6,511 yards, 139 slope from the Champion tees
In Morristown, New Jersey, Morris County Golf Club was founded in 1894 with its golf course designed by Seth Raynor in 1916. The club was an early member of the USGA, joining in 1895 while Tom Bendelow designed its first iteration of the course in 1897. The club was founded and operated by women, which is especially impressive considering the tones of the time, yet the course flourished and was the first in New Jersey to host a national championship (the 1896 Women’s Amateur). Ron Prichard performed restoration work in the early 2000’s while Ron Forse and Jim Nagle performed work here in 2016. A well storied and strategic Raynor design settled on a 150 acre hamlet in northern New Jersey, on exciting ruddy land where the greens are fine, vexing specimens.
Sadly, I was unaware of any of this many years ago when I pulled into the parking lot. In fact, I thought I was going to a municipal course. I was told to meet at the course, where we would play before ultimately heading up near Garden City where we would play the next day. Pulling in, I immediately realized this was in fact not a muni. The course was fairly empty and as we teed off, I still was in cloudy ignorance as to where exactly I was. It doesn’t happen often, but this was an impromptu round, just after playing all weekend, and I had no time to get my bearings as I drove northwards for a couple more days of golf. It wasn’t until the Third that I realized the course had some relation to Raynor and by that time, it was too late to start taking photographs and everything else I would need to do for a proper review. So I enjoyed the round and vowed to return, especially as the holes came on and my intrigue grew.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions and as the years began to pile on, I became much more earnest in getting back here. The day finally came last fall. And as I once again pulled into that parking lot, it some how felt like it was yesterday I had pulled in before. While I was ready this time to take it all in the right way, I was most excited to be able to play the course once again.
As for the course and as noted in my recap of last year, “a large sweeping ridge with upper and lower playing fields dominates the land. The greens are brilliant and brutally deceptive all at the same time while the Punchbowl is one of the more fun out there. With the fairways and greens firm and fast, it’s a prime example of a classic course being fun and challenging all at once. A very under the radar Raynor design.” The early holes are shorter yet full of quirk and their quick darting corners show the golfer from the outset that he would do well to rely on his bag of guile and deft instead of burly length. This opening series finally gives way to leggier holes where things stretch out yet the strategy and reward for inventiveness remain. I have heard it said that Morris County is a fantastic members course and I would wholeheartedly agree. It’s the type of place that gives rise to the pleasant aspects of the game which is punctuates with its own character through the terrain and design. It’s the type of place one plays and hopes the holes never run out.
The round here starts what would become one of the more enjoyable and memorable seasons of golf I can fathom. A perfect clear sunny Saturday day greeted us as the morning dew seemed to saunter away as we walked up to the range. College football was in full swing with all that excitement pervading throughout the day. The course showed a vibrant green and was in fine form, which we immediately understood as our approach shots glided at the speed of sound from one end of the green to the other before disappearing who knows where. It was all splendid, exactly what one hopes to capture when they set out to the course each day, yet remains surprisingly elusive for one reason or another. On that day, however, it all came together.
The First is a 336 yard par 4 (from the Championship tees), “Sleepy Hollow.” The golfer is faced with an uphill before him and had no choice but to lash away in utter unawareness of what lies ahead. The hill eventually moves slightly down to the green, the fairway feeding right in to the green while the left side is occupied by a few bunkers. The green is set at an angle, running from right to left at about 10:00. It runs briskly in that direction, which I learned all to well. My first putt seemed harmless enough, about eight feet from the right side of the pin. I watched as the ball just missed the hole and then decided to move all the way to the other side of the green. It was quite something, but was properly introduced on what to expect the rest of the round.
The Second is a 497 yard par 5, “Westward Ho.” We move more south than west but it’s all onwards and Ho indeed. Trees on both sides of the fairway, which moves downhill into the places unknown from the tee. Once over the ridge, the fairway moves downhill before rumpling uphill yet again and cresting downhill just before the green. Rough separates the end of the fairway and green while the green moves back to front, a bunker lurking out of view at the rear. Knowing the contours and how the ball reacts becomes even more imperative here and is a theme throughout.
The Third is a 130 yard par 3, “Short.” This is one of the more recognizable template holes out there and doesn’t disappoint. The green moves from right to left and while it’s generous in size, putting from one end to the other can be more of a challenge than landing on it from the tee. There are some that see the bunker scheme, especially the shape of the front, as evidence that C.B. Macdonald was involved with the course, as it extends back towards the tee. This is the same configuration as the Short hole at National Golf Links whereas Raynor normally confined his green side bunkering to fit with one another. There was other evidence by way of design features and letters that leads some to the argument that the course was designed by Macdonald instead of Raynor which I’ll try to point out as we move along. Most of this comes from an article by Anthony Pioppi, who among other course design attributes is the Executive Director of the Seth Raynor Society. It’s one of those ongoing discussions where both sides of the topic point to this and that yet is one of the pleasant idiosyncrasies of course design and its history. We may never know for sure but will always enjoy talking it over and searching for more historical evidence on it.
Either way, the golfer would be best served to avoid the bunkers altogether as the green is challenge enough.
The Fourth is a 390 yard par 4, “Over the Top.” Moving back up the hill we came down at the Second, the tee shot does indeed move over the top of the first ridge, which sharply juts up and blocks our view of the hole entirely. On the other side of the ridge, the fairway moves uphill to the green, which sits above. There is nothing stopping shots at the front of the green from moving off and downhill into the fairway so one must take great care in that area to remain on. The bunkers at the rear right and front left effect the contours and movement of the green while a rear tongue protrudes on the left, all of it setting up some very interesting putts considering the all encompassing movement towards the front. It’s a deliciously lively hole that lets us know we are in the thick of it.
The Fifth is a 338 yard par 4, “Carry On.” Sliding behind the clubhouse, the fairway is a bit uphill from the tee but straight on, trees rising up on both sides further out. There are no fairway bunkers. While the tee shot is a bit of a reprieve, the approach makes up for it as the wider green cants towards the right as an array of bunkers surround it from below on all sides except the fairly wide entry point. There’s another of these tongues that extends on the left side almost like a diving board into the bunkers on that side. Getting it on the fairway is one thing, but getting it in the hole is an entirely different matter.
The Sixth is a 346 yard par 4, “Woodside.” We are now on the perimeter of the property and there is plenty of wood on this hole. The tree line on the right remains throughout while the left features trees early on for the tee shot. The hole bends ever so slightly to the left, just enough to take notice at the tee and adjust where one is aiming. The green sits above the fairway. Separate from the fairway and surrounded by bunkers below it, an aerial approach is necessary and the target area is relatively small. Do your best.
The green configuration is another feature that some argue is evidence of a Macdonald design, as Raynor would almost always leave en entry point from fairway to green. Off the top of my head, however, I remember the First at Wanumetonomy requiring a forced carry to the green as well, so perhaps it’s rare but not unheard of for Raynor to do.
The Seventh is a 440 yard par 4, “Big Ben.” Moving back towards the rear of the property, the ridge greets us from the tee. Those that end up on it will have a nice lie and view of the rest of the hole yet a longer approach in while those who end up benefitting from the roll of the downhill will likely have a downhill lie and will possibly be in the rough on the right based on the fairway contours. The fairway has a second large hump before falling steeply to the green. A large semi-punchbowl framed by bunkers along the rear where the entry point moves from left to right. It’s a spectacular hole. The green is a joy and I could have scrapped the rest of my day sitting there hitting shots into it. Aside from the green, the fairway is remarkable with its hilly contours and how its quadrants move the ball. The golfer must really know the terrain in order to navigate and take advantage of it for ideal positioning and lie. It’s certainly a hole unique to the course and of those I remember from the first time I was here, was the one I was excited to play again the most.
The Eighth is a 430 yard par 4, “Shoulder.” The tee shot moves out to the hills below and indeed the right shoulder of the fairway seems to be a preferable landing spot as the ball will move back towards the center. Longer hitters may try for the center or left but will need to carry their shots longer yet of successful, will have a better shorter line to the green. The shoulder I speak of is the initial fairway turn to the left, then it turns right a bit before straightening out and leading downhill to the green with a bunker on either side a nice juicy entry point from which the fairway washes right in.
The Ninth is a 445 yard par 4, “The Beeches.” We’ve reached the rear of the property and now head back in the direction of the clubhouse and ridge. A longer hole made even longer with the green sitting uphill on the ridge, the tee shot is straightforward enough even though there are trees on either side to complicate matters for those wayward shots. The fairway bends to the right and is up on the ridge. Like the Fourth, the green and hill meld into one slick conundrum that should be handled with the utmost delicacy so that the golfer avoids watching his ball ski down the hill a hundred yards or so. The green is shaped like a triangle with the entry point longer on the front right but the wider part of the green is at the rear. It’s a tricky green and pin positions towards the front should always give the golfer pause.
The front nine takes its time looping around the west side of the property. The variety and excitement of the holes has the golfer enjoying the shots so much that he likely doesn’t realize he just played mostly all par 4’s, as there is only a single par 3 and 5. No matter, this is credit to the par 4’s that hold their own. I would rank them 7, 8, 3, 4, 1, 9, 5, 2, 6.
The back nine starts with the 445 yard par 4 Tenth, “Lackawanna.” Teeing off from the ridge back down towards the rear of the property, the fairway is inviting spare a few trees here and there off to the sides. The fairway continues moderately downhill until it reaches the green, which is raised up a little, a crook at its entry point where the larger bunkers reside as well. It seems an easy enough hole except when out of position and that seems to always happen to most golfers here for some reason. The green does move in mysterious ways on the small knob it is placed on, adding to the challenge.
The Eleventh is a 505 yard par 5, “Roadside.” Now at the rear corner of the property, the routing essentially switch backs and forth as it makes its way back to the clubhouse. The thing is that here, the terrain is good enough and holes placed in such a way that the switch backs avoid some of the more common concerns they typically present. Moving straight out, trees move in from both sides to toughen the tee shot. The fairway moves a little uphill to yet another devious green that moves towards the right and rear while the front is built up from the fairway. It makes for some interesting approach shots but I have a feeling the wily veteran settles for the rear portion every time and putts from there. It’s a par 5, so that fairway stretches out and enables the golfer to perhaps plan the approach a little more carefully than normal.
The Twelfth is a 321 yard par 4, “Cape.” A short par 4 where the fairway manages to crest down before heading uphill to the green. The fairway is tilted towards the right, which gets deep and into the tree line quickly. This terrain continues at the green, where the left side is level but the right side sits high above as a bunker runs along the width of the green. A pin position over to the right could bring in Cape elements as the golfer may risk carrying the deep right side to reach the pin while the more conservative can proceed up to the left and have the ball move down with the hillside to the pin. The rear bunkers ensure that the golfer must incorporate finesse into any approach and temper their aggressiveness into the green. Lots to think about on this short par 4.
The Thirteenth is a 204 yard par 3, “Redan.” The green sits at an angle from the tee while bunkers line each side of the green. The green moves towards the lower right side and those off the green on that side will be far down, the green out of sight. The green seems to fall off towards the sides yet is large enough to accommodate shots that will come in from the longer distance. A great par 3 set on the terrain nicely with lots of various movement to consider.
The Fourteenth is a 422 yard par 4, “Pond.” A dog leg right where water must be carried from the tee. After the carry, the fairway moves uphill and dog legs right at which point it moves down gradually to the green. A bunker is at each front corner of the wider entry point while a couple bunkers are at the rear, with the green moving front to back. The green sets up the other shots nicely, as the tee shot needs to clear the turn and stay out of the trees while the approach needs to come in with enough finesse to keep from running off the rear.
The Fifteenth is a 219 yard par 3, “Meadow.” Another long par 3 similar to the prior hole in how the green runs away from the golfer towards the rear. The bunker configuration is similar as well; a bunker in each corner at the front and a couple at the rear, which cover the entire width here. The slopes before the green can be used to feed the ball onto the green as well, yet another way to try and feather the shot so that it remains on the green, which seems to want nothing more than send every ball into those rear bunkers.
The Sixteenth is a 438 yard par 4, “Gibraltar.” Switching back to keep using that ridge, the tee shot moves uphill and over it at which point the fairway moves further uphill while turning a bit to the green. The bunker arrangement is a more scattered here at the green, with more fairway and rough to use on the approach or recovery. There is a dip before the green and drop offs the sides which further complicate the approach, putting most shots short of the green in dire straits. While there are no bunkers at the rear of the green here, there’s a quarry type area that’s even more treacherous and undesirable.
The Seventeenth is a 183 yard par 3, “Eden.” The Hill bunker on the left sits well below the green while the Strath is well sized and likewise below. The green abruptly ends at the rear and falls off yet there are no bunkers on that side. There’s a right to left tilt to the green as well as rear to front. Most shots that miss the green will likely result in precarious recovery shots, either in a bunker or simply because of the green movement in relation to the lie and contour of the shot. It’s a great par 3, especially as the penultimate hole, its timing impeccable as the round begins to wind down.
The Eighteenth is a 422 yard par 4, “Home.” The clubhouse is in our sights as we move towards it, the First off to our left as the groups embark on the journey from which we returned. The fairway move downhill from the tee, which makes the final resting position of most tee shots obscured from view. The fairway cants right to left in addition to downhill, so coming up the right side to account for the terrain is a good idea. Water off to the left presents an array of issues. The fairway narrows considerably at that point and leans in that direction, which then bends left and uphill to the green. The water makes it even more imperative to favor the right side and emphasizes the importance of considering what the ball will do once it lands. The bunker on the left indeed creates a false front as there’s plenty of room between it and the green while water off the right side is hiding some what, there to collect mis hit approach shots to the unsuspecting golfer. Stay right but not too far right. This is all before we reach the green, which is large and rich with subtlety as the golfer studies its complexities for the final effort to close out the round. The clubhouse, close at hand, looks on.
The back nine takes on the opposite side of the property than the front and includes a par 5 and three par 3’s. I’d rank them 17, 11, 16, 18, 13, 12, 15, 14, 10.
Generally, Morris County is a terrifically laid out classic that’s full of character upon sharp jutting land. The sudden vertical rises and drops as well as the bold contours within the fairways and greens make for a romping round that invites finesse and strategy. The templates are fine renditions that fit into the overall playing theme and the greens punctuate it all with their brisk cants and subtle interior movement. The ridge is used over and over yet strikes a different feel each time, from the wild drop and twist of the Seventh fairway to the mellow apron floating to the green at the Fifteenth, the variety of its use is yet another indication of sound design. It’s full of interest, which never wanes with all of the different ways in which it can be played and of course the solid set of greens. The golfer will surely never tire of making his way around and remaining engaged throughout.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: They are separate structures in the same design style that I’ll call “cottage grandeur.” An outdoor patio and open air bar overlook the back nine just off the Eighteenth green while the men’s locker had its own trimmings making it worth lingering. Well done and notable.
After watching the end of one game or another at the Nineteenth, I was off. I was to meet some friends in the Poconos for a sunset round before going to whatever casino is up there and taking the night in at their lakeside cabin. Waking up early and walking out to the water, its serene stillness gave me pause. Pause to appreciate these moments that seem to come much less often than they should. Where we get some time to take in the miraculous nature around us and simply become part of it without any disruption or interference, ever so briefly. The leaves were in their glorious bloom of auburn, red, orange, yellow and even plumes of brown and there was no mistaking fall had arrived. As it turned out, this was just the beginning.