6,542 yards, 138 slope from the Hamilton tees
In Gladstone, New Jersey, which is essentially the north central part of the state about 10 miles from Somerset Hills, is Hamilton Farm Golf Club, designed by Hurdzan and Fry in 2001. This is New Jersey’s horse country and indeed, Hamilton Farm began and remains an equestrian stable, operating as the headquarters for the U.S. Equestrian team. The hilly terrain oscillates between the more constrained woods and wide open meadows, which was found ideal for horse trails upon the farm’s establishment in 1911. Such terrain just happens to be idyllic for golf as well, so the farm became a golf club in the late 1990’s.
There is both an eighteen hole course known as the Highlands and an eighteen par 3 course known as the Hickory, the only USGA rated par 3 course in the country. This review will be on the Highlands. I’ll get to the Hickory soon enough.
The Highlands is sprawled on the hilly terrain, where creeks and valleys cut in at times, historic buildings are seen throughout and dramatic vistas are maximized. There’s a nice intermingling of heroic and penal design yet more often than not, mis hits have a chance at recovery. Gentle rolling holes intersperse with more severe challenging holes, creating a billowing symphony of a round, undulating from still and calm to tumultuous throughout.
In a cool coincidence, I played the course during last year’s Open. The par 3 Seventeenth is known as “Calamity,” which emulates the par 3 Fourteenth of the Dunluce Course at Royal Portrush. While the world’s best were tackling the one at Dunluce, I was able to take on the one at Hamilton Farm. My tactical approach to the center of the green is a lesson well learned for some of the pros who made a mess of that hole. I suppose I should submit my entry to next year’s Open based on such comparison.
Upscale bucolic grounds and facilities greet the golfer as soon as the turn is made on to the entry road. On a clear yet hot and steamy day, I was able to experience what came to be my favorite course by Hurdzan and Fry.
The First is a 324 yard par 4 (from the Hamilton tees). A generous fairway awaits the opening tee shot, which gets a little sterner as you advance to the green with bunkers on either side pinching the fairway. The narrower fairway then moves uphill and turns right to the green around the bunker on that side, so most approach shots will need to contend with that bunker. Lots of movement to the green, which in general is back to front and right to left. A short enough hole to get into the right frame of mind but enough defense and interest around the green to keep things honest.
The Second is a 530 yard par 5. A dog leg left with a downhill tee shot with bunkers on the right side and below the fairway to defend against those trying to get too far outside to cut the turn. After the turn, the fairway starts to move up to the green while a center line bunker gives you pause how to handle it. A greenside bunker lined up with it makes it seem like there’s no room at all to hit the second shot in the center before the green but there’s plenty of room. The left side of the green looks inviting from the fairway, but you won’t get too much release to the hole. A solid, well balanced par 5.
The Third is a 188 par 3. Now in the woods, a bit narrow into the green with bunkers on both sides and a lot of short grass leading up to the green. The green is very deep and has some nice interior undulations. And with that, a nice eclectic opening sequence.
The Fourth is a 382 yard par 4. Now out in the wide open meadows, this dog leg right turns and descends to the green after the tee shot. The fairway also tilts from left to right, with bunkers below the fairway on the low side. The fairway leads into the green at an angle, again with bunkers on both sides. The green is cool with a punchbowl feel to it and with the large entrypoint, there’s a lot of creativity to be had on the approach.
The Fifth is a 374 yard par 4. A blind tee shot on this slight dog leg left where the hill down to the green is fairway steep, moving balls relentlessly towards the green, or into the long grass, depending on the line taken from the tee. Knowing the terrain and where your tee shot will go is important and quite honestly, laying up to the upper flat part of the fairway could be a savvy play.
The Sixth is a 423 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot to an open fairway that turns left around a swatch of bunkers on the left. The fairway remains wide before bottling down to the green, with greenside bunkers on the right. A bit redundant with the last two par 4’s; a slight turn to the fairway leading to a green with bunkers on the low side. Regardless, it still flows nicely on the terrain as we continue downwards towards the valley created by a creek we encounter on the Ninth.
The Seventh is a 187 yard par 3. A downhill tee shot to a green with nice movement and a steep fall off most of the rear half. Not a whole lot of room to miss off the green, so keep it straight and short if you feel compelled to screw up the hole.
The Eighth is a 324 yard par 4. I had to do a double take here, but it’s the exact same yardage as the First. Straightaway but the cresting of the fairway creates a blind tee shot that turns ever so slightly to the left and downhill to the green. One of the things done nicely in general here is the shaping just before the green, which creates different side boards for bounces and rolls into the green. Here, that area pulls down to the left, so those using the entry point need to stay on the ridge line higher on the right. Bunkers on both sides towards the front of the green as well.
The Ninth is a 515 yard par 5. Heading back to the clubhouse and finally getting down to that valley before jutting back up to the green, it all starts with a tee shot to a downhill fairway. The fairway ends, but there’s a second fairway before the green that continues downhill. In fact, it gets a little too far downhill towards the end, which brings the creek in play. The creek runs right in front of the green while the green itself is one of the tougher ones on the course; on the smaller side with wild undulations. And bunkers spread around it for good measure. A unique hole that ends the front nine nicely.
The front nine has a solid pair of par 5’s and some interesting par 4’s while the par 3’s were a bit lacking. The terrain is used nicely and there are some good spots for recoveries and alternate paths to the green along with options off the tee. I would rank them 2, 1, 9, 5, 4, 6, 3, 8, 7.
The back nine starts with the 365 yard par 4 Tenth. The fairway cants quickly from right to left while it turns in the same direction, downhill to the green. As we’ve seen on the front nine and another nice thing about this course is how the fairways will lead downhill directly into the green. Here is no exception, where you can decide whether to take the green head on or even use the right side slope to feed it down to the hole. A terrific example of how width can make a hole so much more intriguing. One of my favorite holes on the course.
The Eleventh is a 475 yard par 5. A fairly straight hole that has more bend to it than it seems because of the tee and green place off to the left. Those wanting to go straight off the tee will need to deal with the bunkers on the left while those who want to shape it can really go either direction. The fairway heads downhill a bit while the green is decidedly downhill and to the left. Whether to go for the green on the second shot or head down the fairway closer to the green is a tough decision, made even tougher with the green below the fairway. Nice temptation here as the green is in full view. Yet another solid par 5.
The Twelfth is a 190 yard par 3. A longer par 3 with bunkers on either sidlurking below the green, you’re either hitting the green, in one of the bunkers or your ball is lost. The green is big enough to wrap around the right bunker, so even though the hole is surrounded by trees, the size of the green keeps the hole manageable with options off the tee.
The Thirteenth is a 409 yard par 4. A forced carry tee shot to a fairway that juts to the right and up to the green, with “bunker clusters” on selected spots on each side. The fairway narrows as you get closer to the green, eventually feeding into the green with bunkers below the green on either side, as we’ve seen plenty of times now. The look into the green is unique though, deep yet narrow.
The Fourteenth is a 496 yard par 5. An elevated tee shot, the hole is all before you. A wide fairway gets a little more complicated with bunkers on either side and some left to right movement. The area after the first group of bunkers on the right opens up and allows nice negotiating space to the green above. The green is generally free of bunkers, so getting up to the level upon which it sits facilitates a good degree of creativity to the pin. Yet another nice par 5, diverse from the others.
The Fifteenth is a 378 yard par 4. A dog leg left that levels off and where elevation eases off, the trees take over. Nailing the tee shot is the key here, which opens up the approach. Bunkers are on the left while the entrypoint is on the right to a wide and shallow green. A brief respite of a hole within the back nine, the approach gives a lot more latititude than others, so long as the tee shot is well executed.
The Sixteenth is a 421 yard par 4. The fairway more leans than turns to the left, as wide as all get out. The fairway dives down to the left and leads to an elevated green surrounded by bunkers. The approach from the right side splits the bunkers and puts the entrypoint in play.
The Seventeenth is a 165 yard par 3. This is the hole modeled after “Calamity” at Portrush. The saddle green is a refreshing change. Wider than it looks from the tee, staying short won’t help too much, nor will yanking it to either side. The rear looks like it will shun all shots off the back side, leaving the center as the only sanctuary. Only after playing it a few times does one understand the intricacies of the green and where the acceptable tee landing areas are. With the clubhouse in the background peeking through the trees, it’s a great par 3 and one of my favorites holes of the course.
The Eighteenth is a 396 yard par 4. The final hole leads to one of the spectacular mansions on the property, overlooking the green. The trees on either side of the tee, almost like setting aside the drapes to reveal the pristine setting, the tee shot is nice enough while bunkers and slopes on either side collect those tee shots worth punishing. It doesn’t seem like it from the tee, but the hole plays much differently depending on the side you end up on. From the right, bunkers on that side and center bunkers before the green bcome imposing, the green blind. From the left, the green comes into view, the center bunker is put into the proper perspective in relation to the green and the sheer size of the green becomes apprent. Go left, my lads. The green is like a lake, pooling around that center bunker, yet it still pays to get close to the pin or else putting can get confounding. A wonderful finishing hole where the design matches the setting.
The back nine I liked more. The opening and closing sequence was strong while some of the middle holes waned yet refreshed more than anything, making a nice flow when all is said and done. A great pair of par 5’s and 3’s and some solid par 4’s, I would rank them 17, 10, 18, 11, 14, 12, 13, 15, 16.
Generally, Hamilton Farm is on remarkable grounds and uses it nicely. The par 5’s stood out to me, as well as the Seventeenth and Tenth. There are other very good holes and Hurdzan/Fry did well in the presentation of the course. It’s challenging, with its elevation changes, undulating greens and most poignantly, the bunkers. The bunkers are typically below the playing surface and can get very steep. If bunkers can be heroic and penal all at the same time, this is it. In fact, the course may overrely on bunkers, which makes for some rote approach situations. Yet looking deeper into the design, there is a nice shifting of emphasis on challenge. Some times it’s the tee shot and an easier approach, other times it’s the opposite, other times there simply is no letting up. Hurdzan/Fry always seems to balance their designs well but rarely takes those chances to get them to that next level of memorability and character. Here, they did push that envelope at times, which happens to be my more favorite holes on the course and can measure up to most in this esteemed area.
Ultimately, the design is in line with the high end facility, service and beauty of the club. While we played the first hole of the Hickory then looked at the rest of the course because the heat was finally about to kill us, I can’t comment too much on it but I’m sure it fits in nicely as well.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: There’s a few of them and all are upscale, with a cushy men’s locker room worth hanging out in for a while.
Practice area: All you can handle.