One of the real advantages architects had when golf grew rapidly during the classic period of golf course development in America in the 1920's was the availability of choice parcels for golf course usage. That was a period of time long before the explosion of suburban sprawl -- with residential and commercial development seeking outside areas beyond core downtown locations.
Golf course construction was also free of various environmental regulations -- the only real limits were the depth of one's wallet and imagination.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the manner by which courses come into being has changed dramatically and likely forever so. The litany of various rules, regulations and laws that must be followed can prove insurmountable to many. Add to that the desire to build golf in the most densely populated State in America -- New Jersey -- and the mission can prove daunting for nearly anyone.
Just don't tell that to Eric Bergstol.
Where others would never have dared -- Bergstol decided to move ahead with an ambitious plan to create a golf club in the community of Bayonne, New Jersey -- located immediately on the banks of the Hudson River with a birds-eye view of the Manhattan skyline of New York City.
Bayonne Golf Club (BGC) is located in Hudson County -- a jurisdiction that prior to the club's opening -- had no golf whatsoever within its boundaries. NJ's density equates to 1,200 people per square mile -- the most in America. Hudson County comprises 62 square miles with a population of -- 660,000 meaning there are nearly 11,000 people per square mile. That gives you at least a good idea on how compact and crowded the immediate area is.
The location for the golf course would be the former Bayonne Marine Terminal -- a dockside area meant for shipping and receiving of big time items - certainly not an upscale private golf club. When people talk about the effort employed by architect Tom Fazio in working with owner Steve Wynn in the development of Shadow Creek in the Las Vegas area -- that was child's play with what Bergstol had to overcome.
Taking advantage of dredging occuring with the Kill Van Kull -- the waterway separating Staten Island from New Jersey during the mid-90's Bergstol was able to provide a dumping area for that material. Best of all - he was initially paid to take the material in the early stages.
How much material? Roughly 7 million cubic yards. Total costs to complete the project -- $135 million. Ten years to complete the course -- another two for the finalization of the clubhouse.
That material became the foundation in which BGC was built. The engineering aspects were extremely complicated and fraught with a whole series of minefields -- any one of which could have derailed the project. Bergstol's persistence paid off. In 2006 -- the 135 acres of land -- opened for play.
Bergstol is a golf traditionalist with a great love for links golf. BGC is a faux links but the mounding and crafting actually take you quickly away from the harbor area of Bayonne. When entering the grounds it provides a surreal moment - akin to the movie moment in "Wizard of Oz" when the film goes from the black and white of Kansas to the full color world of Munchkinland.
For those fixated on playing golf on totally natural sites -- BGC is clearly outside that box. The course was literally created out of nothing -- C requires a suspension in terms of those going there. When you drive to the site you are passing through an extremely densely populated area -- old style residences with a smattering of commercial and industrial usages. Clearly, BGC does not have the scintillating intersection of land and water such as Cypress Point or Royal County Down.
But, once you get inside the property you're whisked away. The mounding on the periphery of the property border has been created to shut you off from the outside and focus your attention on what's within the landscape. Given the shortage of land a few compromises were carried out. There is no typical practice range area. Instead golfers take a short ride and head to the waterfront where there's a tee area allowing players to hit floater golf balls into the adjoining waterway lined to prevent balls from floating away. No doubt it's not the best of situations -- but it does provide a stretching of the muscles before commencing play.
The outward nine is quite tight in terms of the overall acreage available. The 1st is good opener - challenging when played in a westerly wind -- featuring a blind approach if your tee ball finishes on the left side. The hole is called "Dell" after the par-3 5th at Lahinch -- however, it's a stretch in terms of similarity. The 2nd is where Bayonne flashes some real gusto. The dog-leg left requires usually less than driver and the approach must be hit with finesse and exact yardage to a green that's well-protected.
At the long par-5 4th you enter a very narrow portion of the property. There's room in the drive zone but let's just say you can't just wind up and let one go with impunity. Bergstol created his own version of Pine Valley's Hell's Half Acre with a massive sand-filled area that separates the first and second halves of the fairway. Long hitters can reach this area and it's best to avoid it. The green sits below the fairway and is vigorously defended by sand. There's a slot of fairway to the far right but pushing the envelope on this hole can inflict some heavy duty hurt on one's scorecard.
Holes 5-7 are all in the same area and all are quite good -- albeit, as I mentioned before, in a tight corner of the property.
The lone major disturbing feartures of the front nine is the lengthy walk from the 7th green to the 8th tee. The par-5 hole is superbly done -- the drive zone moves right and for the strongest of players there's a possibility in getting home in two shots when wind conditions are favorable. The key? Being able to carry wetlands that block one's direct path to the large putting surface. Truly a well done hole.
The closing hole on the front comes back the other way and you see the stunning clubhouse high up on the hill in the background. The 9th is just over 400 yards and provides a bit of a Cape Hole. The golfer has to determine how much of the slight dog-leg right one wishes to handle.
The inward half of holes is where BGC excels mightily. The 10th begins the journey as a long par-4 -- dog-legging to the right and calling upon two well-played shots. Normally, played into the prevailing wind the 10th will only yield to the finest of plays.
The 11th is a stout par-3 particularly when the pin is placed to the far right and thereby requiring a laser-like approach to succeed. The 12th goes in another direction -- downhill and back into the prevailing breeze.
The 13th is the sole par-5 on the final nine and while listed at 536 yards the hole does play shorter when the prevailing wind is assisting. The 14th is the last of the par-3 holes and it's a dandy -- plunging downhill to a green with fall-offs on each side.
The final quartet of holes are all par-4's -- each different than the other. The 15th is the shortest of the bunch -- playing uphill with bunkers guarding against the over-aggressive play. The framing of the clubhouse in the immediate background is equally impressive.
The 16th plays downhill and turns ever so slightly to the right -- the fairway cutting off just past the drive zone. The green is well-positioned and set back with drop-offs to either side. When you stand on the tee The Freedom Tower is in the distant view -- just a thrilling spot -- the player knows full well top tier execution is the only recourse.
The long par-4 17th plays in an opposite direction -- with the hole turning left all the way and an island of sand extending all the way down that side. The key is knowing how much of an appetite for risk the player wishes to encounter. The green is shaped around a solitary greenside bunker -- well-positioned to catch the meekly hit approach when the pin is in the back left corner.
The finale plays uphill and although it often plays downwind during the playing season -- the key is getting the tee shot in the proper position for the approach. The fairway does bottleneck so the strongest of players have to decide wisely. The approach is all uphill to a green with an array of internal contours.
Overall, BGC is grand test succumbing only to a series of well played shots strung together.
The impressive 33,000 square-foot clubhouse is situated 93 feet above New York harbor and the views, as expected, are an added bonus when the golf concludes. Flying proudly above the clubhouse is one of the largest American flags in the region. The flagpole extends 150 feet above the ground with dimensions of 40 by 70 feet. If you're in lower Manhattan you can see the flag blowing in the nearby distance.
The main issue is can Bayonne play consistently firm and fast -- befitting a links -- even a faux links. Green speeds are also an issue given the heavy amount of slope and internal contours. If pushed too fast then the variety of pin location is sacrificed -- if kept too slow then the nature of the challenge becomes far less so.
Traditionalists may scoff at BGC because as I mentioned at the outset the "natural" element is just not present. One has to suspend such a narrow take on architectural design and see the sheer imagination and persistence shown here. The success of BGC goers beyond just the truly spectacular story tied to its actual creation. The course is clearly tight on the acreage side of things but the routing has been efficiently carried out and when you depart the 18th you'll be looking for another opportunity to test yourself. The ultimate sign on whether a course has true staying power.
By M. James Ward – photos courtesy of Bayonne Golf Club
Date: January 23, 2017