Tracking the history of the Echo Lake Country Club is somewhat like tracking the size of the British Empire...it has changed dramatically over the past century-plus! The current club is actually an amalgamation of holes from the Cranford Golf Club, Westfield Golf Club, and the remaining Echo Lake holes. Changes occurred as land was acquired and old holes removed. Although Rees Jones was brought on for an alleged Donald Ross “restoration,” the truth is that credit belongs among many men.
Ross is certainly the most notable, both in terms of fame and the number of holes contributed to the current 18. His original route came to only 6,200 yards and thus the lesser-recognized architects Robert White and Willard Wilkinson were tasked with replacing Ross holes with longer challenges as time wore on.
The current track list attributes hole Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8. 10, 17 and 18 to the famous Scot. Wilkinson is cited for the final trio of holes on the front nine, while the remainder of the back nine can be attributed to White. If you notice that all these holes seem to blend together seamlessly, you may give the credit for that to Jones!
Long time Masters major domo Clifford Roberts was once asked about the "changes" made to Augusta National and the retort from Roberts was priceless. "We don't change Augusta -- we improve it." That's the mantra many clubs need to carry out and in recent years a number of courses I've visited / played have sought to do just that. Sadly, many have implemented updates failing to truly improve upon the original design. On the flip side, there are clubs which have successfully engaged architects in going beyond the level of golf provided.
Echo Lake CC has long resided in the long shadows cast by nearby clubs such as Baltusrol and Plainfield respectively. Both of the aforementioned are heavyweights not only in NJ but nationally. However, Echo Lake did host the 1995 USGA Junior Championship and then seven years later hosted the USGA Girls' event. In sum, hosting USGA national championships is no small feat.
The original layout by Donald Ross has been considerably strengthened and a good bit of credit must go to architect Rees Jones for his recent efforts in bolstering the character of Echo Lake to what one sees today.
When I first played Echo Lake a number of years ago the routing then included an awkward short par-4 at the 2nd. The hole played just under 250 yards but was mainly uphill and really had little going for it on a strategic level. The club smartly saw fit to make a significant modification to the routing by eliminating the previous 2nd hole and replacing it with a par-5 of 500 yards. The original par-4 3rd which played 363 yards was also a fairly non-descript hole. Another improvement came with changing that hole to a short par-3 of 140 yards.
At the 4th -- which was a par-5 just under 500 yards was changed to a long par-4 of 478 yards. The hole does go downhill and given today's technology the move to do so makes perfect sense. Now the tee shot and approach must be of a higher caliber to achieve success.
Jones did extend a number of the former tee pads. The course was just over 6,900 yards -- now it plays to just over 7,100 yards. Par was also reduced from the previous 72 to 71 now.
The Ross qualities are still present with the putting surfaces. A number contain internal vexing movements -- often subtle to the eye and difficult to discern from one play.
The 5th and 6th are both exemplary holes -- with the former moving in the opposite manner to the 4th and the latter showcasing a wonderful dog-leg left that mandates a high caliber tee shot to get into the proper position for the approach.
What elevates Echo Lake is the smartness shown by Ross in terms of the routing. Constant adjustments are part and parcel of the golf here. Working the ball off the tee is a frequent mandate and the added length by Jones now means a more intense requirement on the approach shots needed.
The inward half does not disappoint for the overall consistency of the holes presented.
Golfers can take advantage of the back-to-back par-5 holes at the 11th and 12th but birdies are not just given away. The two holes play in different directions and are ably defended.
The run of holes from the 13th to the 18th is striking for its overall shotmaking requirements. Ross, in true to form character, added a stellar long par-3 of 241 yards at the 14th. The 16th has always been one of my favorite holes at Echo Lake -- the hole turning left in the drive zone and featuring a quality greensite that accepts the best of plays. Jones added another 20 yards and the additional length works very well.
The closing holes at Echo Lake are good but not exemplary -- although the length of the 18th green makes proper club selection imperative. To be clear -- the last two holes are by no means pedestrian - they simply lack the overall standing of what one has played prior.
No question, the overall New Jersey golf scene is a very competitive landscape. Plenty of clubs have smartly updated what they provide and Echo Lake clearly deserves special acknowledgement in taking a fine Ross layout and really adding so much more to the overall golf experience. In the last few years several Garden State courses have really accelerated themselves up the ladder. Places such as Manasquan River, Mountain Ridge, Forsgate / Banks, Arcola, Royce Brook / West, Crestmont, are just a few doing so via a thoughtful effort.
Situate Echo Lake in any number of other States in the USA and its overall standing would be considerably higher. Kudos to the club for the efforts brought forward. Echo Lake can now make a strong case for inclusion among the top 30 courses in New Jersey. The bar for quality golf in the Garden State has only become higher. Those able to wiggle an invitation to play this gem will clearly be richer for the experience provided.
M. James Ward