country Club can perhaps best be illustrated by a single example: In Paramus the scorecards are emblazoned THE RIDGEWOOD COUNTRY CLUB. Somerset Hills, located in Bernardsville, would never do something so ostentatious. Founded in 1899, Somerset Hills has an intensely casual vibe that almost comes off as an affectation, like a Rockefeller driving a sagging Volvo station wagon. The pro shop is a tiny shack hard by the 1st tee, and it's a surprise not to find a pooch snoozing out front.

Perhaps Somerset Hills feels so sleepy because the club is not part of the rat race to attract big-time tournaments. The facilities are so spartan that it simply is not possible for the club to host anything larger than the Curtis Cup, which visited in 1990. There is exactly one sink in the tiny men's locker room, and the driving range is a cramped piece of land wedged between the 4th and 10th holes. Any practice shot longer than about 125 yards will intrude on play, so upon arriving at the 4th tee players ring a bell to announce their presence.

Beyond the range and locker room setups, Somerset Hills, at only 6,659 yards, is one of the courses that time has passed by, though none of the members seem too upset about it. What the course lacks in brawn it makes up for in charm. Baltusrol Lower is the kind of long, hard, joyless, smashmouth course in which it's hard to remember any of the holes the day after you play them. The front nine of Somerset Hills feels as if it could have been airlifted from North Berwick in Scotland--it is wide open, linksy, quirky. The 175-yard 2nd hole is perhaps the best Redan Hole in America. The back nine is secluded in hilly terrain, and lots of water comes into play, most notably on the par-3 12th, where the green is tucked against a hill on the edge of the lake, a setting so impossibly idyllic that it looks like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Things only get better after the 18th hole--the veranda behind the clubhouse is one of golf's most pleasant spots to drink an Arnold Palmer.

Somerset Hills's excellence has been quantified by Golf Digest, which recently deemed it the 42nd-best course in the country. It's often noted that Somerset Hills is only a few miles from the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, the dark implication being that the blue coats there have somehow exerted a nefarious influence on the rankings. It's true that prominent USGA officials who have been members at Somerset Hills include P.J. Boatwright, Frank Hannigan, David Fay, David Eger and Frank Thomas. But only Fay remains at the USGA, and he is no longer a member. As one member says, "There are no USGA officials who are members of Somerset Hills, and the club does not offer any special type of membership to anybody at the USGA."

Mountain Ridge Country Club, a 1929 Ross design in West Caldwell, doesn't have to defend its spot in the Top 100 because it is absent altogether. The oft-told yarn around New Jersey is that Mountain Ridge is so private that it will not allow marauding course raters to sully its fairways. This urban legend has only added to the well-cultivated mystique of the club, which is often described as the most underrated course in Jersey (except by many Ridgewood members, who still consider it overrated).

It turns out that Top 100 course raters are welcome at Mountain Ridge. Sort of. "We have had a couple of raters out this year," says Steve Wolsky, the club's general manager. "If someone calls us, we'll usually let them play if they're legitimate. But we certainly don't court the course raters like a lot of the other clubs do."

A similar discretion has meant that in Mountain Ridge's long history, it has never hosted a meaningful tournament. Thus very few outsiders have gotten a glimpse of the course, which features a stirring variety of holes that flow beautifully across the roller-coaster terrain, affording great vistas of the tree-covered countryside. Mountain Ridge is relatively open, and the putting surfaces are not as penal as most Ross greens; it is the kind of course you could play every day.

As good as the golf may be, it is only part of the Mountain Ridge experience. The membership is close-knit, and the pool and the weekend buffet get as much action as the course.

That's why Mountain Ridge calls itself a country club, while Baltusrol is a golf club, and it's an important distinction. Located in Springfield, Baltusrol has a large out-of-town membership that buzzes in for a few rounds and then skips town. It's all about the golf there.

The adjoining Upper and Lower courses are both world-class Tillinghast designs, but they are very different. The Upper is built on the side of a mountain, with fairways banked like a NASCAR oval and greens with some wild slopes. The Upper is not as stout a test as the Lower, but it's a lot more fun to play.

The Lower has hosted four U.S. Opens since 1954 and owes much of its aura to Jack Nicklaus, who won two of his four Opens there. In 1967 he shot a 5-under 275 to shatter Ben Hogan's tournament record, and then in '80 an opening 63 propelled him to a 272 and a new record. The Lower has the potential to be a thrilling PGA venue largely because it finishes with back-to-back par-5s. In the middle of the fairway of the 511-yard 18th is a small stone plaque that reads:



1967 U.S. OPEN

This famous shot set up the birdie that allowed Nicklaus to snag the Open record. It's the kind of historic moment that most--but not all--golf clubs would sell their soul to have hosted.

Ask Ridgewood members to assess their rival clubs, and they all spit out the same word: "Overrated."

The casual vibe at Somerset Hills seems an affectation, like a Rockefeller driving a sagging station wagon.

Says Hanse, "There is an anxiousness at Plainfield to do whatever it takes to get another big tournament."



Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)