Somerset Hills Country Club
New Jersey, United States of America

Eleventh hole, 415 yards, Perfection; Though the tenth green has character, it isn’t a Tillinghast. Not to worry though for four of his all-time finest greens now follow, starting with this one. On the tee, the tenor of the property changes as it goes from open to forested and the tiger looks to hit a controlled fade close to a creek on the inside of the dogleg, leaving him an 8-iron to the green. The less talented play more to the center of the fairway and take their chances with a mid-iron to this extravagantly undulating green. Either way, both golfers face a charismatic approach shot. Aptly named, this hole joins the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, fourteenth, and fifteenth as seven all-world holes.

For many, their favorite stretch in inland golf commences with the downhill tee shot at 10 at Augusta National and concludes with the shot over water to the 16th. That’s how the author feels about the stretch of 11-16 at Somerset Hills, starting with the downhill tee shot above.

A well positioned tee ball leaves this approach.

A thing of beauty: the roly-poly 11th putting surface is even more striking by the absence of greenside bunkering.

Twelfth hole, 150 yards, Despair; A treasure of 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 its famous swooping, sloping green from right to left is the hole’s primary defense. Knowledgeable members use it to feed the ball toward the left hole locations. Tillinghast believed the quality of a course’s par threes went a long way toward determining the overall quality of the course and the set of one-shotters at Somerset Hills cement it as the author’s favorite Tillinghast.

Don’t let the idyllic setting fool you; the 12th with its strongly canted green that follows the slope of the hillside requires one of the day’s most precise irons.

Thirteenth hole, 415 yards, Corner; A friend in New York notes, ‘A man who routinely orders the most expensive bottle of wine at a restaurant is merely identifying the highest dollar amount and that act in no way confers taste or knowledge.’  That sums up the author’s take on architecture. For those that have been deluded into thinking that a two shotter must measure 450+ yards to be relevant, they need to come see the eleventh, thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth holes at Somerset Hills. All these holes are plus or minus 5% of 400 yards and are just as vexing today as they were in Tillinghast’s day. It is holes of this length that make a course a delight for the most number of players. The showpiece green features a two foot swale through it and thus, people refer to it as a Biarritz after the template hole that the Macdonald/Raynor/Banks school was so fond. Yet, such a green was reserved for a one shotter. Thus, this serves as another example of Tillinghast borrowing a classic feature and putting his stamp on it. Though it sounds illogical, Tillinghast borrowed with originality and Slawnik considers the greens at Somerset Hills as the best argument against length.

The 13th joins the 3rd, 7th, 9th, 14th, and 18th holes in having the golfer’s tee ball hit and die into an up-slope. Somerset Hills measures 6,784 yards but plays much longer.

Here is yet another green that is open in front but …

…that’s not the whole story. As seen from the side, the Biarritz qualities finally become evident and today’s hole is even in (!) the swale.

Fourteenth hole, 420 yards, Ridge; By this point in the round, the golfer has witnessed a disturbing amount of times how often his drives hit into up-slopes, leaving him undoubtedly with longer shots into the greens than the scorecard suggests. It happened at the last and it happens again here as the same ridge bisects both fairways. The golfer has every right to be grumpy too because both greens are scintillating with a two putt saved for only those that place their approach on the appropriate part of the green for that day’s hole location. At some 8,000 square feet, this might well be the course’s most diverse and interesting putting surface. A plethora of interesting hole locations exist, all of which shine because of how firm the green – and the area before the green – is now routinely presented. In the mid-1980s, the backdrop to the green was a forest and the green was one of the softer, more receptive targets. With the removal of the thicket and the reclamation of nearly 2,000 square feet back to its original size, the green – and therefore the hole –  is once again a standout just as it was in Tillinghast’s day. Slawnik cites this green pad as a prime example of ‘Tillinghast’s ability to build an intentional feature that nonetheless sits harmoniously and elegantly on the ground. His ability to build intentional architecture that fits is a marvel and my annual trips to Somerset Hills are always a highlight. I have never left there without learning something that I can apply elsewhere.’

A wildly mischievous green, the demands placed on the golfer vary greatly depending on the hole location. Young notes, ‘Here at the 14th, just like with so many other holes, the entrance to the green sublimely connects to the fairway. Bunkers and rough grab hold of balls that are not struck well enough. Meanwhile, shots struck with authority are seemingly encouraged to find a path to the hole. The connection of fairways to greens is what sets this course apart.’

The 14th green is upper left and this aerial captures how the forest and thicket was removed from behind it. The aerial also shows three of Tillinghast’s all time best putting surfaces: From the right moving clockwise, the 11th, 12th and then up above the 14th.

Fifteenth hole, 405 yards, Happy Valley; The game of golf is more interesting when the golfer is given something to accomplish. In Tillinghast’s day, shaping shots was a cherished art form, and he provided such opportunities throughout the round for the tiger to showcase his talents (e.g. a fade off the first tee, a draw at the second, a fade at the sixth, a draw at the ninth, etc.). Once again, the good player is given a tempting choice off the tee, this time to play a big fade around the dogleg and have his tee ball catch the down slope and tumble to within ~ one hundred yards of the green. Mortals are left with a 6 iron from on top of the hill but what an approach it is! The angled green is set on the far side of a babbling brook with specimen hardwoods behind completing the handsome picture. For those unfamiliar with the area, this portion of New Jersey would dumbfound with its bucolic charm and rounding the corner of this dogleg is the zenith of the round for many. This hole features exquisite playing angles and Young explains:  ‘For a number of years now the concept of “shot angles” and their importance in great hole design has been espoused as being singularly important. Tilly described this principle differently; he believed that each hole should have a “master trap” that would define how best to play, and not play, the hole. He viewed these lines of play as a punishment for a poorly played or gambled shot, a reward for the one well-struck, and most important of all, how it would teach a player to understand the game better and thereby improve his own. If his designs stand as schools of the game, then Somerset Hills is his Ivy League university.’ 

A peel fade off the 15th tee …

… will do nicely and sets up the golfer for this approach. The hole’s playing angles are flawless as there is a significant advantage to hugging the inside of the dogleg with one’s tee ball.

The putting surface was expanded in recent years so that it once again fully occupies the space that it did in Tillinghast’s day.

Young writes that, ‘One should study every hole from BEHIND the green, for it is only there that one can appreciate the best angle of play and, more often than not, it isn’t the one seen from the tee.’ That suggestion is certainly applicable to the 15th.

Sixteenth hole, 170 yards, Deception; What makes an outstanding quartet of one shotters? The superficial answer is of course … four great holes (!) but that fails to take into account how the four holes relate to one another. During the author’s round here in 2018, he hit to the four greens a 22 degree hybrid, a three wood, an eight iron and a six iron. In short, perfect spacing. While this one garners less remarks than the three that have preceded, it poses just as stern an ask. At this late stage in one’s match, the man who is up might well try and steer the ball, which generally results in a flare right – and death.

A fine hole on its own, the 16th is made even better by how it complements the 12th.

This view from behind shows some of the work required to bench the green into the hillside. Chasing after back right hole locations is a fool’s errand.

Eighteenth hole, 345 yards, Thirsty Summit; Admittedly, this is no one’s favorite hole but that does not mean it isn’t a good golf hole. The fact that it measures sub-350 yards wouldn’t have bothered Tillinghast in the least, given his devotion to The Old Course at St. Andrews, North Berwick and Prestwick. In fact, he might have viewed it as ideal based on those very examples. Here, the drive deadens into the most pronounced up-slope on the property, making par a testier proposition than at those three Scottish links. What a shame it would be if Somerset ended in a conventional manner. The Met area is littered with tough two shot finishers by Tilly and the last thing this distinctive course deserves is … an un-distinctive finish!

The clubhouse is in view and the golfer needs one more solid drive.

As seen from the clubhouse, the Home green caps off a series of outstanding putting surfaces, each different from the other.

Golf started along the North Sea and the transition of the sport inland to where people lived was not a particularly smooth one. Willie Park Jr., Harry Colt and Herbert Fowler gave it an immense push forward in the early 1900s. Tillinghast was fortunate to study their work, as well as the great links. To the author, Somerset Hills represents the best of old school design features from Britain transposed upon an unusually gorgeous piece of land in North America that happily, remains cloistered to this day from outside hustle and bustle. Thanks to the land’s abundant natural elements and with his trips to Britain fresh in his mind, Tillinghast produced an instant American classic and Slawnik rightly suggests that the greens are a touchstone of design. The club has done an outstanding job over the past two decades in removing clutter and putting a spotlight on Tillinghast’s inspired architecture.

Fads have come and gone since Somerset Hills opened 102 years ago. ‘Championship’ falsely supplanted ‘charming’ in importance in the last half of the twentieth century. Time was shown what folly that was and the pendulum has swung back to what truly matters. There is no higher praise for a design than ‘I would love to play there every day.‘ Somerset Hills fits that criteria – which is the most elusive in golf architecture – as well as any inland course in world golf.  It’s that good.

GolfClubAtlas.com profusely thanks Jon Cavalier for the use of his photographs. The best golf course photographs on Instagram are found at Linksgems, run by Jon.

The End