|Named after Charles Banks, the CB Macdonald and Seth Raynor associate known for his “steep and deep” bunkers, the Banks course at Forsgate Country Club came into play in 1931. The more modern Hal Purdy-designed Palmer layout complements the Banks course.|
In today's "connected" world it's hard to imagine any "sleeper" courses escaping view. Especially when such courses are in an immediate core area where other courses of distinction exist.
Such is the case with a particular facility located halfway between the large cities of New York and Philadelphia.
Although not far away in terms of actual mileage from either of the aforementioned metro areas -- Forsgate Country Club in Jamesburg, New Jersey is a top tier quality facility that is known to locals but rarely is mentioned by those living outside a 100-mile radius. It is particularly shocking that many self-proclaimed golf cognoscenti often gloss over the qualities found at Forsgate.
In 1931 -- at the height of The Great Depression -- Forsgate Country Club opened. The vision of a successful Scottish immigrant who brought his vision to life in the farmlands of rural central New Jersey.
The brainchild was John Forster -- co-founder of the Crum & Forster insurance company. As someone who spent a good deal of time in Manhattan, Forster wanted to create a paradise away from the constant drumbeat of The Big Apple. Purchased in 1913 -- his getaway included 50 acres of land -- an outpost to rejuvenate the mind and body. Within a short time -- additional land was purchased and the decision to include a golf club was born.
The name Forsgate is actually a combination of the first few letters of Forster's last name and that of his wife's family name Gatenby. Forster's dream included creating a most active and highly successful farm. One that developed a considerable reputation over the years in producing a range of crops and various successful food items -- promoting the healthy elements of pasteurized milk and its by product high quality ice cream. For many people throughout the immediate region the food production side of things resonated most clearly.
Forster's love for the golf he knew in Scotland became driving force for him -- in creating a golf club equal to that of any other in New Jersey.
Despite the deepening impact of The Great Depression Forster moved ahead. He hired the noted clubhouse designer -- Clifford C. Wendehack -- to design the colonial clubhouse. Wendehack was the man responsible for such renown structures at Winged Foot in New York, along with The Ridgewood Country, Mountain Ridge and North Jersey in the Garden State along with alterations and additions he added at Baltusrol Golf Club.
The man chosen for the golf side was no less rich in his own pedigree. Charles H. Banks was a schoolteacher in Connecticut assigned to liaison with the golf architect hired at the school to improve the golf course on campus. That architect was Seth Raynor, considered one of the best in his field at the time, and when he completed the project he asked Banks to join his firm.
Raynor learned his skills as a course designer from American golf pioneer Charles Blair Macdonald. It was Macdonald -- the "founding father" of American golf -- who spearheaded the creation of iconic venues such as The National Golf Links of America and the Chicago Golf Club.
By the time he was contacted by Forster, Charles Banks was in his late 40’s and had his own firm. His designs in New Jersey alone include Rock Spring Club, Essex County Country Club, Hackensack Golf Club and Knoll West. Although many tout his design at Whippoorwill Club in Armonk, NY to be his finest -- his work at Forsgate has rightly earned more awareness as more have become exposed to its recent course restorations and renovations.
Nicknamed “Steam Shovel” for his favorite piece of golf course design equipment, Charles Banks built large, steep dramatic green-side bunkers -- providing unmistakable risk/reward options for most approach shots with a wide range of pin-placement options from accessible to devilish. This was complimented by large greens, many with pronounced shelves, mounds and bowls.
Forsgate was to be the last golf course Charles Banks designed in the United States, he died just before Forsgate was completed in 1931, at the age of 49.
When you arrive at Forsgate the beauty of the colonial clubhouse seizes your attention immediately. The 1st and 2nd holes allows the muscles to unwind and while the fairways at both are sufficiently wide -- you come to realize that being in the right position is central to scoring well.
The bunkers at Forsgate clearly catch your attention - primarily for the player to avoid them. They are set extremely deep and low and any ball entering will require the surest of strokes to escape. The greensites at Forsgate are also especially noteworthy because of their immense size and innumerable contours.
This becomes especially apparent when you arrive at the par-3 3rd. At 215 yards -- the tee shot on this Eden-like hole is played to an elusive elevated target split by a center spine dividing the left and right hand sides of the putting surface. When the pin is placed on the far right the wherewithal to hit a high fade with sufficient carry and height is an absolute essentiality.
Banks also created a fun short hole on the outward side -- the 6th is nicknamed "The Knoll" and while only 350 yards in length the hole can prove exasperating when the pin is set hard left with a high knoll protecting that entire side.
The second par-3 on the front is of equal quality to that of the 3rd. This reverse Redan is sculptured superbly. Players hit from an elevated tee pad to a green that has a high left side which runs diagonally to the right and slightly downhill. Protecting nearly the entire right side is a massive bunker that beckons players in the same seductive manner as the alluring sirens that lured sailors to their eternal rest.. While many rightly feast the original Redan at North Berwick's 15th hole and the replicas at the 4th at The National Golf Links of America and the 2nd at Somerset Hills in Bernardsville, NJ -- the 7th at Forsgate is no less sterling in its overall strategic qualities.
Once you conclude play at the 7th Banks brilliantly concludes the front side with two splendid par-5 holes -- both vastly different from one another in design and challenge. The long par-5 8th plays just over 600 yards and is usually into the prevailing south / southwest wind during the playing season. The hole continues to climb uphill and the fairway tilts ever so to the left -- hooking a ball off the tee can mean a most trying circumstances to secure a par. The green is also magnificently done -- elevated and sloped from right-to-left with a menacing left side bunker waiting for the hapless play.
The concluding par-5 9th plays 529 yards as the stated distance but here again you face an uphill tee shot to a blind rise. Stronger players can propel their tee shots to get within range in going for the green in two blows. But do reap such a bonanza -- the shots must be played with the surest of executions. The green, like the others, is well guarded on the left side and even played with a wedge approach must be thoughtfully executed.
The inward nine at Forsgate begins with what is one of the best holes on the course. The 416-yard par-4 10th starts from an elevated. Two bunkers on the left squeeze the fairway from that side at nearly 290 yards. The terrain is akin to a rollercoaster -- heaving about like a troubled stormy ocean. The green is elevated above the fairway with a large bunker on the right side that must be carried should the pin be placed on that side.
The par-3 12th is dubbed "Horseshoe" -- literally an upside down "C" rings the green. Pin placements can be placed in numerous spots -- either inside the Horseshoe or to the outer perimeter areas. At 163 yards -- many who play it the first time are thinking a quick and easy birdie awaits -- the reality is that bogeys or more are more readily attained if even the slightest of careless plays occurs.
The 13th is a functional par-5 but not compelling design wise. The long par-4 14th at 438 yards is a capable hole but when played with a helping wind -- which is typical during the playing season -- is not especially demanding. The short par-4 15th provides a good opportunity to make birdie before the concluding fine troika of holes to complete the round.
The par-4 16th at 445 yards provides a generous landing area but it is the approach shot that is tested well. The green is shaped like the letter "L" and has three distinct areas. Be mindful of the pin location because failure to gauge the appropriate length to the desired landing area can mean taxing putts of all types. When the pin is placed in the deepest part of the green -- the narrow pinch from both right and left sides makes for sweaty palms for the unsure golfer. A grand hole for sure but with two equally outstanding ones to follow.
The long par-3 17th at 240 yards is a long narrow green with a major dip in its center section. Forsgate's 17th is patterned after a par-3 at Biarritz in France. Over the course of time the original length of the green at 73 yards was shortened. When architect Stephen Kay was brought on board to restore many of the old-time features -- the focus on bringing back to life the inherent qualities of the original par-3 17th was on his immediate agenda. The hole is a marvel because of the utter elasticity it provides for all handicap types. Generally the hole plays with a helping breeze from the south but there can no half-hearted play at any time. Much is rightly made of the Biarritz hole at Yale's par-3 9th but the 17th at Forsgate is no lesser version by any means.
The closing hole at Forsgate is appropriately named "Purgatory." A new championship tee was added a number of years ago -- bringing the length to 450 yards -- the longest of the two-shot holes at the course. The fairway has a rolling quality to it -- similar to what one played at the 10th which adjoins the closing hole. The prevailing wind is generally in on the player and for those who opt for the bold aggressive play it's possible to ascend the hill and get to the other side but if one fails to reach the bottom the approach will be played from a difficult downhill stance to an elevated target. The key is avoiding woods flanking both sides. In years past recovering from those woods would have been unlikely as grass and tree branches were too thick. They have been smartly pruned in recent times but there's no automatic "get out of jail card" provided.
The approach is a glorious site to behold. The clubhouse sits majestically behind the green. The putting surface is especially sloped from back to front with a left-to right slant. The right hand bunker is where "Purgatory" got its name. Once you enter the bunker you may get the feeling of utter hopelessness -- never being able to conclude the hole.
My first round at Forsgate came 45 years ago as a teen playing in a major junior qualifier. I have seen the different cycles of how the course has gone through various ups and downs. In the most recent of years the course has come under the watchful stewardship of Chris Schiavone and it has been through his dedication to the property and love of the game that Forsgate has clearly made herculean strides.
The quarter of par-3 holes is as good as any in NJ -- only a slightly behind the four stellar par-3 holes found at Pine Valley. The terrain is walkable but it also provides for sufficient movement -- the player must know how to hit from uneven lies and be able to hit to elevated targets with proper distance control and loft. The greens offer an array of shapes and sizes. Green speeds are kept at reasonable levels but should they be cut and rolled for maximum effect -- the demands on the player can increase significantly.
In this era when courses have been stretched to unseemly distances and the virtues of discerning design details can be flattened or outright eliminated -- it is clearly refreshing to see the magical nature of what Banks envisioned carry on to this day. For anyone coming to New Jersey be sure to get on the NJ Turnpike and head to Exit 8A -- you'll find a very fun and entertaining course that's happy to oblige a finely played shot but will never accept the foolish or reckless play. Is Forsgate a top ten course in a very competitive golf state like NJ? It is most certainly in that discussion.
As a postscript -- many may not realize that before Peter Oosterhuis went on to success as an television golf announcer for Sky, BBC and CBS-Sports - he served as Director of Golf for several year at Forsgate and later at Riviera. Playing such a richly detailed course and having the opportunity to chat with such a fine gentleman is something I will always remember.
By M. James Ward - images courtesy of Forsgate Country Club