6,173 yards, 136 from the III tees
Twenty minutes after walking off the Eighteenth of the Lower, we found ourselves on the First tee of the Upper. That First tee is behind the clubhouse, making it feel like a secret eighteen holes only the more wily among us know about. Surely our experience of the last few hours would translate to a more spirited fight with the score card this time around. Surely. A couple swings later we were headed towards the First green. Off to the right and looming is the hill mountain on which Baltus Roll lived, and was murdered.
A club with two or more courses usually falls into discussion in terms of how they complement each other and of course which one the golfer enjoys more. Typically, we find one as the designated “championship” course tournament venue while the other is the more fun, member friendly lay out. This “dual course” concept; equal footing at conception and regard, is compelling. How is one to discern or carve out an identity for each? The terrain for one. Yet how else?
There are those that seem to favor the Upper and regard it as the overall better course. I fall on the other side. While there is no doubt the terrain of the Upper is more exciting with features that stand out, I found the Lower maintains a higher degree of sophistication and subtlety in structure of play. The Upper uses that terrain well and there is quite a bit of roll upon it, creating all types of fun and quandaries. There are more defined shot values and demands yet this occasionally means the course slips into a single dimension. Like the Lower, the Upper signified a transition in Tilly’s design trends. Instead of features placed on top of the land, he began to incorporate them in to the land. Here, the bunkers are in the hillsides and below surface level for the most part while mounding is much more low profile than the chocolate drops and dolomites on his courses prior. It’s a fine course and Gil is slated to work on it at the end of 2023. We will have to see how that work changes the course.
It bears mentioning that I was struck by the uncanny similarity the Upper has with s stretch of holes at Galen Hall. The terrain, movement of the greens and fairways the green/tee locations, the sequencing; even the direction of the holes in relation to the terrain. At least Galen’s Sixth through Tenth, which runs along foothills of a larger hill on its right before turning at a par 3 and running back in the opposite direction. The Upper’s Fourth through Eighth does the same thing and it immediately reminded me of Galen, so much so that I was able to predict the Seventh was going to be a par 3. Galen Hall was designed by Alex Findlay in 1912 but Tillinghast thereafter worked on the course. The sites have some similarities topographically so it’s only fitting that there are some similarities in playing structure as well.
The Upper hosted the 1936 U.S. Open, 1985 Women’s U.S. Open and 2000 U.S. Amateur. Rees Jones has lengthened and performed work to the bunkers over the years but has left the design and routing alone.
With exactly one round and 5000 putts under my belt with the new putter, I charged into the round with newfound hope and zeal. It was time to see the remainder of this “Dual Course.” In search of its identity and just how it filled out the aura of this legendary club from my perspective as a fledgling newcomer, wandering the hills like a madman.
The First is a 451 yard par 5. Moving along the foothill gently uphill, the tilt is very much right to left with bunkers on both sides. The fairway narrows just a tough while the entry point to the green is at the upper right, so the golfer is able to use the terrain movement to roll the ball down if they decide not to carry the bunkers that reside around most of the green.
The Second is a 388 yard par 4. We continue on the same line of the foothills. This hole is like the prior in moving straight ahead but the entry point here is much wider while a swale on the right before green makes things a bit more interesting. Otherwise, it’s a rather gentle opening duo.
The Third is a 160 yard par 3. The tilt of the hillside is strong here and aiming to the high right side off the tee is a good idea. Bunkers are on either side of the green, tightening the window of acceptability in negotiating the terrain movement.
It was here where I started thinking about Galen Hall. This hole reminded me of the par 3 Seventh with the same kind of right to left hillside pull, the open space down to the left and the tee placement of the next hole also down to the left of the green.
The Fourth is a 376 yard par 4. Heading along the same foothill line, the right to left tilt still with us. A wider fairway with a single bunker on the right, the green sits above with a narrow entry point and bunkers at the front high right and lower left. The green is deep and narrow, with the right to left speed we’ve grown accustomed to. Arching to the right a little with the green above is yet another similarity to the Eighth at Galen, which also travels along a foothill line in the same manner.
The Fifth is a 384 yard par 4. A dog leg right that starts downhill before turning, trees close at hand on either side. There seems to be more room after the turn leading up to the green with a larger bunker on the right that comes into play more than it appears.
The Sixth is a 372 yard par 4. Still moving in the same direction, the fairway widens the further out it gets until outright ending towards the green. Bunkers are at this ending and short grass leading up to the green is on the other side.
The Seventh is a 176 yard par 3. Finally turning down the hillside, the par 3 is a bit of a drop shot with a smattering of bunkers on the right side and a slender bunker wrapping around the left side. The Tenth at Galen is positioned the same, but it’s more of a drop shot and the front is open to the green. Both courses have their subsequent holes move back in the opposite direction as well. That is where the similarities, or at least my familiarity of Galen, ended. I found it of note even though the courses are much different when viewed in their entirety. For those who have played both, I’d keep it in mind next time you’re at either.
The Eighth is a 493 yard par 5. Bending to the right as the tree line on the right looms close, it dawns on me now the front nine never takes a left turn. The green eventually appears before us, perched on a small hill. There’s a restraint of bunkers at the fairway that finally doesn’t hold back at the green, littering themselves about the front. The right tree line makes clear that the left side of the fairway must be sought while the golfer plots his approach to the smaller knob green.
The Ninth is a 288 yard par 4. A different look with an elevated tee and pond before us. A sliver of fairway moves around it on either side, perhaps an option for those that are ultra precise with their irons yet with no confidence with their driver. Most will attempt to carry the water from the tee, which is possible. The fairway begins to narrow after the water towards the green while bunkers frame the sides and rear of the green for good measure. Well penned in by those bunkers, the golfer has a shorter approach in that is expected to be precise in order to avoid the surrounding sand.
The front nine starts high on the foothill line before returning a bit back the other side. The right to left movement on the foothill holes is prominent and the backbone of most of the character here while there is some spritely bunker placement on a handful of the holes. I’d rank them 3, 2, 4, 5, 7, 6, 1, 9, 8.
The back nine starts with the 138 yard par 3 Tenth. The green is raised above the tee while bunkers ensconce below. It is one of those holes the golfer will pray his ball ends up in one of the bunkers as opposed to either side of them. The green contours were very good here and in general I found this to be a strong hole.
The Eleventh is a 481 yard par 5. We move back in the direction of the Eighth tee and that corner of the property. The fairway heads straight out initially before crooking slightly to the left. It then moves downhill and a larger, bushy bunker complex dominates the landscape from the left. Yeah that’s correct; clumpings of brush and bramble are in this bunker, some of it rather high. There is strategy in figuring out just how far to place the second shot down the fairway for the ensuing approach. The fairway narrows and the green is surrounded by bunkers on all sides except the front while there’s a little bit of downhill into it.
The Twelfth is a 313 yard par 4. A short par 4 lined by trees on either side and a large bunker from the right that contends with just about every approach shot. The tee shot should likewise consider its placement. A short iron on the approach gets over the bunker on to the green, which is raised and surrounded by bunkers below. I don’t see much to this hole if I’m being honest. Longer hitters could certainly have a go at the green from the tee and would likely take a bunker shot for their second, which most certainly wouldn’t mind. I don’t know how much sense that makes when you could simply hit something shorter up to the bunker then have more control over a short approach from the fairway. Even with this option for those with length, it’s a fairly one dimensional hole with basic challenges.
The Thirteenth is a 342 yard par 4. There is water to the right from the tee, which is visible, then there is water off to the left further down, which cannot be seen. One would really have to pull their shot to the left to dunk over in it but I’m sure it happens more than we would think. The water on the right insists on attention as trees to the left caution against steering too far in that direction. A bit more demanding than we’ve grown accustomed. A narrow entry point ramps up to the green between two bunkers on either side while the green moves with the general hillside, left to right. The approach should be to the center or rear of the green and hedging left to avoid the accompanying sand and movement married to the green.
The Fourteenth is a 362 yard par 4. The back nine starts to get more interesting here. Instead of running parallel with the hillside as most of the holes do, this one climbs right up it. The side step this fairway takes is a cool feature that makes the left side a lot more attractive off the tee, as the left to right tilt is evident. The side step also makes it seem like the fairway sweeps to the right but it is actually fairly straight. The lead up to the green, itself uphill to the fairway, is impressive as there are plenty of places the golfer will want to lay up before realizing this is a par 4. It’s a great hole.
The Fifteenth is a 134 yard par 3. Heading back down the hill just a little, the tee shot is decidedly above the green, surrounded by bunkers below. The bunker shapes are varied and interesting, creating all kinds of different places to either land in rough or sand but otherwise it’s more of a refresher for the closing trio to come.
The Sixteenth is a 374 yard par 4. The home stretch starts here as we following the foothill in the opposite direction of the starting holes, this time back towards the clubhouse. The movement away from Baltusrol Mountain is prevalent with a noticeable left to right cant running through the closing hole. There is subtlety here with some familiarity of the Lower with the bunker placements in relation to the terrain movement. The golfer must think an extra moment where to place his tee shot to avoid the bunkers on either side. Then there is the approach, where the green is much higher than it appears at first blush. While the front of the green is well guarded, the center to rear is open, allowing some margin of error on what will be a challenging approach.
The Seventeenth is a 511 yard par 5. The last two holes run alongside the the last of the Lower, the higher side of course being the Upper. As the penultimate hole of the Lower starts becoming a lot more direct, the Upper seems to run counter to that. Instead of one-track shot values and loud signaling as to what the golfer should do, we start to see more elasticity and abstraction, leaving the golfer to his imagination and resolve in going about it. The fairway bends left and ascends gradually to the green. An occasional fairway bunker appears on either side while the fairway itself is narrower than it seems. There’s little that guides the golfer as to which shots might be ideal, which sets this apart from a lot of the other holes. The right side on the approach provides a better view of the green and angle in for the most part.
The Eighteenth is a 430 par 4. One of Gil’s changes to the Lower was that there was a shared fairway here between the Upper and Lower, which is off to the right most in play after the second shot. It’s more of an option for the Lower, where golfers may try to pivot left and attack the green from that direction. For the Upper, it seems to be more or less a bail out area. If the tee shot is well hit, the approach is relatively straightforward, yet mind the speed and movement of the green as shots can move quickly and fall off the rear side, tumbling towards the caddie yard, or so I’ve heard. The regal clubhouse is on the left. Our green has the high ground, with the Lower spread out before us as we get our affairs in order for the fading end.
The back nine starts off with a lively par 3 but then becomes flat before a much more interesting closing stretch. I would rank them 14, 10, 16, 17, 18, 15, 13, 11, 12.
Generally, Baltusrol Upper is notable for how it hides the strong terrain movement within the land. Being able to best use that movement and knowing its directional pulls takes experience and there are usually several ways to play these holes accounting for it. There is some repetition in presentation, however, and there are holes where the shot values are rather cut and dry. The opening and closing stretches really stand out as enjoyable with their incorporation of speed after the ball lands and hazard placement. The middle holes seem to struggle a bit to hold the same thrill and distinction. There, the challenge is more that of forced carries and hitting on to semi-blind hill greens. The Upper certainly asserts its own identity separate and apart from the Lower and I’m interested to see what Gil does, especially with the bunker scheme. The Lower is more to my liking although the members indeed have an intriguing decision as they stand at the clubhouse, deciding whether to take the high road or low road on any given day.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Same as the Lower review.
Practice Area: Same as the Lower review.
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