6,225 yards, 134 from the III tees
Something was off with me. I couldn’t get into a groove, couldn’t get a feel for the course, couldn’t put my finger on it. Out of sync.
We started in the early morning. There’s a routine this time of year, late in the season. We all are now accustomed to it, before the weather turns the game for us into something else entirely. This is when courses flourish, one last shine until going into hibernation. At the range, five swings with this club, five with that. Then driver, then putting. Just as it has been the whole season, winding down. Slowly.
Time was getting shorter and it was curiosity over anything else. I wanted to see how this new Scotty Black Star rolled for me so sight unseen, I put it in the bag. I forgot about the change completely, until I was on the practice green minutes before the round. Tuesday has no feel they say and the same could be said for me and that putter at the practice green. No worries, sir. You’re only playing some of the most revered greens in the game in a sec. I’m sure you’ll find your way as the round goes on. The things we do.
Golf began here in 1895. The land used to belong to a Dutch farmer named Baltus Rol, who was murdered by thieves in a robbery. Louis Keller thereafter acquired the land, who owned the New York Social Register. The course gained notoriety and hosted several acclaimed championships, including the 1915 U.S. Open. In fact, it was after that U.S. Open that the membership began considering building a second course to complement their esteemed Old course. While Donald Ross was initially hired to provide consulting services on this second course, Seth Raynor was actually retained and advised the club on which property to acquire for the new course. At some point, however, the club replaced Raynor with Tillinghast. Tillinghast surveyed the land and determined how to incorporate this new course, but ultimately came up with a ballsy proposition; plow over the Old course and build two entirely new courses. This was indeed bold. The Old course was very well thought of nationally at the time and Tillinghast did not yet have the reputation he holds today. Tilly had a penchant for 36-hole designs and in fact, it was a strong preference of his. Here, Tilly proposed an Upper course within the foothills of the mountainous terrain while the Lower course would reside on the flatter terrain of the property. He considered them, “Dual Courses;” equal in length, challenge and appearance, yet distant in character.
After what was probably intense debate within the membership, Tilly’s proposal was passed and in 1919, the dual course plan started. It would be the first 36-hole plan where the courses were among the same property in the United States. A condition of the plan was to keep eighteen holes available for play, so there were a number of composite versions during the years of construction that included the Upper, Lower and Old courses. The dual courses finally opened in 1922. Keller, as well as three other members of the green committee that decided on the plan, died before the opening date (Keller died a couple weeks before). The coincidental timing of the demises has been deemed “the curse of the Old course.”
Tillinghast’s gamble paid off. The pedigree and history of Baltusrol is in elite company and Tilly’s success here vaulted his career upwards. Allowed to design 36 holes as he most likely favored, the courses bear a number of similarities but the Lower has hosted many more championships and is typically ranked higher. Those who have played both all have an opinion on the matter in terms of which they think is better or which they prefer. As it stands, the Lower has hosted the 1954, 1967, 1980 and 1993 U.S. Opens, the 1946 and 2000 U.S. Amateur (both the Lower and Upper hosted in 2000), the 1961 and 1985 U.S. Women’s Open, as well as the 2005 and 2016 PGA Championships. It is slated to host the 2023 LPGA Women’s Championship and the 2029 PGA Championship.
The hosting of these championships through the decades led to various changes to the course, primarily by RTJ and his son Rees. Famously, RTJ had implemented changes that focused on lengthening and adding bunkers ahead of the 1954 U.S. Open. In response to criticism from the membership that he made the Fourth too difficult, he strolled to the tee after lunch at the clubhouse with the club president, U.S. Open Chair and Head Professional in tow. They all hit the green from the tee, yet RTJ did one better. He aced the hole. Afterwards, he remarked the hole was, “eminently fair.” The Lower did not undergo much work between the early 1950’s and the 1990’s, when Rees prepared a master plan. His work focused on lengthening mainly through rebuilding tees, as well as adding and tweaking bunkers. As the club’s website points out (by way of an article written by Rick Jenkins), Tilly is Rees’s favorite Golden Age architect because he did not follow a fixed design concept and created multiple shot values for each hole. In 2007, Rees created a second master plan focusing on deepening and re-positioning bunkers. The routing was not impacted. Jenkins notes that Tillinghast realized courses must be elastic and that building new teeing grounds and bunkering is the most economical way of lengthening instead of constructing new greens. Rees followed this doctrine in his work, which is a golf course he has been close to his entire life. The approach ramps to the greens were emphasized, which comprises the versatility and accessibility of the course, allowing alternative ground based approaches for those out of position, less skilled or simply more shrewd. Trees were thinned but not altogether cleared to keep the structure of holes, which is something Golden Age designers adhered to fairly consistently. Along with the routing, Rees did not re-design. His work consisted of the enhancements and changes Tilly foresaw during his era.
Most recently, Gil Hanse was retained in 2018 to highlight Tillinghast characteristics that had faded over the years. His work primarily focused on lowering the bunkers and green surrounds so that the greens themselves were the focus of each hole. Trees were also removed to some extent, fairways widened and greens returned to their original size (even though it should be noted RTJ expanded greens like the Fourth to accommodate longer clubs into them). The biggest changes were to the Fourth, where the right lower portion of the green to the water was restored as well as the short grass area joining the Third green and Fourth tee; the Seventeenth, where the Great Hazard Sahara bunker was moved 40 yards closer to the tee and re-formatted; and the Eighteenth, where the fairway was raised so that it was level with the water on the left side, fairway bunkers were removed and the fairway merging with the Upper Eighteenth was reinstated. Gil also implemented drainage upgrades and installed PrecisionAire below the greens.
The terrain of the Lower course does roll a little bit but its hills are of moderate character. It’s a large sweeping property and the holes never seem in a rush to turn, rise or fall. Some do not do any of things at all. It’s in how the design makes the best with this terrain to conjure very good golf that stands out. Very much a driver’s course, the configuration of the bunkers to the fairway and tee are always of note. There is a lot of strategy there and part of my feelings of being off kilter stem from oftentimes getting out of position from the get go. It is not enough to whale away and watch your ball sail up in the air straight ahead. The tee shot must have purpose. This concept follows to the green. Hazard placement here is meticulous, so each shot must be charted or it will likely end up in one. The bunkers are also in the right place many times in terms of obfuscating and confusing views and lines of sight. That’s the thing here. There’s plenty of room and not really any intimidation or seemingly impossible shot before you. There’s not a whole lot of severe penalties other than an occasional pond or creek. It’s the bunkering. It’s that good. Its placement, diversity in shaping and depth, proximity to the greens. It impacts play in so many ways and seeps deep into the fabric of the course’s character.
Well, that and the greens. Their size and subtlety are the kind normally reserved for those sprawling links. Here, the greens embrace the flatter topography and revel in tilts and contours that come from the tectonic platelets far below, impacting the surface much more than one can discern visually. Straightforward rolls always seemed to fickly veer or leer unpredictably. Perhaps blaming my newfound putter is misplaced. Perhaps the curse of the old course took hold of an unsuspecting neophyte. I suspect most of all, however, the Lower simply did its job. It engineered the slow and subtle deterioration of my optimistic psyche, ensuring I was among most others who must learn its ways well before expecting much in return. As the day waned and in turn the season one step closer to finality, I succumbed, then vowed to return for another go. Wiser, more battle weathered. And certainly with a fucking putter I had actually used before the day of the round.
The First is a 470 yard par 5 (from the III tees). The slightly elevated tee is just above the fairway that heads straight out. The left side is rigid, first with rough then a tree line while the right side legs to one of many, many, bunker complexes. Take it in. It’s one of the gentler tee shots you will see all day. There’s a good amount of fairway between the first bunker complex and the next, which encroach from the right into the center off the fairway, leaving some room on the left to scoot past them if precise enough. After the second bunker complex, there is one closer to the green that stretches to the left green side. The golfer must navigate these bunkers, as well as the downhill movement into them with each shot, trying for the fairway between and around them. The ramp to the green is wide and inviting as promised and intended with lots of ground to cover with the flat stick depending on where the approach is with respect to the pin.
The Second is a 350 yard par 4. Now the fun off the tee starts. Nestled in the corner of the property, the fairway runs at a slightly different angle than the ideal tee shot while strings of bunkers come in waves from the left. To be clear, there are bunkers further out on the right, then there is a gathering of them that must be carried to reach the green. And bunkers line each side of the green. The entry point and green is a welcome respite, however, lazily moving from right to left.
The Third is a 400 yard par 4. This hole decides to turn a little to the left. At first it moves uphill a bit, then starts down to the green. There’s a creek between the fairway and green on the other side. Bunkers finally make an appearance near the green, on both sides. The green has a bit more noticeable movement than the couple before it, moving back to front although there is nothing stopping shots from exiting off the rear of the green to the ground below.
The Fourth is a 135 yard par 3. A famous hole, one of its reasons outlined above, the forced carry over water to the wide yet deceptively shallow green is another, while the teeing area arches around the area towards the green, allowing a ton of different tee areas and angles in to the green. Bunkers surround the sides and rear of the green, in wait.
The Fifth is a 360 yard par 4. The bunkers felt ignored on the last couple holes, so decided to explode about this hole in strategic form. There are patches of fairway amongst the bunkers that the tee shot must strive for. The golfer can carry the bunkers on the left or hedge before all of them, which concedes a much longer approach to the green. Of course, one could also pull the hell out of their tee shot left of all of it, into the trees, which was my unintended option. For those who manage a successful the shot, the green is straight out and above. Bunkers separate the fairway and green while they also line the green. The green is deep and a little narrow. Finesse and precision are valued playing traits for this one.
The Sixth is a 375 yard par 4. The course seems to widen at this tee, the tree line hugging tight on the right side. A couple fairway bunkers also linger on that right side. A left fairway bunker is further up while the sides of the green are lined with them as well. Yet that green and entry point sure are mile wide and inviting.
The Seventh is a 465 yard par 5. Now we are wide open. A sliver of a bunker on the right is out there and should only be a mere light thought, yet seems to impose itself more and more as the golfer surveys the land before him. The fairway zigs and zags while bending a touch to the right while these slender bunkers run lengthwise on the sides of the fairway. Those that negotiate the turns and bunkers should have a generous approach to the green, which seems to have many of those sub surface undulations alluded to earlier.
The Eighth is a 350 yard par 4. The brawny width fades a bit with this smaller and narrower hole. Bunkers are off to the sides, so the fairway is wide open for the tee. There is a bunker at the center of the fairway closer to the green, which must be carried or evaded from either side. The green is among the smaller, as well as the entry point, which moves downhill to the green. Bunkers surround the green on all other sides.
The Ninth is a 180 yard par 3. The configuration of tee to the green, shape of the green and bunker placement here is remarkable. A relatively flat piece of land is transformed into a sophisticated golf hole on the back of genius course design. The bunkers hide the space on and in front of the green well while the bunkers off to the left are hiding altogether. The golfer may opt to carry the two bunkers ahead of him, yet it’s tough to discern how much room they have after the bunkers to work with. There is safety in front between the bunkers, yet that leaves a tough shot over the bunkers if the pin is towards the rear of the green. It’s a hole that needs to be played to learn, which are the best kind.
The front nine stays on the lower portion of the land, which is among its flattest. Well designed with strategy and challenge in mind, I would rank them 9, 1, 2, 5, 8, 3, 7, 6, 4.
The back nine starts with the 380 yard par 4 Tenth. Tracking back towards the Eighth tee, the tee shot is straight out with trees on either side. The trees subside for the approach, which is wide open. The green is likewise wide and open while larger bunkers are off to the sides in all the right places. A ripple through the middle of the green is of note, making some of those longer putts all the more harrowing.
The Eleventh is a 355 yard par 4. The routing impresses the next few holes with an internal loop that manages to include some more holes in the area before finally heading out to another portion of the property. Here, we dog leg left strongly. Bunkers start out along the outside of the turn before one appears on the inside further out. There’s also a much larger bunker that seems to stretch for most of the left side, surely as a defense for those trying to cut too much off the turn. A center line bunker just before the green gives this hole a lot of character while the green moves from left to right. There’s a lot of different looks here and two healthy shots are needed for a chance at par.
The Twelfth is a 155 yard par 3. Perhaps seeing how effective the center line bunker was in front of the green on the hole prior, this hole decides to have the same. It must be carried to reach the green, then there are bunkers on either side at the front. Out of position from the tee is particularly troublesome here.
The Thirteenth is a 360 yard par 4. Having now curled around, the only way out without painting ourselves in a corner is out past the Ninth green. A creek crosses the fairway which comes into play from the tee. It is shorter to cross on the left and becomes longer as you move to the right. On the other side of the creek, the green is straight ahead. Bunkers surround it and the entry point is a bit narrower than most others.
The Fourteenth is a 375 yard par 4. Like many of the holes, it is tough to discern the end point or even the ideal tee shot line. The fairway turns left behind a bunker complex on that side and that is all the golfer sees from the tee. Unless there is prior experience, one does not know how much of that bunker should be taken on, or the associated risks and rewards. Sure a caddie will give you the line but unless you have a protracted discussion about what is out there, nothing takes the place of experience in figuring out the best plan of attack from the tee, here and on most other holes. The fairway heads to the green with a little crook at the entry point to the green. Larger bunkers are on either side of it, as well as a smaller one just short of the green for good measure.
The Fifteenth is a 370 yard par 4. We start with switching back as the course heads into the more spirited terrain of the round. The visuals from the tee make it seem as if bunkers roam the entire width of the fairway but there is room out there. The green is above the fairway, a larger bunker on the lower left side of it, along the ramp that leads up. Of course there are green side bunkers, a larger one on the right, a smaller one rear left.
The Sixteenth is a 160 yard par 3. About as much elevation as the course can muster, the green is below and surrounded by bunkers. The green is deep and the noticeable undulations make the speed and movement a challenge.
The Seventeenth is a 495 yard par 5. The course closes in a flurry of shots with back to back par 5’s. Heading straight out, the tee shot is relatively benign compared to what will be faced as we get closer to the green. The famous Sahara bunker awaits, set at an angle to the fairway and on a hillside. It must be dealt with to reach the other side, which runs into yet another wave of bunkers interfering with the fairway, which must be carried to the green. There is the smallest of entry points on the left but is not worth trying for unless one finds themselves on the short left side before the green. Bunkers are on the lower left side while the right remains open, relying on the quick terrain movement pulling shots towards the bunkers on the other side. There is trouble every where and the course becomes a lot more assertive in requiring the golfer to navigate himself through the trouble to finish unscathed. You either hit the shots well or will need to demonstrate an ability to recover from a number of tough situations.
The Eighteenth is a 490 yard par 5. So close yet so far away. There is no reprieve after the Seventeenth. Instead, the course continues its final stand. An elevated tee shot with water on the left, the further right one goes, the longer it becomes to reach the green. Water finally ends the first fairway but the golfer has a good deal of discretion for the second shot. The fairway on the other side melds with the Eighteenth of the Upper course, so setting up the approach is manageable so long as the tee shot was a success. The green sits above the fairway, the final green for the Upper, the clubhouse, and even the caddie quarters all paces away. All of it in motion and unperturbed by whatever type of round is coming through and finishing up, yet all of it upon the shoulders of the golfer striving to end his journey the right way.
The back nine starts tame enough but crescendos at the end intensely. One of the more famous finishes in golf is well deserved for its relentlessness, becoming a lot more direct than the subtlety the golfer grows accustomed to for most of the round. My ranking of them is 17, 18, 15, 13, 11, 12, 16, 14, 10.
Generally, Baltusrol Lower is a notable test for every golfer. Its presentation of challenge to the golfer is remarkable in its subtlety and restraint. It is about position and placement. Acceptable misses and a proper self assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses, then adjusting accordingly. There is no obvious impossibility here, or sheer terror of intimidation. There is no take it or leave it, these are the shots you need to play each hole or else. Nor are there penalty avalanches. It is a death by a thousand cuts which take their toll, culminating at the final closing duo that is enough to put many out of it for good. The course is flexible in allowing each golfer to go about it in his or her own way but they must do so valiantly.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The entire grounds are impressive and stretch out along some of the foothills. The clubhouse is one of the more famous while the pro shop is in a separate building, itself impressive and two stories. The insignia is one of my favorite and of the most noticeable in the game. It is worth strolling around and checking out the history.
Practice area: The range is worth spending time at and the practice green is a necessity before the round.