6,627 yards, 137 slope from the Blues
It was the drive home that did it. Already dark but in that dusky remnants of sunset way where the day is not giving up itself just yet. One can say it was raging against the dying of the light. Perhaps this kind of night is where that poem came from. The battle between day and night played out in the sky above as my car drifted south, back home. Along with the light and dark contrast, it was getting cold. The day was warm and we were all still in Summer mode but the nights are where the reminders start. That evening chill, that. The season would be ending before we knew it, another year coming and going. Promises made, hopes kept, dreams dashed, the finality of another season gone by takes us all in different ways. Indeed, the drive back home signified the end of the season. Yes it certainly would continue, but differently. The colder, rainier fall would start, followed by crisp cold mornings before the cold reality of winter golf unceremoniously arrives with a peculiar charm all its own. The drive home marked the end of the warmer, pleasant season we all dream about when the snow and ice blanket the horizon for months. And at the end of the season, one takes stock. There was time for that later though. On that drive, I was content to just drive. An open road ahead, a joy all its own.
The round that day certainly had something to do with the fulfillment of that drive, finally making my way to Hackensack. It was the first design of Charles Banks, which opened in 1929. On rolling terrain, Banks instilled bold features that included massively deep bunkers and large towering greens. There’s a sharp showy emphasis to Banks’ style on the template framework on which he was mentored, which is on full display here. The course has gone through a considerable amount of effort to show off its Banks chops. Throughout the latter twentieth century, the course underwent a number of changes that strayed from the Banks design, which included raising bunker floors, planting groves of trees and flattening greens. All in the name of modernization, this changed when membership decided it was time to restore the course back to its Banks design lineage. This restoration brought back bunkers that were removed over the years, restored fairway and greens, removed a bevy of trees and in general, ensured that it played like a Banks design again. A plaque prominently marks the club’s appreciation for the restoration work performed by Rees Jones and his associate Keith Evans in 1996.
The membership wasn’t done just yet. After discovering Banks’ original layout plans in their basement, it appeared there were features that were never built as intended. Alas, Rees was called back to realize those features into the design at last. This included an immense bunker running approximately 150 yards on the right side eight feet below grade at the Eleventh. Then there’s the intended depth of the bunkers running below and between the Ninth and Eighteenth greens. Other bunkers that were in Banks’ plans but never built were added as well, again with the overarching intent to produce the course that Banks intended as designed.
Present day, what Banks envisioned has come to life. The cavernously deep bunkers he loved are both hidden to surprise the newcomer and in plain sight to intimidate us all. Their placement about the fairways and greens is reminiscent of Macdonald and Raynor in their strategic nature, yet Banks preferred a bit more bravado and prominence of the sand than his mentors. The fairways and greens take on the grand scale and width adhered to by his predecessors, allowing a breadth of playing styles to roam free. The sharp geometric contours are pronounced as Banks preferred, showcasing more akin to a series of embattled fortresses that need to be approached from appropriate angles of attack or will be thwarted time and again. This is most illustrative at the Sixteenth punchbowl green, where the golfer is not met with friendly and fun undulations that will sway their ball to and fro, but instead is met with a steep bank that barricades the green on all sides except for a small entry point at the front. This is not to say the ball is not allowed to roll and run here, because it is; but the sharpness and definition of the contours certainly dictates the times and places for that to happen without any sense of vagueness. Indeed, this is a Banks design and represents his artistry and perception of the game well.
The First is a 422 yard par 4 (from the Blues). A slight downhill start and we are off. A welcome opening tee shot makes way for a more challenging approach and our first foray into Banks’ wonderful world of green side bunkering. The left side is well below grade and curves around the entire circumference while the right side is flanked out a bit positioned more towards the front. The green moves back to front and I found it a bit wry, which gave the hole a little more to it than at first glance.
The Second is a 485 yard par 5. Switching back towards the clubhouse, we move uphill to the green on this shorter par 5 with a forced carry tee shot. The fairway narrows into the trees before widening once again at the green complex, the short grass areas consorting with the bunkers on either side, staggered, while the green runs diagonally. A very cool hole, especially as the golfer moves closer to the green. The bunker placement, direction of the contours and green positioning all work together for some very engaging shots.
The Third is a 204 yard par 3. The Biarritz meets us early, this one straight out and on the longer side. Bunkers frame the sides and the depth varies the distance and pin placements well. I wouldn’t envy the golfer needing to get from one end to the other.
The Fourth is a 392 yard par 4. We start to move further into the course, teeing off above and needing to carry the Van Saun Mill Brook. Moving uphill to the green, note the bunker on the left running against the fairway. It is one of a trio that move at an angle across the hillside and similar to the bunker schemes Raynor enjoyed installing. The green is further up the hill with the thematic below grade bunkers on each side of the green, which is deep and narrow.
The Fifth is a 377 yard par 4. Another masterclass job with bunker placement and variation, the golfer must take note before rapping at his tee shot. There’s an open area left center before bunkers start closing in on the right, then the fairway opens up again a bit just before the green. Another brilliant use of the diagonal bunker short left of the green, which shifts the fairway to the right as it curves into the entry point of the green.
The Sixth is a 142 yard par 3. We come upon the Short, the dancing fescue toying with our visuals from the tee just a little while bunkers ceremoniously surround the green from below. I some how managed to not only miss the green but ended up in such a precarious lie at the edge of one of the bunkers that things moved all too fast as I futilely tried to hole out. The green is nicely sized and the distance manageable, so don’t be me and you’ll be fine. That goes for most of life, by the way.
The Seventh is a 378 yard par 4. Now we kind of wrap around the rear side of the property on our way back to the clubhouse. The bunkering here is another worthy of note; a quartet lined up at an angle right in the middle of the big bad fairway. Mind them off the tee. The green favors the right side while a cluster of circular bunkers separates our fairway from the Fifteenth. The off center nature of a lot of the greens creates immediate interest and that is certainly true here.
The Eighth is a 534 yard par 5. Still on the outer perimeter, things stretch out and I would call this the Long. A single fairway short right, the trees and its length are the prominent defenses. The green has its grand below grade bunkers on either side while the green has some sly movement.
The Ninth is a 421 yard par 4. At the outset, I believe this is an infinitely better hole if it didn’t need to wrestle for room with the driving range but as it stands, the tee shot needs to stay left and there’s little room for error. This all changes with the approach, where the trees open up and the green is before us. The bunkers are like trenches moving where they may below the green and the nearby Eighteenth. I would recommend avoiding them.
The front nine stays relatively on the perimeter of the property with a solid, varied pair of par 3’s, all kinds of solid par 4’s and a really good shorter par 5. The bunkering is impressive throughout. I would rank them 7, 5, 2, 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9.
The back nine starts with the 515 yard par 5 Tenth. Running parallel and to the left of the First, the fairway is a bit narrower off the tee and there’s a similar fairway bunker on the right as the First. Moving downhill before up to the green, the modest size of the green lets the golfer know this is a stiff start. Like the fairway, the green widens at its latter half.
The Eleventh is a 425 yard par 4. The restored fairway bunker can be seen from the tee and even from there, it is clear that the Sahara awaits for anyone making the mistake of hitting it over there. The left side is much more accommodating and seems to open up the green on approach. There are of course two green side bunkers, one on each side that we have grown accustomed, and the play is always to try and find where the approach splits them at the entry point.
The Twelfth is a 184 yard par 3. Of all the holes that epitomizes the bold grandeur of Banks style, this hole does it better than most. A stunning Redan where the steep bunker banks are somewhat obscured from the tee, the high right area before it welcoming enough for many to utilize. The green indeed moves right to left yet also back to front, channeling between the bunkers on either side, none of which are preferable places to end up. The lower left rear has enough contour that a lot of shots in that area will keep moving towards the water beyond. Visually, the hole reveals itself slowly and the golfer only discovers his precarious position when he is actually in it. Strategically, there are plenty of ways to go about it whether by land or air, all of them aided by just how much the golfer knows from past experience. It’s a tremendously good hole and one I could play over and over. And over.
The Thirteenth is a 337 yard par 4. The tee shot is over water, to the left of and parallel to the Second. A shorter par 4 where the trees start to creep in the closer you get to the green, the smaller bunker at the right center can come into play a lot more than it looks. The green is on the smaller side and surrounded by below grade bunkers except for at that elusive entry point, which here is mercifully front and center. Thus far, the back nine has a nice cadence to it.
The Fourteenth is a 347 yard par 4. This nice cadence continues with the elevated tee shot over Van Saun, where a tree on the right and bunker further out on the left is enough to keep things interesting. The series of bunkers running against the terrain mentioned at the Fourth are more evident here. The green shape in conjunction with the mounding on the left makes for a wonderful approach up the hill with lots to use and consider, the green of sufficient size to make all of it possible. As we saw at the Tenth, anything too aggressive that ends up off the rear ends up a bit more tricky than one expects at first glance.
The Fifteenth is a 512 yard par 5. The front nine runs on an outer counterclockwise loop while the back nine runs on the same cycle for the most part, but takes the inner road. Here, we eventually meet up with the Seventh on the right, the fairways joining before the green. The shared bunkering between the holes is likewise impressive in how they impact the golfer visually depending on their position moving up to the green, which inevitably leads to strategic decisions as the golfer learns more and more about the course. While this is a relatively straight hole, the interaction with the Seventh gives it most of its character.
The Sixteenth is a 405 yard par 4. An uphill tee shot with bunker placement confounding preferred lines of play, the left center seems to be ideal. The golfer navigates the tee shot only to confront the approach, which is a punchbowl green guarded by mounding that encases the entire affair. The approach must penetrate these defenses more than frolick about the green like many other punchbowls. Those who miss the green will pay the proper measure of penance and need to further deal with the sentinel mounds.
The Seventeenth is a 160 yard par 3. Water along the right side with the green a little left of the tee, all of it making it tough to calibrate one’s aiming point. There is room before the green on the left to hedge against as well. Just don’t hit it in the water, even if the pin is on the right side and lures you to hit it over on that side.
The Eighteenth is a 387 yard par 4. Bending to the left and moving uphill, bunker positioning is once again spectacular and instills a level of trepidation into the tee shot. The bunkers know the right side is favorable, which makes it even more imperative to get over there and avoid them. The green lies at the same bent angle as the fairway, in between the bunker trenches we saw initially at the Ninth. It’s actually rather slender, bringing those bunkers more into play for those not dead on with their approach. Eventually, you’ll get the ball in the hole and look back on the round, fondly no doubt.
The back nine is solid, especially with its par 4’s and arguably the best hole on the course with the Twelfth. I would rank them 12, 13, 14, 16, 11, 18, 10, 15, 17.
Generally, Hackensack is one of the more engaging Banks courses one can find himself at. The bunkering is extremely well done throughout, showing the Macdonald influence in placement along with the sharper edges Raynor favored, which Banks liked to dramatize. The variety and flow of the holes is also notable, especially when both nines take similar paths about the property. The course allows the strategy and challenge to thrive, which depends on how the golfer decides to take it all on. A very strong classic that shows Banks’ distinct style. The course is also a terrific example of a membership embarking on a distinct vision of what they wanted their course to be with respect to restoration. Likewise, Rees Jones did that restoration work, once again countering hasty generalizations of his career and showing what he’s capable of to those who bother looking.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Grandly understated. The outdoor patio is splendid while the indoor areas are an array of bars, sitting areas and ballrooms.
Practice Area: The range is off to the left of the clubhouse while the putting green resides just behind the clubhouse.