Essex County Country Club, the oldest in New Jersey, has a long and storied history. Founded in 1887 as the result of a merger of the Essex Hunt Club and the Essex Toboggan Club, its first course was designed by pioneering architect Alex Findlay. The course that’s played today goes back to 1918, the work of a rookie golf course designer, A.W. Tillinghast. Tillie’s layout opened to rave reviews and provided the springboard to his assignments at Baltusrol and Winged Foot.
In 1925, the club decided it wanted a 36-hole complex and hired Seth Raynor. Raynor designed 18 holes that now play as the adjacent Francis A. Byrne municipal course (the club sold that course when it came upon hard times in the 70s). High on the adjacent hill, Raynor designed the current course, retaining seven of Tillinghast’s holes (1-6 and 9), but designing eleven new ones. Raynor died before construction began, but his assistant, Charles “Steamshovel” Banks completed the work—the first of many that Banks would go on to create. Banks and Raynor favoured the template holes of their mentor—Charles Blair MacDonald—and Essex County Country Club boasts a number of them: Redan, Maiden, Double Plateau, Eden, Punchbowl and Alps. The 14th hole also features another Raynor special; a Lions’s Mouth bunker.
Fast-forward into the new millennium and Essex County Country Club underwent a significant revision under the stewardship of Gil Hanse (with input from George Bahto). New tee boxes were added, lengthening the layout to more than 7,100 yards. New fairways bunkers were also installed and every other bunker on the course was renovated. But, most significantly, hundreds of trees were removed to improve airflow and playing strategy.
Essex is now a layout capable of hosting big tournaments and with six par four holes that stretch out way beyond 400 yards, it’s a tough course on which to post a low score. The four one-shot holes vary in length considerably from 169 yards to 255 yards, so par is never surrendered easily.
Feature holes on this old masterpiece include the 534-yard 8th (played downhill and across water), the 328-yard 14th (played uphill to a punchbowl, kidney-shaped green) and the 488-yard 18th, where the round concludes on a tricky two-tiered home green in front of the clubhouse.
When New Jersey is mentioned the usual golf suspects are generally mentioned from the likes of Pine Valley, Baltusrol, Somerset Hills and Plainfield, to name just four. The most underappreciated course in the Garden State is Essex County Country Club in West Orange.
The course has been recently restored and upgraded by the involvement of Architect Gil Hanse and the late George Bahto who was the consummate expert on the overall contributions of such icons as Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor and the man who played a big time role at Essex County - Charles "steam shovel" Banks.
For many, many years fans of NJ golf in general and Essex County in particular have rightly raved about the inward half of holes. It is not beyond belief when people say Essex County has the best back 9 in all the State -- including Pine Valley. The issue has always been if the outward half of holes could demonstrate something close to what is provided on the back nine.
One of the real virtues of Essex County is the actual site. There's sufficient grade changes -- not abrupt hills but the kind of movement that makes for interesting holes.
In years past overall turf quality was an issue. No longer. The course is now in daily tip top shape and the layout has been strengthened with additional length in key spots.
The first two holes at Essex County are still weak. The 1st goes downhill and turns left in the drive zone. It is fairly straightforward. The 2nd offers a blind tee shot over a rise to a small green. Again -- it's a decent hole because the green is tough to hold if one's tee shot finished more towards the right side.
The remaining holes on the outward half are a quality mixture. The bunkering has been improved and the need for solid approach play has been strengthened with pin location area that can be quite challenging.
I do like the combination of the final three holes on the front. Having two completely different par-5's at the 7th and 8th is a quality element. The issue I have with the 8th is that it would be even better hole with a center-placed bunker in the area where second shots would be landing. The 8th is a solid counterpoint -- reachable but only for those capable in playing a top tier approach to an elevated target.
The par-3 9th is one of NJ's grand holes. The split tee allows for widely different angles into the elevated target. Any ball that finished above the hole or to the sides will be hard pressed to walk off with a par. The 169-yard hole is uphill to the smallest green at Essex County. The Garden State is blessed with many world class par-3 holes -- the 9th here is in such elite company.
The back nine at Essex County is blessed with one grand hole following another. The pitch of the terrain and the way the greens have been situated and contoured are especially well done. Hitting the ball a sufficient distance is a plus -- but only if done so with accuracy married together.
The 10th and 11th set the stage so well. The former heads straight downhill to a green that falls off on each side. The 11th is a tremendous par-3 -- set in the corner of the property and completely isolated. The green is another gem -- a frontal bunker guards the right side vigorously. Avoid it or pay a huge price.
The uphill 12th is one of NJ's best two-shot holes. If you don't get to the fairway it's likely your best score will be bogey five. The green is wonderfully positioned with a demanding left front bunker which must be avoided at all costs.
The back nine has a quality change of pace with the 13th and 14th holes. The former is the lone par-5 on the back nine and gives an opportunity to recoup a shot. I believe the uphill short par-4 14th is often forgotten when people talk about Essex County. The green is marvelously positioned and hidden from view. The approach shot is clearly something golfers can only truly appreciate after playing the hole.
The long par-3 15th has been strengthened in the last several years -- the approach shot is now longer and the penalty for a miss to either side can be swift and certain.
The final three holes are all well done. I really like the 16th -- playing uphill and featuring a green with three distinct sections. The par-4 17th is likely the last real birdie opportunity but like so many other holes at Essex County you need to be ever mindful on one's approach.
Essex County's final hole was always strong but added length has clearly meant an even more demanding closer. The beauty of the hole is something to behold as well. Climbing uphill to a superbly elevated green with its devilish false front in play for those who fail to execute to the highest level.
The sad part for Essex County is that many within NJ are fully aware of the many qualities the course possesses. The issue has always been getting those outside of the area to really see what a gem of a layout the course is. Anyone getting the opportunity to play this wonderful course will certainly be scratching their head at why so few people outside of the Garden State hardly ever mention it. I can only hope that will change.
by M. James Ward
Generally when a club hires an architect to build a course where one already exists, the new architect blows up the old course in its entirety. When Seth Raynor looked at A.W. Tillinghast’s layout at Essex County, he found enough to like that he retained seven of Tilly’s holes. Raynor died before construction, but his plan was executed by Charles Banks. As a result ECCC is one of the few clubs that can boast of having holes created by two Golden Age architects.
The contrast between the Tillinghast and Banks holes is quite striking. Though Tilly’s holes have less severe greens, he did a fine job of letting the land dictate the design: the fifth and sixth, for example, have fallaway greens, making a running shot often preferable. Most of Banks’ holes allow options for approach shots as well, though not at many of the template holes: #11 (Eden), #12 (Maiden) and #14 (Alps) each require an aerial approach. Banks’ holes also feature the angular landforms he learned from Raynor and C.B. MacDonald, along with greens full of humps and ridges. The second nine—which is all Banks—is often called the best back nine in the state.
There are not a lot of doglegs, but the line of charm abounds, largely the result of strategically placed fairway bunkers. The fourth and tenth have the only drives where the player simply fires away with no thought as to the best location for the tee ball.
While Pine Valley is in a class by itself, ECCC is solidly in my second tier of New Jersey courses—alongside places such as Plainfield and Ridgewood.