6,664 yards, 136 slope from the Blues
Twenty minutes north of Baltimore proper is the Five Farms property of Baltimore Country Club, where the East and West courses reside. The East course is more well known, designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opening in 1924.
The grandeur of the land is rich with hills, far and wide, that seem to stretch in elevation for miles. Those are interspersed with other, smaller hills that vary in size, shape and character. In fact, it felt like the land was made specifically for Tillinghast, the two created for one another, elevating the other’s immortality for us to admire, evermore. As we progressed through the round, I thought to myself over and over how Tillinghast must have loved the freedom the expansive hills allowed for his broad and bold strokes, turning climbing and plunging as he saw fit. Indeed, the land is used in spectacular fashion.
The more Tillinghast designed courses I play, the more comfortable I am stating that he may be one of the most varied course architects ever. He doesn’t fit into one style or category and each course exudes a separate and distinct identity from the other. Here, perhaps there’s a similarity to Bethpage Black in scale but the green complexes are much more interesting than Black. With large wide scale, there’s lots of options and strategy that the golfer playing for the first time will recognize, yet the subtlety of the contours provides infinite challenge that’s a bit more complex that only veterans of the course will learn. Trees are used splendidly here, showing how artfully they can be incorporated into play without sacrificing scale. The par 5’s are some of the best I’ve seen of his. The variety within the course is impressive from one hole to the next, another result of highlighting the land in the right way. It’s a special course. Tillinghast is one of my favorite and I enjoy his courses immensely. It’s tough for me to rank the courses of his I’ve played in any discernible order because they’ve all been memorable but I find myself mentioning this course more and more when I talk about him. I would say that it may be one of the best at representing the bolder side of his genius.
The history of the course has seen its share of championships, hosting the U.S. Open, Women’s U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Men’s U.S. Amateur, a Walker Cup and a Champions Tour Major. It was ranked as one of the top 100 Golf Courses in the world by Golf Magazine for a number of years and is 39 on Golfweek’s Best Classics list. Even with all these accolades, it should be talked about more. A very strong classic epitomizing the legendary spirit of Tillinghast in many ways, the golfer will appreciate the architect, era and course the more times he journeys out into those hills.
It was hot that day. The meat of Summer in every sense, one had to make sure not to spend too much energy at the range in it. A clear, vibrant day regardless, this is what the height of Summer is all about. Taking a day to enjoy the full bloom of nature, all the fortunate to do so, we set out.
The First is a 436 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The “Gateway” hole. The hole certainly is a gateway in that it introduces you to all the climbing you’ll be doing. The tee shot is to a valley in the hills, which then starts to climb back up to the green in earnest. While the bunkers are large, they should be avoided so that the golfer still has a fighting chance at reaching the green on his second. The wide corridor is there for the taking and the green is likewise immense, but it’s always interesting how prominently the hazards and sides play despite all the room. The golfer is wise to narrow his aim, or his expectations.
The Second is a 456 yard par 4. The “Poplars” hole. We about face and head back down the same hill in swift fashion. Like the hole prior, this tee shot is downhill yet blind for the most part and not as wide. The approach, however, is where we encounter the valley, and the green is on the other side of it, perched in line with the First tee. These first two holes felt like a half par more and I felt the need to ask my caddie a few times to make sure they were both par 4’s. The approach here will be a healthy one to go along with the tee shot, the larger scale able to accommodate just about any length most golfers can throw at it. This green moves fast from back to front, indifferent to the perils the golfer must have faced to reach it in the first instance.
The Third is a 379 yard par 4. The “Orchard” hole. The First at Somerset is also called Orchard for those who have either played it or read my review of it. This one is decidedly hillier as the tee shot is to a hillside running from left to right. There is a fairway bunker on the left to temper the greedy among us who try to cut off too much of the hole, yet aiming left is necessary to account for the movement of the hillside. So the bunker is in focus matter what. The fairway climbs to the green, which is tucked away to the left a little. The green is large but there is a bunker on either side of it.
The Fourth is a 150 yard par 3. The “Plateau” hole. The green is indeed the top of a large knob where large bunkers surround it on every side. The Eighth at the Center nine of Ridgewood came to mine but the green here is larger in a much wider expanse, with grander bunkers. There is plenty of room to miss but that doesn’t mean you could, or should. With a deceptively subtle green, getting on with the tee shot is just a start.
The Fifth is a 452 yard par 4. The “Lookout” hole. A dog leg right, that, yes, climbs uphill, bunkers on both sides of the fairway and a blind tee shot again confronting us. The fairway never seems to stop turning to the right but runs up to the green, that wonderfully large geometric angular site that we similarly encountered at the First. This one ramps up so that the sides and bunkers are below, making it imperative to stay on the surface.
The Sixth is a 574 yard par 5. The “Barn” hole. A famous hole as the barn straddles the inside corner of the dog leg and while some may want to take it on to shorten the hole, realize there’s a large tree after it, taller than the barn, that must be carried as well. The dog leg turns left at ninety degrees, then starts downhill to the green. There’s a row of bunkers that then breaks up the fairway, their faces steep and obscuring the other side. The fairway continues large and wide on that other side, to the splendid rectangular green that feeds in from the front but falls off on all other sides. The succession of options and hazards among the contours of the terrain are what make this hole great. One can opt for the barn or safety off the tee, lay up short of the row of bunkers or taken them on (which depends on your position off the tee), take on the green or feed it in using the downhill. The distance of the hole brings a heartiness to all these decisions and plays and while the conservative golfer may opt for the shorter more reliable shots, that will only bring him so far. At some point, we all must take a bounding lash at the ball. Figuring out when to do so is part of the fun here.
The Seventh is a 354 yard par 4. The “Dogleg” hole. The course is in the mood to take some turns so it is here where we dog leg to the left off the tee once again, this one coming more suddenly than the Sixth. There is a larger bunker on the outside corner than is some hidden from the tee but should be accounted for. The strong slope movement from right to left should also be noted, as any shot will move in that direction off the tee, and yet again if one chooses to lay up short of the green for some reason. The green is uphill from the fairway, wide and a little shallow. It is surrounded by bunkers save the entry point on the right. The approach is a harrowing one, where the lie could be interesting with the slope and the shot must negotiate the hills and bunkers.
The Eighth is a 360 yard par 4. The “Sidesaddle” hole. A gentler dog leg, this one to the right, with the fairway falling off precipitously at the right. It sets up as a Cape hole a bit as the golfer tries to figure out how much of the right side to take on without falling off the side while the left fairway bunker makes sure those opting for safety are not left without something to avoid. The green is well bunkered, with a trio of them on the left high side. Any shot from that area is perilous because the sever fall off the right side is there, in wait.
The Ninth is a 180 yard par 3. The “Spectators” hole. The large rectangular green sits high above in its glory, the right to left movement of the hillside apparent and very much in play. A slender bunker slashed into the hillside is well before the green, complicating the lives of those golfers who hit their tee shot short. The slope then makes itself known with how fast the short grass before the green is, then the contours of the green. It’s all quick, and big, and must be handled the right way to close out the front nine as one prefers.
The front nine does indeed climb and turn and tilt among the hills from the start. The par 5 is extraordinary, the par 3’s impressive in their scale and subtlety within the greens and variety of challenge and strategy of the par 4’s. My ranking of them is 6, 2, 9, 7, 1, 3, 4, 5, 8.
The back nine starts with the 385 yard par 4 Tenth. The “Pond” hole. This felt like the lowest point of the course, set in a valley with the hillside from the right the only elevation involved. The hillside does make most tee shots blind and imparts right to left movement on just about any shot before the green. The green is uncharacteristically on the smaller side and the water makes most approach shots aerial into it. A devious par 4 to start off the back.
The Eleventh is a 427 yard par 4. The “Willows” hole. A creek breaks up the fairway and should be factored in off the tee. Those who lay up short of it will have a pretty long approach in, which is also uphill to the green. The green is furious in movement, wanting nothing more than to send your ball back down the hill. The more diplomatic you are with it, the better.
The Twelfth is a 380 yard par 4. The “Creek” hole. The same creek from the last hole is set up off the tee here, crossing just in front of it and running along the right side for a spell. The tree line on that side sends the strong message to favor the left, where a hillside stares at us blankly. The tee shot just needs to clear the dog leg and the further left means a longer approach, and vice versa on the right. A deep center line bunker before the green complicates that approach with the false front it creates while the green is well guarded by bunkers as well. Another uphill green in succession yet a entirely different hole altogether.
The Thirteenth is a 164 yard par 3. The “Dogwood” hole. The Dogwoods are in the background with a moderate size green that falls off heavily on the left and rear. It’s straightforward in wanting an accurate shot into the green and really, things get harsh very quickly off green.
The Fourteenth is a 574 yard par 5. The “Hell’s 1/2 Acre” hole. A remarkable hole in so many ways, I’m glad I had no idea I was playing it until I stepped up to my second shot and my caddie told me what I needed to carry. The tee shot heads out and is relatively blind but the horizon at least lets the golfer know he will eventually be going downhill. While other grand hazard Hell’s Half Acres I have played are in view for full intimidation, this one is completely blind. The golfer’s imagination runs rampant with what is below and how much club should be used. Then of course, the margin for error is a moving target as the golfer isn’t quite sure what will happen or where the ball will go if mis hit. The half acre is likewise impressive in its swirling tufts and sand, all of which ensures it’s a true hazard, escaping out of in a stroke anyone’s guess.
We have not yet reached the green. The fairway comes out of the great hazard still moving downhill before moving back uphill to the green, bunkers below and around it. A challenging approach in its own right, the green moving several different directions that most won’t pick up on because they’re still weary from simply reaching the green.
It’s a brilliant par 5, conjuring the potential variety of every shot and using the elevation change to maximum effect.
The Fifteenth is a 425 yard par 4. The “Evergreens” hole. The ridge upon which the Great Hazard is on comes into play the next few holes as we track over it again and again, all in unique tones. Here, the fairway dog legs left just about at the ridge and essentially plunges before swooping back up again, creating a super Biarritz just before the green. Determining the best spot at the ridge for the approach from the tee, while avoiding a recovery shot at the second that will bring that swale into play.
The Sixteenth is a 420 yard par 4. The “Knoll” hole. Heading back over the ridge that now comes into play off the tee, the fairway dog legs this time to the right. The green is slight above us from this point and the pull of the hillside to the right is very real. The fairway feeding right into the green is one of those underrated traits here, always allowing running shots that heed the terrain in the right way to bound up freely.
The Seventeenth is a 180 yard par 3. The “Picturesque” hole. The final par 3 sits on a large hillside, the tee on the other side of the valley that the creek had formed tens of thousands years ago. The severity of the slope must be seen, as anything short of the green will be hitting up the sheer face of a cliff. The bunkers here are more of a relief than penalty, the ball mercifully stopping in them instead of rolling down towards the creek. The green is wide and is a fitting landing area, but its speed from back to front means every putt is an exercise in delicacy.
The Eighteenth is a 368 yard par 4. The “Apple Trees” hole. The tee shot is to an uphill fairway that climbs and turns to the right, bunkers on both sides as we head to the green. The green is surrounded by bunkers, but that entry point is there front and center. The tee shot is paramount and as it’s blind for the most part, knowing what the land will do to the ball is important to set up the approach.
The back nine starts low before climbing out and traversing a ridge that dominants this side of the property, which is used in most of the closing sequence, all in spectacular variety. I would rank them 14, 17, 12, 11, 10, 18, 15, 16, 13.
In general, Baltimore Country Club East is an excellent course. Its use of such hilly terrain should be a model taught to following generations in how to ensure variety and strategy with deliberate routing and grand scale features. The large greens encapsulate the spirit of this, with their strong movement that’s immediately apparent among more subtle contouring that relies on the terrain in a more complex manner. Yet with the fairways mostly feeding directly in to the greens, they remain accessible for just about any shot out there, so long as it’s pulled off in the right way. In terms of scale and terrain, this is Tillinghast unbridled, where he relished in the freedom of the hills and showcased his distinct style in majestic artistry.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Charming, unassuming yet fairly large and allowing for a lot of open space. The pro shop had a lot of unique mementos and the men’s locker room had the assorted buckets of candy that was the perfect way to end the day.
Practice area: One of the putting greens is above but the driving range and short game area are in the process of being renovated. I’ll just have to get back here and take a look when it’s finished. The things I do for this site…