6,616 yards, 139 slope from the Plainfield tees
Course: In Edison, New Jersey, and formed in 1890, Donald Ross designed the course for Plainfield Country Club in 1916. It is considered among his best designs. Set on a large parcel of hilly terrain, the large scale allowed Ross freedom to use the land as he wished and shape fairways, bunkers and greens in a variety of ways. The lowest part of the property was the theatre for the Battle of Short Hills, which took place during the American Revolutionary War. The course enjoys high praise, is ranked well and hosted the 1978 U.S. Amateur, 1987 U.S. Women’s Open and the Barclays PGA Tour Playoff in 2011 and 2015. Despite all of this, it’s not talked about as much as it should be, the course is that good.
Lots of things stood out to me, but the variety of each hole was a big one. While the scale of the holes were large, the movement of the fairways, bunker placement and shaping, interaction of fairway with green and the greens themselves were fresh and new on each hole. The slopes, hollows and hillocks were accentuated in the fairways and greens, which engaged a sophisticated ground game as much as it spiced up the aerial decisions. Speaking of decisions, there were lots of them, which started off the tee and continued until the ball went in the hole. The undulations of the terrain demands the attention, and with all great golf, figuring out what the ball will do once it lands is a lot of the fun and strategy. Ross accomplishes this without overly relying on blind shots or forced carries and managed to utilize trees as an effective design component, sparingly.
In short, it’s the best (or at least my favorite) Ross course played. The challenge is multi-layered yet shrouded in strategy and fun. This is why I love Ross so much; his ability to transform the challenge into something a lot more fulfilling. I’ve called it, “subtle challenge” before, but at Plainfield, it was more than that. Because of the sheer number of ways the holes can be played, almost always having an opportunity to recover after the poorest of shots and the exhilarating greens as the great equalizer, you’re too engaged with the course to feel burdened by its challenge. Perhaps this is a terrific example of the difference between challenge and difficulty. While a challenging course presents purpose and opportunity, a difficult one is more rigid in its discourse. Beyond this, Plainfield is original. The holes aren’t reminiscent of anywhere else, so it’s one fresh breath after the other. This is Ross’ genius working with the land; he didn’t stick to one form of bunkering, or fairway shaping, or even greens (the crowned green being a traditional Ross characteristic is urban legend). The land dictated his style and with such a sweeping canvas at his disposal, we see just how magnificent Ross was. The routing is another stand out. Using the ridge that runs along on the higher side of the property for many holes on the front nine, and even some on the back, meant circling around a few times, which was done flawlessly while every inch of the property is included.
Gil Hanse also performed restoration work here in the early 2000’s. This work consisted of getting the course back to Ross’ design tenets, removing trees that confined playing corridors and enlarging the greens to their grand old prominence. The work Hanse did here is one of his better restoration efforts, as his hand cannot be seen at all. Instead, the focus remains on Ross. A masterful job and an example of the kind of restoration I was talking about in, “Restoration that Moves Us Forward.”
Plainfield is Ross at his best and as a result, the round of golf is as adventurous, interesting and fulfilling as it should be. Get in those hills with a few clubs, a putter and reckless abandon and ye shall find the fountain of youth.
The PGA Championship at Bethpage Black was a few days away and the excitement permeated through the area. Stepping onto the grounds on a crisp spring morn with such excitement and anticipation meant all was right with the world. After sharpening up at the practice area, scouting the grounds and letting my caddie know he was about to see parts of the course never thought possible thanks to what I’m certain are defective clubs, we set forth on a major of our own.
The First is a 421 yard par 4 (from the Plainfield tees). The fairway starts to descend downhill and the amount of tilt from right to left is not immediately apparent from the tee. Once you start walking from the tee area, the fairway movement slowly reveals itself, rolling from right to left, which continues through the green. The green is above the fairway and the short grass area starts early, inviting the ground game. The slope from right to left is strong and with the larger size fo the green, it’s tempting to get your ball to broadly sweep from right to left to the pin, but restraint is necessary since the visuals can be deceiving. On the far side, the green abruptly ends, with a steep drop off into the abyss of rough. It’s a terrible place to be, which of course I know from experience. The sloping of the fairway, the shape of the green and the varying depths of the bunkering makes this a very strong opener. The course immediately grabbed my attention.
The Second is a 437 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot to a fairway that also slopes from right to left, maybe even stronger than the First. The fairway movement forces the issue off the tee, as there are plenty of bunkers and rough on the left side ready to greet shots that weren’t placed to the right enough. This theme continues on the approach shot, where a row of bunkers is carved into the hillside before the green on the left and the green moves from back to front and right to left. Again, long is no good. The green is a good size and using its movement on the approach is paramount.
The Third is a 164 yard par 3. You are thrown into the deep end from the start of the round, so why not include a forced carry over water as the first par 3. The placement of the green from the tee and its shape creates a unique angle where it appears the entire front side looks like it slopes severely into the water. This visual may have players want to bail out left, but Ross cleverly placed a bunker on that side below the green, which cannot be seen from the tee. Despite the width and expansive nature of the hole, there really is no safe haven other than the green and the fat part of it at that.
The Fourth is a 295 yard par 4. The first few holes takes us to the lower part of the property, but that quickly changes as this short par 4 climbs back up the ridge, quickly. The tee shot is to a fairway that ramps up vertically to a terrace, which pauses for a moment before another climb to the green. There is plenty of room to the right but the tilt of the fairway in that direction means that the further right the tee shot, the more probable the ball will fall off the right side onto the hillside. The left side is the more direct route, but there are small bunkers off fairway on the left to consider. A well executed tee shot is rewarded with a short pitch to the green, so take advantage. My caddie pointed out that the Battle of Short Hills took place behind us in the valley. I wondered if the ridge we were on was used at all for its strategic advantage. The battle was short lived, as Washington was pooling his resources further north and had ordered the forces here to retreat in his direction.
The Fifth is a 509 yard par 5. And just like that, we are at the top of the ridge line, which moves across the property on the high side. The tee shot is some what blind to an uphill fairway, which continues to climb to the green. The fairway tilt is now left to right as we come back in the opposite direction of the Second, higher up on the hill. The fairway opens up as you get closer to the green. The green is in a small valley and just before it the fairway ends into a couple bunkers. Once you reach that area, the full view of the green is revealed, which shows so much more than appears from the fairway. A large sloping short grass area rolls down from the right side of the green, around a green side bunker. What this means is there’s a lot more room on the right to use and is a good angle into the green, even with the bunker to contend with. It’s a great par 5 with several options and a fantastic green site.
The Sixth is a 141 yard par 3. A short par 3 that finds great character in its green and bunkers. Bunkers just off the tee are large enough to make it look like they’re part of the green complex while the green is surrounded by slender trench bunkers. The green undulates wildly yet with rhyme and reason, with the high side on the back left and everything running towards the front right in general. It’s a great shorter par 3 that requires control of all aspects of the game from the shorter iron to the putter.
The Seventh is a 457 yard par 4. The tee shot is to a fairway that bounds back down the ridge. If there was a time where the course might even accidentally fall into redundancy, it would be here, since the hole is in the same direction and ridge line as the Second. But it doesn’t. Instead, the hole turns in the opposite direction (the left), around a tricky bunker that appears to be closer to the green than it actually is. A some what punch bowl green, do not be content to simply carry the bunker, but rather go for the pin or even past it. A prime example of terrific variety and routing using the same terrain multiple times.
The Eighth is a 495 yard par 5. Trees frame the hole on both sides with the tee shot to a fairway that climbs to a ridge before moving down and turning right to the green. Lots of options here. A well hit tee shot ending up on the other side of the ridge sees the green down before her. Even those tee shots before the ridge need to decide how far along they want to be for their approach, or to try and reach the green in two in the blind. With the fairway narrowing and funneling to the green from a narrow entry point, with trees short right and bunkers on either side in front, any second shot must be very accurate to make it worth it. Using the slopes to line up the approach to make the best use of the green is a smart play as well. The green kind of moves to the center from the outside, so pin position changes the dynamics of this hole dramatically.
The Ninth is a 356 yard par 4. Without it being readily apparent, we find ourselves heading back to the clubhouse, with the First over to the left. A fairway bunker on the left entices the tee shots over to the right, where there is more room. Those opting for the right side places the three deep set bunkers on the left in play to the green with an inferior angle in than the left side. After the three bunkers, the area leading up to the green sweeps left yet moves to the right towards the green, with bunkers front right. It’s yet another unique and terrific par 4 on the front.
The front nine weaves a kind of figure eight loop around the high side of the prominent ridge line on the property, using the ridge in all but one hole. The variety is impressive, especially with the green sites. One of the stronger opening sequence of holes that simply never wanes and the best opening hole I’ve played in memory. Every hole was first rate. My ranking of them would be 1, 2, 5, 7, 6, 4, 9, 3, 8.
The back nine starts with the 353 yard par 4 Tenth. A dog leg right, the fairway is blind from the tee. The left side is ideal, as it opens up the view of the green and takes the trees on the right out of play. The saucer-ish green slopes on both sides towards the center and form back to front with some urgency. The bunkers are smartly placed, making shots to the back of the green more attractive, but shots that end up behind the back side face a tough lie (including the Eleventh tee) and necessary delicacy in recovering back to the hole.
The Eleventh is a 136 yard par 3. The green saddles a ridge line and moves with the hillside from right to left. Visually, the bunkers short of the green are deep and present a harrowing recovery while shots that are long face an even stiffer test. Alas, the green is the only sane option here and with its shorter distance, is yet another fascinating test of the shorter irons and, if need be, short game. Along with the Sixth, Plainfield features two all world short par 3’s.
The Twelfth is a 555 yard par 5. Originally, this was a par 3 and a par 4, but Ross combined them into a par 5 when the club purchased land in the 1930’s, where the lowest land on the property is located. The fairway is downhill from the tee area and is straight out. hitting the downslope advances the ball considerably down the fairway, which is beneficial for the next shot, where a decision must be made to carry a creek that runs diagonally from high left to low right short of the green. If successful, the third shot is a short pitch to the deep green, but keep in mind the area past the creek is tight and there’s a bunker off to the right, lurking. Any shot too far off line runs the real risk of finding water on the right (where the Third is) or deep rough on the left. The green runs from back to front, but there is a ridge that will keep balls on the rear section of the green in the middle. The par 5’s tempt the longer hitters into going for the green, but include deceptive consequences if the shot isn’t pulled off correctly, wile the more prudent are rewarded by being able to take advantage of the natural contours. The Twelfth is another terrific example of that.
The Thirteenth is a 411 yard par 4. Now on the lowest part of the property and out of the hills, the next three holes were added in the 1930’s with the purchase of the area. The original closing holes were within today’s driving range (all holes amongst the hills). With the purchase, the back nine was re-routed to make use of the property. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth are referred to as the “tunnel” holes by the membership. When playing them, they certainly felt different than the prior holes, but it also felt consistent with the terrain in which they were in. More wetlands and flat, the holes adjust accordingly. Here, the treeline remains steadfast on the right while the fairway narrows and eventually ends at water, with the left side the longest. The fairway flashes in some what of a sideboard on the left as well, kicking tee shots off to the right, so selecting a line off the tee with these factors is vital in setting up the approach, which is a forced carry over water to one of the flatter greens on the course. Take advantage, as the challenge of the closing holes await.
The Fourteenth is a 186 yard par 3. A longer par 3 that is a forced carry over water, the green is large and there’s a lot of room to miss off to the left. There are some mounds on the left side of the green that some have mentioned are out of character in Ross designs, but I didn’t think twice about them, as they can be found at LuLu, Jeffersonville (and possibly Ravisloe?) as well.
The Fifteenth is a 357 yard par 4. Turning around and now heading back to the hills, the water is behind us. Fairway bunkers on the right pinch the landing area of the fairway, which gently pushes you into opting for the left side. While the approach seems straightforward enough to a green sitting a little below the fairway, Ross gets a little sneaky here and hides a few larger green side bunkers short of the green. A great way to spice things up.
The Sixteenth is a 554 yard par 5. My God to play this hole for the first time and have no idea what’s ahead. From the tee appears a hill in the distance, fraught with bunkers. While the fairway scoots left around it, most of us will need to go over the hill. A well hit tee shot gets you close to the hill, but the hill makes most if not all shots blind to the green (unless you really pull the tee shot to the left). Any tee shot not well belted out and the decision must be made to try and carry the hill or lap up to it. Once on the other side, the green is straightaway. An open fairway leading to the green, which is a massive hill running from back to front with two large bunkers on the front left. I only wish I knew so I didn’t hit fairway wood over the hill to the green, ending up in the bunker. Knowing what I know now, I would have loved to hit short of the green, then run up the approach to make full use of the slope. Anything above the hole is treacherously quick and there is a back shelf to consider on the approach. The shot over the hill is the epitome of an adventurous blind shot and the run up to the green shows how versatile width can be. I could play this hole 18 times and call it a round. One of my favorites I have played in a while.
The Seventeenth is a 409 yard par 4. The tee shot and approach are both blind. The fairway dog legs to the right off the tee, around a series of bunkers on the right side. The fairway then heaves towards the green, which is above. A bunkers on the hill leading up to the green is very much in play for those shots falling short of the green. The green is blind to the fairway, moving from back to front and spills over to the right, all the way towards the Eighteenth tee. Its subtle undulations are some of the best on the course. Another prime example of blind shots used to great measure.
The Eighteenth is a 380 yard par 4, but plays much longer. The fairway climbs and turns before you as it ascends to the green and the clubhouse beyond. From the tee, deciding between taking on the bunkers on the left to cut the turn or playing it safe to the right could be pivotal to the match and/or round. Those bunkers are deeply set, so failing to clear them is costly. A row of bunkers ends the first section of fairway and trot their way up the right side while bunkers on either side guard the front. The green is yet another sophisticated yet attractive personality of slopes and undulations, feeding from a false front below. The wind was drifting in at the apex of the green and as my ball finally came to rest in the hole, that familiar sense of calm arrived.
Salvation once again on the journey.
The back nine loops the lower end of the property, starting then ending in the hills. The par 5’s are magnificent while the closing stretch is just as the opening. My ranking of them is 16, 18, 11, 12, 17, 10, 15, 13, 14.
Generally, Plainfield CC is a Donald Ross masterpiece. It’s set on terrific land for golf that Ross used intelligently. The variety in strategy is prevalent from tee to green and no hole is similar. The challenge is sophisticated, which shows Ross’ acumen in design. There’s always a way to the green, but the vast range of consciousness must be artfully managed. Surveying the land and how it will entertain your shots means taking stock of your ingenuity of the game. Speak to the course. Plainfield has a lot to say and how it slowly reveals itself as the round goes on, from shot to shot, is one of its virtues. Ross knew the land here invited great golf and fully took advantage. Almost every design component should be studied vigorously. Accentuating what is best about blind shots, the challenge of a short hole, the volatility of a creek as flexible strategy; the visuals of bunkers and ridge lines; all of it here are prime examples to follow. The greens cannot be discussed enough. Each one is a completely different personality, ranging from wild and unpredictable to visually subtle, with complexities not immediately apparent. They dictate the game all the way back to the tee in a number of ways, such as tempting lines of play or evoking intense thought. For those who are interested in seeing Ross at his best, I’d submit to you Plainfield.
A vastly underrated course that brings a whole new level of appreciation of Ross from my already lofty regards of him.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The clubhouse was being renovated when I was there, but the pro shop is in a separate building, just behind the First tee. Well stocked and with the simply yet appealing insignia, it’s easy picking a few things up.
Practice area: The range is on a bluff, hitting down into a valley and the putting green is beside the First tee.