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
Date: May 15, 2017