Somerset Hills Country Club is an A.W. Tillinghast creation and it’s naturally natural with nothing brash or ostentatious about the course. With glorious green sites and a pretty layout, it’s a course that’s waiting to steal your affections. But first of all you’ll need to befriend a kindly member because Somerset Hills is yet another of America’s prestigious private clubs.
Located in Bernardsville, New Jersey, Somerset Hills is perhaps one of Tilly’s finest creations and it’s a jewel that fits the contrasting land like a silk glove, where there's plenty of variation to keep everyone happy (length of holes and green sites), Somerset Hills is an unusual layout that flows cleverly around the flat, open, links-like terrain of a former racetrack for the outward nine and across hilly, dense woodland for the homeward half.
Perhaps the pick of the holes is the par four 15th which is flanked by trees creating intimacy. The fairway slides downhill and then doglegs to the right to reveal perhaps the largest green on the Jekyll and Hyde course that is Somerset Hills.
The Bernardsville layout has been extensively revised down the year as follows: William Gordon (1946); Hal Purdy (1956 and 1968); Tom Doak (2010 and 2013) with consultant Brian Slanik of Renaissance Golf Design. In 2017 Brian suggested altering the par five 10th to a short par four, allowing holes 11 and 18 to be lengthened.
If I were to name a quintessential "member's course" I would be hard pressed to name those able to exceed what Somerset Hills provides. The course is not a "championship course" by any means but includes a rich variety of fascinating design elements that speak volumes on the details that famed architect A.W. Tillinghast provided.
Somerset Hills will not be hosting any of golf's big time events -- the logistics and limited space prevent that. On the flip side, the course has benefited in being so near to the headquarters of the United States Golf Association (USGA) which is only a few miles away.
The strength of the course is the putting surfaces -- they are varied in size and slope and when they are near full speed require a deft touch at all times. Iron play is particularly important because being on the short side can quickly result in bogeys or worse.
The course starts with a strong par-4 opener as the fairway bends to the right and requires a talented blending of strength and placement. The golf juices really get going in a big time manner with the superb Redan-style par-3 2nd. The hole has been lengthened just a tad to now being over 200 yards and the presentation of the land is truly magnificent. Picking the correct club and matching the ideal trajectory is central to any success here.
The opening nine is located in an exposed meadow and fortunately the club has removed unnecessary trees which were planted years ago and simply choked the course robbing of it of strategic calculations.
The change of pace is one of the key ingredients at Somerset Hills -- there are no repeat situations that are predictable. Strong players will no doubt leave themselves shorter approaches but being on the correct side of the fairway and knowing where to finish with the approach still keeps players on their toes.
The long par-4 7th has been pushed to 487 yards and is one of the best holes in all of New Jersey golf. Modern technology allowed strong players to hit over a rise in the terrain and leave themselves nothing but a short yardage to the hole. The extension has brought needed balance to the hole -- there's a choke point in the fairway with a maddening fairway bunker that inserts itself quite nicely into the proceedings. The green is the end point and being aware of the pin position is central to leaving with your ego and scorecard in working order.
The long par-3 8th is an extremely challenging hole. Playing 230 yards requires a skillful strike with a long iron, hybrid or even fairway metal. Missing short is OK -- just stay away from errs to either right or left as a series of pesky bunkers will make their presence known.
My only downside to the outward half is the par-5 9th. There's a bunker cut-off similar and it can be carried. However, since the hole turns left -- it's just as easy for players to hit a drive down the adjoining 1st hole and possibly leave a shorter second into the green.
The inward half uses different terrain with more of a parkland setting. The par-5 10th is likely the weakest hole on the course and was not served when changed from its original routes as a par-4.
Somerset Hills returns to high form with the dog-leg right par-4 11th. Strong players will hit less than driver and try to reach the bottom of the hill and leave a short iron to a devilish green that's pithed severely. Tillie simply used the land he found -- there's no insertion of extras -- the hole sells itself brilliantly in showing that "less is indeed more." I am not a big time fan of the short par-3 12th. It's a good hole but the fanfare has made it seem on par with the 12th at Augusta National -- that's a stretch in my mind.
You then ascend a hill to get to the 13th and 14th holes -- two well done par-4's playing in different directions and which feature Tillie greens truly special. The par-4 15th has been cited as blending beauty and strategy in a seamless manner. The brook that protects the left side of the green is wonderfully positioned. The hole is one you won't forget.
The final par-3 comes at the 16th. The green is sloped so keenly anything missing on the same side will be tested to the max. It's not a long hole but it requires total commitment to execution and faith in the yardage sought.
The final two holes at Somerset Hills are a major letdown for me. Just when a crescendo should be moving to its ultimate point the ending duo simply fails to deliver. I am not suggesting two long par-4's should have been included but given the series of holes one plays from #11 to #16 you feel like the moviegoer who has enjoyed all that has happened but feels the ending could have been a tad better.
Somerset Hills is the kind of course that golfers -- not people who simply play the game -- should have the privilege in playing. It's sufficiently long enough for core golfers and thankfully the club has avoided the inane siren song that other clubs have been tempted with in extending holes again and again in a mindless manner.
As I said at the outset -- the greens at Somerset Hills are an amazing element. The key is playing them when the speed is there because failure to roll the ball correctly will result in a swift and certain pushback. The course prefers a low profile and it's not unheard of that those who are also members at nearby Baltusrol to come to Somerset Hills because of the peace and tranquility provided.
How high should Somerset Hills be rated in New Jersey? That's a tough question. In nearly all national ratings Somerset Hills has not just been rated in various top 100 polls -- but often in the top 50. I don't see the course being that high because the competition for such consideration has clearly intensified. Nonetheless, Somerset Hills is a must play for any Tillinghast fan because it shows the talent level that would later create other gems from the likes of Winged Foot, San Francisco, Baltusrol and Bethpage / Black, to name just a few. Should you ever received an invitation to play this gem be sure to do so.
by M. James Ward
The 10th hole has not been shortened or changed in any way since the 1960s. That is completely false information.
The following info comes from a Christmas 2017 newsletter from Renaissance Golf Design (Tom Doak's company), regarding their efforts as architectural consultant to Somerset Hills.
"As we've done our work around the rest of the course, we've spent several years trying to decide where to rebuild the green at the par-5 10th hole, which was moved from Tillinghast's original location many years ago to lengthen the course, but can't go back there because of the proximity to the 18th tee. Tom was back in April (2017) to see Brian Slawnik's solution, turning the hole into a short par-4 with the green on the left, which will allow for the lengthening of holes 11 and 18."
In sum the 10th was changed from what Tillinghast originally envisioned to the present day par-5 now. That's not "false information" but accurate info. The existing 10th never really worked well in my mind and the desire to return the hole as a par-4 seems quite smart when coupled with the possibility in lengthening such holes 11 and 18. In the case of the former a top tier hole will only become stronger and the closing hole -- which I have always found anti-climatic -- will now have the very real possibility in capping the round in grand fashion at such a delightful course.
I never played the original 10th hole created by Tillinghast -- likely few people living today have. It will be quite interesting to see what Renaissance Golf Design does in terms of those holes.
In Daniel Wexler's book "The American Private Golf Club Guide" the author mentions "with the exception of building a new green to convert the 10th hole into a par 5 during the 1940s... precious little has changed here in over 90 years."
Somerset Hills represents the type of club that I like very much. It is old, traditional and conservative. At Somerset Hills, they don't have to try to impress, because they are the genuine article. The small clubhouse, pro shop and outdoor deck fit perfectly into the landscape and have a patina that can't be bought and only develops with age and a respect for the past. The course has two perfectly manicured grass tennis courts, confirming its gentrified and genteel approach as a private club. Some courses have a front and back nine that are reasonably similar in feel and style. Somerset Hills does not. It has two distinctly different sets of nine. The front nine is relatively flat and plays on relatively open ground in the area where a former racetrack was situated. The back nine is set within the forest, has many tree-lined holes, and has much more change in elevation. Of particular note among many great holes is the 15th hole, named “Happy Valley,” a sweeping dogleg down a big hill. Getting everything right at a golf club is more art than science, but at Somerset Hills they have it all figured out. The small locker room and bar, the discrete, respectful staff and a refined approach to everything.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Somerset Hills is another A.W Tillinghast masterpiece. Perhaps a little less known than others like Winged Foot or its New Jersey neighbour Baltusrol, many believe that Tilly's lesser known courses are home to some of his best work (Bethpage Red, Baltimore and Ridgewood) and the layout at Somerset Hills pays homage to that notion.
The general perception of SHCC is that it is an old,traditional, conservative and exclusive club and to some extent this is true. That being I found anyone I met at Somerset Hills to be most friendly and welcoming, respectful of the game they take great pride in their club. Everything about the place is understated, the clubhouse , the entrance, even the pro shop is petite, if you were to drive past you would be hard pushed to notice that one of the world's greatest courses was in front of you. The headquarters of the USGA are located only 10 minutes from the course and as such there is a natural link between the two.
When you stand on the first tee at SHCC, what you are immeaditely struck by is the vast open expanse that lies in front of you, with strips of fairway meandering across the rolling (hills) landscape, bordered by fescue ans sparse foliage. It is almost like a scene from Oakmont (post tree removal). The first hole (par4) is a very tough opener, particuarly for the shorter hitter as they are unable to cut the dog leg, as the hole moves sharply to the right. My second shot found the middle of the green and I thought to myself, "ah a nice two putt par start", but as I reached the green I fully appreciated Somerset's core defence, its greens. Three putts later I walked off disgusted with myself, the surfaces roll exceptionally well and are extremely quick, but also contain some of the most interesting and fun contours one will ever encounter.
As I stood on the second tee, disgusted with my opening three putt, I almost didnt take time to enjoy what lay in front of me, one of the best examples of a redan hole I have ever witnessed. playing 190 yards from a tee located on high ground, your shot must carry a ravine to a green located on the same level as the tee, with the punishment for missing the green devastating. The green itself is contoured with a hint of eccentric genius, with the back left portion almost unfit for a hole location. The next four holes contain a mix of two short par fours, a par 5 (short by today's length, and an excellent uphill par 4 (4th) with a dangerous back to front sloping green.
Along with the 1st and 2nd I feel the 7th and 8th represent the strongest hole son the front nine. 7 is one of the best designed par fours I have played. The tee shot is semi blind, with trouble on both sides, the tempatation is to hit toward the side one can see best(the left) but in reality there is planty of room down the right and this offers the best line of attack into another viciously sloping green, which seems to have a few elephants buried under it. The 8th a long 200 yard uphill par 3, guarded sentry-like by bunkers either side, is a hole you are always happy to take a 3 at.
Once you make the turn you it is almost like you have been transported to another course, from when you leave the 10th tee, the course begins to wind its way between beautiful woodland, only reappearing at the 18th green. The 10th is a soft par 5, which presents an interesting tee shot requiring a power fade or towering draw to evade the encroaching trees. This hole prepares you for what lies ahead. On the 11th tee the golfer is presented with choice of option, something which Tillinghast felt was fair. The tee shot is downhill and blind with deep fescue left and trees and a brook to the right. The fairway sweeps down towards a large like before turning 90degrees to the right with a green placed on the side of the large lake.The golfer can fade the driver leaving only a short approach of some 120 yards, or take the conservative option of a 3 wood,playing to the left leaving a considerably longer second shot. A truly great hole. The 12th is a stunning little par 3, of only some 130 yards, to a tiny green perched on the side of the lake, if you play the hole with a member you will see them shrewdly pitching the ball high on the right side, allowing it to trickle back down the slope onto the green. Golf Club Atlas described this hole as "A treasure in American golf; there are few more natural or appropriate water par threes".
The 13th contains a nice variation of a Biarritz green, which can throw up some very interesting hole locations. The stretch of closing holes at SHCC, is as an interesting blend of holes you will find. 15 is a terrfic par 4 which again gives the player to bend his drive around the corner or else play to the bend, the green is set in a ajestic location, surrounded by a backdrop of trees and guarded in front by a brisk moving stream, 16 is another top notch par 3, requiring a medium iron to a green set along the bottom of a ridge, which again slopes sharply from back to front.
The thing I love most about Somerset Hills is the variety and mix of different holes the layout contains. The nines are like chalk and cheese, and I feel both compliment each other as opposed to one being inferior to the other. Tillinghast was once quoted as saying that the strength of a course could be judged by its short holes, maybe this was self appreciation, but at SHCC they all get an A+. Many new course designers could do well to examine Somerset, its not overly long (geographical constraints etc) but through other features it still poses a stiff test. This is one of the best courses that not many have heard of and if you get the much coveted chance to play here, its not something you should think twice about. Nick