6,617 yards, 132 slope from the Blues
There’s Essex County Club in Massachusetts and Essex County Country Club in New Jersey. Both are rather old with interesting histories and the result of complete renovations by famous Golden Age designers. The club in New Jersey that is the subject of this review is the oldest country club in the state. It was established in 1887 when the Hunt and Toboggan clubs of the same county name merged. The first iteration of the present course was designed by Tillinghast in 1918, one of his first. The club sought to expand to 36 holes, so in 1925, retained Raynor for the additional course. That additional course was subsequently sold in the 1970’s and now operates as the Francis A. Byrne municipal. Essex retained the higher up course, which Raynor re-worked in 1928 by designing eleven new holes (7, 8, 10 – 18) and saving seven of Tillinghast’s existing holes (1 – 6 and 9). Raynor’s tragic passing occurred before construction of the course, so Banks continued his efforts just like he did at Lookout Mountain in Georgia. RTJ performed work in 1960 but then Gil Hanse began consulting here in 2004, at first with the help of George Bahto. Hanse continues working on the course present day where the First is being completely re-done. What is noteworthy is that the course was designed with about 40 hazards that were never actually installed. The majority of these were bunkers, which were likely for strategic effect, but it may very well have been that the terrain brought in a lot more influence of the ball than expected so those were left out.
So the course boasts a unique hybrid of Tillinghast/Raynor/Banks that I only know of Knollwood having a similar composition (although Tillinghast’s work never made it through construction there). There are a number of very well done template holes, especially on the back nine, while Tillinghast’s holes on the front make great strategic use of a prominent ridge on the front. It’s a well regarded course in an area rich with them. The templates are also placed upon the terrain nicely in spots. It’s a strong challenge, at times requiring brawny shots up and down the hills, culminating in the beefy Eighteenth that requires two pumped up shots to reach the green atop the steep hillside.
Essex County is a hearty mixture of Golden Age design with some excellent golf throughout. The Tillinghast start may have been my favorite part while the closing stretch has some absolute stunners by Raynor and Banks. At its best, the juxtaposing of the different design styles is delightful, presenting the golfer with a pleasing wide range of golf. In some respects, however, these different styles work against the overall design. On the front, the par 5’s leave a lot to be desired and some what mar a wonderful set of Tillinghast holes. There are also times on the back nine where the terrain actually works against the templates a bit but that might be nitpicky. Regardless, template holes are trending and many will enjoy the rich diversity of recognizable designed fairways and greens. The Eden is one of the better I have come across, the Double Plateau and modified Biarritz are well done while the reverse Redan green is stupendous. In all, it’s a course that ranges wildly in appeal for me personally but is thriving in popularity and acclaim at the moment for its collection of Raynor/Banks templates.
The First is a 382 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A downhill dog leg left, the opening tee shots should be clamoring for that right side to move towards the hole properly. The fairway continues to fall and turn until it reaches the green, which is pushed up and moves from back to front. The hole is currently getting worked on to take out some of the severity of the hill and other widespread changes so will likely be much different when it re-opens. Regardless, the opener is our first experience with the hills and their influence on ball direction.
The Second is a 285 yard par 4. The tee shot is a decision. Does one belt away and try to get as close to the green as possible or does one hit something much shorter out ahead in the clear? The hillside makes the longer shot blind and there is no way to tell how close the green is but any miss above the ridge line will likely magnify the mistake. A well struck tried and true tee shot is rewarded with a shorter shot into the well defended and bunkered green yet the risk of an mis hit lingers. It’s a great shorter par 4 fraught with strategy, one of my favorite of the round.
The Third is a 376 yard par 4. A little more straightforward back to the clubhouse, bunkers and trees on either side temper the tee shot. The large mound front right of the green obstructs much of the green, with sunken bunkers next to it. A reveal of the green shows its larger size and lots of enjoyable movement on what appears to be one of the flatter surfaces on the course.
The Fourth is a 420 yard par 4. Heading back down the hill some what and at a leftward slant, there are not as many cues suggesting where acceptable tee shots should go. There are staggered bunkers left and right, respectively, that seem to belong to a diagonal row that continues on the next hole. It could very well be there were a couple bunkers bisecting this fairway as the next hole but no bother, they are not there now. The fairway feeds downhill to the green and mind the speed within which your shot heads in, as things can get out of hand fast and there is little room off the rear within which to work.
The Fifth is a 443 yard par 4. Back up the hill, there’s a bunker off to the right form the tee that is easy to manage and the rest of the fairway is out there for the taking. The fairway narrows moving up the hill, eventually running into three large bunkers running diagonally across the the entire fairway. On the other side is the green, about 20 yards away yet starting to move downhill, coyly. Bunkers are about the sides and come into play more often than one would think as the ball starts to move after the approach or recovery from out of position. Coupled with the downhill, this green gets frisky in a hurry.
The Sixth is a 171 yard par 3. A solid stretch of par 4’s comes to an end at the first par 3. A play on visuals has been a dominant theme thus far, effectively well done. That fades away more or less once we get to the Raynor/Banks holes, which was a let down. But here, it was tremendous in that one doesn’t really know where the bunkers are hiding because of the mounds. There is one front and center before the green and then essentially they frame the green on all sides. The green itself is one of the better on the course, with everything seemingly moving off the rear left corner. To wit, I flagged the pin in that corner but my ball ended up just above and to the left of it, which made finishing the hole quite the challenge despite my proximity.
The Seventh is a 560 yard par 5. The first of the Raynor/Banks holes is also the first par 5. Tree lines yet wide and leading downhill from the tee, bunkers are staggered and alternate sides. A bit of a left crook and the hole starts moving uphill to the green, which maintains its width and long bunkers line each side except for the front. The bunker short right saves the hole, injecting some sorely needed character and strategy by ensuring a proper angle in for the approach or else it must be confronted head on. Of the holes that might have benefitted from some of those strategic hazards in the design plans never implemented, it would be interesting to see how the hole played with those intact here.
The Eighth is a 494 yard par 5. Back to back par 5’s and this one is heading back in the exact opposite direction we just came. Water is placed just so, forcing the golfer to decide whether he can clear it or needs to figure out how to come up short. Trees on the right force the golfer to favor the left side as well, awkwardly. The uphill fairway to the green is on the other side staggered bunkers before it and then a bunker on each entire side of the green. A relatively similar bunker configuration from the prior hole yet the movement here is more horizontal and subdued.
The Ninth is a 147 yard par 3. Tillinghast had his own version of a short par 3 that is typically called the Tiny Tim. Many may pull up to this hole and declare it the “Short,” but it is not so, even though it signifies the same concept as Tillinghast’s shorter par 3’s. Here, the green is uphill from the tee and a cavernous bunker before the green grabs our attention. The sides and rear also have bunkers just as an FYI. It’s a deep, narrow green that Tillinghast almost demands the golfer hit off the tee or pay dearly with a deep bunker shot that will vary in challenge depending on where he stands with respect to the movement of the green. A fine way to end nine holes.
The front nine features some remarkable Tillinghast holes but the par 5’s detract from the brilliance of the others with some rote bunker placement and fail to take their cue from the prior holes. The par 4’s and 3’s are delightful, smart and strike a great balance between challenging and strategic structure of play. I would rank them 2, 6, 5, 3, 4, 1, 9, 8, 7.
The back nine starts with the 437 yard par 4 Tenth. Starting from the rear of the clubhouse, we head downhill with only a bunker on either side and trees beyond to deal with. The fairway crashes into the green, which is pushed up and moves back to front. A bunker on either side line the green well below. The biggest decision here is how the golf would like his approach, as the run up could be a pretty good option. I would imagine that this hole might benefit as well from some of the designed for strategic hazards.
The Eleventh is a 185 yard par 3. This is the Eden hole. A few similarities to Sleepy Hollow on how the hillside and ravine are used, many may believe the left side is a refuge for the tee shot which then moves towards the center of the green, but there is a bunker on that side that makes it a bit more risky than it looks. There is plenty of room short but those shots could roll into the creek. The green is certainly the Eden here.
The Twelfth is a 421 yard par 4. Moving back uphill to the clubhouse, this is the Road hole. The tee shot must carry that same ravine we encountered on the last hole and those moving up the right side close to that tree line will have the best approach in while the safer left side are left with a trickier approach. The fairway is hog-backed, so will emphasize whatever side of the fairway you are on by rolling out in that direction. The rear bunker at the green definitely comes into play for the left side approaches a bit more and short left is no where a golfer would like to be, but the hole plays very much uphill, which counters these Road features some. Simply getting to the green in two shots becomes much more paramount while the approach is a bit longer than ideal for those features to have the most effective strategic influence.
The Thirteenth is a 532 yard par 5. A downhill tee shot where getting to the left side before the approach allows the golfer a better view of the green while those on the right may be blind on approach. Bunkers come in from each side now and then while the green is just off to the right, pushed up a bit and with bunkers down below each side. There is plenty of room in front of the convex green, giving the golfer an opportunity to fully plot his approach as he chooses with these characteristics in mind.
The Fourteenth is a 311 yard par 4. Template overload time with this Alps hole to a Punchbowl green and Lion’s Mouth bunker in front. It’s a short par 4 made just a bit longer moving uphill. The tee shot must be decided upon carefully with those alps mounds lurking with their bunkers and the lion’s mouth straight ahead beyond them. Getting between all the bunkers right center or short of the left alps mound seem like good plays, unless you have the firepower to reach the green, in which case the punchbowl will help out (yet it is roughed, not short grass). The lion’s mouth will be lost on many golfers since it’s so close to the alps and the uphill lends more blindness and disorientation to the golfer on approach but it’s a good hole to get acquainted with, likely becoming a better play as the golfer learns it.
The Fifteenth is a 218 yard par 3. The clubhouse website has this as a modified Biarritz and what that means is the swale is taken at an angle as opposed to head on as most holes of this template are. The swale is subtle but can be seen in the photo below and is indeed a unique trait, can only be played here. The feature, as well as the green movement in general, foster shot shapes horizontally instead of head on, which can also be seen from the green shape in general. A trough of bunkers are along the left side and no where anyone wants to be so just instantly forget about them and pretend anything left of the green doesn’t exist. It’s a great hole, requiring a bit of artistry and precision from the golfer’s long club acumen.
The Sixteenth is a 422 yard par 4. The placement of the Fifteenth is a bit of genius routing at the interior of the course, allowing us to head back out to the last corner of the property before returning in the direction of the clubhouse for good. A blind tee shot back up the hill to a fairway that is already running at a left to right angle. The sole fairway hazard is the principal’s nose, about seventy yards before the green and a significant false front. The double plateau green awaits and like most every double plateau green I have ever met, gave me absolute fits.
The Seventeenth is a 374 yard par 4. Teeing off from that corner of the property, the fairway dog legs left early, leaving driver as possibly not the best option. Getting as far right for the approach is ideal to get a clean look and line at the green but there are a couple bunkers on that side to contend with. The green is well elevated and a reverse Redan, so it moves left to right and yes, there is a bunker on that right side that should be avoided at all costs. Bribe the ball, tell your caddie to throw it out of there when no one is looking, do whatever it takes. An outstanding par 4.
The Eighteenth is a 439 yard par 4. The Home hole makes for quite the finish. The emphasis here is on length, meaning hit the shit out of the ball as hard as you can off the tee, then again on the approach. Even that might not be enough, as the green is dual-tiered with a false front, all of it moving back down the hill. You might be able to get away with hitting it into a green side bunker but a fairway bunker is likely a lost stroke for most of us. An inspirationally scenic setting for the round’s end but sheer brawn winning the day over guile, resolve, or cleverness leaves a little on the bone.
The back nine is is a template smorgasbord with an excellent pair of par 3’s and some downright outstanding par 4’s. The vertical routing of the hills in some cases, however, detracts a little from the full effect of the Twelfth and Fourteenth in my opinion but both holes are good nonetheless. I would rank them 17, 11, 15, 16, 12, 14, 10, 18, 13.
Generally, Essex County is a solid golf course among the state’s more noteworthy with many all world holes. The opening Tillinghast holes dance well with the terrain for strategic effect with their play on visuals and deceit, which eventually give way to a more direct confrontation with the hills by Raynor and Banks, doling out templates on the fairways and greens in brilliant reckless abandon. Yet the sequencing feels off at times and is patchy in coming across the different design styles as well, which makes it indeed feel like a course designed by different architects, curtly. That could be a good thing but does affect cohesiveness. The front nine suffers as a result and the strategic themes present in the Tillinghast holes fade out from the Raynor/Banks ones, giving way for abrupt depth and sharp blindness that such vertical angles with the hills provide. Regardless, the course features some of the better templates one can find in the area while the modified Biarritz is a one of a kind and worth the round itself. The quality of the majority of the holes is impressive.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: At the top of the hill, it enjoys views of the course and everything else beyond.
Practice area: Putting green and range, adjacent to the rear of the clubhouse.