Mr Baltus Roll once farmed this land in the 19th century but the Dutchman was bludgeoned to death by two thieves in search of his cash. After his untimely murder, the estate later found its way into the hands of Louis Keller, owner and publisher of the New York Social Register. Keller eventually decided to build a golf course and, in 1895, the Baltusrol Golf Club opened for play.
Today’s Baltusrol bears no resemblance to Keller’s original Old course layout, which was scrapped to make way for the two new courses. Both the Upper and Lower courses at Baltusrol were originally laid out by the legendary A. W. Tillinghast in the Roaring Twenties and the Lower was stiffened up ahead of major championships by Robert Trent Jones in 1952 and, some forty years later, by his son Rees. The Lower course is not as hilly as the Upper layout. The fairways of the Lower course undulate in a pleasant manner and they are generously wide. The greens are once more trickily contoured and very tough to read.
Millions watched the 1954 US Open on television in utter amazement as Ed Furgol won the title by playing two different courses during his final round. After a wayward tee shot, he played via the 18th fairway of the Upper course before putting out on the 18th green of the Lower to save par and eventually win the title by a single stroke. Uniquely, the US Open has been played seven times on three different Baltusrol courses, the Old, Upper and Lower courses. It’s unlikely that this amazing record will ever be beaten.
Golf Digest billed The Lower course ahead of the 1993 US Open, which was won by Lee Janzen, as “the longest yawn”, but Baltusrol’s Lower course is the epitome of what is required of US Open venue. Deep bunkers, thick rough, slippery greens and length are the ingredients required to test the world’s best pros. The Lower course has it all in spades.
Perhaps Tillinghast was the first architect to use bunkers in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Not only is the bunkering at Baltusrol artistic, but also plentiful. More than 120 bunkers are positioned precisely, some say the bunker placement is cruel. It will therefore be interesting to know how Rees Jones's latest bunker renovation programme stands the test of time.
Television has served as a major boost in the standing of various clubs and courses in terms of their perceived reputation as outstanding architectural designs in the golf world. The most glaring example is Augusta National Golf Club. The Georgia club has smartly parlayed its annual hosting of The Masters to be the most recognizable course in the world -- with the lone possible exceptions being The Old Course at St. Andrews and Pebble Beach Golf Links. Each of the aforementioned has earned much from the regular exposure but each too has deserved such fanfare for what their respective architectural elements provide.
But there have been courses that have parlayed their standing when the architectural prowess is clearly overstated.
Baltusrol Golf Club, located in Springfield, NJ, is only a short 30 minutes drive to Manhattan. the 36-hole facility -- with its Lower and Upper courses -- has been the host site for no less than 17 national championships -- among them 7 US Opens, 2 PGA Championships and 2 US Women's Opens. Only Oakmont CC, just outside of Pittsburgh, has hosted more with 20.
In 1954 the first nationally televised US Open happened at Baltusrol. In addition, to the early exposure -- what served the club well was being the venue for two of the four US Open triumphs by Jack Nicklaus -- both memorable and played on the Lower. In 1967 the Golden Bear set the new four-round record of 275 -- draining a 22-foot birdie putt besting the previous mark set by Ben Hogan. 13 years later Nicklaus won a record tying 4th US Open win -- this time again setting a new four-round record with a 272 total and a epic two stroke win over Japan's Isao Aoki. The final winning birdie putt by Nicklaus set in motion thunderous crowd roars - "Jack is back."
The Lower has been the venue for nearly all of the key events hosted at the club. The land is not especially noteworthy although the design for both courses is smartly done by Tillinghast both ending immediately near the stately clubhouse with superb ending holes.
The Lower occupies the flatter section of the property -- while its sister course -- The Upper -- hugs close and tight to nearby Baltusrol Mountain and therefore provides much more pitch and roll of the terrain and the more vexing putting surfaces.
What has helped Baltusrol build its reputation goes beyond the staging of key golf events over the years. Being located in the New York / New Jersey metro region has given the club a proximity to the nation's key media market. The club has also been the beneficiary in having had long and deep relationships with the United States Golf Association (USGA) and more recently with the Professional Golfer's Association of America (PGA). In addition, with a large base membership the club has had the wherewithal to tap into a stream of key contributors whenever called upon -- many well-placed in the business and corporate world.
On the architectural side the course developed a relationship with the first family in golf course design - the Jones family. With patriarch Robert Trent Jones, Sr. located only a 15 minute drive away in the suburban community of Montclair --
Baltusrol was able to engage the services of the most renown architect of his time and strengthen the design to reflect more of his influences.
Years later his son Rees -- would be hired by the club -- refortifying the Lower to deal with the enhanced balls and clubs as well as the talents of the more recent generation of players.
Architecturally, the Lower starts well and ends well. In fact, the first seven holes are quite demanding -- especially when the 1st and 7th -- normally weak par-5's -- become longer and testing par-4's. The routing of these holes is quite good -- moving in varied directions and calling upon solid ball striking.
The much acclaimed par-3 4th is well done but for those who see it as being one of the best par-3 holes in all of golf -- that's pushing the envelope a bit much. The most underrated hole in the sequence is the mid-length par-4 5th. The most interesting element is the putting surface sitting 20-25 above the fairway and is especially tilted from back to front. Simple in its presentation but terrifying for those who treat it cavalierly.
The back-to-back long par-4's at the 6th and 7th are demanding holes -- placement and sufficient distance are both required.
However, at the par-4 8th the course you get to the rearmost area of the property and the holes become far less memorable. The land itself is the prime culprit -- essentially flat with little real differential. The holes are not poor in design but the architecture lacks compelling character.
This changes somewhat with the par-3 16th -- a quality long par-3 starting from an elevated tee to a green wrapped in several bunkers.
The concluding two holes are especially well done and rather unique -- back-to-back par-5 holes. The long 17th at 647 yards is a solid three shot hole -- save when the ground is firm and the prevailing wind behind. John Daly became the first golfer to successfully reach the green in two shots during the 1993 US Open. Tillinghast brilliantly placed a cross bunker sequence at the 400-420 yard area. Players who hit the rough off the tee face a daunting task to clear these bunkers. You can see other such examples of this technique by Tillinghast at Bethpage Black's 4th hole, the 3rd on Ridgewood Country Club's East Nine and the 14th at Baltimore's Five Farms GC.
The 17th at the Lower features an elevated putting surface -- mandating a skillfully played 3rd shot. Birdie is possible but not given away cheaply. The final hole on the Lower is a true risk/reward hole. To the club's credit -- a hideous creek overgrown with debris down the left side -- was expanded and cleaned up into a much more suitable pond clearly in harms way off the tee. Rees Jones added several fairway bunkers down the right side thereby forcing players to decide how aggressive to be off the tee. Generally, the 18th plays downwind during the playing season and getting home in two shots is possible so long as the pond and bunkers are avoided.
In last year's PGA Championship Jason Day got home in the final round on #18 with a tremendous 2-iron second shot and then holed his eagle putt forcing eventual winner Jimmy Walker to par the final hole to win by one shot. Having two concluding par-5 holes can mean major lead changes and that has helped make for some exciting golf as last year's PGA Championship showed.
But the argument that the Lower is among the world's top 100 courses is a puzzling one when no less than half the course provides nothing more than adequate architecture. Far from the high bar that's called upon to be rightly placed among such elite company. Particularly when other courses have even greater merit -- but less or no television exposure -- are omitted. Having key championships held at Baltusrol over the years has been a springboard for the club's elevation. Ironically, many of the members of the club actually view the companion Upper Course as the better of the two and from my experiences I concur.
Recognizing Baltusrol's long contributions to American golf is clearly something that should never be dismissed. However, history is one thing -- architecture quite another. Regrettably, too many people have long believed the former is automatically linked to the latter. That's clearly not the case in this particular situation.
By M. James Ward
Baltusrol is not a course with many memorable holes. It has no ocean, lake or mountain range to frame it. Rees Jones said it perfectly: “You may not remember a lot of the holes, but you remember they are interesting and challenging to play.” Even Lee Janzen said, “It’s strange, but I went back after winning the U.S. Open there, and I didn’t remember all of the holes.”…
After we hit a few balls, Bob and I and our caddie were off. The caddie’s dad had been a career caddie at Baltusrol, and he had been there eight or nine years himself, so he knew the place like the back of his hand. I needed it, too. The breaks of the greens are clearly affected by Baltusrol Mountain, and the greens are very tricky with extremely subtle, hard-to-read breaks. As helpful as my caddie was, I had a poor score, but it was a fun day overall. Larry Berle.
It was somewhat of a relief to hear from the starter that I was playing the Lower. It is the championship course and includes some phenomenal holes. Of note the par 3 fourth and the par 5 seventeenth. The fourth requires a long iron to hit the green 190 yards away, every inch over water. Once on the green the battle is only half won, it is a huge and severely sloped green complex. The seventeenth is the longest par 5 in US Open Championship history measuring a whopping 650 yards from the tips (according to my caddy a mere 3 wood, 1 iron for John Daly!). Unusually the course finishes with back-to-back par 5s and they are the only par 5s on the course for the pros. Thankfully, for mere mortals the first and sixth holes are also played as short par 5s.
Regardless of the hype, I found the course quite bland. It is certainly challenging and is fully deserves its place on the roster for major championships. However, there are only a few holes I can recall in detail, only 2 days later, and for me at least that is a mark of monotony. The only holes that stand out in my mind are more memorable because I played particularly good shots on them. Of note, the sixteenth is a fabulous par 3: 230 yards from the tips, it requires some muscle to tame it! Anyway, the bottom line is that although it is a very good golf course I am somewhat surprised that the Lower holds such a high rank in top 100 golf lists. It seems to not live up to expectations.
The Upper however is a different matter altogether. Considered by many to be the second course at the club, I absolutely loved it. The ground it runs over is fantastic and unlike the Lower it requires more finesse than brute force. The first six holes are carved into the side of a hill which has a significant effect on every shot, especially the greens. Unfortunately, I only played the first and last six holes since the fading light was against us. I hope I get the chance to head back one day to play the full eighteen.