Springfield, NJ—New Jersey is the 46th largest State in area in the United States, but its reputation in the golf arena clearly exceeds its limited geographical size—both historically and carrying through to the present day. In boxing terms, no other state in America carries as much punch for such a limited size in total area. Unfortunately, because the State is bracketed by the likes of New York City and Philadelphia it is often thought to be nothing more than an appendage to those larger cities. Far from it.
The Garden State has a golf history that is rich—in terms of the key courses located there and the many interesting people who have played various roles in the development of golf in America.
Leading the way is Baltusrol Golf Club. Founded in 1895 by Louis Keller, the Springfield-based club has played an active role in staging major golf championships, stretching back to the earliest days of golf in the 20th century. With this year’s PGA Championship Baltusrol will have hosted 17 national championships—including seven U.S. Opens and two PGA’s. The club is also the only facility in America in which both courses—Lower and Upper—have been host sites for the U.S. Open.
The formidable Lower Course—originally an A.W. Tillinghast design and opened for play in 1922—was updated in the early 1950’s by Montclair resident and world renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. The work that Jones created proved so demanding members suggested he play the strengthened par-3 4th hole with its daunting water carry. Jones came to Baltusrol and proceeded to hit a 4-iron into the hole. Without skipping a beat he pronounced, “Gentlemen, as you can see, the hole is eminently fair!”
New Jersey is also home to Pine Valley—consistently rated among the top 3–4 golf clubs globally.. Located in the southwestern corner of the state, Pine Valley opened in 1913 as the brainchild of hotelier George Crump. Born in Philadelphia in 1871, Crump was an avid golfer and his only design sprung from ideas from courses in Britain and in Europe he played. Unfortunately, Crump died before the final four remaining holes opened—completed after his death at age 46. The aura of Pine Valley has only grown in time as the course possesses an array of stellar holes.
Sadly, because of the nature of the terrain and the club’s penchant for privacy, no major championships—save for the 1985 Walker Cup Matches—have been played on the grounds and its overall mystique fostered since so many golfers know of its considerable reputation but have seen so little of it through television.
In 1954, Arnold Palmer, in his first visit to Pine Valley arranged a significant wager to recoup money spent on an engagement ring for his late wife Winnie. Palmer fired scores of 67, 69 and 68—securing nearly enough money to pay for the ring. A few years later, Jack Nicklaus played the course on his honeymoon, however new bride Barbara waited in their car since the club was a men’s only bastion and did not permit women on the grounds at that time.
- In 1887, Essex County Country Club in West Orange organized as NJ’s oldest country club—with 36 holes to open shortly thereafter. Bobby Jones played an exhibition on both courses and highlighted the 15th hole on the former private West Course—called Francis Bryne now—among the strongest par-4’s he had ever played.
In 1903 the term “birdie” was coined at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield. Not far from ACCC the first PGA Championship was played in the State in 1942 at Seaview County Club in nearby Absecon. A blossoming golf star named Sam Snead earned both his first Wannamaker Trophy and first of seven major titles. Snead bested Jim Turnesa—who was serving the U.S. Army with literally a battalion of fellow GI’s rooting him on from nearby Fort Dix. Sam later mentioned how much he gained from the experience given earlier failures in winning major events. Interestingly, a year prior at the 1941 PGA Championship, a Rumson native—Vic Ghezzi—claimed his first and only major championship. In 1946, Ghezzi would lose the U.S. Open in a playoff and his stellar career play garnered him a spot in the PGA Hall of Fame in 1965.
- Morris County Golf Club, located in Convent Station, started in 1894—the only club of its kind in the USA organized and managed by women.
One of NJ’s most important contributors was George Jacobus. Born in Brook Lake, the head golf professional at The Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus served as President of the PGA of America from 1932–39. Jacobus rose from the caddie ranks—the first association president native to America.
Ridgewood played a central role in hosting the 5th Ryder Cup Matches in the aftermath of The Great Depression—made possible through the generous donations from club members. The American side won a score of 9–3 and were led for the final time by playing Captain Walter Hagen. One of the members of the USA squad—Craig Wood—would later become a member of Ridgewood and add triumphs in 1941 at The Masters and the U.S. Open. Jacobus attended the 1935 Masters and identified a developing player named Byron Nelson. Jacobus hired the Texan as his assistant and during his brief stint won the NJ Open in 1935 and Met Open one year later before commencing his Hall-of-Fame career.
- In 1913, Weequahic Park in Newark opened—the oldest publicly-owned course in the Garden State—coincidentally designed by George Low, a Baltusrol club professional at that time.
With clubs teetering during The Great Depression, Jacobus convinced PGA leadership in 1935 to hire the talented architect A.W. Tillinghast—the man responsible for NJ courses such as Baltusrol and Ridgewood—to provide no cost consultation services to PGA-member courses to bolster their designs and provide member clubs with a clear reason in keeping PGA members on staff when many were let go because of the plunging economy. Tillinghast, who lived much of his adult life in the Bergen County community of Harrington Park, eventually visited over 400 courses nationwide. The plan was a success. Keeping the PGA of America relevant and having Tillinghast upgrade various courses in serious need of his design talents. Jacobus served Ridgewood for 50 plus years and was elected posthumously to the PGA Hall of Fame in 1965.
- In 1920 Shady Rest opened as the first African-American golf and country club in the USA. John Shippen, a superb golfer, competed and finished 5th in the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. The property is now called Scotch Hills Golf Course, owned by Scotch Plains Township and open to all.
Another Jersey resident emerged years later as President of the PGA. This time the issues were more internal than external. Leo Fraser, long-time owner of the Atlantic City Country Club, assumed the leadership mantle in 1969–1970. During his term an ugly divorce between players competing in weekly tour events and those representing the bulk of the membership was brewing. Fraser played a key role and the resulting solution meant the creation of the PGA Tour. The two entities continue to this day as separate but affiliated organizations.
- William Lowell, Sr., a Maplewood dentist — is credited with marketing the first wooden tee in 1921.
Growing the game has been a consistent clarion call to present day efforts. In 2012, the New Jersey PGA Section received the Herb Graffis Award from the PGA of America for its exemplary effort in player development. Founded in 1931, the NJPGA was lauded for an initiative called Golf in Schools. Starting in 2009 and impacting 95,000 boys and girls at elementary and middle schools throughout the Garden State at 168 schools, the program has been a model for all 41 PGA sections across the country. Funded through the New Jersey Golf Foundation, the charitable arm of the Section is offered at no cost to school districts.
- The Champions Tour debuted in 1980 when Atlantic City Country Club hosted the Atlantic City Senior Invitational—won by Texan Don January who earlier claimed the 1967 PGA Championship. From that event the existing Champions Tour blossomed to a yearly schedule and provides an extension of playing careers for those past stars on the PGA Tour.
Beyond the likes of Baltusrol Lower and Pine Valley the Garden State has seven courses rated among the top 100 classic courses in the USA as defined by Golfweek for those opening before 1960. Only four other States placed more and each is considerably larger in overall size and total courses. The list includes Plainfield in Edison a past host of The Barclays PGA Tour event; Somerset Hills in Bernardsville; Baltusrol Upper in Springfield; Ridgewood / Championship in Paramus—also a past site of The Barclays and Hollywood in Deal.
The public golf scene is also diverse and provides an array of top tier golf options. Among the best, beyond the quality of the aforementioned ACCC, includes the likes of Ballyowen in Hamburg, Twisted Dune in Egg Harbor Township near Atlantic City area, Hominy Hill in Colts Neck, Architects Club in Lopatcong, Neshanic Valley in Neshanic Station and Heron Glen in Ringoes, to name just a few of note.
The Garden State has been ground zero for a good deal of meaningful golf history and colorful personalities. This year’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club will only add to that impressive portfolio.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.