A.W. Tillinghast (1917)
Tom Doak (2010, 2013)
Brian Slawnik (2017)
—Biased but True
Before we get to the Duke of Windsor, or what most regard as one of the greatest template holes on the planet, or why that is not my favorite hole on the course, we must begin with Albert Warren Tillinghast. In his staggering résumé of designs, Somerset Hills stands out. The quality of his 1917 layout is undeniable, but what makes it genuinely special is how true the membership has kept the course to his original design. It is part golf course, part living museum.
Sometimes when I make the drive on Mine Mount Road, past the quaint, unassuming white sign and along the lovely maple-lined driveway, Ben Crenshaw’s quote from the 1999 club history will pop into my head: “The holes are so clever and fun that every time I visit I am overcome by the loving thought of wanting to roll the whole place under my arm and take it home with me.”
I’ve taken Crenshaw’s vision to heart. Not only have I been a member of Somerset Hills for the past decade, but we love it so much that my family bought a house less than a mile from the club. My role as senior director of the USGA Golf Museum and Library has allowed me to appreciate even further the prestige, architectural significance and accolades given to this special place. Of course I’m biased, but I’m not alone in saying it’s worthy of all the hype.
David Eger, former professional player and past senior director of rules and competition for the USGA, told golfclubatlas.com that Somerset Hills is “among my very favorite ‘fun’ courses to play. It’s right up there with Cypress Point, Seminole, Fishers Island, Camargo, Shore Acres, Crystal Downs, Garden City and Valley Club.” Architect Tom Doak told Links magazine that “as far as I’ve seen, the greens at Somerset Hills are the most bold and varied set of putting surfaces Tillinghast ever built.”
After the club outgrew its original 1899 location, its officials were recommended a parcel in Bernardsville, New Jersey, by none other than Donald Ross. But Tillinghast got the job, and he set out to design something special. The club opened at its new location on July 14, 1917, and The Bernardsville News reported, “All day long members were coming in to view the premises and see the progress in the work of completing the new golf course, tennis courts and the grading about the clubhouse. The first game of golf was played during the afternoon and since that time the links have been in use almost continuously when the weather permitted.”
That’s for good reason: The course was instantly hailed as a classic and has remained in top-100 rankings ever since. Tillinghast designed the two nines in contrasting styles. The first nine is flat and wide open, where he marvelously repurposed the sunken racetrack that once graced the parcel. The second nine, on the back side of the property, is hilly, navigating through the woods, past the lake and over Bernardsville Mountain to a pristine clubhouse at the top of the 18th hole wonderfully named Thirsty Summit. The magic of Somerset Hills is that it can feel like two unique golf courses, both wildly fun and consistently challenging.
The front nine is well-suited to my lifestyle. As a busy working mom with two kids under 5 and a job that requires me to be on the road for most of the golf season, my golf these days is somewhere between three and nine holes, nearly all of it on the front. Nos. 3 and 5 both finish with a short walk back to the clubhouse, leaving me the option to play three, five or nine holes. Architecture aficionados will immediately note that this allows me to always play the world-famous second hole, which is true. But my heart lies with another.
—A Different Template
The stories of Tillinghast and contemporary Charles Blair Macdonald making pilgrimages from the U.S. to Scotland’s great courses are well known. Macdonald returned and implemented his favorite holes—now known as templates—across his designs. Tillinghast didn’t use templates much; the diversity of his designs at Winged Foot GC, San Francisco GC, Bethpage State Park (Black) and Baltusrol GC show off his enormous gift of crafting courses to the land given. But the Redan template green he built on the par-3 second hole of Somerset Hills is regularly held up with Macdonald’s at the National Golf Links of America as one of the finest ever made.
Many SHCC members will rightfully tell you that hole, with its devilish right-to-left-sloping green complex, is their favorite. Others point to the par-4 15th, with its gorgeous placement among the bucolic trees of the back nine and its elegant dogleg forcing every player to consider their shot angles rather than just go bombs away. No. 15, named Happy Valley, found its most famous admirer in the Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII of England), who visited Somerset Hills in the 1940s. Legend has it that the duke re-created the hole on one of his French estates—with the dogleg going left rather than right to match his preferred ball flight.
But I am not alone in loving the first hole. The golfclubatlas.com review hails No. 1 this way: “Hugely underrated, this two shotter will never receive its proper due as the course’s most famous hole follows it. Nonetheless, this opener deserves applause.” And I feel like breaking out into a standing ovation whenever I’m on the first tee. The sheer joy and anticipation I get merely staring down that first fairway always take precedence over whatever architectural appreciation I have for the following holes.
—Take a Bite
Somerset Hills has a well-cultivated reputation of being happily under the radar. While the course sits just 7 miles from USGA headquarters and has hosted a few of its national events, including the 1973 and 1983 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 1990 Curtis Cup, there is little appetite among the membership to go bigger. Which is a bit of a shame, because the first would shine with a bigger spotlight.
The tee shot on No. 1 is exactly what Tillinghast intended more than a century ago—and he intended it to be tough. The opening shot for this hole—dubbed “Orchard” due to the apple orchard on both sides of the fairway—requires precision to navigate the tight dogleg right. Try to cut off too much on the right and you find lush rough (and, hopefully, delicious apples). Try to pipe it as far as possible and you’ll meet tall grass and strategically placed bunkers on the left.
If the ball successfully makes the short grass, another challenge awaits. The fairway cants severely from left to right and the approach to the green requires a perfectly positioned shot. If it’s too far left, the ball will rest in the rough above the green, leaving a nasty chip and a potentially big number. But if the approach shot is too far right, the ball will bump down the tightly mown fairway into another set of well-placed bunkers and leave a difficult shot or uphill chip to a firm green. Those of us who didn’t know how to shape the ball before we got here had to learn quickly.
Orchard is a par 4 for men, par 5 for ladies, and for me it’s rare to get the ball on the green in two. Tillinghast sited the green to utilize an existing landform—the base of the terrace on which the original manor house was built—to guard the ideal entry point for a running shot into the green. From an architectural standpoint, it’s a unique and interesting ground hazard. But from a daily-play perspective, it just makes things even tougher. From the fairway, the green sits suspended on the horizon, with the second, seventh and eighth greens all menacingly in view.
The undulations are difficult to perceive from 100-plus yards out, but they become more prominent on the approach. Behind the green is no-man’s-land—at least if you have my short game—and so my strategy has always been to land the ball short and left. I normally have fewer than 100 yards to the green, so I’ll take my 8-iron and try to bump it up. At Somerset Hills it’s not good enough to put the ball on the short grass; you must put it in the right place. When I’m successful, the ball lands 15 yards short and rolls onto the left half of the green. And when the ball drops for a respectable number, I feel like I can already claim victory on my round, no matter how many holes I play.