FLYING KIWIS: A. W. Tillinghast's New Jersey masterpiece

By: Jamie Patton

It’s hard for me to write about Somerset Hills, because I’m painfully aware of how unbalanced, and how gushing, my collection of thoughts will come across; and we all know how tiresome it can be to read monotonous praise.  But ever since our first visit there, almost two years ago, on the back of consecutive adventures at Merion and Pine Valley (and therefore at a time when we were on such a high, rightfully giving rise to a Celtic suspicion of the veracity of my recollections), I’ve thought often about the gentle charm that Somerset exudes, that most unassuming of confidences.  Everything about it draws me in and, like a good pint of Guinness, I’m at once powerless to its magnetism and acutely aware of the same.  A day on the links at Somerset is, for me, about as good as it gets, at least as far as the inland form of the game is concerned.  

Perched up in rolling deciduous woodlands above Bernardsville, New Jersey, the course has little for company other than a few secluded homes set well back in the oaks – and squadrons of grey squirrels animated with mischief.  Oh and the odd bear too, according to Rory, who once spotted a mother chasing her cub across the fifteenth fairway.  Brown, I think.  Incidentally Bear is also the name of Rory’s hulking golden Labrador, with whom I’m utterly taken with and wrestle when the moment takes either of us.  Though the club traces its origins to 1899 the ladies and gentlemen of Somerset Hills have golfed around the current layout since 1916-7, when A. W. Tillinghast was engaged by the club amid – in fact, almost at the beginning of – his rise to stardom throughout the war years and the Roaring Twenties.  Commissions at the likes of Baltimore Five Farms, Winged Foot and, of course, Baltusrol would follow, to name but a few, and much later at Bethpage State Park, but Somerset is Albert’s most endearing work if you ask me.  His second full commission, it came just two years after his first project – consulting at Pine Valley (!); he is generally credited with designing holes seven and thirteen – and several years before his perhaps most renowned work at Winged Foot.

I’m given to believe that as the years passed he had less and less sympathy, to put it mildly, for the construction of replica holes (I recently read of an acidic remark that he once made, along the lines that ‘it takes imagination to create, but certainly none to copy’), in stark contrast to one of his contemporaries, and the so-called father of American golf, C. B. MacDonald (at whom the prickly jab may have been aimed).  But in the infancy of his practice this prejudice wasn’t so strong, and so you’ll find at Somerset one of the most striking Redans around.  (As an aside, the club’s recently been tinkering with the course under the advice of Tom Doak and Ben Crenshaw, and most of the improvements are just that – but, for me, the one pity is that they’ve put a new blue tee on number two Redan which is yet more elevated – the hole could already be criticised for playing from too high from the white tees – thus somewhat retarding the value of the fairway as a landing strip for the low draw that a Redan hole is intended to reward.  A small complaint nonetheless in an otherwise happy story.).  All the same, the golfer at Somerset sees things that he won’t see anywhere else: like the deliciously ludicrous hump in the fifth green, the false front on number three, the Biarritz green on thirteen, the sweeping right flank of the twelfth green, the tumbling view down to the pond on eleven, a string of camouflaged tiny pot bunkers along the right rough on five, a devilish knob at the front of thirteen green (behind which the flag was cruelly tucked yesterday), the new flat front section of the otherwise clinically insane fourteenth green, and the famous trench running across the fourth fairway that was once a horse track.  I could go on.  Michael, however, is going to pen a more detailed piece on the course’s Jekyll & Hyde architectural prowess, so contrary to my nature I’ll exercise restraint.

What I want to share with you all, briefly, is a small taste of the ambience at Somerset Hills.  The words affable, serene, quaint, pure, delightful and gentle all spring immediately to mind, but listing a string of adjectives is as unimaginative as it is tedious.  If I could get out of the way of myself, for a moment, I’d say that walking its fairways can be likened to a solo mid-winter walk through the woods on a crisp late afternoon.  You feel acutely alive and damned lucky to be so.  Your eyes are drawn here and there in excitement, and can hardly keep up with the forever changing stimulus that’s bewitching them.  You peer into the woods, at the mysterious mansions tucked cosily into them, and wonder who lives there.  It’s an altogether different feeling to the one you get walking through the valley that is Riviera, with McMansions peering down on you with a knowing look of self-satisfaction.  These dwellings are disinterested, comfortable in their own skin.  Just as its refreshing to meet someone who’s unashamedly comfortable with themselves, devoid of all but the slightest of insecurity yet at the same time pleasingly humble, so too is it reassuring to know at Somerset that no one’s showing off.

The other thing I’ll mention is the feeling of flow you get at Somerset.  In dozens of otherwise very admirable golf courses there is lacking this very sense, this fluidity of natural rhythm.  Not so here, courtesy of Tillinghast’s seamless routing; to put it simply, you walk off a green and immediately onto a tee, rarely more than twenty yards – giving a lovely sense of continuity to proceedings.  At the same time the course meanders beautifully, taking the golfer on adventure after adventure without an iota of predictability.  This is probably more masterfully done on the front nine, which is laid out essentially across a gently sloping field, whereas the back nine has by a stretch the more dramatic terrain.  For me the calibre of the routing has few peers, but for the likes of Merion, Shinnecock, Cypress, Royal Melbourne and a few across the pond such as Lahinch or Sunningdale.

Heaping praise upon Somerset will likely rouse resentment in some of those that have never had the privilege of visiting and who perceive it as an ‘old money’ club full of elitist, well-to-do New Yorkers – to be sure, it’s a small club and not surprisingly rather private – and, in a sense, though lamentable, that’s natural.  All I can say in response, and without a word of a lie or a hint of spin, is this: our friend Rory, who’s now taken us along twice, is one of the least snobbish, most humble, generous and interesting characters I’ve come across in my twenty seven years; the staff we’ve met at the club, particularly Head Pro Adam Machala and his assistants, are among the friendliest, most engaging and professional in the golf world, and without pretense I say we’ve been fortunate to meet a few; and for all of that we feel incredibly lucky to have peered into the Eden that is Somerset Hills.  

I said right at the outset that my words would have a glow to them.  Despite trying to tone it down – as much as anything, to be faithful to my Scottish upbringing – I see on reflection that I’ve done a rather bad job.  My only hope then is that I haven’t bored you.


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