A.W. Tillinghast set out the original 18-hole course at Upper Montclair Country Club in the 1920s then Robert Trent Jones completely renovated the layout three decades later in 1956, adding another nine holes (the South) in the process.
The three 9-hole loops (East, South and West) are similar in style, but if you want to play the layout walked by Hall of Famers (such as Arnold Palmer, Nancy Lopez and Lee Trevino) who've all won titles at UMCC, you'll need to tee it up on the West and South combination.
I have played “Upper” dozens of times but, until this week, not in the last 6 years. When i saw its ranking in NJ well down in the 50’s, i was curious as to what i might find.
So, critics seem to find fault with what i think is an asset. That is, it is located on a property wedged between two important New Jersey highways: the East/ West Route 3 and the North/South Garden State Parkway ( yes, that is UMCC to your right as you approach exit 153 on the GSP from the south).
While you are not playing in serene isolation, i do think the noise from the highways is a minor distraction to all but the most sensitive ears. Above all, it’s about the design and the conditioning.
So about the design, the one weakness of UMCC is that all but one hole of the 27 ( the 5th on the South nine) run basically North or South. This does make individual holes slightly less memorable, especially a group of 6 excellent par-3’s that are as well-guarded by classic RTJ bunkering as any course you will ever play. So evidently was little thought given by RT Jones to going east/west on his 1956 reconstruction of the original Tillinghast layout that was obliterated by the construction of the GSP.
It seems that course raters value routing that bring all wind directions into play, and on that basis Upper may fall short. But to me, that’s the only shortcoming.
On the basis of course conditioning, UMCC is as good as any of its more heralded northern New Jersey neighbors. And its green complexes are superb, as subtle and challenging as any of the top courses on the New Jersey list. And yes, i include Ridgewood, Baltusrol Lower, Montclair, Hollywood, and Somerset Hills in my assessment. The bunkering has been recently renovated and upgraded in both its shaping and consistent PGA tour quality. And greenside bunkering is a hallmark of this club. I don’t think you will find better anywhere in Metro NYC.
I played all three nines ( South, West, and East in order), and i would agree that the South/ West combination is the optimal combination since the East seems to have doglegs on all of the par 4/5’s except for the last hole. And it’s last hole is the least interesting of the finishing holes on the three nines.
Like many of its brethren metro NY parkland classics, UMCC has wisely removed hundreds of mature trees in the last decade to improve air flow and sunlight reaching its turf.. it has done this without making the course less challenging. As for the best holes, the quartet of holes from South 3 to South 6 are superb. 3 South is a sweeping , slightly downhill dogleg left of 425 yards where a drive of around 250 yards is necessary to reveal a green complex that demands a precise approach over a pond that protects the front and entire right side of the green. The proper approach takes you over a small bunker that protects the entrance to the left third of the green. Par is a very welcome outcome here.
4 South is a short par 4 of 355 yards going back in a southerly direction with a slight bend to the left. An average drive of 240 yards will fall into a deep depression in the fairway that fall away to the right and can result in a semi-blind shot to an elevated green. Truly long hitters ( 300+ yards) can have a go at the green by hugging the left side and shortening the stated 355 yardage but a miss in any direction will make a par a good result.
As previously mentioned, 5 South is the only one of the 27 holes that veers off the North/South nature of UMCC.. It is a downhill 375 yards but the green complex will reject and punish any approach that is not precise in both line and distance control. 6 South is a classic RTJ par 3, over a pond that intrudes into the entire left side of slightly raised, 2-tier green. This provides any number of interesting pin placements, from a small area on the left that will only accept a high, soft mid-iron to the 2 distinct tiers from center to the right edge. Just an excellent par 3 and the only one of the six 3’s with water guarding the entire front of the green.
Both the South 9 and the West 9 end with heroic long holes, the former a 597 yard par-5 and the latter an equally robust par 4 of 455 yards to an elevated green.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the East 9,it’s 3447 yards from the back tees but just a couple too many doglegs ( in both directions) for my taste.
I happen to think that UMCC is drastically underrated in this area. It was a very popular venue for a decade as a PGA Senior Tour stop. Perhaps because it maxes out at “only “ 6924 yards , it doesn’t have the length needed for a modern Championship venue. And it has baffled me for a while why UMCC is not a bit higher in New Jersey rankings. After my recent visit, i feel this way more than ever.
Located in my hometown, Upper Montclair Country Club is a club I have known for over 50 years. I had the good fortune in caddying at the club during my younger days and I also was able to witness a full range of top tier professional events played over the grounds from the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to Nancy Lopez and Mickey Wright and to the gifted senior players such as Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd who won events here when competing on the Champion's Tour.
UMCC is ideally located -- at the intersection of the Garden State Parkway and State Route 3 -- it's also within 15 minutes of midtown Manhattan when traffic conditions cooperate. The location was the main element that prompted so many of the key events to come.
Originally, UMCC was an A.W. Tillinghast layout but that changed in the mid-1950's when the Parkway was built. The hiring of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. was a win for the club since his office was located in nearby Montclair. Jones expanded the course to 27-holes and it is really the West / South combination that provides the best golf choice.
The main issue with UMCC is the regimented back and forth nature of the holes on a north/south basis. While the club benefited from the extra nine the sameness of the hole directions doesn't really add much on the design meter.
Jones did provide a few holes of note. The par-3 3rd on the West with its elephant hump in the middle of the green is a nice touch. The par-4 3rd on the South is regularly touted and the approach over a diagonally angled pond to a green hugging close to it is quite good. I have always enjoyed the opening hole on the East nine -- a stout par-4 that features a well-defended green.
Since the club has hosted so many events a good bit of its reputation is based on those tournaments and the people who competed. I can only wonder how good the Tillinghast course was since it came before my lifetime. UMCC has its moments but they are far too often fleeting and often repetitive.
by M. James Ward