180 Mine Mount Rd,
New Jersey (NJ) 07924,
- +1 908 766 0044
20 miles W of New York
Members and their guests only
Daniel S. Joseph
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.
Author Darius Oliver wrote in his book Planet Golf USA: “Somerset Hills Country Club has diligently preserved this great track and they deserve great credit for resisting the urge to modify holes or soften their marvelous green shapes.
At various times they have had issues with tree growth and the loss of playing areas, but in recent years a carefully supervised restoration program has successfully returned much of the layout to the original Tillinghast plan.
What’s cool about the course are not the things that Tillinghast experimented with here and then took on later projects, but the unique design features that he rarely tried anywhere else.”
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 revised down the years as follows: William Gordon (1946); Hal Purdy (1956 and 1968); Tom Doak (2010 and 2013) with consultant Brian Slawnik 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.
Relative to the hype of the history and recent restoration, it underwhelms. Quaint.
I feel this critique merits some more fleshing out, if you have the time.
Let me start by saying that I caddied here growing up (in the 80's) and Somerset Hills thus holds a special place in my heart, as I played it from dawn's early mists to dusks rosy sunsets on Mondays over a couple of summers. I caddied there less for the $$ and more for the privilege of playing a course that just oozes charm from every hole. If I had just one course to play before I died, this would be it, although nostalgia is certainly a factor in that take.
I have played the course a couple of times in the last 5 years, so this review isn't dated. I love the restoration, which created long views that are just spectacular.
I'll keep this review fairly brief, in terms of hole description, since I think the hole-by-hole reviews above are outstanding. Here are a few observations.
I love that #1's tee box is right next to the pro shop. It feels kind of intimate and creates a Scottish feel of leaving home on a journey. The hole is a bit more than a gentle hand shake, as it requires length and accuracy off the tee and a mid-iron approach.
#2 is the best Redan I've ever played. So much fun once you figure out its secrets. The restoration was outstanding, as it accentuates the holes majestic features. Nothing more gratifying than landing your tee shot on the front right, in the perfect spot to access a back left pin, hidden from sight off the tee. You race up to the green to see if you stuck it tight.
#3 is often overlooked and underrated. It's an awesome hole, as one of the reviews above aptly notes.
#5. I think it was a bit unfairly criticized above. I can see how some might view it as mere connective tissue between #4 and #5, but I think it's a gem. It's a short hole, but there's trouble to be had off the tee and, even with a scoring club in your hand after a great drive, the green requires an absolutely precise approach to yield a makeable birdie putt, given the green's severe contours. Where else but a Tilly with virtually untouched paradigmatic Golden Age green complexes can you find a green like that? I just think the hole is a blast.
#6 was more fun with '80's golf technology. I agree that modern technology has reduced it to a long 4. But the sunken racetrack remains a fascinating and truly unique feature -- where else can you find that?! And the hole plays a bit like a cape hole, with the woods covering the right side serving as a the water feature. A brave tee shot that flirts with those woods can cut off the gentle dog leg right and reward you with a chance to hit the green in two.
#7 is an awesome hole. One thing I love about SHCC is the reveals, holes where you can't see the green from the tee but as you approach your drive you discover a beautiful vista of the green complex, revealed over a crest or a gentle hill. This hole is a great example. The restoration made this hole so much better, as you can now use the ground and the shape of the terrain to access the green, which was enlarged to its original glory. One of the brawnier holes on the course.
#11 and #12 make an incredible pair. There may not be a more picturesque Par 3 as #12, sited as it is in a modest setting, without the benefit of seaside or mountains. The hole seems to exist in isolation, as the rest of the course and world melts away. It's both inviting and terrifying. I just want to stare at it forever. The picture of #12 above captures it well.
#13. The Biarritz green is amazing. So much fun when pin is cut in the swale and you eagerly watch your approach to see if your ball can finish in it, which will yield a very makeable birdie putt.
#14. Absolutely love the restoration, which cleared the hillside behind the hill top green, which drops down to the 12th hole, as it gives the green complex and infinity look. A very demanding driving hole and a fun green complex that requires chipping imagination if you come up short.
#15. Another favorite and another spectacular reveal. If you're brave, you drive it right over the bunker cut into the hillside that obscures the fairway, flirting with the woods on the right. A well-struck drive rewards you with not only the best angle and shortest club into the green, but also the anticipation of seeing where your ball ended up, as you simply cannot tell from the tee. And, after cresting the hill, there's another great reveal, as you discover one of Tilly's most memorable greenside complexes, which is particularly amazing in fall foliage. Nestled in a valley and guarded by a babbling brook, lined with stone, that snakes around the green, falling in tiers from left to right, with tiny white caps as the water splashes over the rocks in the steam bed and sparkles in the sun. Just gorgeous.
I actually love 16-18, although they sometimes get panned as a weak finish. I think they're great holes, even if #17 feels a bit wonky. That's just part of SHCC's charm and playfulness. It's another great reveal, where you hit your drive to a hidden fairway and get the thrill of finding out whether it turned out as good as you hoped.
#18 may not be long, but it plays longer as it's a severely uphill drive. The green is guarded on the left by a gargantuanly deep greenside bunker(about 12 feet or more below green level) that's just a blast to play from if you got too aggressive in attacking a left cut pin, from the left side of the fairway, as happened to me on my last round there. Had my slightly pulled ball hopped right, tap in birdie; but it hopped left down into the bunker. And 18 finishes right next to the clubhouse's veranda, completing the circle back home.
One reviewer said SHCC was not a "championship course." I'll take the liberty of interpreting that comment as meaning the course is short by today's standards, about 6800 or 6900 from the tips, if I recall correctly. If that was the gist of that comment, I agree. It's not brawny enough for a major championship. But it's hosted many a top amateur event, including a few USGA junior championships (I caddied in the one held in '83(?)), and several metropolitan and state amateur events.
SHCC is a hidden gem and one of the best examples of Golden Age golf architecture you can play.
One of my absolute favorite courses — if you are lucky enough to score an invite, drop everything and go. The entire experience is understated, and grand all at the same time — some of the best green complexes in the world, and two distinct nines that will satisfy every club in your bag. It is the epitome of what a “member’s course” is and should strive to be.
Continuing to climb higher and higher in the top US 100 rankings and spot on. 2nd best Jersey course behind PV. Described as 2 different nines, but not completely accurate as 10,17, and 18 have a similar feel and on the same side as the front. Maybe a few okay holes on the front, but the green complexes are second to none. Beautiful course and old school club house and locker room. The grass tennis courts to the left of one and right of 9 look better than the golf course. Jealous of members there.
#1 is a fantastic opener. Lot of room either side, but need a bit of a fade for longer hitters with bunkers in the landing zone with a straight ball. Inviting 2nd shot, but tough left to right sloping green and need to play short of the flag for a 2 putt. Get used to the greens.
#2 - not a long course, but IMO the defense of the course are the par 3’s and this is where it starts. 175 from the whites and 190ish from the blues and the flag is usually middle or tucked back left. Land on the front or right and will get huge kicks left. Best miss is long left as you are pitching back up to hole. Long right is dead.
#7 - 1 handicap and deserves it. Blind tee shot with what looks like room left, but longer hitter beware of bunkers. Green is the issue here if you have a mid iron in. Better off being short of the hole.
#8 - long par 3 around 200 from whites and 225 from blues. Gorgeous hole. Straight is the key even if short. Left of hole in bunker or rough is a bogey at best.
#11 - great downhill dogleg right. 240 down hill leaves 150+ in uphill. If possible be left of center off tee. Anything on the right side requires fade into uphill green.
#12 - 150 par 3. Huge right to left slope on green. Long right or short of hole is best. Anything left of pin should get wet.
#17 - love it or hate it interesting golf hole. Either lay up with 200-220 or take on a sloped fairway with a small driver landing zone. Up to down hole with a fantastic green.
Great golf course and one of AW’s best
Of the courses that I have played, Somerset Hills is the course that has risen in my personal rankings after every time I play it. On a repeat visit to other courses, I sometimes slightly modify my rankings. My first ranking of Somerset Hills was wrong after the first time I played it. While I liked Somerset Hills after my initial visit, I thought there were too many “average” holes, felt a few holes were disconnected/inconsistent with the rest of the course, and thought there were only four very good holes – the first, second, eighth, and fifteenth. I walked away thinking the greens and green complexes were very good, but otherwise it was an above average course. I put it in the top 150 in the USA. Now I would place it nearly 100 places higher.
In discussing golf courses with some of my golfing friends, they were often surprised I did not rate Somerset Hills (or Shoreacres) very highly. Well, sometimes one does not get it right the first time. This is why it is often advisable to play a very good golf course at least three times before one does an evaluation.
While the greens/green surrounds are still the best feature of Somerset Hills, I now value the routing. Mr. A.W. Tillinghast both routed and designed a wonderful golf course. While it might now seem obvious that his routing maximizes the features of the land, one still had to lay it out with the technology of the times. As with all land, different routing options were available to Mr. Tillinghast, yet it is so clear that he chose the correct one. It was only after playing it for the fourth time that I realized the front nine has as much change in terrain that is the equal to the back nine’s often more dramatic changes. With all of the land movement, Mr. Tillinghast chose the best locations for tees and green sites. He had to consider woods, ponds, streams, valleys, a quarry, rises, and hills. He got it all right.
I also now think the second hole is likely the finest redan in the world. Unlike North Berwick West’s wonderful (and first) redan, at Somerset Hills you can see what you need to do on this redan whereas at North Berwick it is a blind shot. Take your pick but I will put Somerset Hills’ redan just head of it even if North Berwick’s is more memorable.
The course plays to 6784 yards from the Blue tees, par 71, rated 73.2/137. From the White tees it is 6350 yards, rated 71.2/132. There are two other sets of tees and two additional combination tees. We played the Blue/White combination tees which comes to about 6550 yards, rated 72.2/137.
1. Par 4 - 462/445. Arguably the most difficult hole on the golf course, this dogleg right plays downhill for the approach shot. From the tee there is no view of the second half of the fairway nor the angle of the dogleg. The fairway sits between apple trees on either side which is why the hole is named “orchard.” Going right off the tee will lead into the trees. Go too far right and you could end up on the third green. Farther down the fairway on the left, but likely not in play for average hitters is another collection of small trees. Longer hitters will have to think about the trees to either side and the three small bunkers on the outer corner of the dogleg. The fairway tilts a bit to the right as it falls down to the green. On the right about 75 yards from the green are placed two long bunkers with another two at the right side. The green has higher ground to its left and a fall-off right into those bunkers. The green is steeply sloped to the right so the ideal shot comes in as far left as one dares. The ball will release and run quite a ways on the green with a fall-off at the rear. It is a very tricky hole and a good one.
I have played here in the fall when the trees are at a peak “red” near the entrance road and the color is amazing. You see those trees from so many tees on the front nine.
2. Par 3 – 205/175. From an elevated tee one can see what is expected of you…..hit somewhere about 7 yards short of the green or the very front with as high a shot as one can hit as they ball will travel onto the surface to the left. If one hits anywhere near the middle of the green the ball is going to go all the way to the back left, possibly just off the green into the rough. For “eye candy” purposes there are three cross bunkers placed in the valley below the front of the green. There is another bunker short right which leads to a tricky recovery. The bunker on the front/middle left is very deep, requiring a shot of about eight feet high to get back onto the surface. The green has a steep bank on its right to send balls to the left while the smaller bank on the left in the middle of the green might save a ball from entering the bunker. It is one of the most intimidating yet beautiful and thought-provoking par 3’s in the world. Until this recent round, I had made par every time…..I still haven’t bogeyed it…..but now I have made a 5.
3. Par 4 – 376/364. Working back towards the apple orchard, “bunker hill” offers a wide fairway with two bunkers on the right that are reasonably deep and a single bunker on the left. There is a center bunker about 20 yards short of the green with another one built into the right side of the hill where sits a plateau green. Off to the left are four bunkers with the final one at the back of the green. This is a blind approach shot to a back-to-front sloping green with a hill behind it. Balls hit a bit too hard have a chance of coming back onto the green. Yet the green is not as sloped on the back half as much as it appears. This hole is pure fun and a visual delight from the fairway.
4. Par 4 – 460/429. This hole is named “dolomites” for the mounds that go down the left side of the fairway and then pick up again on the left as you near the green. The drive seems to be slightly downhill. These mounds were put in place to separate the fourth from the sixth hole but do come into play as there are many of them. The ideal line to the green is from the right where a single bunker is placed inside the fairway at about 210 yards. The approach shot is uphill as the green is placed on ground that has higher ground behind it. There is an early bunker on the right of the beginning of the fairway but I find that to be more in play for the tenth hole. Another bunker awaits on the right side at the green which is steeply banked back-to-front with a sort of second tier. It is one of the quickest downhill putts I have ever played, but on this course I found myself saying that several times. This is a good golf hole.
5. Par 4 – 350/326. Perhaps the weakest hole on the golf course, the “Nairn” hole plays gently downhill. There is a bunker on the left side of the fairway that should be easily carried and is the ideal line to this slight dogleg left. Down the right side are five small bunkers followed by a large bunker probably 250 yards from the tee. The green is completely surrounded by bunkers, six in all and is odd-shaped with a back left bulge. The back right has two tall, sharp, long rolling mounds placed inside the green. I do not think the pin is often placed in this position, but if it is, a 3 or 4-putt is a real possibility.
6. Par 5 – 501/478. For better, long players, the “Plateau” hole is easy as its lacks length and has a green that does not match the quality of the earlier greens (on most courses it would likely be the best green). This sharp dogleg right has trees down both sides but the right side can be carried by the better player, leaving perhaps as little as 190 yards to the green. The hole does play uphill for the tee shot before basically leveling off. From the tee there is a large bunker to clear before the start of the fairway and another bunker placed on the left about 230 yards out. If one cannot carry the trees, the smart play is down the left side so that the hole opens up. The fairway has a slight separation although I do not think the taller grass is much of an issue if you find yourself in there. Down the left side is a large bunker more in play for the shorter hitter. This is followed by a handful of dolomites on the left while the right side is littered with dolomites for the separation from the fourth hole. At the green there is a long section of raised mound to the left with a bunker sitting inside of it and the green. The right side offers three bunkers. The green is fairly long for the length of this hole with several undulations in it overall going back to front.
My understanding is that the club does not own the land behind the hole in order to lengthen it. For today’s game for the better players, this hole needs another 40-75 yards. Perhaps they should place a tee behind the fifth green, on the left side of the third hole, or acquire land behind the existing green. But there is nothing wrong with a risk-reward par 5 for the better players.
7. Par 4 – 493/453. This is a fine, long hole but not quite as interesting as the first hole. This hole plays basically straight, although the fairway squeezes in at the landing zone from the right side. The left side has a large, “V” shaped bunker at the crest of the hill. Longer hitters will fly the rise in the hill and the ball will get a substantial roll-out on the other side as the land falls to the green. There are two bunkers right that also sit inside the line of the fairway about 100 yards out. Down the left are two scattered bunkers. The green has a single bunker left and two flanking bunkers at the rear. This is the rare hole where there are two places one can miss and have a good chance at recovery, either short or right of the green. The ideal shot will land short of the green and run onto the surface. I find the green slopes less to the left than the land would suggest. This hole is pretty as it is back-dropped by lovely trees and represents the farthest distance from the clubhouse on the course.
8. Par 3 – 230/205. With a lovely barn and home situated well behind this green and the ninth fairway, a small pond just off the tee sitting well below you, this is one of the most visually interesting holes on the course. You play over the small pond to a green that is slightly higher than the tee. The green surrounds feature two prominent mounds on both corners of the front of the green. The right mound has a bunker built into it as well followed by a long bunker right. The left mound has two bunkers built into it and another bunker left of that. On the left back of the green there are two bunkers. The mounds are sufficiently raised such that if one is short and the pin is located behind them, you will have a semi-blind shot. The green has a lot of interior movement to it, to a front left swale forcing balls back down the green, a lower right half, and various little ripples. It is a difficult par despite the large size of the green.
9. Par 5 – 529/514. “Westward Ho” is often criticized for being too short as well as offering an opportunity to shorten the hole by playing left down the first fairway (simple solution: make it out-of bounds to do so). This dogleg left has an elevated tee playing over a small valley ultimately to higher ground. The lovely white barn and house sit off to the right. The dogleg plays around the apple orchard that is now to the left. Hit too far right and one will be in tall fescue. The fairway is interrupted at its turn by a complex of bunkers and raised mounds that appear very “rough.” This area is about 40 yards long. You do not want to go left into the orchard as the branches are fairly low to the ground. Most believe the play to the hole is more from the right as the green is angled right to left with a substantial tilt to the left. However, I think the play from the left side of the fairway is also fine if one can see where the pin is as you know you have to hit the front right of the green. I like the options presented here. Two bunkers guard the left side of the fairway which has several rolls in it. Left of the green set well below it are two deep bunkers while on the right front is a single bunker. The first couple of times I played this hole I did not think as much of it as I was sufficiently long off the tee. But as I lose distance I find this hole to be offer a high degree of challenge in both getting to the green and on the green.
The best view of the redan second hole is from the ninth tee.
10. Par 5 – 490/478. “Sunningdale” is known as the weakest hole on the golf course by many due to its lack of length combined with the tee shot playing substantially downhill. While the green sits atop a rise in the land, overall one benefits more from the downhill so this hole plays shorter than 490/478. This is the only non-original green on the golf course as the green needed to be re-routed from a spot well short of the current location. At that time the hole played as a par 4. There is a discussion about leaving the hole the same, converting it to a par 4 by moving the tee box forward, or moving the green as much as 70 yards into the woods that the club owns, but replicating the green. If the hole is lengthened, one wants to replicate this green complex because it is a good one.
The tee is somewhat wedged between the driving range and the short-game practice area, with tall grass and two bunkers on the right and inner corner of the dogleg. Another bunker sits off to the left that is a part of the fourth hole. The fairway is narrow. After the tee shot, about halfway to the hole on the left is a small bunker. The green is fronted by two deep bunkers to a “hot-air balloon” green with its narrow opening. There is a pronounced back to front tilt on this green where balls hit almost to the middle of the green will fall back into the bunkers. I like the hole for the view from the tee and the green complex although I can see where better players would critique it. The green speed here is the equivalent to the speed of the fourth hole.
11. Par 4 – 413/388. Many rave about this downhill par 4 to a near 90 degree dogleg right back up a hill to another plateau green. Down both sides are woods. On the right side is a stream that crosses the fairway. The big hitters will hit to the bottom of the hill leaving a short to mid-iron to the green. There is a bunker on the left about 40 yards short of the green as the land starts to rise which is only in play for those hitting a shot down the right side of the fairway. Off to the left near a large pond is a long, thin bunker designed to stop balls from entering the pond as it sits at the bottom of the fall-off. The green is very undulated. This hole reminds me a bit of the tenth at Augusta National as it has a downhill tee shot and the hole reveals itself as you make the turn. Finally, like the tenth at Augusta National the green is placed uphill. I know the holes are vastly different in length and doglegs going in opposite direction, but it does evoke memories for me. This hole is called “perfection” perhaps because it requires a perfect tee shot, or perhaps it has a beautiful vista in the fall, or perhaps because it requires a perfect second shot. In any event, it is a good golf hole and makes “perfect” use of the pond, woods, and change in terrain.
12. Par 3 – 150/140. While I am not normally a huge fan of trees as a line of defense, when I first played this course there was a tree hanging over part of the right side of this green. Sadly, the tree is now gone. What is left is a beautiful view of a short par 3 with the pond fronting the green, going down the left side and continuing to a part of its rear. On the right side of the green is a steep hill that fortune will either send a ball onto the green or into a bunker. Behind the green is also a bunker. The green is heavily sloped back right to front left and one has to really hit a putt from the front to a back pin. The setting of the hole is gorgeous, although the hole is not nearly in the same league as the second and eighth.
After playing the hole and walking up the hill behind the green to the thirteenth tee, one should turn at look back up the twelfth, eleventh, seventeenth and eighteenth to the clubhouse sitting high on the hill. It is a magnificent view and one worthy of a bench to sit and pinch yourself. While the hole is named “despair,” no matter how you played it, you will soon forget your score when looking at that view.
13. Par 4 – 415/393. Playing with woods to the left and open ground to the right, this is a slightly uphill tee shot with no view of the green from the tee. There is a bunker right that is easily carried. The bigger danger is the trees on the left that pinch the fairway about 165 yards from the green, more so from the left. Bigger hitters will carry the rise and have their balls run out as the hole goes slightly downhill. Approximately 50 yards from the green is a collection of three bunkers set inside the left side of the fairway. There is a bunker right and two to the left. None of this really prepares you for the green, a sort of Biarritz swale set almost in the middle of the green with the swale on both sides about 15 inches deep. The front of the green is very steep as a long false front so balls that get close to the front of the “Biarritz” but don’t find the swale ould go all the way off the green. While I do not hold this par 4 in the same class as several on the front nine, it is a very interesting hole.
14. Par 4 – 422/371. The rounds I had played at Somerset Hills before the most recent one (Sept 5, 2020) formed an impression in my mind that holes thirteen through fifteen were “disconnected” from the rest of the course as they set on their own piece of land with their own woods. I still feel that way but not quite as strongly. While thirteen goes out to the farthest corner of the course on the back nine (thus is named “corner”), fourteen runs parallel back the other way. From the tee, “Ridge” has flanking tress and bunkers that are in play for shorter hitters. Longer hitters carry these defenses by 100 yards. The green sits below you and has two raised bunkers on the left and three on the right. The green runs away from you overall but has large spines in it. From the fairway this appears to be an infinity green. It is one of the largest greens on the course and due to the undulations has numerous options for the pin. I do not find the tee shot to be very interesting but the approach into a magnificent green complex make this a compelling golf hole. I could stand here for a long time looking at this green and its surrounds.
15. Par 4 – 404/373. From my first visit, “happy valley” is the hole I remember the most and thought to be the best on the back nine. It is a fairly sharp dogleg to the right with a slight uphill tee shot to a wide fairway. The inner turn of the dogleg is where a large bunker is located as the land starts to fall downhill to the green. To the right is a woods with a single bunker on the outer corner while the left side offers scattered trees/woods that come into play for the longer hitter who does not fade their ball off the tee. Bigger hitters will get a substantial kick-forward down the fairway that can leave a shot as little as a sand wedge. The difficulty for most players is the possibility of a hanging lie for their approach shot. The stream cuts across the front of the green and continues up the left side. The green has a mound on the left side and a sort of second tier back to front. Although the green looks like it might tilt towards the stream, it tilts towards the sixteenth hole off to the right where there is lower ground. While I have played several holes like this on other courses, the setting on this hole as you turn the corner and the hole reveals itself is beautiful, particularly in the fall. Much like the eleventh, this hole beautifully weaves in the woods, change in terrain, and a stream.
16. Par 3 – 170/162. “Deception” used to be a trickier hole as there was a tree that was closer to the green that one had to consider. You play across a valley where a pond sits that ultimately becomes a stream angling diagonally to the right of the hole. The green is elevated and sits with higher ground to the left and behind it. There is a bunker front right that leads to a semi-blind shot such is its depth. There are also two bunkers placed on the back left. The green runs to the front right and is another speedy one if one is above it. From the left side to a right pin it is both fast and breaking towards that right front bunker. The left side of the green has a sizeable fall-off. It is a nice par 3 although lessened a bit by the loss of the tree.
17. Par 4 – 370/355. Many people disparage “quarry,” for its blind tee shot over a rise which if one plays straight, it plays over an old quarry. The correct play is off to the left where it is easier to catch a substantial fall in the land and get as much as 80 yards of roll. For the longer hitters there are two sets of two bunkers staggered on the right side of the fairway. I like the green complex which sits down in a dell with three bunkers right and one front left leaving a narrow opening to an undulating green that slopes front to back but with fall-offs on all sides. While it is not one of the better holes on the course, the design of this hole makes perfect use of the land movement. Also, much like the fourteenth, I greatly admire what Mr. Tillinghast did with the green complex to provide character and a test to the hole.
18. Par 4 – 344/301. I love the name for the hole: “thirsty summit.” This hole plays substantially uphill and if you do not quite make the crest of the hill, your ball will tumble back down the hill about 40 yards, leaving a blind approach shot of about 185 yards. There is a single large bunker on the right. The real challenge to the hole is the green complex where there is a long bunker set left below the surface of the green, a central bunker just short of the green, a bunker right and one at the rear. Between the central bunker and the left bunker is a substantial depression where one’s ball can nestle into some of the tallest greenside rough. The green has several humps and mounds in it, overall going to the left. Any putt longer than 20 feet brings a three-putt into play.
As we discussed this hole, many felt it reminded them of good golf courses in Scotland, where so often the final hole is a bit of a letdown. As I sat there I called on my memories of the great courses in Scotland and found myself agreeing with this comment in some regards such as at Cruden Bay, Nairn, Castle Stuart, St. Andrews Old (excluding the town setting), Kingsbarns, North Berwick West, Machrihanish Old, Gullane #1 or #2….yet when I think of Trump Turnberry Ailsa, Carnoustie, Muirfield, Royal Troon Old….well, isn’t it great to have a U.S. inland golf course bring to mind the great courses in Scotland?
While Somerset Hills will never host a major tournament as the top players would likely score rounds well below par if their putting is on, it is a course that one will enjoy playing every day. The members of the course have something very special here in both their clubhouse, the setting, the tennis area, as well as a magnificent golf course. This course expertly makes use of the land as a primary design feature from the location of the tees to the location of the greens. The greens and the green surrounds are some of the best one will ever play anywhere. One could argue it is Mr. Tillinghast’s “masterpiece” among many outstanding golf courses.
Somerset Hills at times is referred to as Dr Jyckel and Mr Hyde. The two nines are different. But both are fabulous. I have had the pleasure to play 6 of the top 10 in NJ. Somerset Hills is my #2 in NJ. The conditions are excellent. There is a mix of great holes. Every hole is unique. A few template holes. Some truly magical green complexes. Excellent terrain for the course. Welcoming staff. I could play here every day. It's challenging but fair. Never pass up a chance to play here. One of Tillinghast's finest.
I just recently came back from a repeat visit to Somerset Hills and what a joy it is to return to this wonderful old world course. I've left wondering if this isn't the best course Tillinghast ever routed. The routing is wonderful and there are several standout holes. I love the Redan rendition that is the 2nd hole, what a wonderful green and fun shot from the tee.
There is also a great mix of reachable par 5's and strong half par, par 4 holes. A couple good example are the 11th which works its way down towards the pond, doglegs hard right back up the hill for the approach and the very strong par 4, 15th begging a tee shot that take off as much as you can chew to cut the corner.
What a lovely walk with no two holes even similar to each other with what kind of feels like butterfly wings routing that constantly changes directions and challenges your entire bag.
Still my favorite aspect of the course are it's wonderful set of green.
Add a very friendly, low key club to an amazing course and you have a perfect old world golf experience. Can't wait to return!
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."
I am about to post my review having played there for the fourth time just a few days ago.
What is currently being considered for the tenth hole is lengthening it by as much as 60-70 yards as Mr. Doak and the club think there is a suitable location in the woods behind the current green. Unlike the sixth hole which likely cannot be lengthened unless land was acquired by the club, the club does own an adequate amount of land in the woods behind the tenth green. The woods also parallels the left side of the eleventh fairway. It remains to be seen what the club will decide as the tenth green is very good with a very pronounced back to front tilt leading to a false front where balls will release back into the front bunkers. One could make a case for all three options (leave as is, lengthen ten, or lengthen eleven), and probably not make an incorrect decision
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
When people think of New Jersey, or often than not the images of swamps, the sopranos and industry spring to mind and for the parts of the state that many get to see this is very true, however what many people are not aware of is the beautiful rolling countryside in places such as Somerset and Morris counties, which are home to some of the most affluent suburbs of New York City. Places such as Far Hills, Baking Ridge, Harding and Bernardsville (where Somerset Hills is located) stand firmly alongside anything that Westchester County or Grenwich has to offer.
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