2016 PGA Championship: Baltusrol’s Upper Hand
SPRINGFIELD, NJ—With the playing of the 98th PGA Championship this week at Baltusrol Golf Club attention will be focused on one half of the golf equation at the New Jersey club—the storied Lower Course. What many golf observers may not fully appreciate is that the companion course—aptly named the Upper Course, since it features several holes abutting Baltusrol Mountain—is nothing less than an equal in terms of its overall architecture and challenge provided.
The Upper came into existence—like its big brother sibling—in 1922 and was the handiwork of the same architect, A.W. Tillinghast. The Upper was not created to be the back-up course. Far from it. Just 14 years after its opening the course hosted the U.S. Open won by Tony Manero, firing a final round 67 and setting a new four-round aggregate total of 282. The Lower would not host the Open until 1954 with subsequent returns in 1967, 1980 and 1993.
Unlike the Lower which occupies relatively flattish land on the property, the Upper features plenty of land movement—most especially the greens which are more vexing to putt than what is found on the Lower. Being able to correctly assess the slope and speed of the greens on the Upper can prove to be a most baffling experience for those not blessed with a sound caddie or member to assist them.
Membership pride in the Upper runs deep. The club has made it a point to have other national championships held on the layout. In 1985, the Women’s Open was staged on the Upper and although fan favorite Nancy Lopez was in position to win her first championship in the event, it was unknown 24-year-old Kathy Baker who stole the spotlight winning her first and only major event and being one of only three players to finish under the par total of 288 with a three-under-par aggregate.
In 2000, the Upper staged the 100th U.S. Amateur won by Arizona State Sun Devil Jeff Quinney who bested Massachusetts native James Driscoll in extra holes—winning on the 39th hole after sinking a 20-foot downhill birdie putt.
As a key footnote, the Upper played a major role in determining the winner of the 1954 U.S. Open played on the neighboring Lower Course. Ed Furgol snap-hooked his drive into the trees and fortunately for him was able to play up the adjoining 18th hole on the Upper. The direction was permitted since the Upper’s 18th fairway was not declared out-of-bounds at that time. Furgol finished near the green with his third shot and then proceeded to make a pitch and putt for a par and one-stroke victory over Gene Littler.
For many years the Upper simply was looked upon by outsiders as the “other” course at Baltusrol. Interestingly, it was the son of Robert Trent Jones, Sr.—Rees Jones—who updated the Upper bringing its length from roughly 6,700 yards to now nearly 7,400 yards. The slope from the tips is 151 on the Upper, with the Lower taking a slightly back seat at 147. The course rating on the Upper now is a hefty 75.9. Jones and his design associate Steve Weisser were assigned to carry out a master plan that added length to 12 holes and restored several greens ahead of the U.S. Amateur. Additional work was done in the years to follow in which several holes were lengthened—along with the existing bunkers updated—to bring back into the equation their relevance to the design.
Baltusrol is the only American club in which both of its existing courses have hosted the U.S. Open and Women’s Open. The Upper is also rated among the best courses in the United States by several different major golf publications but often times when guests come to the club they automatically assume the Lower is the choice to play given the fact Jack Nicklaus won two of his four U.S. Opens on that layout.
Tillinghast smartly created two distinct courses at Baltusrol and, along with his equally brilliant two-course creation at nearby Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY, provided for top tier golf that is still challenging the best players in the world.
Amazingly, for this year’s PGA Championship the Upper will reside in invisibility—covered with various tents and other support functions. Make no mistake about it, the Upper is by no means the understudy. With the 21st century at hand, Baltusrol has clearly made an effort to keep both of its golf offerings on the front page of relevancy.
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.