Mr Baltus Roll once farmed this land in the 19th century but he was murdered and the estate later found its way into the hands of Louis Keller, owner and publisher of the New York Social Register. Keller decided to build a golf course and in 1895 the Baltusrol Golf Club opened for play.
Today’s Baltusrol bears little 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 "Creator of Golf Courses", the legendary A. W. Tillinghast in the Roaring Twenties and the Upper remains as one of his finest creations. As its name suggests, the Upper is built on rather hilly terrain and the greens are devilishly contoured with bunkers of every conceivable shape and size.
The Upper course was the venue for the 1936 US Open which resulted in an unlikely win for Tony Manero who came from nowhere to win by two shots, beating Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper, who bogeyed three of the last five holes. Cooper never won a major championship, despite winning more than 30 times on the PGA Tour.
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.
Today's Upper course is still an exacting test with its contoured, hilly terrain. Tee shots must be struck with precision and there is no better example than the par five 11th with a line of bunkers that stretch for 100 yards along the left side of the fairway. Measuring close to 600 yards the 11th green will be reached in two only by the longest and most accurate. A swale protects the entrance to the green which is ringed with bunkers.
The club is certainly not resting on its laurels as “The Open Doctor” has implemented comprehensive changes to both courses here at Baltusrol in recent years. In conjunction with co-designer, Steve Weisser, Rees Jones has moved numerous tee boxes and changed every bunker on the Upper course.
Baltusrol Golf Club is one of the most noteworthy 36-hole facilities in America. The club is the only facility in which both courses have served as host to the US Open. But, much of the fanfare has been tilted to the more known Lower Course -- a seven-time venue of the US Open and two-time host of the PGA Championship. The club was at the forefront when golf came into full bloom in America.
The Upper Course has had its moments in the sun since hosting the 1936 US Open. In 1985 the Upper was the venue for the Women's Open and in 2000 the 100th playing of the US Amateur.
What is uniquely interesting about the Upper is its close proximity to Baltusrol Mountain. Unlike the big brother Lower Course -- the Upper is exposed to shifting terrain -- providing for a richer diversity of holes and shotmaking requirements. For many years the Upper was viewed as "the other course" by many outsiders but for a good number of the membership the preference to play rests with the Upper.
In recent times the club brought on board noted architect Rees Jones to update the course. Additional yardage was added and all of the bunkers reworked.
The opening hole on the Upper is a formulaic par-5 of 490 yards but a formidable hole as a long par-4. The character of the course picks up considerably with the next five holes. The 466-yard par-4 2nd features a severe tilt of the terrain from right-to-left. Tee shots have to be played with great care because shots starting down the left side invariably find the deep rough. The green presents a clear challenge with various twists and turns and portends what the player faces for the remainder of the round.
The 3rd hole was extended by Jones from 190 to 225 yards. Once again, the terrain plays a key role as the green is quite finicky. The green is located tight to the base of Baltusrol Mountain and the approach must be well-played. The par-4 4th at 445 yards starts a sequence of three solid two-shot holes. At the 445-yard par-4 4th you need to either go over or around the sole fairway bunker on the right. Those succeeding are left with a much better playing angle to the green. At the 452-yard par-4 5th the drive zone tightens up on both sides -- the preferred shot is a slight fade. At the 6th you need to work through a narrow chute from the tee and the green is one of the best on the Upper -- frontal pin locations are well-protected and a back pin area narrows in from both sides.
The Upper does offer a variety of short holes -- the 356-yard par-4 9th is especially good. Here the drive zone tightens up considerably the deeper the player attempts to hit the tee shot. The putting surface is narrow in the immediate front area and, as with the others encountered, the green has plenty of movement.
The inward half is no less in terms of hole quality and diversity. The short par-4 10th plays uphill to a dome green. The long par-5 11th requires three solid shots to get the green. At the 359-yard par-4 12th you face a change of pace hole. Birdie is doable -- but bogey happens just as fast as the fairway is narrow and when the pin is cut towards the right side a deft approach is an absolute must.
My personal favorite hole on the Upper is the 14th. Listed at 400 yards the hole slides uphill all the way as the players look at Baltusrol Mountain in the background. The green is one of Tillinghast's best. Anything above the hole will be thoroughly tested. The final trio of holes forces the player to summon up their best shots -- the long par-4 16th is nicely augmented by the challenging long par-5 17th.
The capper comes with the stellar closing hole -- here Jones added considerable distance to the hole -- taking it from 455 yards and bringing to nearly 490 yards. The tee shot plays slightly downhill then moves gradually uphill. The putting surface tugs close to the majestic clubhouse on one's left.
It's unlikely that if and when a major championship returns to Baltusrol -- likely another PGA Championship more so than a US Open -- the Lower will once again be the showcase course. The Lower provides for a larger area to host galleries and can handle the myriad of logistics tied when hosting such an event. But from the standpoint of architectural diversity -- with more interesting holes and putting surfaces -- the Upper most certainly is the one with the upper hand.
By M. James Ward
Just recently the club announced the hiring of architect Gil Hanse to align the original architectural intent of A.W. Tillinghast. The Upper is blessed with the better terrain than the more hyped Lower so it will be interesting to see what shakes out when all is done.
This is a proud proud club which, so rarely seen in this day and age tries to uphold the traditional values of the game, this is a “Golf” club, a club for Golf, not tennis or squash or ladies who lunch, this is a golf club in keeping with the style of our own tradition back in GB&I and one which I personally feel we must try to maintain. In much the same way that the East course at Winged Foot lies in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbour, it can also be said of the standing of the Lower and Upper courses at Balty. However if you were to speak to the membership of both of these clubs, many would be of the opinion that the two lesser known courses are the members’ courses’ of choice. They provide a more quirky and interesting test, instead of the Bomb and gouge style that has been adopted at the other two.
The first 6 and last 2 holes of the Upper course play right along the foothills of the Baltusrol Mountain and one thing that struck me immediately was that the undulations in these greens were “mountainous” in stature, the member I played with informed me that there is no such thing as a straight putt on the entire upper course. The terrain gives rise to hanging lies, severe run offs and awkward stances, the player really need to plot his way around this place.
For me the standout group of holes come around the turn with 9 a short par 4 with numerous options from the tee, 10 a par three usually played into a cross-wind to a green sloping from right to left and back to front, 11 as mentioned above is one of the best par fives I have played and 12 another great drive and pitch hole tom a semi blind green that can throw up some fantastic pin positions. The 18th is a great finishing hole the drive is narrow through a chute of trees and one must keep to the left in order to gain the best angle of attack.
Baltusrol is a place I really enjoy, as a passionate golfer who holds the original values of golf dear to his heart, it is places like this which a real golfer must experience at least once in his life, it is the complete antithesis of the nearby Trump National, which is distasteful and tacky. The members at Baltusrol may possess one of the finest 36 hole complexes on the planet, (Sunningdale, Winged Foot, Walton Heath also spring to mind), and in light of Rees Jones’s recent renovations the Upper can sit proudly alongside the Lower as its equal and not merely a second course, I Believe that in time Baltusrol will join WF with the distinction of having both of its courses in the top 100. Tillinghast’s art of green contouring makes the Upper a perfect foil for its brother and much the same way the members of WF prefer the east, the Upper is fast becoming the course of choice at Balty. Nick