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
Date: November 30, 2010