Architects Golf Club

6,532 yards, 129 slope from the Golds

Course:  Just over an hour north of the Philadelphia area in Phillipsburg, New Jersey is the Architects Golf Club, a course paying homage to some of the legendary golf course architects throughout history.  Designed by Stephen Kay, a renown architect in his own right (Scotland Run and Blue Heron Pines) with Ron Whitten (Golf Digest’s Architectural Editor) consulting, each hole is designed in the style of a specific architect.  I’ve seen homage courses in the past fall flat, either because they attempt to produce exact replicas of famous holes and it just seems too manufactured and almost a xeroxed replica a few times over, or because the routing is terrible, as each replica hole is shoved in place where it fits in the available space.  So I was skeptical when I heard of AGC and avoided it, mainly because I thought it would be gimmicky and corny.

As I talked with those who played the course, however, my preconceived notions started to change.  Moreover, it is currently ranked the Seventh best public courses in New Jersey by Golfweek.  Alas, I decided to finally get up to the course and see for myself whether AGC was a kitchy marketing scheme or something a little more special, paying tribute to the art, innovation and history of course design.

After playing the course, and then taking advantage of the bargain replay rate where you can play as many holes as you want, I was surprised with just how much I enjoyed the course.  Primarily, I was relieved that the course did not have replica holes, but rather incorporated the design philosophies and style of each architect in each hole.  That was done quite well.  Moreover, the hilly terrain was used well, which was routed along ridge lines, created a good combination of blind shots and sweeping views of the hole.  The bunkering was also terrific, with subtle differences depending on the architect (on the Hugh Wilson Third, the lips of the bunkers are lined with long grass bushes, which I almost considered ripping out when my ball ended up in one).  While each hole was distinct and offered a diverse range of playing options, the routing was very good and offered a nice transition from hole to hole.  Aside from the design, the course many of the other little things right.  The replay rate arrangement was terrific, the cart girl was on the course frequently and even during dusk, there was a grill set up at the turn to speed up getting something to eat or drink, they set up an area for golfers to hang out after the round when a wedding took over the majority of the clubhouse and the course is open year round.  It’s rare you get several of these factors at one course, but it was very refreshing.

The emphasis on the various architects and their design philosophies, which is experienced by playing the course and reading the hole descriptions, is also a terrific way to get players interested in the design element of the game.  I’m sure that was one of the original intents of the course and from what I saw, I believe it’s quite effective in that regard.

Although we started on the Tenth because of the number of groups on the front nine, I will start my review from the First.

The First is a 500 yard par 5, the Old Tom Morris hole.  While fairway bunkers are on either side of the fairway in the tee landing area, the fairway is pretty wide, straight and a little downhill to get things started with this gentle par 5.  Strategic bunkers are also placed towards the side as you move up the fairway to the green, with a little pot bunker left center just in front of the green, that is receptive to all kinds of approach shots, fostering creativity with the short game.  While Old Tom Morris is renown in Scotland for, among others, the Old course, this hole resembles a links course in that the fairway plays wide, bunkers are well placed, the green is large, and with such open space, wind is certainly a factor and can ratchet up the difficulty rather quickly.

The First
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Second is a 185 yard par 3, the C.B. Macdonald hole.  Macdonald designed National Golf Links of America, which was his grand attempt at North America rivaling the behemoth links courses of Scotland.  It was indeed a tremendous success and is one of the best courses in the world.  The large wrap around bunkers on both sides of the green and the elevated green, leaving a blind shot, are characteristics of his style.  Recovery shots are meant to be difficult and the green undulates with a couple ridges, making for a nice challenging one shotter.

The Second

The Third is a 510 yard par 5, the Hugh Wilson hole.  Wilson is mostly known for building Merion East and West, but also designed Cobbs Creek Olde, the Philadelphia public course that is begging to be the next Bethpage Black.  The fairway cants from left to right, which brings the fairway bunkers on the left into play as it’s beneficial to get as close to them as possible on your tee shot.  There are long grass bushes that line the bunkers, which create another layer of challenge in either getting out of the bunker or finding your ball.  While bunkers are peppered as you move down the fairway, it actually forces you to plot your shots to avoid the hazards and determine your best possible approach shot, as the opening to the green is angled to the left while bunkers force an aerial shot over on the right.

The Third
Second shot territory
Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 422 yard par 4, the Devereaux Emmet hole.  Emmet was a terrific architect and I have enjoyed the courses I have played of his.  The large cross bunker on the left looks a lot closer than it is and due to its size, remains nagging even as you convince yourself it shouldn’t come into play.  The green is inviting, but anything off the far side goes into a treacherous bunker, making recovery rather difficult.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory
A better look at the trench fairway bunker

The Fifth is a 345 yard par 4, the Walter Travis hole.  It’s a nice short par 4 that dog legs left.  The fairway demands precision off the tee, with bunkers lining both sides and trees framing the hole up to the green.  The sweeping nature of the hole from the tee encourages attempting to cut off as much as the dog leg as possible or shaping it right to left.  The green is fairly receptive, which encourages a good deal of creativity with the short game.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory

The Sixth is a 116 yard par 3, the Harry S. Colt/C.H. Allison hole.  As a short little drop shot par 3, it is a fairly easy and straightforward hole to score on, but it is intolerant of mis hit shots, either offline or those that carry too far.  Just as longer par 3’s are meant to test acumen with the longer clubs, this hole is an adequate test of the short iron.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 375 yard par 4, the A.W. Tillinghast hole.  Having played a Tilinghast designed course earlier this season, I really enjoyed the ebb and flow of that course, with a good amount of elevation changes and width of fairways.  This hole appears narrow from the tee and dog legs right while also climbing uphill to the green, while widening a good deal once you get to your second shot.  The green is guarded well on the left side, rewarding those who challenged the trees off the right side from the tee.  Lots of penal areas on this hole, but once you hit the green, the undulations are moderate and putting should be a bit of a reprieve.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 163 yard par 3, the Seth Raynor hole.  Raynor is one of my favorite designers and his courses are unique in many different ways.  I was a little disappointed with the hole, mainly because it didn’t resemble any Raynor hole I’ve seen and looked like a standard blind shot par 3.  The green is stepped, however, with different tiers, which Raynor was known for, so it did have that Raynor feature.    There are bunkers lining the left side leading up to the green, which really come into play for pretty bad shots.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 395 yard par 4, the Donald Ross hole.  The hole is all uphill and plays longer than its yardage.  The fairway is elevated from the tee, with cross bunkers seeming to hold it up and the green not visible from the tee.  Moving up the fairway, there is water on the left and bunkers on the right, making one of the more difficult approach shots on the course, considering that the approach shot will be on the longer side and hazards coming into play fairly easily.

The Ninth
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory

The front nine provides a lot of different holes, with the par 4’s and 5’s fairly strong for the most part and the par 3’s lagging behind a little.  I’d rank them 3, 9, 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 2, 6.

The back nine starts with the 348 yard par 4 Tenth, the George Thomas hole.  I played this hole twice and could not figure out where I was supposed to hit my tee shot either time.  The second time, I belted a drive straight off the tee and never found it.  IMO, the fairway is completely blind from the tee area (the photo below if from the tips) and I could not figure out how anyone is supposed to know where to hit the ball.  It’s a shame, because the bunkering is terrific and I enjoy the shaping of the hole.  Perhaps repeat play would give one a better sense how to play the tee shot, but with the rough, bunkers and shape of the hole, it’s tough to locate balls even when well struck because of the impaired vision from the tee.  I think it would be an easy fix and wouldn’t remove any of the challenge by cutting down the reeds by the water hazard to provide a better view of the fairway.  Despite this, I enjoyed the feel of this hole.

The Tenth
The bunkering  coming into play off the tee, with the free in the background, just to the right of the bunker complex

The Eleventh is a 500 yard par 5, the William Flynn hole.  The tee shot is to a fairway that climbs, crests, then descends to the green, while turning to the right.  There are a group of bunkers off to the right, which should be avoided at all costs, as their severity and distance from the hole almost guarantees you will be wasting a stroke just getting out.  The fairway is pretty wide while the green is small but accepting to many putts.  It was one of my favorite holes on the course, mainly because it struck a terrific balance between challenge, playability and fun.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory
A closer look at the green

The Twelfth is a 159 had par 3, the Charles Henry Banks hole.  It’s a terrific par 3 with an undulating green and a bunkers shaping the contours of the green and a fairly large false front.  The hole requires a nicely hit tee shot and faces a good amount of penalty for many mist hits, other than those landing on the run up area just short of the green.

The Twelfth

The Thirteenth is a 475 yard par 5, the Alistair MacKenzie hole.  In true MacKenzie fashion, there are camouflaged hazards off the tee with water on the left undetectable from the tee.  Otherwise, the fairway is pretty wide, but favors the left side, so keep in mind the presence of that water.  The second shot will present a choice of trying for the green, which will have to carry the creek directly in front of the green and hopefully avoids the multiple bunkers, many of which are on the far side, meant to get those belted second shots that come in hot.  If you decide to lay up short of the green, you have discretion of what yardage you’d like your approach shot to be, then land it close to the green that runs perpendicular to the hole.  The hole is lots of fun and the risk/reward factor only adds to that.

The Thirteenth
Second shot territory
Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 400 yard par 4, the Perry Maxwell hole.  There is a noticeable ridge along the fairway and if your tee shot reaches it, you are rewarded with a significant amount of roll.  There is a bunker on the right and with the fairway canted in that direction, comes into play more than it appears.  The green undulates a lot and as you are likely left with an uneven lie on your second shot, the approach will likely be a tough one.

The Fourteenth
A look at the green

The Fifteenth is a 405 yard par 4, another Donald Ross hole.  The tee shot is uphill and blind for the most part, but the fairway dog legs left downhill, so a well hit tee shot is rewarded with some roll in that direction.  The approach shot will likely be on the longer side to a green angled across the fairway.  While hazards around the green are moderate, the green itself has a ridge through it, which makes putting from the opposite side of the hole.  It’s a challenging hole.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth is a 423 yard par 4, the Dick Wilson hole.  This is the last of three very long par 4’s in a row and like the Fifteenth, is to an uphill fairway with a partially blind tee shot.  There are bunkers on the left, but you want to get as close to them as possible while staying in the fairway to set up the shortest approach shot possible.  The green is well protected and there is a fairly large false front, so any shot but short will face a difficult recovery.

The Sixteenth
Just off the right of the fairway, in approach shot territory
A closer look at the green

The Seventeenth is a 171 yard par 3, the Stanley Thompson hole.  One of the cool things to course design geeks like me is that there are some occasions where a hole will be followed by the partner or associate of the prior hole’s architect.  The ones I can think of without looking it up are MacKenzie and Maxwell, and Thompson and Robert Trent Jones.  Thompson’s work is primarily in Canada, which is a shame only because I like his courses a lot, as his designs are visually pleasing and lots of fun to play.  This hole is an example of that, with a concoction of bunkers surrounding the green, making it almost look like there is no green whatsoever; only sand.  The green is well sized, however and the bunkers are not as sever as they appear.  A fun par 3 for sure.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 355 yard par 4, the Robert Trent Jones hole.  I recently read a biography of RTJ and although I was aware of his fame as an architect, did not realize how far reaching his work was nor how many impressive and well designed courses he built.  Although he is widely known for doctoring courses for U.S. Opens and creating holes requiring heroic shots, RTJ was similarly interested in ensuring his courses were playable for higher handicaps.  The tee shot here faces bunkers on both sides of the fairway while the green is surrounded by bunkers and is elevated, yet is enormous in size.  RTJ’s design characteristics can be seen here, as heroic recovery shots are certainly required to save par while there are more than enough opportunities to stay in the hole.  The hard par/easy bogey mantra is well set up here and this was my favorite hole of the course.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory

I enjoyed the back nine a lot more than the front, mainly because I enjoyed the design characteristics a little more and the par 3’s were a lot stronger.  The back certainly plays longer than the front as well.  I’d rank them 18, 13, 11, 14, 17, 12, 15, 16, 10.

Generally, I liked the course a lot.  Most of the more difficult longer holes are on the back nine, giving you adequate opportunity to warm up, there is a nice flow to the course while presenting character and the designers’ individual architectural traits on each hole while conditioning was pretty good.  The course also pays attention to many of the little things that can enhance a player’s experience, from a well stocked drink cart to starting groups off the back nine to maintain a healthy pace of play.  I thought it did a very good job of highlighting and emphasizing the architectural aspect of golf and how influential it is during play.  I replayed 13 of the holes, so that’s enough to get it on the rankings list now and we’ll see where it ends up.  It is fairly easy to find reasonable rates here as well and being pretty within the one hour driving time range, is worth the trip and a terrific addition to the local public course scene.

Gripes:  I can see this place getting crowded and there’s becoming quite a number of unrepaired divot/pitch marks on some holes.

Bar/grill:  The outdoor seating area was great, along with the outdoor grill, but I didn’t get a chance to see the bar or grill inside due to a wedding.

Practice area:  Full grass range, short game area and putting green.  Well laid out.

Nearby:  Phillipsburg has a downtown area and there are nearby place to eat.

Getting there:  The PA turnpike, the 22 East to Phillipsburg.

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