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
Date: May 15, 2017