Essex County Country Club, the oldest in New Jersey, has a long and storied history. Founded in 1887 as the result of a merger of the Essex Hunt Club and the Essex Toboggan Club, its first course was designed by pioneering architect Alex Findlay. The course that’s played today goes back to 1918, the work of a rookie golf course designer, A.W. Tillinghast. Tillie’s layout opened to rave reviews and provided the springboard to his assignments at Baltusrol and Winged Foot.
In 1925, the club decided it wanted a 36-hole complex and hired Seth Raynor. Raynor designed 18 holes that now play as the adjacent Francis A. Byrne municipal course (the club sold that course when it came upon hard times in the 70s). High on the adjacent hill, Raynor designed the current course, retaining seven of Tillinghast’s holes (1-6 and 9), but designing eleven new ones. Raynor died before construction began, but his assistant, Charles “Steamshovel” Banks completed the work—the first of many that Banks would go on to create. Banks and Raynor favoured the template holes of their mentor—Charles Blair MacDonald—and Essex County Country Club boasts a number of them: Redan, Maiden, Double Plateau, Eden, Punchbowl and Alps. The 14th hole also features another Raynor special; a Lions’s Mouth bunker.
Fast-forward into the new millennium and Essex County Country Club underwent a significant restoration under the stewardship of Gil Hanse (with input from George Bahto). New tee boxes were added, lengthening the layout to more than 7,100 yards. New fairways bunkers were also installed and every other bunker on the course was renovated. But, most significantly, hundreds of trees were removed to improve airflow and playing strategy.
Essex is now a layout capable of hosting big tournaments and with six par four holes that stretch out way beyond 400 yards, it’s a tough course on which to post a low score. The four one-shot holes vary in length considerably from 169 yards to 255 yards, so par is never surrendered easily.
Feature holes on this old masterpiece include the 534-yard 8th (played downhill and across water), the 328-yard 14th (played uphill to a punchbowl, kidney-shaped green) and the 488-yard 18th, where the round concludes on a tricky two-tiered home green in front of the clubhouse.
Essex Country Club is a very nice golf club, with a mixture of good and bad holes on the front nine, and a terrific back nine ending on one of the most difficult finishing holes I have ever played for someone of average length. In addition, the course offers four very good, increasingly difficult par 3’s that rank with some of the better golf courses I have played.
Top100golfcourses.com lists Essex Country Club as the ninth best course in New Jersey. One could make the case for it being ahead of Hollywood and Galloway National, yet those are also fine golf courses. Of the other six ahead of it, those deserve to be.
Numerous significant architects have worked on a course at Essex Country Club that was either done over, sold off, replaced weaker holes with better holes, and restoration of holes. The list of architects are listed in the overview of the course.
This is a course that one should try to play as they would be missing something special, much like if they were to never play Hollywood with its amazing greens. The course offers significant challenge for the better players while providing opportunities for recovery and fun for the average player. There is a fine mixture of long and short holes, with the front nine offering more scoring opportunities. I think that is one of the weaknesses of the course is that the scoring opportunities come early as there are not many on the back nine.
The current routing takes advantage of hilly terrain with the holes routed up and down the land. As mentioned in other reviews, there is rarely a side hill lie other than perhaps near a few of the green surrounds. In fact, what would likely take this course to the next level is if the fairways had more contours to them to make them more interesting as they are primarily flat/even resulting in level lies.
As mentioned in other reviews, there are numerous “template” holes, designed by Seth Raynor and put into action by Charles Banks.
The course is par 71 (73 for women), with the Black tees at 7122 yards rated 75.0/142. We played the Blue tees at 6617 yards, rated 72.1/132. The White tees are 6296 yards rated 71.0/129. There are two tees of lesser yardages. I found the ratings for both index and slope to be correct. It is a difficult course but one is unlikely to lose a ball although there are a few places where one can. The inward nine is only 100 yards longer than the front nine but that is because the front nine offers back-to-back par 5’s, one of which is 649 yards long while the back nine has only one par five.
I played with a scratch player, fresh off of winning the Senior Club championship at his club, who can hit it 300 yards off the tee. The other player is a six index, who also hits it long. Therefore I had a good opportunity to see how a longer hitter plays the course versus me. It had rained heavily the night before so we did not get some of the expected roll in front of the greens as the ground was soft.
1. par 4 - 385/382. This hole plays as a sharply downhill dogleg left with no view of the green from the tee. From the tee one aims down the middle to get the roll down the hill without running into the rough on the
left as the fairway tilts to the left. The green is sloped steeply back to front. Any putt coming from the side will break substantially towards the front. There is a small bunker front right and another larger one on half of the left side. Go long over the long, wide green angled slightly to the left and you will have a blind chip to a speedy downhill green. It is not much of a starting hole.
2. par 4 – 312/285. This hole plays uphill as a blind tee shot. I hit the right side of the fairway at the crest of the hill, leaving only 110 yards but I was too far to the right given the angle I would have preferred to attack the pin position at the front of the green. The green has two tiers and is very narrow at the front. It is a fairly slick green back to front. It is surrounded by three bunkers with only the back/right having no sand. The bunkers are fairly deep. I got “greedy” and pulled my wedge too far left and got a bad break with no stance with the ball nestled two inches from the corner of the left bunker. The better play is simply to hit the green and possibly make a putt for birdie. I think if one knows the hole one will find the hole pretty simple. Overall, despite the excellent bunkering and green, I felt the hole to not be very interesting as a driveable risk-reward par 4. Perhaps if there were bunkers on either side of the top of the hill acting as “guides” I would have liked the hole a bit more.
3. par 4 - 395/376. This is a good golf hole with two fairway bunkers about on the right and one on the left opposite the second bunker about 250 yards out. Those two offsetting bunkers pinch into the fairway making the landing area small for the average length hitter. The two longer hitters flew the bunkers by forty yards. The green is slightly uphill and is on a plateau with half of it hidden behind a fronting bunker cutting off half of the right front. There is along skinny bunker set five paces from the green on the left and a greenside bunker on the right side. All of these bunkers are fairly deep. The green is round and sizeable with subtle breaks in it due to a rise in its middle. Indeed, all three putts broke the opposite way the players saw them versus the caddie’s advice. The caddie was correct. It is a wonderful hole.
4. par 4 – 423/420. There is a bunker about 200 yards out on the right side built into a small hill. Another bunker is on the left about 265 yards out. Opposite the left bunker are scattered trees. Nearer the green is a bunker on the left about 40 yards short. From the left bunker and trees the hole plays slightly downhill. There are two bunkers on the right side beginning about eight yards short of the green continuing all the way down the right. A smaller bunker angled away from the green sits middle left. The green goes front to back with a horizontal spine in the middle. Our longest hitter landed near the middle and rolled all the way over the green. I think this is an okay hole, but visually it did not excite me.
5. par 4 - 468/443. Teeing off from the corner of the course one hears the road noise of Prospect Avenue and Mt. Pleasant Avenue. There is out-of-bounds left but it would take a truly horrible shot for that to occur. A fairway bunker is about 200 yards off to the right, but the real danger are cross bunkers beginning about 100-70 yards from the green. The green has bunkers on either side and a small pot-like bunker back left. The green is raised front to back so going long will leave one with a semi-blind chip. This is the hardest hole on the front nine and deserves to be. While the cross-bunkers are not too deep, the combination of these bunkers, the length of the hole, and a fairly difficult green complex make this a testing hole.
6. par 3 – 173/171. While five is a good hole, the sixth is very good. This hole plays uphill and has a green sloping back to front and left to right. All three of us hit the green with putts of twelve feet or less and none of us came close to making a birdie as either the line or pace got us. There is a small pot-like bunker fronting the green as well as a bunker at the rear that is hidden. A long bunker snakes close to the left side while another bunker is at the front right. From the tee this is a visually splendid par 3.
7. par 5 – 649/560. I was thankful to play the 560 tee as I gazed at the tee 100 yards behind me. This hole plays parallel to Prospect Avenue so out-of-bounds is a possibility. The hole offers two opposing bunkers about 200 yards out, playing downhill. This is followed by a bunker 250 yards out on the left and 300 yards out on the right. Nearer the green are two bunkers with the one on the right coming ten yards into the fairway about 90 yards short of the green. The green is completely surrounded by sand other than at the front and has a false front and a horizontal spine. This is the first of the holes designed by Seth Raynor and Charles Banks and it is a splendid one. The fairway has a couple of rolls in it.
8. par 5 – 534/494. This hole plays downhill to a small pond 280 yards from the tee that can probably be carried by the biggest hitters from the Blue tees, but not the Blacks. The play from the tee is to the left side as some large trees are down the right. The next shot plays uphill to a green angled to the right. Two opposing bunkers narrow the fairway about 60-40 yards out. The green has sand down both sides with the right side bunker very deep leading to a blind recovery shot. The green slopes back to front and is very speedy. Overall the hole is a breather for the better player and a chance for par for the average player.
9. par 3 – 169/147. While six is visually prettier, the ninth is another very fine par 3. It plays uphill and requires an extra club. The green is surrounded on all sides by fairly deep bunkers. The green is also very speedy back to front with small internal mounds and two-tiers. It is a wonderful end to the front nine with the clubhouse located behind the left side of the green.
10. par 4 – 440/437. Much like the fourth hole, this hole did not grab me. Playing near the clubhouse, this hole offers a wide fairway playing downhill to a green that one does not see from the tee. There are trees down the left and thick rough while the right side has a fairway bunker 230 yards off the tee. There is a bunker on the left 40 yards short of the green that does not make sense where it is located. The green is another back to front green with flanking bunkers. If Essex is felt to have the best back nine in New Jersey, for me the tenth is a bit of a miss.
11. par 3 – 208/185. One of the best par 3’s one will ever play goes over a valley to a green sitting slightly above the tee. This “Eden” green has a defined spine running through it. We had a far-right pin position which brought the fronting bunker very much in play. There is a small bunker on the front left and another bunker covering half of the rear. The green is nestled into the side of a hill behind it with the land falling away substantially to the right in front of the green. A small creek crosses in front of the green before a sizeable chipping area angling in from the left. The creek should not be in play but you notice it. It is an excellent par 3 which none of us made par.
12. par 4 - 462/412. This hole plays uphill across a valley. You walk across a lovely bridge down the right side of the fairway. Trees line the first half of both sides of the fairway before a final single tree is on the right about 60 yards short of the green. The green is angled right to left with a fronting bunker. The green is a “maiden” with two plateaus and a swale near the back right. The hole is also known as a “road hole,” but I could not figure out why as there is no road close to it. It is another strong hole.
13. par 5 – 585/532. This hole seemed to play longer than the yardage although the two longer hitters were green high in two. A bunker is on the right about 180 yards off the tee with another one left roughly 220 yards out before a small collection of trees. Another bunker about 200 yards short of the green is placed inside the line of the fairway on the right. 50 yards ahead of that bunker is an interior fairway bunker on the left. The green has bunkers going down either side. This green is raised with a higher middle and a substantial false front. It is one of the weaker holes on the back nine but the green complex is good.
14. par 4 – 328/311. This hole plays uphill and is the “Alps’ template hole. Trees line the first half of both sides of the fairway on a fairway that tilts to both sides. The hole has staggered fairway bunkers from both sides with the right one first, both of which are set inside the line of the fairway. A tee shot of 265 yards will cover the right bunker which one of the longer hitters easily did leaving himself about a 30 yard pitch which he chunked (he still made par). These bunkers are fairly deep. Another “lions mouth” deep bunker is at the front center of the green hiding much of the punchbowl green. The green shape is magnificent with a bulge in the back right and a narrower front left. It is an excellent golf hole.
15. par 3 – 255/218. Thankfully, this hole is downhill to a biarittz green set off to the left and angled right to left. There is a pond well off to the left but I found it with a terrible tee shot. The play into the hole is down the right or middle as deep bunkers go down the left side of the chipping area and green. This is the final par 3 in a set of excellent par 3’s.
16. par 4 – 463/422. This hole plays longer as it is uphill with a “principles” bunker about 100 yards from the green. It has a rugged mound inside the three bunkers. The green is wide at the front and narrow to the back with flanking bunkers on either side. The green is double plateaued which I loved but perhaps because I “called my shot” by making a 55 feet putt from just off the front of the green to save par. The back left plateau is incredibly tricky to get to if one ends up on the right front plateau as you have to traverse the swale separating the two.
17. par 4 – 385/374. Another uphill hole making it play longer as one feels they are climbing all the way back to the clubhouse. This hole is a slight dogleg left with trees on the left opposite two separated bunkers on the right. This is followed by staggered small bunkers on either side. The real test for the hole are the flanking bunkers with the right side being the deepest one on the golf course. Get in here and it is a blind recovery shot. The green is a reverse redan with a false front, going front to back and left to right. The right side pin position is a difficult recovery from that deep right-side bunker as I learned. It is another good hole.
18. par 4 – 488/439. This is one of the hardest finishing holes I have ever played although I had an eight feet putt for par which I missed. There is a bunker left about 240 yards off the tee. Cross bunkers are set at 120 yards out on the right and 100 yards out on the left. At the green is a bunker left and two bunkers right. The green has a substantial false front and is two-tiered and very slick back to front. I think my only chance at par might be from the white tees at 367 yards such is the strength of the entirety of the hole. The longer hitter was able to cozy a 60 feet putt to 6 inches to save par.
Essex Country Club is a wonderful golf course, let down only by the blandness of four holes. One could improve these holes by adding a few bunkers to better define the hole as well as shaping the fairways to add more interesting land movements. While this shaping would not be natural to the course, it would improve the aesthetics of these holes.
There is no reason to tinker with any of the greens nor bunkering around the greens on any of the holes.
The back nine, with the exception of the tenth is as good as its reputation. Yet I think the reputation of Essex could rest squarely on the excellent par 3’s. All of the best courses in the world have an excellent set of par 3’s. While Essex Country Club does not rest inside the list of “best courses in the world,” the par 3’s are comparable in quality to what one will find at Prairie Dunes, Camargo, or Merion East although not in the same league as Royal Melbourne West or Pine Valley.
The long par 4’s are challenging both due to length and good greens. The par 5’s offer a good variety of longer holes and par/birdie opportunities. It is a quality golf course and one that one should truly enjoy. As I stated, given its weaker holes and less interesting fairways, the course is appropriately ranked within New Jersey, but with some changes could go higher. It is a course that members will enjoy playing. A scratch player at this club will likely score very well at other clubs.
The course is let down a bit by not having a lot of strategic options and decisions to make either from the tee or in the approach shot. Perhaps if I played it again I would see more of this but I felt the course to be pretty straight forward. Due to the many other outstanding courses in the area, I cannot give the course a 5 rating, but I could see where others might. I highly recommend playing the course.
Mark: Enjoyed reading your comments / re: Essex County. Just a few thoughts --
First, you need to play the course a few times to really get the full dimension of the strategies -- in play for the tee game and approach play. Your low-ball assessment of the 10th is a prime example.
The par-3s, as you correctly stated, are a fine quartet. In my mind, they rest collectively only behind the likes of what you see at PV and Forsgate / Banks in NJ.
The recent work of Gil Hanse and the late George Bahto has improved the front side. Frankly, I have heard countless times from people how the front is a pushover and architecturally lacking. Hardly. The opportunity for birdies is present but the angled greens and the need for proper iron play is a must to do so. I can name a healthy number of top tier layouts where one side of holes is not at the same exact level as the other side.
The inward side is rock solid. There is a mixture of holes and the routing maximizes the features the site provides.
As a Garden State resident, who has played all the key candidates numerous times over 40+ years -- Essex County is easily among the Garden State's top ten. One final thing -- see the comments provided in Tom Doak's Confidential Guide book where the course is assessed.
ECCC is a players course. The tee markers for the every day play are 6715 at par 71. It was a pleasure to play here. I had lived near it many moons ago and never had the chance. The course is set in a very hilly area and predominantly the holes either go up or go down. Side hills are not present much if at all. Many greens were built up to create semi flat surfaces which create very deep mounds next to the greens. Proper entry line is paramount unless you strike crisp entries.
The course is in impeccable shape. The greens run at very high speeds. My guess is they were near 11 when we played a few days ago.
The par 3's are all difficult holes. 3 of 4 at about 200 yards from the standard tees. The 4th [hole 9] being a 20 foot elevated green with a sharp hill which we deposit you in bunkers that will play blind.
The par 4's are excellent. A good mix of lengths but many with strong play required. The 18th a very strong par 4 with a green identical to the 9th but plays at 430 about.
I have had good fortune to play many of NJ's best courses. ECCC rates right up there with most. It's not Pine Valley and it's not quite Somerset Hills. It's as nice as Baltusrol and Plainfield and Ridgewood. I can easily rate this gem very high and feel no remorse.
There is fabled hype about the back nine at this Raynor/Banks layout at Essex County Country Club in New Jersey, to the extent that the front nine is almost never mentioned. The opening three holes play in a triangle with a commendable downhill dogleg opener followed by a clever short par 4 with a blind tee shot. The collection of holes is pleasant and enjoyable without beating you up. Players can take advantage of back-to-back par 5s on the front side which run in opposite directions but play and look completely different from each other, which is testament to the skill of the architect and his use of the land.
There are a handful of the famous template greens on the backside, and I confidently say that I considered the par 4 16th and 17th holes are truly the best two on the course. The 16th includes a principle’s nose fairway bunker 40 yards short of a massive double-plateau green which is a sight to behold. The 17th is a short dogleg left which plays uphill to the perched green. It’s tight and challenging and will make you shape the ball in both directions before you get to the green.
When New Jersey is mentioned the usual golf suspects are generally mentioned from the likes of Pine Valley, Baltusrol, Somerset Hills and Plainfield, to name just four. The most underappreciated course in the Garden State is Essex County Country Club in West Orange.
The course has been recently restored and upgraded by the involvement of Architect Gil Hanse and the late George Bahto who was the consummate expert on the overall contributions of such icons as Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor and the man who played a big time role at Essex County - Charles "steam shovel" Banks.
For many, many years fans of NJ golf in general and Essex County in particular have rightly raved about the inward half of holes. It is not beyond belief when people say Essex County has the best back 9 in all the State -- including Pine Valley. The issue has always been if the outward half of holes could demonstrate something close to what is provided on the back nine.
One of the real virtues of Essex County is the actual site. There's sufficient grade changes -- not abrupt hills but the kind of movement that makes for interesting holes.
In years past overall turf quality was an issue. No longer. The course is now in daily tip top shape and the layout has been strengthened with additional length in key spots.
The first two holes at Essex County are still weak. The 1st goes downhill and turns left in the drive zone. It is fairly straightforward. The 2nd offers a blind tee shot over a rise to a small green. Again -- it's a decent hole because the green is tough to hold if one's tee shot finished more towards the right side.
The remaining holes on the outward half are a quality mixture. The bunkering has been improved and the need for solid approach play has been strengthened with pin location area that can be quite challenging.
I do like the combination of the final three holes on the front. Having two completely different par-5's at the 7th and 8th is a quality element. The issue I have with the 8th is that it would be even better hole with a center-placed bunker in the area where second shots would be landing. The 8th is a solid counterpoint -- reachable but only for those capable in playing a top tier approach to an elevated target.
The par-3 9th is one of NJ's grand holes. The split tee allows for widely different angles into the elevated target. Any ball that finished above the hole or to the sides will be hard pressed to walk off with a par. The 169-yard hole is uphill to the smallest green at Essex County. The Garden State is blessed with many world class par-3 holes -- the 9th here is in such elite company.
The back nine at Essex County is blessed with one grand hole following another. The pitch of the terrain and the way the greens have been situated and contoured are especially well done. Hitting the ball a sufficient distance is a plus -- but only if done so with accuracy married together.
The 10th and 11th set the stage so well. The former heads straight downhill to a green that falls off on each side. The 11th is a tremendous par-3 -- set in the corner of the property and completely isolated. The green is another gem -- a frontal bunker guards the right side vigorously. Avoid it or pay a huge price.
The uphill 12th is one of NJ's best two-shot holes. If you don't get to the fairway it's likely your best score will be bogey five. The green is wonderfully positioned with a demanding left front bunker which must be avoided at all costs.
The back nine has a quality change of pace with the 13th and 14th holes. The former is the lone par-5 on the back nine and gives an opportunity to recoup a shot. I believe the uphill short par-4 14th is often forgotten when people talk about Essex County. The green is marvelously positioned and hidden from view. The approach shot is clearly something golfers can only truly appreciate after playing the hole.
The long par-3 15th has been strengthened in the last several years -- the approach shot is now longer and the penalty for a miss to either side can be swift and certain.
The final three holes are all well done. I really like the 16th -- playing uphill and featuring a green with three distinct sections. The par-4 17th is likely the last real birdie opportunity but like so many other holes at Essex County you need to be ever mindful on one's approach.
Essex County's final hole was always strong but added length has clearly meant an even more demanding closer. The beauty of the hole is something to behold as well. Climbing uphill to a superbly elevated green with its devilish false front in play for those who fail to execute to the highest level.
The sad part for Essex County is that many within NJ are fully aware of the many qualities the course possesses. The issue has always been getting those outside of the area to really see what a gem of a layout the course is. Anyone getting the opportunity to play this wonderful course will certainly be scratching their head at why so few people outside of the Garden State hardly ever mention it. I can only hope that will change.
by M. James Ward
Generally when a club hires an architect to build a course where one already exists, the new architect blows up the old course in its entirety. When Seth Raynor looked at A.W. Tillinghast’s layout at Essex County, he found enough to like that he retained seven of Tilly’s holes. Raynor died before construction, but his plan was executed by Charles Banks. As a result ECCC is one of the few clubs that can boast of having holes created by two Golden Age architects.
The contrast between the Tillinghast and Banks holes is quite striking. Though Tilly’s holes have less severe greens, he did a fine job of letting the land dictate the design: the fifth and sixth, for example, have fallaway greens, making a running shot often preferable. Most of Banks’ holes allow options for approach shots as well, though not at many of the template holes: #11 (Eden), #12 (Maiden) and #14 (Alps) each require an aerial approach. Banks’ holes also feature the angular landforms he learned from Raynor and C.B. MacDonald, along with greens full of humps and ridges. The second nine—which is all Banks—is often called the best back nine in the state.
There are not a lot of doglegs, but the line of charm abounds, largely the result of strategically placed fairway bunkers. The fourth and tenth have the only drives where the player simply fires away with no thought as to the best location for the tee ball.
While Pine Valley is in a class by itself, ECCC is solidly in my second tier of New Jersey courses—alongside places such as Plainfield and Ridgewood.