201 Shunpike Road,
New Jersey (NJ) 07081,
- +1 973 376 1900
12 miles W of New York
Members and their guests only
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.
I revisited yesterday and the Hanse renewal is excellent. A few greens were reshaped/recontoured and there was major reshaping of a few holes which raised the bar for the Lower. Many trees were removed. The facility at this juncture is superb and possesses possibly the best 36 in US. Drop everything if an invite is offered.
The hiring of Gil Hanse in 2018 to do a complete overhaul of the Lower Course was meant to bring back to life the design elements of the Tillinghast design. The reopening this year clearly is an achievement for the storied club.
Without saying so publicly -- if one is keen to read between the lines -- there is no question the club was not entirely enthused with the past contributions of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and in later years via his son Rees. Clearly, a club of Baltusrol's stature -- does not go the extra yard in getting Hanse's involvement and in ponying up a $12+ million budget if all was well with the Lower Course.
The net result?
The design fingerprints from both Trent and Rees added to the Lower have now been removed. In a statement released by Baltusrol -- "the club wanted to return it (Lower Course) to the purity of the Tillinghast design. One can only fairly surmise the Jones contributions were not in alignment with the stated goal of "purity."
Is the Lower a better course architecturally because of what Hanse has done?
Yes -- it is. But the outcome is akin to a house that remains on the same foundation -- albeit with the furniture that's inside being put back into an original position whenever possible. Hanse has excelled in past updates of other courses and his work at the Lower did bring a more unified dimension with a clear emphasis on the actual Tillinghast style.
Credit Hanse for not overwhelming the site with his own fingerprints. He also stated publicly his goal was to bring back to life the Tillinghast vision and not have his name added to the scorecard to highlight his involvement. Such a desire to remain in the background was a big reason why Gil and his talented team were selected in the first place.
The renowned par-3 4th has benefited with a more natural appearance. Previously placed flower plantings behind the green - were removed -- thankfully The wispy grass one sees from the tee is certainly striking. The putting surface has also been expanded so various pin locations can be used -- most notably in the far-right lower corner of the green. When combined with the preceding rigors of the long par-4 3rd you have a quality one-two early round punch.
Bunkers were added at the 2nd and 5th holes and both clearly benefited. The 5th is one of the more underrated holes on the Lower with its daunting false front awaiting the half-hearted approach and pulling it backwards off the green.
Overall, the bunkers highlight a lower profile but have kept their depth. There is also the inclusion of long grass "eyebrows," giving bunkers a retro look. There are also ramp approaches to greens which have been opened. Centerline approach bunkers -- at the 7th and 18th hole were removed. The re-establishment of a ground game option is now a viable strategy -- something Tillinghast clearly advocated.
Hanse also added diversity in how the fairways are cut. Gone are the straight razor mowing lines -- placing players on notice that securing the ideal line of play requires more thought and sounder execution than previously. This is especially the case with the more visually striking par-5 7th -- which plays as a long par-4 for men's major events.
The main anchor that remains is the dullness of the property for the final holes on the outward half and a few that start the inward side. Hanse admitted as much during his press conference that kicked-off the Lower's reopening and fellow architect Tom Doak said similarly in his review of the course via his updated "Confidential Guide to Golf Courses."
The par-4 8th was enhanced but the Lower still lacks a stellar world class short par-4. The angle of the green and the manner by which it is protected is a positive step though. But the 8th cannot overcome the flatness of the land the hole occupies. The par-3 9th is also a capable hole but remains lacking in lasting memorability. The par-4s that come in succession at the 10th and 11th are good holes but when held against the likes of other solid two-hot holes that Tillie created at his upper echelon deigns they are merely functional -- not spellbinding. The same applies to the par-3 12th -- although the fall-away green is bolstered by a myriad of internal green contours.
Matters improve when you reach the par-4 13th hole. The hole was wisely extended to 470 yards and now a tee shot must be well struck in order to make the longer carry up the right side. Often times, when holes are lengthened, they are not more interesting but just longer. In this case -- the 13th plays far better and is alignment with the length today's drivers and golf balls can achieve.
The par-4 14th does not really add much to the Lower -- even with the involvement of Hanse. That's not the case with the stellar par-4 15th. The fairway area has been reinforced with deftly placed bunkers in the drive zone and the approach into the elevated green is one of the best faced during the round.
The par-3 16th is a longish hole at 230 yards and Hanse smartly expanded the green. Interestingly, the chip-in 1993 U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen made on this hole in the final round i no longer possible because that area is now part of the "new" putting green. Overall, the Lower has seen a 20% gain in putting green size. This has helped with additional pin placements.
The Lower is noted for ending with two par-5 holes and Hanse played a big-time role in strengthening these holes tactically as well as the visual look. The 17th used to have a pine trees crowding the driving lane when the hole is played from the tips. They no longer exist -- good. The "new" 17th can stretch out to 667 yards.
A crucial decision was made to move the existing Sahara bunker that cuts-off the fairway into two sections -- brilliantly relocating it 40 yards further down the fairway. Hanse and his gifted shapers also created an internal area within the Sahara bunker beautiful to look at but maddeningly difficult to play from. The club does rake the bunker once a week but after that it's up to the players to smooth footprints with a club or foot or both. In sum -- balls finding the mega-sized bunker can get any number of challenging lies to overcome. While the sand area is not akin to Pine Valley's 7th with its devilish Hell's Half Acre the net result of what's present now is a major plus.
The finishing hole has also been lengthened to 573 yards and its overall design helped considerably by clearing of excessive trees and underbrush. Over the course of time, this intrusion had overwhelmed the natural beauty of the hole.
Interestingly, when you stand on the outdoor patio and overlook the Lower the expansive views are now in full view. The land forms really come to life -- not straightjacketed by trees and other intrusive elements. The inherent character of the Lower that Tillinghast originally envisioned has now come out of the shadows and benefits accordingly.
The Lower also does not have a "second cut" -- you have fairway and then the primary rough. The rough is also exactly what the word implies. Frankly, having excessive rough is immobilizing for the broader range of golfers but the club was adamant in its marching orders to provide championship type conditions on a daily basis.
From the championship tees, he Lower now is over 7,400 yards as a par-70 when major events are played. The 1st and 7th holes, par-5s for the membership, become long two-shot holes.
Baltusrol has seen much golf history over the years and the club's desire to stay engaged at the highest of levels remains front and center. The Lower resurfaces on the tournament scene when the club hosts the '23 KPMG Women's PGA Championship. Six years later the PGA Championship returns for a 3rd time. Unresolved is when - or even if -- an 8th U.S. Open returns to Baltusrol.
The Hanse involvement has unified the architecture, so the Tillinghast connection is now the rightful headliner. The Lower still does not engender deep-seated rapture when measured against other elite designs Tillie created and it will be most interesting to see how Hanse fares when updating the sister Upper Course in 2024. However, Baltusrol wisely chose the most sought-after architect to rejuvenate a layout that needed such a comprehensive effort.
Baltusrol is indeed not looking back -- full speed ahead.
M. James Ward
Images courtesy of Evan Schiller Photography
Baltusrol Lower is a big course. Maybe not to players who can drive it 350 but for most of us it is big. It is always in excellent shape. There is a good mix of holes. I consider myself to be an excellent reader of greens. Not here. The slopes are subtle and difficult to see. Always a joy to play. Superb facilities. It is tough to pin point where to place a rating. It has great history. But candidly, if it weren't for the fact this course were so amenable to large traffic of viewers, the upper would take over the spot light....
Baltusrol, is a great experience in general, wonderful old school clubhouse, great history and an excellent golf atmosphere.
The course is tough, they take pride in having their greens running as fast as possible and their rough next to their narrow fairways as high as possible. It may well be a dying breed of golf in this day and age but they are most certainly holding on to the glory days. The course is a long tough championship test though perhaps not so long for todays pros. As a very prestigious club they have a tremendous respect for the game and the Championship pedigree. It's most certainly one of the places to be in NJ golf.
I'd say to never pass up an invite as a 36 hole day on the upper and lower course is a perfect day!
I’m not the biggest fan of the Lower course at Baltusrol. Personally, I find it suffers from repetition, ie, many similar par fours with tight tree lines and similar bunkering. As a resident of New Jersey my fellow in-state golfers will say I should know better and should rate it higher, but it just doesn’t excite me. I find many of Tillinghast’s other courses (San Francisco, Somerset Hills, Bethpage, Quaker Ridge, Baltimore) to be more varied and fun to play. Yes, it’s nice to play where there is so much history and where the PGA and USGA host events, but I would personally rather play the Upper course if going to Baltusrol.
I was unsure what to expect when visiting Baltusrol. The reviews on this site refer to Baltusrol as long and unmemorable which in my opinion are a little harsh. The front 9 holes are good and I can see why there are criticisms of the course but holes 2, 3, 4 and 5 are really good. Hole 2 is a short dog leg right to left par 4 which rises slightly uphill to a green that slopes hard from back to front and right to left. Clever bunkering short of the green gives the player the feeling the bunkers are green side when in fact they are 25 yards short of the putting surface. Hole 3 is a long par 4 that requires a sweeping draw off the tee if you are to reach the green in two. If you miss hit the tee shot you will be forced to layup short of the brook situated some 90 yards from the green. The green again has many contours and run off areas which I like. Hole 4 the famous par 3 over water is another strong hole with a tier running from middle left to back right across the player good club selection is pivotal. Hole 5, a solid par 4 back up the hill requires an accurate tee shot to thread the ball through the fairway bunkers before a shortish iron to a green set above the player which is again guarded by bunkers and cracking green protected by a false front. The finish of the front 9 is relatively weak but the back 9 holes is excellent.
Holes 10 to 14 are very strong I particularly likes holes 11 a sharp dogleg right to left par 4 and hole 13 is a brilliant left to right dogleg. The tiger line is to fade the ball of the fairway bunkers but if you cut it too much the brook awaits although if you bottle the tee shot you will find on of the fairway traps. The green protected by bunkers both right and left has some nice movement with a gentle rise from the front of the green to the middle plateau. The strength of the course though is the last 4 holes. 15 a strong par 4 uphill to a green that slopes heavily from front to back. 16 a long par 3 downhill to a smallish green surrounded by bunkers. Hole 17 is a monster (I attempted to play from the back tee without success) the bunkering on this hole is very clever as it makes the player concentrate whether they are on the fairway or if they are trying to lay up. The last is another good par five with water down the left and bunkers framing the right side of the fairway the player will need to find the fairway to enable them to go for the green set uphill against the backdrop of the impressive clubhouse.
I know Baltusrol is not for everyone but we had a great day here with a member who could not have been more accommodating and I am looking forward to going back again once Gil Hanse has worked his magic!
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
There's been recent news that architect Gil Hanse has been hired by the club to restore / update the Lower to more closely align itself with the original intent of A.W. Tillinghast -- be very curious to see what happens.
Even though the club has a future PGA Championship coming up ;later this decade -- there's little question that securing a future US Open is certainly on the long term radar screen.
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.