SOMERSET HILLS COUNTRY CLUB – A COURSE TOUR & APPRECIATION
Bernardsville, NJ – A.W. Tillinghast
On a recent Tillinghast Tour, I was fortunate to be able to play Somerset Hills, Quaker Ridge and Fenway Golf Club. Previously, I’d played the East Course at Baltimore Country Club / Five Farms, Ridgewood Country Club, Bethpage Black and Red, and the Wissahickon Course at Philadelphia Cricket Club, as well as some lesser lights. I mention this because, while I very much enjoyed each of these courses (more than a few of which are undeniably great), I feel like this gives me a good base from which to opine that Somerset Hills is the best that I’ve seen of Tillinghast’s work.
I’ve always been aware of Somerset Hills and its status as a fine, if low-key, private facility, as it sits some 60 miles as the crow flies from Philadelphia. Its reputation, at least down this way, is often overshadowed by Tillinghast’s tournament venues – Baltusrol, Winged Foot and Bethpage. I’ve heard that that is the club’s intent. But from the moment I hit the entrance to the property, Somerset Hills exceeded my expectations in every regard. It is beautiful, strategic, interesting, unique and fun, and the condition of the course was fantastic and conducive to good golf. I can’t speak highly enough about it.
On the day we played, we had varied weather conditions – bright sun, full cloud cover, some light fog/mist, a little rain and even a sunshower. Add in the bright fall colors that adorned the area, and you have a golf course that was practically crying out to be photographed. So I obliged.
I hope you enjoy the tour.
Somerset Hills is in Bernardsville, NJ. The drive to the club winds through some gorgeous areas replete with horse farms and open spaces.
The understated clubhouse fits in well with the rest of the club.
Each of the holes at Somerset Hills is given a name (a practice that I, for some reason, support and enjoy very much). The course plays to 6,756 from the championship tees and 6,384 from the regular tees to a par of 71.
Hole 1 – “Orchard” – 448yds – Par 4
Somerset Hills opens with a long, tough par 4 – no gentlemen’s handshake here. The first is a dogleg right with a slight rise obscuring the landing area from the tee.
An apple orchard sits inside the dogleg – both green and red apples are grown at Somerset.
The first hole gives the player an introduction to the beautiful terrain, which was put to good use by Tillinghast. The green is tilted from left to right, while the “safe” miss to the right is guarded by several bunkers.
The view from behind the first green, illustrating the wonderful contours within the putting surface.
Hole 2 – “Redan” – 205yds – Par 3
Tilly’s Redan. Somerset Hills starts off tough. I’ve played three dozen versions of the redan, and this is easily one of the best.
From the back tee, the player is fully aware that a direct approach to the left pin is not advisable.
This view, from just short of the 8th green, shows the beautiful way in which Tillinghast draped this hole over the existing terrain.
Tilly’s Redan green has some of the most extreme internal movement of any green at Somerset, and of any Redan, for that matter. Some say this hole is diminished because so few pin positions exist. I would not complain if this green was pinned in exactly this spot every day. This hole plays exactly as a Redan should play.
Hole 3 – “Bunker Hill – 376yds – Par 4
An apt name for a wonderful hole, the third plays to a wide fairway. The angle left for the approach is critical here. On this day, a passing storm provided an added challenge.
The ideal approach on 3. Through the raindrops.
Full view of the 3rd green, as seen from the 6th tee.
The reward for our soldiering on through five minutes of light rain was this rainbow over the 3rd green.
Hole 4 – “Dolomites” – 457yds – Par 4
A wonderful par 4, the player’s eye is drawn to the striking “dolomites” mounding that Tillinghast put in to separate the parallel 4th and 6th holes. Notice how the green is simply an extension of the fairway. A bunker guards the ideal spot from which to approach this green.
The approach to 4. While artificial, the dolomites add to, rather than detract from, this beautiful par 4. The way Tillinghast used these mounds to frame the hole reminded me of the 2nd at Myopia.
Not position “A”.
The view back down the 4th fairway. Elevation plays a role at Somerset, even on the much more subdued front nine.
Hole 5 – “Nairn” – 343yds – Par 4
The first short par 4 at Somerset Hills, this little beauty provides the player with his first good chance at birdie, as most players will carry the bunker guarding the inside of the slight dogleg…
…and have nothing more than a wedge into the green. However…
…this is no ordinary green!
These mounds guard the right rear quadrant of the 5th green and will provide quite the interesting putt if enmeshed in them (sadly, the club does not pin this green in between the mounds).
Hole 6 – “Plateau” – 501yds – Par 5
The second “easy” hole in a row, the 6th is a dogleg right that can be cut off the tee by the longer player.
The 6th also brings the player back into the dolomites, and cuts across the old race track which Tillinghast incorporated into his design.
The view from behind the 6th green shows both the substantial back to front slope of the putting surface and the open and expansive feel of the front nine at Somerset Hills.
Hole 7 – “Racetrack” – 484yds – Par 4
Perhaps the best par 4 on the front nine, the 7th begins with a tee shot over a rise in the fairway, which obscures the green and the landing area.
The downhill approach from the left side of the fairway on 7.
Again, the fairway blends seamlessly into the green. Running approach shots are permitted and encouraged here.
The view back up the gorgeous 7th.
Hole 8 – “Dip” – 230yds – Par 3
Suffice it to say that the two one-shotters on the front nine at Somerset Hills are not the easiest par that you’ll find. Given its length, Tillinghast built this long par 3 with a large, deep green.
This wide view from behind the 8th green reveals the intricate and challenging character of the putting surface.
Hole 9 – “Westward Ho” – 529yds – Par 5
An uphill, dogleg left par 5, the 9th plays around the apple orchard and back up to the clubhouse.
The fairway, which divides like the tongue of a snake, dead-ends at a complex of mounding and bunkers. The orchard is visible to the left of the fairway.
This view from the 9th green shows the substantial cant of the fairway and the benefits of a low draw into this green.
The substantial drop left of the 9th green, and the fantastic fall colors at Somerset Hills.
Hole 10 – “Sunningdale” – 496yds – Par 5
The second of back-to-back par 5s bookending the turn, the 10th plays downhill and around a dogleg right…
…then back up a slight rise to a well-defended green set back in a wooded knoll. This is the only non-original Tillinghast green on the course, which was lost when this hole was lengthened many years ago – the site of the original green is still visible, marked by subtle lines in the right side of the fairway and right rough, in the photo below.
The view from behind the 10th flag.
Hole 11 – “Perfection” – 412yds – Par 4
Holes 11-18 at Somerset Hills have a distinctly difficult flavor than Holes 1-10. The latter stretch plays across a mostly open plain with some modest elevation change, while the former plays through and around much more dramatic terrain. The 11th plays downhill to a landing area that looks much smaller than it is, then doglegs 90 degrees right and back up to the green. The par 3 12th green is visible in the background of the photo below. This is a beautiful golf hole.
The challenging approach shot on 11, back up a slight rise to an undulating green.
This panoramic shot shows the setting of the 12th and 11th greens.
The excellent green complex at 11.
Hole 12 – “Despair” – 151yds – Par 3
Aptly named, as many players surely find it here. The first short par 3 at Somerset Hills is by no means easy, as the green slopes so severely from back right to front left that the hole plays somewhat like a reverse redan. A beautiful hole in a gorgeous setting.
The view from behind and above the 12th green, with the 11th hole in full view.
Hole 13 – “Corner” – 409yds – Par 4
Once again, the landing area is blind to the tee on this par 4. Bunkers on the right guard the desired side of this fairway.
The approach from the left side into the 13th green, over the center bunkers, to a green…
…bisected by a Biarritz-like swale. Great pin position, very fun hole.
Hole 14 – “Ridge” – 416yds – Par 4
A wide fairway with a slight incline makes for a slightly uncomfortable tee shot. Once again, the angle left from the tee shot is of high importance on this hole.
The approach into 14, with a massive infinity green.
The 14th is one of the largest and most undulating greens on the course. The variety of great pin positions available on this hole is astounding.
Hole 15 – “Happy Valley” – 407yds – Par 4
The club considers the 15th their “signature hole,” and I wouldn’t argue that designation. The favored ball here is a cut over the bunker and down the hill.
The beautiful setting of the 15th green, guarded front and left by a meandering stream.
Hole 16 – “Deception” – 170yds – Par 3
The 16th is akin to a shorter reverse redan, as the green slopes significantly from right to left. Putting down from the high left side to the pictured pin position often results in a chip for one’s third shot.
The 16th green from behind, with the 17th green in the background. What a wonderful setting for golf!
Hole 17 – “Quarry” – 387yds – Par 4
The first of two shorter par 4s that complete the round at Somerset Hills, the 17th plays up over an abrupt rise, then…
..falls steeply downhill to the green. This hole plays shorter than the yardage indicates, but hitting the green is critical, as it slopes steeply off on all sides.
This view from behind the 17th green shows the drastic elevation change.
As does this panoramic view of the 17th green and 18th tee.
Hole 18 – “Thirsty Summit” – 335yds – Par 4
The short 18th opens with a tee shot back up the rise toward the clubhouse.
As its name would indicate, the 18th finishes mere steps from the clubhouse, and its well appointed bar.
As the player climbs the 18th fairway, he is afforded this view of the 10th and 17th greens behind and below him.
The gorgeous view across the 18th green, with the 12th green visible in the valley beyond.
Somerset Hills is a must play for any fan of Tillinghast in particular or of golden age golf architecture in general. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hope you enjoyed the tour.
MORE LINKSGEMS TOURS
- Bandon Preserve
- Bandon Trails
- Boston Golf Club
- Eastward Ho!
- Fishers Island
- Garden City
- Myopia Hunt Club
- Old Macdonald
- Old Sandwich
- Old Town
- Pacific Dunes
- Sleepy Hollow
Copyright 2018 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf
6 thoughts on “Somerset Hills CC Tour by Jon Cavalier”
Jon: Thank you so, so much for this! I grew up caddying at Somerset Hills and playing every Monday from dawn ’til dusk. If I had 1 round of golf left to play, SHCC would be the venue. The 2nd, 12th and 15th holes are postcard perfect and so fun to play. There was nothing sweeter than puring an iron on the 2nd on the perfect line and then racing up to the green to find out how close it finished to the left-cut pin. Or flushing a drive on 15 right over the bunker and eagerly cresting the hill to discover how much roll you got and whether you’d have a short-iron second. SHCC is absolutely amazing and when you play it you feel as if you’ve gone back in time, half-expecting to see Walter Travis, Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen on the next hole. I played it again a few years back, for the first time since the 1980s. What a treat! The tree-clearing and other restoration work recovered the true glory of a masterpiece. Your pictures are amazing (I wish more had been used in the Golf Club Atlas article) and perfectly capture that Somerset Hills feel. I miss it. A lot. Sigh. Keep up the great work!
Thanks for visiting, and for the kind words John. I will pass them on to Jon. Happy to hear that you enjoyed the photo tour. Make sure you check out our second Somerset article as well, which includes more recent LinksGems photos of the course: https://geekedongolf.com/2019/06/tillys-tale-at-somerset-hills/
Jason: I didn’t appreciate that this profile of Somerset Hills was yours, with Jon contributing the photos, so the kind words were meant for you as well. It’s a fantastic profile. Thanks for the link to the second Somerset Hills article — it’s wonderful too, especially the photo from the earliest years of the iconic second hole. I’ll return to both whenever I need a SHCC fix. BTW, if you’re ever in St. Louis, I’d be happy to host you at Norwood Hills Country Club, a 1922 36-hole, Wayne Stiles creation, whose West course hosted the 1948 PGA Championship, won by Ben Hogan. Unfortunately, no Tilly courses in St. Louis, but Stiles’ designs have sometimes been mistaken for Tilly’s, or at least been deemed to share a similar aesthetic. Interestingly, Norwood commissioned a redesign plan in 2008 that was prepared by architect Michael Riley, who grew up in Bernardsville, caddied at SHCC, and calls it his favorite course. Unfortunately, the recession hit just as the plan, which is fantastic, was presented and only some bits and pieces have been implemented. I hope more of the plan will be implemented as Norwood reworks its bunkers.
That is a very generous offer – thank you! Would love to see Norwood at some point. St. Louis is on my to do list for golf explorations. You actually had it right. This profile was done entirely by Jon. He amassed more photos over the years, so we collaborated on a redux, which is the link I shared with you. Happy to hear that you enjoyed them both. Looking forward to teeing it up some day.