The Knoll Golf Club features two 18-hole routings; the West course designed by Charles Banks and the East course, added 30 years later by Hal Purdy. Although the latter is totally public, the former also offers a limited number of tee times to unaccompanied visitors.
Banks was an acolyte of Seth Raynor, and accordingly brought the template style to multiple courses across New Jersey. Among the most popular of those templates featured at Knoll West are No. 6, a “Short,” and No. 13, a “Biarritz” (it’s worth noting that the latter features only the second plateau cut at green height...with the exception of Yale Golf Club, this is actually how Raynor intended the curious hole to be maintained).
This course also shares something with Blue Mound Golf Club in that it features a double set of “Redan” holes; the No. 3 par three plays in the traditional Redan style, while the closing par four also features a Redan-style green set high above a deep bunker. If traditional Redan holes give you fits, consider the difficulty in playing a par four measuring 440 yards that ends with such a green. A centerline bunker in the fairway does no favors.
During 2021 I was able to return to Knoll West and was glad to see improvement. The Banks design is quite special given the genesis of the club as a private club with a capital "P" during the days of The Great Depression.
The issue for Knoll West is having bunkers placed where they can truly have an impact. A good example comes with the opening hole. The left fairway bunker should be positioned much further down the fairway -- in the 290-310 yards range. Given the elevated teeing area the re-positioning would be a much-needed deterrent from having players let loose with impunity.
Conversely, there's a fairway bunker on the 2nd hole that only Bryson DeChambeau will reach. Possibly another can be added a bit closer to the likely landing area.
At the slight dog-leg 4th the visual bunker you see from the tee is fine but the broader fairway area is just too wide and puts no premium on placement. Having another bunker further down - on either the left or right side would once again provide a deterrent from those just firing away.
The same philosophy holds for the par-5 5th -- fairway bunkers nearest the tee are out of position and irrelevant.
The short par-4 7th could play even more challenging if the existing fairway bunker were moved into a more challenging position. At the strong two-shot par-4 8th you find a similar thing.
The final hole on the outbound nine is good but the left fairway bunker could be extended to provide a bit more of a role for players to respect.
No fairway bunkers exist at the 10th and 11th holes and having such a role would only add to both of them. At the dog-left par-4 12th the existing fairway bunkers are scenic but also misplaced.
The same can be said at the par-4s at the 16th and 18th holes respectively.
Knoll West has a quality routing and a good range of diverse holes.
The greens still have an array of puzzling internal contours. The 2nd green is grand stuff and the Biarritz.par-3 13th still packs plenty of punch. The closing 18th is still a quality closer with its elevated angled target.
Knoll West has enough of a foundation to go beyond where it is today. Adding a bit more length at certain holes -- the 18th being a great example -- would put back the kind of demands Banks originally envisioned.
Turf quality has certainly improved from my earliest times playing the course from years ago.
Knoll West, along with Francis Bryne in nearby West Orange, are two Banks designs that went from private to public status and that's a plus for the non-affiliated golfer. Yet, the former has been kept nearer to the Banks philosophy when compared to the former which has been neutered over the years.
The North Jersey golf environment is one of the most competitive in the USA. The framework of the Banks effort still provides much but to attain an even higher level of luster the design needs to be in alignment with how golf is played with 21st century balls and clubs. There's much to salute in playing what's present now, however, the attainment in reaching an even higher bar would bolster the reputation of what Banks so marvelously created.
The pedigree of Knoll (West) is clearly first with the handiwork of Charles "steam shovel" Banks leading the way. The genesis of the club was to be a truly private club of the highest order. Sadly, the timing of the club's creation was just before the full impact of The Great Depression hit America and the world with full impact.
The genius of Banks is still evident but the facility has failed to really do anything that can bring to life so many more design elements that simply vanished over the many years since its opening.
Before his death several years ago, George Bahto was likely the most knowledgeable person on the planet regarding the lives and times of Charles Blair Macdonald, the father of American golf and his two protégés -- Seth Raynor and Charles Banks. Bahto, a Jersey resident who lived nearby, truly loved Knoll (West) and had attempted over many years to convince the powers-that-be on how to reinvigorate the layout. A small number of efforts did see fruition but the reputation of the club owes more to its rich legacy than to where matters stand today.
The opening trio of holes is still first rate. Banks was masterful in creating large sweeping contours on the putting surfaces. The par-4 2nd is simply a superb hole with a green that provides no less than three sections. Failure to land one's approach to the correct side will mean a swift three-putt -- and maybe even more! The slightly downhill par-3 3rd is a redan-like hole and it too has a challenging green to both hit and hold.
Knoll (West) still has drainage issues in parts of the property and sadly, the firmness of the turf has been compromised by overdosing the property with too much water. A number of the greens often require a hefty shoulder turn to propel one's ball to the cup when on the greens.
The Biarritz par-3 13th is still a fun to play and the closing hole still is magnificent but because of improvements in club and ball technology doesn't present the requisite fear factor that it did in earlier times. It's too bad Bahto was not given the green light a number of years ago. The bones are most certainly present at Knoll (West) but the body needs a considerable makeover because if that should ever happen the total elements would be nothing less than stupendous. Sadly, that's more "what might be" rather than "what is."
by M. James Ward