Feature Interview with Ed Brockner
August, 2021

1. Tell us about the origins of Hendricks Field Golf Course. Who commissioned it? Who built it? When did it open? Etc.

Essex County, NJ was the first County in the United States to create its own parks system in 1895, beginning with Branch Brook Park in the North Ward, or Forest Hill section, of Newark. Frederick Law Olmsted visited the area some years earlier and deemed it a suitable location for Newark’s answer to Central Park, with the Olmsted Brothers firm completing work at Branch Brook along with a number of other parks in the County. To the north of Branch Brook was Forest Hill Field Club’s golf course built on property leased from the Hendricks family, who had owned the land since 1794, and established their homestead and Soho Copper Works on an adjacent parcel in 1813.

The Olmsted firm designed Weequahic Park at the southern end of Newark soon after Branch Brook. The centerpiece of this three hundred plus acre park was its large lake, and in 1914, a nine-hole golf course opened as the first public layout in the state (with nine more added in the late 1960’s). The original nine was designed by George Low, the golf professional at nearby Baltusrol Golf Club, and proved exceedingly popular as noted in an article from 1926:

“Following the close of the World War, the Weequahic links became the recreation ground of hundreds of youths whom war participation had made accustomed to out-of-door life. Golf fans doubling, trebling almost overnight, the links at once became popular and crowded. In the past two years, the links have been too crowded most of the time, 60,000 and 80,000 games roughly, having been played there in the two successive seasons. More than 80,000 games probably will crowd the records at Weequahic with the season just begun.”

With the growing population in the area, Essex County began planning to expand Branch Brook Park to become more than three hundred fifty acres in total, including acquisition of property owned by Harmon W. Hendricks who represented the last living member of the family. To accommodate the park plans in 1924, Hendricks sold much the property at a discount to the County, and donated an additional twenty acres that comprised the family homestead to Essex Parks that was valued at $100,000.

This portion of property was intended for the construction of a parkway at the terminus of the park’s proposed Northern Extension, but members of the county’s Municipal Golf Club successfully lobbied to instead use the land to construct an 18-hole golf course as justified by the popularity of Weequahic. Through a public referendum the following year, $500,000 was authorized to purchase additional property totaling about 130 acres, and fund construction of the course contiguous with Branch Brook Park that was named in honor of Mr. Hendricks for his generous donation.

Edward Jackson, commissioner of the Essex County Park board, was a principal driver in the development of the project and the Commission hired Seth Raynor to design the new course that also included part of the Forest Hill layout (the club later bought land a mile away hiring A.W. Tillinghast to build their new course). It is unclear to what extent Raynor played in the planning, but it appears from the following quote that credit for the design belongs to Charles Banks due to Raynor’s untimely passing:

“Seth J. Raynor, a golf architect, was employed by the Park Commission to lay out a course. Mr. Raynor died in January before he could get the work more than just started. His associate in business, Charles M. Banks, subsequently was engaged for the task.”

The course opened in 1929 and included many of the classic holes from the Macdonald/Raynor/Banks repertoire including the Redan, Double Plateau and Eden. While an original plan showed more than 100 bunkers to be constructed, as-built drawings indicate that less than 20 were ultimately built. The slope and size of the greens and bunkers was also at a much gentler and smaller scale compared to their other courses; owing to its use as a municipal layout. Below is a plan from Olmsted Brothers that lays out the Northern Extension and “County Park Golf Course.”

2. How was it received?

The course was very well received with Weequahic also remaining very popular, and hosted the inaugural Metropolitan Golf Association Public Links championship in 1936 (followed by the newly opened Bethpage Black the following year).

3. How did Hendricks fare during the last century?

It appears that Hendricks was maintained in decent condition as it hosted numerous state and regional tournaments including the 1970 New Jersey PGA Championship that also marked the 75th anniversary of the Essex Parks Commission. The irony is that the lack of large maintenance budgets or over-zealous greens committees resulted in green complexes and course features being little changed (other than some lost bunkers) over the first eighty years of its existence. The main issues were shrinking of green pads and trees growing over time, but it was more of a slow deterioration and lack of investment in infrastructure that led to a situation that had become dire before the County began making improvements in 2006-7.

4. What was the nadir for the course?

The nadir of the course was in the mid 1990’s when the County brought in the USGA to provide a consultation report authored by longtime Green Section staffer David Oatis. He offered an unvarnished assessment of the County’s three courses at Weequahic, Hendricks and Francis Byrne – which was the original West Course of Essex County Country Club also designed by Charles Banks. The report laid out a blueprint for a plan moving forward to improve the courses, but virtually none of the recommendations were put in place due to lack of funding and staffing at that time, along with little political will to invest over the next ten years.

This was also around the time that the USGA awarded the U.S. Open to Bethpage Black that represented an important moment in the recognition of muni golf. Growing up playing at munis on Long Island and at Bethpage in particular, most were in awful condition and had poor management. The investment in Bethpage showed municipal owners what was possible, and started the trend that has continually gained momentum in the twenty-five years since. And just Great Depression gave the impetus for the construction of Bethpage and hundreds of other munis around the country, our generation’s crisis with COVID has highlighted the need for outdoor recreation with public golf experiencing a boom in participation and hopefully further municipal investment.

5. When did you become involved and what is your role today?

My interest in First Tee and building accessible golf facilities started in 2003 when I returned to Yale two years after graduation as a volunteer assistant. Working under for former coach David Paterson who has been a close friend and mentor, part of my motivation in taking this role was to help bring a youth program to Yale to serve the New Haven community. With a new range planned at the time, along with a need for a long-term strategy to improve maintenance practices and properly restore the course, it seemed there was an opportunity to build a facility on the existing range for dual use of First Tee and the university golf teams. Bethpage provided a model in terms of pricing structure with reduced fees for university affiliates and market rate for others, with the added benefit of serving the New Haven community and leveraging Yale’s educational resources. Although First Tee CT eventually started a small program at Yale, the full plan never came to fruition (my decidedly amateur sketch from the time is below), but it planted the seed in my mind that the classical principals of Macdonald could be adapted to youth and public golf facilities, in a manner similar to how his architecture borrowed from the British links through his designs in America.

The 2003 Macdonald Cup at Yale featured Gil Hanse as guest speaker at the dinner, and a conversation with him there led to him letting me work on his crew at Boston Golf Club and then Country Club of Rochester; seeing both new course construction and classical restoration at its best. I am so thankful to Gil for being so generous with his time, and in giving me the opportunity to get this hands-on experience. His example demonstrated the critical need to spend a lot of time on site to make sure the small details get the proper attention as the work is ongoing.

This all led to me being hired to work for First Tee of Metropolitan New York as construction manager for the redesign of Mosholu Golf Course that was their only site in the Metropolitan area. Mosholu is situated in Van Cortlandt Park that was also the site of the first public golf course in the States built in 1895, with Mosholu built in 1914; coincidentally the same years that Essex County, NJ established their Parks Commission and its Weequahic course respectively. Mosholu’s course would later become just nine holes to make room for a driving range, create more park space and reduce safety issues with golf balls going into heavily populated buildings and roads. When the First Tee Metropolitan New York Chapter was established, it provided a perfect location with the large practice range, proximity to the subway/major highways and potential for improvement. The Metropolitan Golf Association, Met Section PGA and Rudin family were the three founding partners in this endeavor in 2001.

Several years into First Tee’s twenty-year concession in 2004, the acreage of the golf course was further reduced with NYC needing to use a portion of the property for its new Croton Water Filtration Plant. The NYC Department of Environmental Protection provided funding to redesign the course using Stephen Kay with a new driving range and clubhouse built within the smaller footprint. At 2,300 yards from the tips, we focused on making a course that while not overly difficult, still offered some fun challenge and compelling design features. A guiding principle of the work was that for those just learning the game, it was even more important to create interesting strategies and incorporate classical principles to make it a course people wanted to come back to.

Most of the holes were completely original in nature, but the Redan-inspired par three third, and “Bronx Biarritz” on the ninth were borrowed from the Macdonald design school. Roughly fifty yards long with a prominent swale in the middle that plays slightly uphill, it provided an unexpected and enjoyable conclusion to one’s round at Mosholu for muni golfers. In working with Stephen, it seemed fitting that the flagship home of the First Tee created to make the game more inclusive in the region also included design features found on many of the best, but strictly private courses of Macdonald, Raynor and Banks in the Met.

In seeking additional communities where we could serve youth with a focus on those from diverse populations, along with existing public facilities that could benefit from investment and a facelift, Newark and Essex County, NJ’s Weequahic Golf Course provided perfect next project. The course had been badly neglected and there were no practice facilities to teach First Tee, but Essex County was in the process of a major parks overhaul partnering with non-profits that provided youth and community programming under a new administration. Thanks to Ralph Ciallella from Essex County, we identified a blighted area between the course and railroad tracks that was about five acres filled with debris that First Tee transformed into a dedicated youth practice area.

With the help of a USGA grant that gave the project a higher profile and legitimacy, we were then able to reach out to other funders to get seed money from the NJ State Golf Association, NJ Section PGA and the Ryan family. Stephen Kay donated his design services and we built three artificial greens loosely based on the Short, Eden and Redan that doubled as a short range. It offered a great place to teach the kids and for them to call their own, along with free access to the course at off-peak times. This success created a spark for the improvement of the golf facilities in Essex County overall.

Following the project in Newark in 2006, the County hired me to work as golf consultant for their three golf courses to create long-range master plans and provide management advisement that resulted in increased revenue and usage. The $7 million bond the County took out for improvements in 2007 to address infrastructure needs at Weequahic, Hendricks and Francis Byrne was paid off in less than ten years, through increased play while continuing to maintain green fees that are extremely affordable. The biggest increase was at Weequahic where there were only about 11,000 rounds played in 2005 and by 2019, this number had nearly tripled to over 30,000.

On the community and youth programming side, First Tee has invested more than $5 million over this time (with the Ryan, Wilf and Fireman families providing a significant portion of the funding) through high quality instruction for students and education initiatives including college scholarships. Katie Rudolph, an extraordinarily gifted PGA and LPGA professional, led programs there for the ten years leading up the restoration, along with major improvements made at Weequahic to the clubhouse through state and county grants in 2012 and 2017. In my most recent role as Executive Director of First Tee from 2015-2021 (after ten years as Director of Development) along with our staff and donors, our organization built a great deal of trust in the Essex County and Newark community with a track record of service through our programs and successful facility improvements.

All of this set the stage for us to work with the county and state to complete a plan for Hendricks Field in seeking to expand our municipal model of partnership with First Tee: investment of public funds to restore and enhance open space combining the spirit of Olmsted and design tradition of Macdonald, with First Tee and its philanthropic partners committing to fund programs over the long term to support community-based education initiatives.

6. How did you go about galvanizing support for a restoration?

With the demand for programs and difficulty for students from Newark’s North Ward and surrounding towns to access Weequahic, First Tee and Essex County sought to create a new Campus site at Hendricks Field. However, there was very little available land to build a similar facility to Weequahic, and a desire to build a larger “Learning Links” where youth golfers could have a true a golf course experience. While the increase in play due to improved conditions at the County courses generated additional revenue, it also had the unintended consequence of providing less tee times for the kids to use with increased demand. By building an area with several practice holes, it would alleviate these issues for beginning students’ access, offer an outstanding practice area, and allow youth to then graduate to the main course when ready. To make this possible, it would necessitate an expansion of the golf course into an underutilized section of Branch Brook Park and provide the justification for investment in the restoration, renovation and redesign of the course as a whole.

In addition to the three short holes, First Tee and the Ryan family funded the design of the Learning Center that will serve as a community anchor with year-round education programs providing the project with a purpose beyond golf. There are many youth in financial need in the surrounding area who do not have access to programs like First Tee, and the tutoring, STEM and college program programs the Met NY chapter teaches. There will be numerous scholarship and youth employment opportunities, including the use of this facility as a focal point of efforts in New Jersey to grow the number of Evans Scholars in my new role.

There were many individuals who galvanized support of the restoration, and the youth education programs that the revamped and expanded facilities could provide. Those who deserve the most credit for gaining funding and support are Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and NJ State Senator Teresa Ruiz. The County Executive, an avid golfer himself, has been a tireless supporter and advocate for parks and youth programs since we established First Tee. Senator Ruiz, whose district includes Hendricks Field and helped secure state funding for the project, was an important voice within the county and state. As the Senate’s educational chair, she championed the project’s benefits providing programs and facilities for minority youth in financial need, who would not otherwise gain exposure to golf as they do to other sports.

As we were gaining momentum on the funding side of the project, concerns raised by the NJ Historic Preservation Office nearly stopped the entire efforts in its tracks in late summer 2020. The portion of Branch Brook Park to be used for golf course expansion was determined to be part of a historically designed landmark area that could potentially prevent its use for golf. However, we presented historical maps showing that the original clubhouse and previous Forest Hill Field Club course played through the area in question, along with a scorecard uncovered in the USGA archives from 1929 proving that the course started and ended at this point in its early years as further evidence.

A scorecard from the opening year of the course in 1929 shows how the course started and ended at the part of the park In the process, we were actually restoring the original use of the land as historic golf space that predated the park’s Northern Extension. In addition, at which time of expansion, Branch Brook Park and the golf course as shown on both the Olmsted plan and scorecard were not separate, but rather integrated together in the form of active and passive recreation. The Ryan family was also integral in the process as they have been since the founding for First Tee Essex County in 2005. As major benefactors of the park, the Ryans provided us with an introduction to Barbara Bell Coleman who is chair of the Branch Brook Park Alliance. Her advocacy of our plan to incorporate a portion of the park aligned with the goals of the Alliance in better serving the community, and gave us much needed support. In her letter to the historic preservation office, she wrote that she believed the First Tee program, combined with course improvements, would “become a national model” in serving the immediate surrounding neighborhood:

“As residents engage with this program, all youth will have the opportunity to experience what Frederick Law Olmsted believed to be ‘chance meetings’ of people of all walks of life, from all backgrounds, race, creed color and socio-economic backgrounds to interact and be in relation with one another.”

The planning and approval process for the project also coincided with the worst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic that struck Newark particularly hard, and heightened the need for equal access to open space for urban residents; making the case even more compelling for sustainable municipal golf combined with a youth program that promotes environmental justice. This was also in line with the Olmsted philosophy that drove the creation of the Essex Park system in the first place, and the physical and mental health benefits parks that by extension muni golf courses like Hendricks and the Learning Links as a small youth and family golf park can provide, in an 1882 essay highlighted this fact:

“No mere brooming over the rude pavements of that period being sufficient to fully remove the chief cause of offense, the air was nearly everywhere perceptibly foul, and this to a degree often provocative, in time of epidemics, of a panicky disposition to flee the town. Where there were parks, they gave the highest assurance of safety, as well as a grateful sense of peculiarly fresh and pure air. In London, besides the better known large parks, there were, early in this century, nearly a hundred small parks—more than three times as many as we yet have in New York. The political economy of the day valued them almost exclusively because of their cleaner air, and few travelers’ stories or other general accounts of London, until lately, failed to refer to them as ‘airing grounds,’ ‘breathing places, as ‘the lungs of London,’ and so on.”

7. How did you go about selecting Stephen Kay as the architect?

When our youth learning area at Weequahic was built and funded by First Tee in 2005, Stephen Kay donated his services to the project and the County became familiar with his work. He has remained the consulting architect for Essex County over the past fifteen years, and has provided invaluable counsel in all aspects of golf course design along with agronomy and maintenance. His experience in public golf courses and coming up with practical solutions has been especially important, and he does an excellent job in articulating golf course needs and plans to the County administration.

8. How did the two of you work together?

Stephen and I worked closely on all aspects of the design, and along with Tim Christ the director of golf worked through each of the holes to develop the plan. Once we included the extra acreage at the south end of the course, we were able to create the final design. I created the concept and routing of the Road and Biarritz green on the new holes, and we worked together on every hole on the course. A lot of the design work was done in the field as the project evolved that allowed us to make some changes along the way that turned out nicely. Whenever we disagreed, Tim Christ was always the tie-breaker and deferred to him as his team would need to maintain whatever we built! It was a really fun process and we all made a great team in bringing different perspectives.

9. Is it accurate to say it’s a Banks design but because not a lot of literature exists from Banks himself, that you turned to the writings of his mentor, C.B. Macdonald, for input?

Yes, the writings of Macdonald played a major influence on the project and as we studied each hole, and considered how he and Banks might approach the design on a Modern Muni. The two chapters in Scotland’s Gift titled Inception of Ideal Golf Course and Architecture, pack so much timeless insight into just twenty-five pages of text. As Hendricks is connected to a park designed by Olmsted Brothers, I also studied the writings of Frederick Law Olmsted as well to consider how his philosophy on accessibility to open space by the masses had implications in the pursuit of high-quality public golf.

In 1850, Olmsted went on a pilgrimage to study parks both public and private in England prior to embarking on his landscape design career, much as Macdonald endeavored to study the great links of Britain at the turn of the 20th century before building National Golf Links. The principal of not just accessibility, but also the civic pride a community should have in its public open space, was described by Olmsted in his observation of Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park and embodies the spirit of how we sought to apply this same idea at Hendricks:

“Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent in studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America, there was nothing to be of as comparable to this People’s Garden…All of this magnificent pleasure-ground is entirely, unreservedly and forever the people’s own. The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as is the British queen. More than that, the baker of Birkenhead has the pride of an OWNER in it”

Olmsted also wrote about capturing the “genius of place” and is a concept that we kept in mind as we restored what was already there through the greens by designed by Charles Banks nearly a century ago, and built on this work in bringing the classical principals to any new construction with use of unique elements like the abandoned railroad tracks or historic cherry groves adjacent to the park holes.

In the opening to his chapter on Architecture, he included a 1797 quote from Humphrey Repton who pioneered landscape architecture in England, and provided a unifying theme for our work at Hendrick as one whose style inspired the work of both Macdonald and Olmsted:

“It should appear that, instead of displaying new doctrines or furnishing novel ideas, this volume serves rather by a new method to elucidate old established principles, and to confirm long received opinions, I can only plead in my excuse that true taste, in every art, consists more in adapting tried expedients in peculiar circumstance than in that inordinate thirst after novelty, the characteristic of uncultivated minds which from the facility of inventing wild theories, without experience, are apt to suppose that taste is displayed by novelty, genius by innovation and that every change must necessarily tend to improvement.”