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Hamilton Farm Golf Club

On the surface, this pastoral paradise is rich in history and great golf. Behind the scenes, it runs with the efficiency of a Swiss watch

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in 2012 LINKS Premier Clubs

Every morning at 6 a.m., the superintendent at Hamilton Farm Golf Club sends an email to the management team with the day’s expected weather, course conditions, hole locations, even local road advisories.

About an hour later, the concierge of the 650-acre private club in Somerset County, New Jersey—about 90 minutes west of New York City—sends along the daily tee sheet, lesson schedule, information on prospective members who are visiting, a list of events and meetings, and notes for and about the staff.

These two messages exemplify the two overriding, and complementary, mandates at Hamilton Farm. The first is attention to detail, from the valet knowing every visitor’s name to the waitress bringing mango-scented cold towels to golfers on the course.

The second is devotion to the membership, the quest to provide an unforgettable experience inside the gates. As club manager Tim Bakels puts it, “We look for the opportunity to blow people away.”

Golfers are blown away every day by the two courses from architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. Highlands is a broad-shouldered beauty, always in pristine condition, that rolls gently through acres of hardwood forest. Hickory is an 18-hole short course that is equal parts charm and challenge. Taken together, they offer golfers nearly unequalled opportunities to play the game they love and love the place they play it.

Only 10 years old, Hamilton Farm has the rarefied feel of a much older club because it is steeped in tradition. Once part of a 5,000-acre farm owned by turn-of-the-century financier James Cox Brady, the club still makes use of many of the original buildings. The family house is now the Mansion, an elegant Georgian-style structure filled with priceless antiques (such as a Chippendale breakfront that has but one twin in the world—in Buckingham Palace) and 10 spacious guest rooms, as well as intimate dining areas, meeting chambers, and a well-stocked wine cellar.

The old Hunting Lodge has been modernized into a four-bedroom hiding place ideal for the foursome desiring time together yet away from the world. The newly built clubhouse looks like its neighbors and is fitted with both men’s and women’s locker rooms, pro shop, and lounges.

Out the clubhouse’s back doors sits Highlands, a deceptively challenging layout that begins its examination with a 331-yard hole called Stable. (Many of the holes are named for elements of the old farm. The original stable, behind the 1st green, is now home of the United States Equestrian Team.) The shortest par four on the course, Stable may not be a driver hole because it demands a precise tee shot that stays left but short of a threatening bunker, then a short approach into a green positioned to the right and nearly perpendicular to the fairway.

The opening hole, short and tight, is followed by a long, sweeping par five that turns left through towering trees. After the laser-like attention demanded on the 1st hole, the golfer can catch a bit of his breath (or hers—there are four sets of tees, fitting every player) and look around. The view provides a primer on the rest of the course.

Fairways throughout are generous, promoting a false sense of security on the tee, for those same broad expanses are sloped and some lined with steep drop-offs into the trees or long grass. Mastery of sand play is an asset since there are as many as nine bunkers on a hole and as few as one, but that one is always by the green.

The architects provide an open area abutting every putting surface but one: On the long, downhill par-five 9th, the green is parked close to a sliver of wetland. The other 17 entrances are for running the ball on or bailing out. Short is often preferable to long (where gnarly golf-ball cemeteries lurk unseen), but leaves success to one’s short game and the ability to play from sharply angled chipping areas onto big, sloping greens.

Looking at a short pitch off a tightly mown collection area to a close pin, Director of Golf Matt Freitag says, “just because you can get it there doesn’t mean you can keep it there.” That applies to nearly every shot into the fast and unpredictably sinuous putting surfaces.

The most photographed hole on Highlands is No. 6, a par four called Bull Barn because that’s what sits just five yards behind the green. One of the few long holes that doesn’t turn, bend, or dogleg, it uses a group of bunkers on the left side of the fairway to encourage a fade, then asks for the same shot again into a green with a single gaping pit of sand short and right.

Next comes what Freitag calls the hardest hole on the course. Creamery is a long par three to an angled green also guarded by a large bunker sitting short and right. For good players like Freitag, the four par threes offer birdie hopes while putting up strong resistance with length (all run 160 to 240 yards from the various men’s tees) and slick greens laced with ridges and mounds.

The flow of holes keeps golfers thinking, moving left then right, hitting down from elevated tees then climbing uphill. There are corners to carry, preferred routes to try, a chess game between golfer and ground. On the final hole, a wide par four with long parallel bunkers squeezing the landing area, one gets the feeling that Brady and his horse-riding friends must have had a century ago, cantering up the gently rolling grasslands in sight of home: No. 18 finishes at the Mansion’s backdoor amid a garden of wildflowers.

While there is almost no water on Highlands, small ponds dot the par-three track just steps away. Measuring 3,080 yards, Hickory was built in the tradition of the short courses at Pine Valley and Augusta National, faithful little brothers that are fun and frisky. Four of its holes measure more than 200 yards, while few demand nothing more than wedge. The land changes quickly from thick forest to grassy plain, gentle uphill climbs then roller-coaster drops.

Opening its gates to the outside world, Hamilton Farm has hosted small-field pro events. The LPGA has held two tournaments on Highlands—the HSBC Women’s World Match Play Championship in 2005–06, and more recently the Sybase Match Play Championship, to be conducted for the third straight year in 2012.

The devotion to lady golfers extends to the members. The staff conducts regular clinics and events for women (there’s a full-time female instructor) as well as for the newest golfers, “Little Chippers,” aged three to five. Director of Instruction Mike Adams is a world-renowned teacher who also brings in other top instructors. And while Hamilton Farm is a golf-only club, reciprocity has recently been arranged with The Club at Natirar: Once a home owned by the King of Morocco, Natirar now boasts a first-class restaurant and cooking school as well as wellness amenities including a pool, spa, tennis courts, and fitness facility.

Health is also important to Hamilton Farm’s new Executive Chef Anthony Bucco, whose Mediterranean heritage influences the traditional American cuisine, creating dishes he calls “sensible for the mind and body.” Bucco also conducts cooking classes, and besides relying on local produce tends his own vegetable garden alongside Highlands’ 7th hole.

Whether growing fresh greens or keeping the greens freshly cut, every member of the Hamilton Farm staff understands that there is only one accepted mode of operation. “We think of ourselves as a family serving a family,” says Bakels. “So we need to do the right thing and do it right.”

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