Thursday, November 22, 2007

Somerset Hills Country Club

Many people form their impression of New Jersey based on driving down the New Jersey Turnpike after leaving New York City or arriving at Newark Airport. The impression is not a pretty one with the unsightly Pulaski Skyway, industrial wastelands, refineries, landfills and a generally miserable look to that area.

The reality of New Jersey can be quite different than the first impression, particularly as you get away from the Turnpike. Somerset Hills is located about forty minutes west of Manhattan in an affluent part of the state, in the town of Bernardsville. The Bernardsville-Basking Ridge-Far Hills area is New Jersey's equivalent of Greenwich or of Manhattan's Upper East Side. This is horse country, made up of gently rolling terrain and sprinkled with mansions made from Wall Street and pharmaceutical fortunes. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Meryl Streep were one time residents of Bernardsville. The area is also home to the U.S. Equestrian Team and the U.S.G.A. The course takes its name from the name of the county it is located in. The club's logo incorporates the crest of the (English) Duke of Somerset. Given its proximity to the U.S.G.A., located about ten minutes away, and its storied place in the game, Somerset Hills has a long-standing tradition of letting executives from Golf House play the course. For the rest of us, we have to be invited by a member.

Somerset Hills represents the type of club that I like very much. It is old, traditional and conservative. It reminded me of Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts with its original, reassuring and discrete clubhouse and civilized and understated approach to everything. In other words, it is the antithesis of the nearby Trump debacle, which is overdone, tacky, ostentatious, crass, coarse and over-engineered in its need to show how impressive it is. At Somerset Hills, they don't have to try to impress, because they are the genuine article. The small clubhouse, pro shop and outdoor deck fit perfectly into the landscape and have a patina that can't be bought and only develops with age and a respect for the past. The course has two perfectly manicured grass tennis courts, confirming its gentrified and genteel approach as a private club.

The Golf Course

The golf course at Somerset Hills Country Club (ranked a beguiling #69 in the world) was built by A.W. Tillinghast in 1917. Part of the course was carved out of a former racetrack. A par 71, Somerset Hills plays to a total yardage of 6,659 and a slope rating of 132. As was Tillinghast's tradition, each of the holes at Somerset Hills was given a name by the architect.

Redan #2

The second hole, an excellent rendition of the Redan and a tough hole to play as your second of the day

Tillinghast went with the 'difficult start' philosophy at Somerset Hills. The first hole, "Orchard" plays through an old orchard and is a very testing 448 yard par four that doglegs to the right. The second hole is a classic "Redan" hole, seen above, and it's a beauty. At 175 yards it has all the classic elements of a Redan and it plays very difficult, even though it is rated as the #15 handicap hole.
3rd green

The uphill approach to the 3rd green

The third hole, named "Bunker Hill", is a shortish, 378 yard par four that plays to an elevated green that is well protected by bunkers.

SSH 5th green
The 5th green with the big hump running across it

The fifth hole, oddly enough named "Nairn" (I guess it reminded Tillinghast of the town in Scotland?) has a green design that Tillinghast used on several holes at Somerset Hills. As can be seen in the picture above, there is a very large hump running across the green. As a short course by modern standards, Somerset Hills is by no means an easy course. Part of the reason is green designs such as this, and also, very fast greens.

6th ravine1

The old race course runs through the 6th hole

I liked the par five, sixth hole ("Plateau"), which has the outline of the old racetrack still running through the fairway. You can see where the track winded around the edge of the property, through the sixth and seventh ("Racetrack") fairways and where it turns at the end of the seventh fairway and heads back toward the clubhouse. You can see the big dip in the fairway in the picture above.

6th racecourse
You can still imagine the races running through the 6th hole

Many thanks to my caddy for providing the proper perspective and sense of scale to this unique hazard. You can get a good feel in this picture of how Tillinghast used the racetrack to great effect. It was a brilliant design decision on his part.

Some courses have a front and back nine that are reasonably similar in feel and style. Somerset Hills does not. It has two distinctly different sets of nine. The front nine is relatively flat and plays on relatively open ground in the area where the former racetrack was situated. The back nine is set within the forest, has many tree-lined holes, and has much more change in elevation.

11th green

The approach shot to the 11th green

The eleventh hole, aptly named "Perfection", is rated as the #4 handicap hole at Somerset Hills, but in my book is clearly the most difficult hole on the course. It is a 412 yard par four that requires the golfer to hit his/her tee shot through a narrow chute of trees to a landing area that slopes left to right down a hill. Shots hit too far to the right are blocked out, leaving no approach to the green, so the tee shot requires precision and the appropriate position.

The 11th green

The hole is a sharp dog-leg to the right after the tee shot. The second shot plays from an uneven lie, over a creek, to a difficult, elevated and well-bunkered green.

View from the 11th green back up to the clubhouse

In addition to being a difficult and brilliantly designed golf hole, the eleventh hole is also scenically beautiful. There is a pond left of the green and right of the green is a sharp hill that rises to the clubhouse and is covered in fescue (seen above).

12th green

The par 3 12th, named "Despair"

The next hole, a 151 yard par three named "Despair", shows off a design feature Tillinghast didn't use often, which is a green set within/around water. It requires a precise shot because the area you hit from is narrow and there are trees encroaching on the right side.

The thirteenth green, above, shows that even on relatively straight forward driving holes, there is no letup at Somerset Hills, given the big undulations used strategically by Tillinghast. This one looks like a wave rolling in from the sea.

The par four fifteenth hole, named, "Happy Valley," joins a small list of truly world-class holes that I have found in my travels playing these elite courses. See the entire list here. The 407 yard par four is seen from the tee below.

15th from tee

The 15th hole, "Happy Valley" from the tee

You can see the strategic options off the tee, which allows a player to hit safely to the left, or to choose a bolder line over the bunker and be rewarded by cutting off the corner of the dogleg and advancing the ball significantly down the hill toward the green.

15th from tee1

The sloping fairway on the 15th hole

You can see the big left to right slope in the fairway as it plunges down the hill toward a small green protected by water in front and on the left side by both water and a weeping willow tree.

15 green

The small 15th green down in the valley

Is was during this stretch of the course that I realized why I like Tillinghast routings like this one, Quaker Ridge and Baltimore Five Farms. There is so much change, variation, brilliant use of terrain and character to his routings that they just charm you into submission. I appreciate this type of layout more than a Winged Foot or Baltusrol where so much of the character and challenge is in the greens only.
16th green

The par three 16th "Deception" green"

The back nine meanders through the hills. The fifteenth plays down the big sweeping hill. The next hole, the 170 yard par three sixteenth, is carved into the side of a hill. The hole after that, the seventeenth ("Quarry"), a par four with a blind tee shot over a hill, features a second shot down the hill to a tough green. The back nine has a set of holes that fit together like a glove and are as good as any you'll find.

The eighteenth is a short, 335 yard par four that plays up a big hill toward the clubhouse and is not that hard. It is the only hole that is worthy of the slightest bit of criticism on the back nine.

Getting everything right at a golf club is more art than science, but at Somerset Hills they have it all figured out. The small locker room and bar, the discrete, respectful staff and a refined approach to everything. Maybe it was hard for me to be objective playing here. As you can see from my pictures, I played it on such a nice fall day that the course really shined. I love to golf during the fall with its shorter days, crisp weather, diffused light, the sound of leaves crunching under your spikes and the sound of birds flying south (yes, I'm still a fan of Canadian Geese despite what they've done to Medinah). Since this was a home game for me I made it back home in time for dinner to appease my delightful wife who is becoming increasingly irascible about my golfing travels. I wonder why?
After having now played all of A.W. Tillinghast's courses, I would personally rank them in the following order: 1. San Francisco; 2. Somerset Hills; 3. Bethpage Black; 4. Baltimore (Five Farms); 5. Quaker Ridge; 6. Winged Foot (East); 7. Winged Foot (West); 8. Baltusrol (Lower).


Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised that you did not have Ridgewood in Tilly Top 10. I've played quite a few Tillys' also and would have Ridgewood up there

Unknown said...

Played Somerset Hills with a member a couple of weeks ago and it was fantastic. I love that they retained the racetrack as a feature. Wonderful atmosphere in the clubhouse.

unbenz said...

Played it twice and was disappointed both times. Sadly, it's nowhere near its Top 100 peers. The locker room is small, old, and underfurnished. The driving range is a mown tee box on a hillside overlooking some front 9holes. The landing area is those holes on the front 9. It's completely rediculous hitting balls onto the holes you're about to play while watching the range picker drive around aimlessly retrieving balls. The front 9 is wide open, short, and otherwise bland. Note about the par 3 2nd: Truth is "Redans" are more controversial than enjoyable when the green is running at 12. The racetrack running throughout makes for a nice story but reminds you the words "racetrack" and "golf" don't function well together. Many of the holes on the back 9 are delightful with more elevation change and water hazzards. SHGC is a $40 muni, only in a quiet old money town with PJ Boatwright's name on the wall.

Jack said...

SHCC is one of the most enjoyable golf courses on the planet. It has a charm and a feel that is so unique and it is a fantastic test of golf. The greens can run crazy fast and it is the type of course that you could play every single day and never get bored. If you have the chance to play this gem, jump at it - it's one of Tillinghast's best!

yoyodyne said...

Have played here with one of my best friends who is a member, a really terrific Tilly course, the back 9 is pretty spectacular, I also enjoy the rolling greens on some of the holes.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me, Unbenz, but you have to understand that a golf course built in 1907 didn't have a practice facility in the plans. Consider the fact that the driving range existing at all is a privilege that the modern golfer uses to make the excuse, "I was hitting it so well on the range. I don't know what's wrong with me today." It is ridiculous that you dedicate half of your criticism on the driving range.

You are of the small percentage of golfers that has the opportunity to play nice golf courses, but lacks the tact or worldly wisdom to appreciate true taste.

I have played Somerset Hills many times and I take legitimate offense to your post. You say the front 9 is bland, but I have heard, quite literally, hundreds of times that the par 3 second hole is one of the greatest representations of the original Redan in North Berwick. I imagine you hit a soft fade off the tee and had an up-and-down that you thought was impossible; therefore, you determined that it was a bad hole.

I can say something about each hole on the front (for the entire 18, for that matter), but the stretch of 7, 8, and 9 are unprecedented with regard to length, elevation, and precision.

Finally, and I should have opened with this, calling that place a $40 muni says how unappreciative you are of the good things that come to you. A person like you will never be happy.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your piece on SHCC. I caddied there for 10 years, and, in a sense, grew up on that course. A lot of the other great courses I've been on just don't have the charm that SH has. It's unique. I was privileged to be the twilight "cart boy" there one season, and played at least 18 holes almost every evening for five or six months. I was often the only human on the course. What a memory . . .

Anonymous said...

I've been a member at SHCC for 30 years, so my bias is out front and center. I have played well known courses all over the world, but my home course is fine indeed. It lacks length, yes, but who can play the course in less than 36 putts? I have a ten spot that says you can't.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

In the state of shock after playing this Tilly masterpiece. For the love of God, four holes now have slanted tees with two being distinctly downhill lies on par 3's.
They were clearly not temporary tees. Can somebody help me to understand this ?
Kind Regards,
Wade Taylor