6,784 yards, 137 slope from the Blues
Course: In Bernardsville, NJ, which is about 50 miles west of downtown New York City, is Somerset Hills Country Club. Designed by A.W. Tillinghast in 1917 as one of his earlier works, the course remains almost completely untouched from its original design. It is consistently ranked as one of the best 100 courses in the world, currently 75th by Golf Magazine. While the pedigree of SHCC is impressive, it’s the understated charm that pervades through the place that captures the soul and burns into the memory book of rounds immortal. In the serene countryside of quiet boroughs, horse farms and wooded hills of New Jersey that’s fairly unknown to most, the surrounds are an idyllic setting for golf. Driving onto the property along the long entrance road, a sign greets you informing you have arrived while the course rolls out to you on the left, glorious yet unassuming. The grass tennis courts appear on your right, just before the small and elegant clubhouse and even smaller pro shop. A sense of comfort washed over me as I got out of the car, one of the first to arrive that day. Refined and discrete, I instantly knew I was some where special.
The course is set on diverse terrain with rolling hills, knolls, streams and lakes, which was the site of a former race track. The contrast of each nine holes is striking; the front more open and wide with
wild green complexes and the back very much parkland, with trees creating angles, more forced carries and the greens calming just a bit. The change in setting and play of each set of nine holes was impressive, the green complexes were a lot of fun and strategy from tee to green was exactly the kind of golf I enjoy. In fact, my round here may have made Tillinghast my favorite golf course architect. While Seth Raynor has enjoyed that spot for quite some time and it may be a 1 and 1a situation, there’s a complexity to Tilly’s courses that fits each landscape brilliantly. While Raynor was genius at melding template holes into various landscapes to create remarkable courses with sharp edges and shapes, Tilly wove tapestries with layers upon layers, never to be played the same, that rise, fall and crescendo, leaving no uncertainty after the round that you have just truly lived. Tilly’s range of design is likewise historic. Look no further than Somerset to Bethpage Black to see just how diverse Tilly was. For its complexity, contrast and greens amidst its natural and civilized charm, Somerset Hills is in my upper echelon of courses played.
I was greeted with a warm welcome by the pro and caddie master, then shown where the men’s locker and driving range. And that was it. Left to my own devices as I waited for the rest of my group, I changed in the men’s locker room, admiring the photos posted throughout, and made my way to the range.
One of the random things I love about golf is being one of the first people on the course in the morning. The sounds of the day starting, birds chirping, mowers mowing, holes being cut into the greens and the course to myself. Warming up on the range, putting green and short game area alone, in such a tranquil setting, with world class golf ahead of me, with all the promise a round of golf holds as the sun rises; well, it’s certainly spiritual. And before I knew it, others started to share in morning, the rest of my group arrived, we met our caddies and were off to the First tee, embarking on yet another fascinating round.
The First is a 462 yard par 4 (from the Blues), the “Orchard” hole. The hole is aptly named for going through an apple orchard, which is a dog leg right that’s blind from the tee before starting to do downhill as it turns. The orchard is at the turn and in play off the tee, so shots off fairway may be blocked out from one of the trees (i.e. happened to me). The fairway then runs a little down to the green, moving from left to right, with bunkers on the right side and the green dropping off completely on the back side. This is no gentleman’s handshake; this is more of a slap to the face difficult start.
The Second is a 205 yard par 3, the “Redan” hole. Tilly seldom designed Redan holes, but this one is outstanding with an excellent green complex that moves from right left. The slope seems so strong from the tee that it seems like the only acceptable landing area is the right side of the green, bringing the bunkers on the right in play. The green slopes down in the front dramatically, and bunkers surround the green. Although you can’t make it out from the tee, the back side of the green is fairly safe, but anything too far will go down the steep bank, making for a tough recovery.
The Third is a 376 par 4, “Bunker Hill.” A shorter par 4 with a generous fairway for the tee shot, the focus is on the approach, which is to a raised green with a steep slope on the front leading to a bunker below, bunkers on both sides of the green on the front, then a larger one lining the left side. Any shot too close to the front of the green will run down into the bunker, which I know from personal experience. Likewise, the green runs from back to front and any overambitious putt in that direction will fall off the green and go into said bunker, which I know from my watching it happen to someone in my group. It’s a fun approach shot where you would do well to aim for the center of the green, or else it’s virtually guaranteed you will have an inventive recovery shot.
The Fourth is a 460 yard par 4, the “Dolomites” hole. Dolomites are these sharp little mounds scattered in groups along the left side of the hole in the rough. A longer par 4 that starts downhill before going back up to the large green, the dolomites complicate any shot that misses left while the tough bunker complex on the right narrows the acceptable landing area. As I was walking up the fairway, I noted how the right bunker looked like hell to get out of, to which someone in my group acknowledged he was in it. Insult to injury, but he did fine. Thankfully my approach ended on the green and avoided the hazards on either side, but a great example of lots of width all while remaining demanding.
The Fifth is a 350 yard par 4, the “Nairn” hole. A shorter par 4 where the fairway runs towards the green. The approach will likely be on the short side, but the green is fast, there are bunkers surrounding about 99% of the green perimeter, and there are sharp contours and ridge lines that make this green wild fun. A great hole, all while maintaining the challenge we were met with from the beginning.
The Sixth is a 501 yard par 5, the “Plateau” hole. A dog leg right with trees and a bunker on the inside of the turn. I found that moving up the left side from the tee is better to allow a better angle into the green, away from the trees on the right. There’s still a good way to the green once the fairway turns, with a large bunker on the left, then bunkers on both sides of the green. There’s a lot of width and a lot of room to miss, but the recovery shots will not be easy in the rough. The plateau green moves from back to front and is fairly subtle.
The Seventh is a 493 yard par 4, the “Racetrack” hole. The number one handicap hole, you’ll note it’s eight yards shorter than the par 5 you just played, yet a par 4. The tee shot is uphill before it crests and falls down to the green. Cross bunkers narrow the fairway in spots with the hills bending and twisting all the way through to the green. The green slopes from right to left. In many ways, this hole typified a lot of what I enjoyed by the course in general. Challenging, diversity, lots of decisions, all while having a ton of fun.
The Eighth is a 230 yard par 3, the “Dip” hole. A longer par 3 over water with a generous short grass area before the green. There are raised mounds and bunkers on both sides of the green towards the front, then bunkers further back on the left. A fair test of the longer club, with lots of area to miss, the mounds, rough and bunkers ensure that a challenging recovery shot is met for those who hit less than ideal tee shots. Even those shots either falling short of the green or on the other side of the green from the pin are not assured par or even bogey without executing the rest of their strokes here. An excellent example of a well done longer par 3.
The Ninth is a 529 yard par 5, the “Westward Ho” hole. A dog leg left that heads uphill, then slightly downward closer to the green as we head back to the clubhouse. A great hazard resides at the turn of the hole, a large bunker complex that bisects the fairway, making it necessary to carry on your second shot. The fairway cants from right to left after the bunker complex, with the green set to the left, near the clubhouse. The fairways runs right into the green and with plenty of width, there are a number of ways to get to the green. The Ninth reminded me some what of the par 5 Fourth at Bethpage Black, with its elevation difference from tee to green and the prominent use of bunkers to force different avenues to the green. But here, the transition from fairway to green is a little more flowing and open while the Fourth at Bethpage has more and varied bunkers and elevation differences. Three good shots are needed to reach the green and the slope from right to left must be accounted for. A nice closing hole the once you start walking to the clubhouse, you realize the wide open front nine never really lets up yet cajoles and distracts you with thrills and fun, so that the best memories are of shots and recoveries made, with whatever is on the scorecard of little concern.
There are few courses where each set of nine is so distinct and thematic yet complimenting the other in such outstanding fashion. The front nine is open, relying on contours, sharp mounds and bunkers and greens ranging from wild to wonderfully subtle. There’s a lot of variety within, with both shot selection, distance and recoveries. My ranking of them would be 2, 3, 7, 5, 4, 9, 8, 1, 6.
The back nine starts with the 490 yard par 5 Tenth, the “Sunningdale” hole. A dog leg right with an elevated tee shot that immediately turns right and downhill, straight to the green, which is raised from the fairway with a narrow ramp from fairway to green, tightened by greenside bunkers on each side. The green has an upper tier on the far left and lower starts in the front right. The Tenth feels like a bit of a reprieve, a chance to make up a stroke or two. It’s a shorter par 5, relatively easy to get to, and while the green can get testy, you should be close enough for your approach to think about getting close to the pin.
The Eleventh is a 413 yard par 4, the “Perfection” hole. The tee shot is the transition, to a much different theme and style of courses, that maintains the same character and charm some how. Driver may be too much club for some, as the fairway descends to a pond, then turns right and uphill to the green. Water becomes more of a prominent feature moving forward while forced carries become a norm. And trees began to make their presence felt. Shotmaking seems to be more emphasized because of this, yet the strategy remains different. The fairway and green on the other side of the water move from right to left, more so on the green. Maneuver left to ensure you have a clear approach shot, then factor in the right to left slope on the approach.
The Twelfth is a 150 yard par 3, the “Despair” hole. A forced carry over water to a green surrounded by water on the left side, Tilly did not have many holes like this. The green moves from right to left in the direction of the water and while there are a few places to miss, none of them are very appetizing. The setting of this hole is spectacular, scenic and insulated, in its own little enclave with the pond. Despair, I think not!
The Thirteenth is a 415 yard par 4, the “Corner” hole. On the northwest corner of the property, the fairway ascends from the tee before cresting downhill, which makes the tee shot semi-blind for the most part. The fairway is straight on to the green, with trees on both sides. Bunkers on the left short of the green narrow the fairway, while the green is an interesting one for the ridge line that creates a Biarritz of sorts. A nice way for the hole to assert itself.
The Fourteenth is a 422 yard par 4, the “Ridge” hole. Moving back towards the lake we saw on the Twelfth, this hole swells upwards until cresting downhill, very much like the prior hole although the downhill to the green is a lot more substantial. A much more demanding hole than it looks at first blush, a clear approach shot on a nice lie is vital to deal with the green that moves substantially from back to front. In fact, anything off the back side will be in deep trouble, likely near the Twelfth green. Pin position and the bunker on the front left dictate which angle is best for the approach shot and with the slope, downhill to the green, it can be used to move the ball as well.
The Fifteenth is a 404 yard par 4, the “Happy Valley” hole. A dog leg right where the tee shot offers the option of trying to cut off the dog leg by carrying a bunker on the inside of the turn. The tee shot that accomplishes that is rewarded with a much shorter approach shot into a green that must carry a creek that runs alongside the front. The left side is safer off the tee and with the left to right slope of the fairway, a well hit shot to that side can use the slope for a healthy roll. The strategy, ambience and terrain of this hole make it a joy to play, especially when juxtaposed to the front nine, this hole truly shows the broad range of style of golfscapes encompassing this course.
The Sixteenth is a 170 yard par 3, the “Deception” hole. Water is short of and below the green to the right, which is difficult to see from the tee, which might be how this hole earned its name. The green is carved into the hillside that runs from left to right, with the fall off the right side, a deep bunker front right and bunkers on the left that are likewise hidden from the tee, working overtime for its namesake. The hole looks simple enough but there is no where to miss other than short. Any shot going for the pin must be semi-precise or a severe recovery shot awaits. Looking beyond the green, we see the trees part and we exit the forest, perhaps a little downtrodden, maybe a little wiser yet definitely exhilarated.
The Seventeenth is a 370 yard par 4, the “Quarry” hole. The tee shot is over a hill and completely blind. The fairway moves downhill and left to right, so keep that in mind with the tee shot. With its short length and being downhill, hitting the fairway is a lot more important that trying to belt it and ending up off line. The fairway plunges then raises back up above to the green with bunkers on each side. The green moves from back to front and is a challenge.
The Eighteenth is a 344 yard par 4, the “Thirsty Summit” hole. A great name for a closing hole, with the topography helping out, as the fairway climbs to the green from the tee, making this hole a bit longer than its stated yardage. The green is well protected, with deep set bunkers on both sides in the front. There are a couple bunkers on either side on the back as well. With those on the clubhouse patio looking on, carrying the bunkers in the front is probably of utmost importance to focus on putting and closing out the round in style.
The back nine has more elevation changes, water, forced carries and trees than the front, making its style of play much different from the front, yet the nines are in harmony with one another. My ranking of them is 15, 17, 11, 18, 10, 14, 12, 16, 13.
Generally, I am smitten with Somerset Hills. From the Second, which was one of the best par 3’s I have played, I was impressed with its flow, sharp features that seemed so naturally present and the overall charm of the course. It’s certainly a skill of the highest order to create such challenge, strategy and intrigue yet remain charming throughout the round. The scorecard and misses become secondary while the good shots and engaging beauty are what stays at the forefront. The range of golf here ensures it’s a comprehensive test of skills and thought.
Somerset goes down as one of my favorite courses played this year and one of my favorite period. Fun, challenge and exhilaration is perfectly balanced. It’s such an intangible it cannot be manufactured; it comes from the sense of the place and how it evolves, some of it naturally and some of it nurtured. That was done here brilliantly.
Clubhouse/Pro shop: Both are eloquently understated.
Practice area: The range is next to the Tenth tee just in front of the pro shop, with the putting green and short game area on the other side of the Tenth tee, next to the Men’s locker room.