Somerset Hills Country Club
An appealing aspect of A.W. Tillinghast’s work is, strangely enough, the lack of identifying characteristics. The player would be hard pressed to tell that the same architect designed the courses at Winged Foot, the courses at Baltusrol, San Francisco Golf Club, Bethpage (Black) and Somerset Hills. Think of the striking features of each: Winged Foot (West) with its length, raised, severe greens and deep bunkers; Baltusrol (Lower) with its low-profile look; San Francisco with its flashy bunkers stylishly spread at all sorts of angles in the broad fairways; Bethpage (Black) with its huge, sprawling scale and Somerset Hills with its terrific set of greens and its charming layout.
Compare the variety of these styles to the readily identifiable characteristics of Seth Raynor courses (Redan, Biarittz, and Punch Bowl holes abound everywhere) or Pete Dye where Kiawah (Ocean) feels like PGA West by the ocean which resembles TPC-Sawgrass with their formulaic finishes of five par, three par over water, and a stern four par finisher.
Tillinghast’s style (or lack thereof) is an indicator that, unlike many of today’s architects, Tillinghast was not hell-bent on leaving his ‘mark.’ He fit the course onto the available land without forcing his imprint onto the land. (Or, in view of his eccentricities and erratic behavior, perhaps the designs just reflect his severe mood swings!)
Variety is the key to Somerset Hills in Bernardsville, New Jersey: variety of terrain, variety of length of holes, variety of approach shots and variety of greens. With the fairly open front nine laid out on and around an old racetrack and the back nine through rolling wooded terrain with streams and a pond, one would think the course would have a Jekyll and Hyde character (as with, for example, Spyglass Hill). However, the course flows well, and members are split over which side they prefer. The par threes are perfectly balanced at 175, 220, 145 and 165 yards while the par fours have several big two-shotters (the 1st, 4th, 7th and 13th), several short ones (the 5th, 17th and 18th) and those very appealing ones in between.
The one weakness may be what is the only recurring theme across Tillinghast’s work: indifferent par fives. The 9th with its attractive cross bunkering is the best of an undistinguished group.
Holes to Note:
2nd, 175 yards: Tillinghast, like Macdonald, tried to make as many annual trips to Great Britain as possible. Like Macdonald, Tillinghast was impressed with the Redan hole at North Berwick. Combined, the two produced the two finest versions of it in the United States. This one is set over land that begs for it. More so than with other Redans, the player pays a significant price for missing the green to the right as this green is pitched severely to the back-left corner. The only shame is that the rear of the green has subsided to such a degree over the years that there are only two real hole locations: front and back-center. While tinkering with one of the great holes in American golf would make many nervous, clubs should be able to recognize a hole in need of a little help. Tillinghast’s own take on Redans was that ‘some of the most interesting holes are those where the best line of the flag is not direct.’ He delivered on this point at the 2nd hole.
7th hole, 445 yards: The downhill approach with a long iron to the inviting, sloping green is one of the most appealing shots on the course. Most players do not enjoy long-iron shots, but Tillinghast had the unmatched ability to make long iron shots appealing. As with the 8th at Pebble Beach, the relatively uninteresting tee shot becomes more significant as the player wants to catch one so he can enjoy the approach shot. The second shot is inviting, encouraging a good, aggressive swing. It is so easy to picture the proper shot landing just short and chasing up the sloping front half of the green toward the hole.
11th hole, 415 yards: On this dogleg right around a creek, the player in control of his driver can fade his tee shot to the corner, leaving him only an 8-iron into the green. However, most will elect to hit 3-wood off the tee to the center of the fairway and take their chances with a 5-iron to this large but wildly undulating green. Either way, the golfer faces another most appealing approach shot.
12th hole, 145 yards: A treasure in American golf; there are few more natural or appropriate water par threes. The lake short and left of the green grabs the player’s attention, but the sloping green from right to left is the hole’s real defense. The farther right and away from the water the golfer plays, the less his chances of making par. Conversely, many a member can perfectly use the green’s slope to feed the ball toward the left hole locations. Tillinghast believed the quality of a course’s par threes went a long way in determining the overall quality of the course in general. The one-shotters at Somerset help place the course among his two or three finest designs.
15th, 365 yards: Even more so than at the 11th, the player has a choice off this tee: play a big fade with the driver around the dogleg and down the hill to have a pitch into the green or hit a 3-wood down the center and have a 6- to 8-iron left. While the hole does not appeal from the tee, the player faces one of the best views in inland golf as he comes around the corner to look down at the angled green set inches behind a babbling creek and tucked into the trees. If there was not a golf hole here, thinks the player, this would surely be part of a garden. The green is ample to accommodate the longer approach but has more than its share of rolls to fend off any undeserving pars.
What is a recent course built that the informed golfer would describe as charming? Not many spring to mind. Why don’t more architects instill the variety found at Somerset into their own designs? Why the pre-occupation with length?
One frequently heard comment about Somerset Hills is ‘Boy, would I like to play there every day!’ Tillinghast would have smiled.