Forsgate Country Club
Monroe Township, New Jersey
United States of America
Most commonly Scottish immigrants helped translate the game to North America as golf professionals and in that role imparted the essence of the game and how it was played. Some were proficient at club making, others taught, and a few became household names in course design. Forsgate Country Club acts as a reminder that there were other ways, though surely the smallest subset was that as a founder and owner of a golf club.
John Forster’s emigration is common only at the start. He left his native Scotland for perceived better economic opportunities in the United States. His savings went toward the ship passage and he arrived ready to work, eventually getting into insurance. Together with Frederick Crum, he founded the insurance agency Crum & Forster in 1896. Their business thrived and Forster went on to become very wealthy and, according to club records, sought to build ‘… a self-sufficient community for his employees. In 1913, he eyed 50 acres of land in Monroe Township. When the farm was complete, Forster dubbed it Forsgate, honoring his own and his wife’s family name, Gatenby. After trial and error, the dairy project proved to be the most successful of his business ventures. In 1921 the Cranbury Press reported that Forsgate Farms had broken a World’s Record for producing the most amount of milk in sixty days.’
Undeterred by the Great Depression, the Scot decided to add a golf course in 1930. No record exists as to what other architects he may have spoken with but we know he selected Charles Banks. As someone who wanted the finest design tenets incorporated onto his New Jersey landscape, he couldn’t have made a wiser selection. Banks was the man carrying on the tradition established by C.B. Macdonald and furthered by his protégé, Seth Raynor, of interpreting the most noble, time-honored holes in the United Kingdom.
How had Banks, a former English teacher at Hotchkiss Preparatory School, come into golf course design? To quote our own legend, George Bahto, from his 1993 book The Legend of The Knoll Raynor: ‘Banks was a member of the school’s building committee which hired Raynor in 1924 to build a first rate golf course for Hotchkiss, a nine hole course featuring two sets of tees. Banks worked closely with Raynor and, as he watched him work, reversing the original routing of the course and adding eight new tees and greens, he became fascinated with course design and construction. Soon he left the school and joined Raynor’s firm. He quickly became a partner and they collaborated on the construction of many outstanding courses.’
To amplify Bahto’s statement, Banks assisted Macdonald and Raynor to build Mid Ocean in Bermuda and then worked with Raynor on some of his most distinguished designs including Yale and Yeamans Hall. When Raynor passed away in 1926 at the woefully young age of 47, Banks inherited a thriving enterprise. Coast to coast, ten projects including Yeamans Hall in South Carolina and Monterey Peninsula in California were in the works. By the time it came to build Forsgate in 1930, Banks had cemented a fine reputation of his own.
Tragically, Banks career was abruptly terminated an early age when both John Forster and he passed away the year Forsgate opened in 1931. While Raynor has finally received his due (largely thanks to Bahto’s work), the same can’t be said for Banks. His stint without Raynor was brief (1926 – 1931) and was complicated by the Great Depression. Forsgate is a rare exception of a quality design that emerged between October ’29 and October ’31.
During economic slowdowns clients that persevere and move forward are often huge beneficiaries of more of the architect’s time than they might in busier times. Such is the case here and Banks’s boldness permeates the grounds at Forsgate. Whippoorwill in Armonk, New York and Forsgate are the shining stars that Banks created on his own. Tastes in architecture have moved back toward the Macdonald, Raynor, Banks school of architecture and some of the most heralded recent designs like Chambers Bay feature width, deep bunkers and heavily-contoured and severely canted greens.
‘Big’ designs that lack strategic interest or unimaginative greens are little more than a bomber’s paradise. Banks saw to it that his courses were much more. Look no further than the start of the second nine to gain an appreciation of how Banks created large targets that reward creative shotmaking and finesse.
Can the golfer fade his approach and find the lower front right portion of the tenth green as seen above? Can he flatten his trajectory at the eleventh and have his approach tumble onto the putting surface? Can he find the bathtub at the twelfth? Is he talented enough to find the narrow back shelf at the thirteenth? These questions are just as attractive today as when the course opened, so full marks to Banks for creating something that stands the test of time.
Architect Stephen Kay has been the architect on record since 2006 and has been picking away at Forsgate ever since. After ten years of studying Banks’s work, he states admiringly, ‘Banks certainly had ‘chutzpah.’ The boldness and largeness of his features are without parallel. His bunkers are deeper compared to his peers, Ross and Tilly. His greens are bolder. As an example, Ross created great greens at Oyster Harbor with each surface separated into different areas by ridges, rolls, swales. Banks did the same at Forsgate but with a much bigger difference in elevations.’
Banks was essentially offered a rectangular block of land that ran south/north with valleys throughout. By the 1930s, the concept of returning nines had taken hold and four playing corridors (e.g. the first, ninth, tenth and eighteenth holes) needed to be created at the southern end of the property where the clubhouse sits. While the author doesn’t know for sure, he imagines such constraints simplified the routing for an architect as talented as Banks.
As is typical for the northeast, the soil is clay-based, not sandy so the opportunity while good was not great. Depending on your point of view, Forsgate is either splendidly located near a highway between Philadelphia and New York or it is a bit remote from both New York and Philadelphia. Banks, himself, once noted that ‘Most skyscrapers are built where they are needed. So are most golf courses.’ No doubt he felt good about this site in such a well-trafficked corridor.
As we see below, what Banks ultimately achieved leaves the golfer with the overriding sensation that no architect could have produced a better design on that piece of property. Forsgate has routinely held exhibitions and charity events and garnered lofty praise from the likes of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, who called the greens ‘the most eye-poppin’ he had ever seen. In fact, Snead thought that no professional would break 75 if he was allowed to set the hole locations.
Holes to Note
Third hole, 215 yards, Eden; The first of Forsgate’s great holes, this Eden features a unique twist: a pronounced spine that divides the wide green into a distinct left and right portions. Trying to two putt from one side to the other is nearly as challenging as trying to putt from the back to front tier of the Biarritz. As Kay puts it with a wry smile, ‘I stand on the tee in awe of its awesomeness.’
Fifth hole, 415 yards, Punchbowl; Immensely appealing, the key word being ‘immense.’ This green was once considered among the biggest in America and measures 14,400 square feet. There are two types of Punchbowls, those that are located uphill (e.g. NGLA, Whippoorwill) and those that are downhill (e.g. The Creek, Fishers Island). A punchbowl situated on flat land would be little more than a basin that couldn’t drain properly so they are virtually non-existent. This is of the former and the tilt of the green sheds rain off the front.
Seventh hole, 215 yards, Redan; Houses bordering the left side of the course are no more as the course shifts into high gear, fittingly with a reverse Redan. This version features more tilt than any reverse Redan the author has seen. Indeed, the single hardest hole location at Forsgate might well be top left front here. The author has only seen it there once but had plenty of time to witness the havoc it caused with play backed up!
Eighth hole, 605 yards, Long; At the low point of the property, the eighth tee is some 1200 yards from the clubhouse and given that the nines return, this hole is appropriately named! Here and the next hole play across the east shoulder of the property where the land cants from high right to low left. As such, both thoroughly examine the golfer’s ability to hit from slopping lies. Each hole culminates in a plateau green with seemingly bottomless greenside bunkers short left; so, playing high right is advantageous (though the ground’s tilt does nothing but facilitate a pull/draw/hook). Owner Chris Schiavone and Stephen Kay have hopes of restoring the cross hazards that once slashed across this fairway some 250 yards from the green.
Ninth hole, 530 yards, Plateau; Though the scorecard suggests a less formidable distance than the prior hole, the second consecutive par 5 plays longer than advertised as most tee balls are deadened into an abrupt hillside that dominates the landing zone from the tee.