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Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower)

A.W. Tillinghast's subtle masterpiece

By: Bradley Klein

Appeared in April 1993 Southern LINKS

 

The first tee is only 15 miles from Wall Street. In the old days, club members used to arrive via a private railway. Now a six-lane highway connects the region to New York City. Throughout the area, what used to be quiet farmland and wooded countryside has long since been transformed into suburbia. But here, the tree-covered driveway up to the Tudor-style clubhouse serves as a time tunnel back to an age of classic grandeur, a survivor of the onslaught of the modern world.

 

Baltusrol Golf Club was founded in 1895 by an upscale jack-of-all-trades named Louis Keller. Once described by a contemporary as a “gentleman—but just,” Keller in 1887 came up with the idea of New York’s Social Register, a list of the most important people in town. Chief among them, of course, became Keller himself, since he served as a committee of one with the power to bestow social standing.

 

His proposal for a nine-hole golf course caught on quickly. Prominent businessmen were eager to learn the game, and 50 of them subscribed. The first tournament on this 2,372-yard course was held on a cold day in February 1896. Two years later, when the membership reached 400, the course was expanded to 18 holes.

 

In the gutta percha era, the course served well enough. But the advent of the rubber-core Haskell ball rendered many courses obsolete, including Baltusrol. Thus, the layout underwent a thorough transformation in 1905, resulting in what became to be known as the Old course. But a growing membership proved too much for one course to handle, and by 1916 plans were begun for two new layouts, designed by A.W. Tillinghast.

 

By 1922 the two new courses were complete. The Upper course is routed along the southern slope of Baltusrol Mountain (elevation 350 feet), which rises gently up the right side of the opening six holes.

 

The Lower course is much more demanding than its counterpart. Two par 5s on the front—the 1st and the 7th—offer the golfer decent prospects for birdies. But when the world’s best players tee it up, these holes become par 4s of 470 yards that require power and accuracy. One oddity of the tournament course, by the way, is that the only par 5s are Nos. 17 and 18.

With its relatively lower-lying terrain, the course does not at first seem visually striking. But its subtleties gradually reveal themselves. The scalloped bunkers and lightly terraced greens all display Tillinghast’s vision. At the 381-yard 2nd hole, low-slung staggered bunkers suggest a left-to-right approach. By the time the golfer reaches the 630-yard 17th, its 16 bunkers offer greater depth and far more terrifying prospects.

 

Robert Trent Jones Sr. modified the course for the 1954 Open, making it more accommodating to the modern power game through added length, bigger teeing ground and somewhat broader target areas. He also had a hand in refashioning Baltusrol’s most famous hole, the 194-yard, 4h. An old photograph hanging in the mane’s locker room reveals that Tillinghast’s original design for the hole featured a lake fronting a bowl-shaped green, with bunkers behind. Jones lengthened and expanded the tee, sharpened the pond edge and built a back ledge to the putting green, making it more receptive for the longer shot.

 

When members complained that the new hole was too severe, Jones put it to the test during a round with longtime club pro Johnny Farrell and two senior club officials. Jones pulled out a 5-iron, took a swing and watched as the ball plopped into the hole. End of discussion.

 

Nearly a century after its founding, Baltusrol maintains its grace. The clubhouse is a monument to Old World sensibility, and the courses have fended off generations of players and affirmed the virtues of Golden Age architecture. Indeed, there seems something in the very ground at Baltusrol that enables the past to adapt and live on.


Proof of this can be found behind the 5th green of the course. There, towering over the putting surface and visible from a half-dozen holes, is a glorious American Elm—like Baltusrol itself, one of the last survivors of a magnificent species.


Lower Course
Par: 72
Yardage: 7,400
Year founded: 1895
Architect: A.W. Tillinghast


Upper Course
Par: 72
Yardage: 6,975
Year founded: 1895
Architect: A.W. Tillinghast

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