US Women's Open marks ongoing stature
Golf in the Garden State
by M. James Ward
New Jersey is the 46th largest state in area in America – but its reputation in the golf arena clearly exceeds its limited geographical size – both historically and carrying through to the present day.
This week's US Women's Open at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster marks the 7th time the Garden State has served as host of the premier event in women's golf. The event also marks the 61st USGA Championship hosted in New Jersey – only three other states exceed that total – Pennsylvania, California and New York and each is considerably larger in overall size and in total courses. The first USGA Championship held in the state goes back to 1896 when Morris County Golf Club in Convent Station hosted the Women's Amateur.
Leading the way in the Garden State is Baltusrol Golf Club. The Springfield-based club’s role in staging major golf championships stretches back to the earliest days of golf in the 20th century. After staging last year's PGA Championship, Baltusrol has hosted 17 national championships, including seven US Opens and two PGAs. Originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the formidable Lower course was updated by Montclair resident and world-renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Senior in the early 1950s. RTJ’s work proved so demanding members suggested he play the strengthened par-3 4th hole prior to the 1954 US Open with its daunting water carry. Jones came to Baltusrol and proceeded to hit a 4-iron into the hole. Without skipping a beat he pronounced, "Gentlemen, as you can see, the hole is eminently fair!"
NJ is also home to Pine Valley Golf Club – consistently rated among the top 2-3 clubs in the world. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, Pine Valley opened in 1913, the brainchild of hotelier George Crump. Born in Philadelphia in 1871, Crump was an avid golfer and his only design sprung from ideas adapted following his golfing trips to Britain and Europe. Unfortunately, Crump died before the final four remaining holes opened – completed after his death at 46 years of age. The English architect H.S. Colt played a major role in finalizing efforts. The aura of Pine Valley has only grown over time, as the course possesses an array of stellar holes. Renowned designer Tom Fazio has recently modified the layout and he also created a short course, which mirrors the approaches played to holes on the main course.
In 1954, Arnold Palmer, in his first visit to Pine Valley, arranged a significant wager to recoup money spent on an engagement ring for his wife Winnie. Palmer fired scores of 67, 69 and 68, securing nearly enough money to pay for the ring. A few years later Jack Nicklaus played the course on his honeymoon, however, new bride Barbara waited in their car since the club was a men’s only bastion.
Beyond the likes of Baltusrol (Lower) and Pine Valley, the Garden State has seven courses currently ranked among the Top 100 Golf Courses of the USA. Only two other states (California and New York) placed more. The New Jersey list includes Plainfield Country Club in Edison, Somerset Hills Country Club in Bernardsville, Baltusrol (Upper) in Springfield, Ridgewood Country Club (West & East) in Paramus and Galloway National Golf Club in Galloway.
A few Garden State factoids
- In 1887, Essex County Country Club in West Orange, organized as NJ’s oldest country club, with 36 holes to open shortly thereafter. Bobby Jones played an exhibition on both courses and highlighted the 15th hole on the former private West course (now called Francis Bryne) among the strongest par fours he had ever played.
- In 1903 the term "birdie" was coined at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield and shortly thereafter "eagle" was also born. Not far from ACCC the first PGA Championship was played in the state in 1942 at Seaview Country Club in nearby Absecon. A blossoming golf star named Sam Snead earned both his first Wannamaker Trophy and first of seven major titles. Snead bested Jim Turnesa – who was serving the U.S. Army with literally a battalion of fellow GI’s rooting for him from nearby Fort Dix. Sam later mentioned how much he gained from the experience given earlier failures in winning major events. Interestingly, a year prior at the 1941 PGA Championship, a Rumson native, Vic Ghezzi, claimed his first and only major championship. In 1946 Ghezzi would lose the US Open in a playoff, yet his stellar career play garnered him a spot in the PGA Hall of Fame in 1965.
- Morris County Golf Club, located in Convent Station, started in 1894 and it’s the only club of its kind in the USA organized and managed by women.
- One of NJ's most important contributors was George Jacobus. Born in Brook Lake the head golf professional at The Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus served as President of the PGA of America from 1932-39. Jacobus rose from the caddie ranks to become the first association president native to America.
- Ridgewood hosted the 5th Ryder Cup Matches – won by the American side 9-3 and led for the final time by playing Captain Walter Hagen. One of the members of the USA squad (Craig Wood) would later become a member of Ridgewood and add triumphs in 1941 at The Masters and the US Open. Jacobus attended the 1935 Masters and identified a developing player named Byron Nelson. Jacobus hired the Texan as his assistant and during his brief stint won the NJ Open in 1935 and the Met Open one year later before commencing his Hall-of-Fame career.
- In 1913, Weequahic Park in Newark opened, the oldest publicly owned course in the Garden State, which was coincidentally designed by George Low the Baltusrol club professional at that time.
- With clubs teetering during The Great Depression, Jacobus convinced PGA leadership in 1935 to hire the talented architect A.W. Tillinghast (the man responsible for NJ courses such as Baltusrol and Ridgewood) to provide no cost consultation services to PGA-member courses to bolster their designs and provide member clubs with a clear reason to keep PGA members on staff when many were let go because of the plunging economy. Tillinghast eventually visited over 400 courses nationwide. The plan was a success. Keeping the PGA of America relevant and having Tillinghast upgrade various courses in serious need of his design talents. Jacobus served Ridgewood for 50 plus years and was elected posthumously to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1965.
- In 1920 Shady Rest opened as the first African-American golf and country club in the USA. John Shippen, a superb golfer, competed and finished 5th in the 1896 US Open at Shinnecock Hills. The property is now called Scotch Hills Golf Course, owned by Scotch Plains Township and open to all.
- Another Jersey resident emerged years later as President of the PGA. This time the issues were more internal than external. Leo Fraser, long-time owner of the Atlantic City Country Club, assumed the leadership mantle in 1969-1970. During his term an ugly divorce between players competing in weekly tour events and those representing the bulk of the membership was brewing. Fraser played a key role and the resulting solution meant the creation of the PGA Tour. The two entities continue to this day as separate but affiliated organizations.
- William Lowell, Sr., a Maplewood dentist, is credited with marketing the first wooden tee in 1921.
- Growing the game has been a consistent clarion call to present day efforts. In 2012, the New Jersey PGA Section received the Herb Graffis Award from the PGA of America for its exemplary effort in player development. Founded in 1931, the NJPGA was lauded for an initiative called Golf in Schools, starting in 2009 and impacting 95,000 boys and girls at elementary and middle schools throughout the Garden State at 168 schools, the program has been a model for all 41 PGA sections across the country. Funded through the New Jersey Golf Foundation (the charitable arm of the Section) is offered at no cost to school districts.
- The Champions Tour debuted in 1980 when Atlantic City Country Club hosted the Atlantic City Senior Invitational, won by Texan Don January who earlier claimed the 1967 PGA Championship.
- Coming up in late September is the bi-annual President’s Cup Matches. Hosted at Liberty National Golf Club located in Jersey City with sensational views of the NYC skyline and Statue of Liberty. The USA squad, captained by Steve Stricker, and the world team minus Europe, captained by Nick Price, will tangle on a design from the late Bob Cupp with input from PGA Tour star and 1992 US Open champion Tom Kike.
- Liberty National, along with such courses as Plainfield and Ridgewood form the trio of clubs that rotate host roles for the Northern Trust Open (formerly the Barclays) the first leg of the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs.
The Garden State has been ground zero for a good deal of meaningful golf history. This week’s US Women’s Open Championship only adds to that impressive portfolio.