According to Business World Magazine; “the word ‘Knickerbocker’ has historically alluded to natives or residents of New York, in a not-so-far-away area of New Jersey, the expression is more often associated with something else, in this case, a century-old country club.”
Knickerbocker Country Club dates back to 1914 and has remained at its original location in Tenafly since Donald Ross first designed the course. Herbert Strong subsequently modified the layout before Ron Forse, the Donald Ross restoration man, returned the course to its original design intent in 2007-08.
Only six professionals have been attached to Knickerbocker; the club’s first head professional, William Collins, taught golf to President Woodrow Wilson, according to Kathryn Levy Feldman’s book, Knickerbocker Country Club – The First 100 Years. The club’s third head pro, William Walker, was the brother of Cyril Walker, who won the 1924 U.S. Open – defeating legend Bobby Jones by three shots – and Otto Greiner, the club’s fourth head professional from 1952 to 1984, played in 10 U.S. Opens – five of them while representing Knickerbocker.
The golf course itself is quintessential parkland, with a combination of flat topography for some holes with other holes playing over more interesting ground. “I was surprised at how docile these Ross greens were for the first 4-5 holes,” commented blogger Paul in Rudo’s Golf Travels, “but then as the round continued, the greens had greater overall slope… and overall very large (having been expanded back to original size by Forse).”
Paul continued: “There were some very good maintenance practices employed on the course, such as maintaining grass at the entrances to all fairway and greenside bunkers at fairway height (so that bunkers act as “gathering point hazards”) and Knickerbocker has a whole bunch of superbly placed cross bunkers, which must be carefully considered after placing a drive in the rough. My favorite hole was #6, a 191-yard par 3 with a diamond shaped green.”
Northern New Jersey is blessed with a rich depth of quality courses. Knickerbocker often escapes view because of the attention paid to several other nearby courses which garner plenty of focus for visitors to the area.
Knickerbocker is a quality Donald Ross layout which was helped considerably by the recent work of architect Ron Forse in bringing back to life the many original features that faded from view over the many years.
The first two holes are meant to get the muscles limber for what lies ahead. The 444-yard par-4 3rd is a quality dog-leg left hole -- requiring careful thought for those inclined to take on the corner.
At the 357-yard 5th you play to a wonderfully contoured green that mandates any approach shot be played with care. The 191-yard par-3 6th is a superb hole blessed with a greensite that will test one's nerves thoroughly. The key thing when playing the hole is avoid missing to the left -- the terrain on that side makes for a challenging recovery. The par-4 7th shows what a smart routing can provide. The tee shot is to a flat area but the approach must be played to a hidden pin. At the 8th you drive blindly over a hill that features a greensite nestled nicely between trees.
The inward half of holes commences with a reachable short par-5 but the key is making sure you are putting uphill on this sloping putting surface.
The 173-yard par-3 11th is a hole you won't forget. Playing uphill will likely mean an extra 1-2 clubs depending upon pin location. The green is sloped from back-to-front and is rather severe. Anyone above the hole -- or worse yet -- having a sidehill putt -- will need to negotiate matters very carefully. Three and even four putts are not uncommon on this hole.
At the long par-4 12th long hitters must pay attention to a stream that cuts across the fairway. The 13th is quality par-5 which includes a serpentine fairway to an elevated green that like others at Knickerbocker can be a challenge to putt.
I am fond of the 16th and 17th holes at the course. The former is a risk/reward shot par-4 that can be driven -- going too far left can reach the lurking out-of-bounds. The latter is a 228-yard par-3 to an uphill green and often played into the wind.
Knickerbocker ends with a short par-5 that for key events is played as a long par-4.
When the putting surfaces are quick it takes careful control of one's approach shots to avoid facing three-putt pressure. Knickerbocker is a fine member's course. There's sufficient length but nothing that be described as a slog. In general terms -- the course is almost always in quality shape and there's sufficient hole diversity. Ross provided for playability at Knickerbocker but never to the point where indifferent play is ever rewarded. Is Knickerbocker a great course? No. But it is a quality layout that will certainly entertain most golfers fortunate to play it when in the immediate Bergen County area.
by M. James Ward