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TILLY’S TALE AT SOMERSET HILLS

An in-depth look at the A.W. Tillinghast designed Somerset Hills Country Club

Somerset Hills embodies a rare opportunity for golf architecture aficionados and players alike. For the design enthusiast, it is a course to be studied closely as an integral step in the progression of one of America’s greatest architects, A.W. Tillinghast. This pivotal work remains frozen in time, largely free of alterations that befell his later courses, especially those that host championships. For the avid player, whether duffer or stick, Somerset Hills is a course to be enjoyed for its beauty and wildly varied set of challenges. A single play only begins to unlock the riddles that Tillinghast put in the ground in Bernardsville, N.J., employing equal parts respect for the land, creative flair, and knowledge of design history.

An Afternoon Walk

Step back in time and imagine that you have been invited to spend an afternoon touring the newly opened course at Somerset Hills in 1918. You get your first intriguing glimpse as you travel along Mine Mount Road, making the turn into the unassuming club entrance. Arriving at the clubhouse, you are surprised to find that your guide for the day will be none other than A.W. Tillinghast himself. A well-heeled and well-traveled Philadelphian, Tilly explored the British Isles, including spending time in St. Andrews with Old Tom Morris, undoubtedly absorbing the oral history of the game that was taking hold of his imagination and heart. Before designing courses, Tillinghast was an accomplished player and writer at a time when the golf craze in the U.S. was peaking. You quickly realize that your walkabout will be complemented by stories born of a particular breadth and depth of experience.

Somerset’s Redan 2nd – Credit: Simon Haines

A good storyteller does not immediately begin yelling at you, maintaining that intensity from start to finish. There are ebbs and flows that build toward a climax, all delivered with creative color. It is clear to you that A.W. Tillinghast is a master storyteller as he strolls along telling tales of his sources of inspiration, his design ideas and how they manifested on the site he was given at Somerset Hills. Of course, a great design begins with taking a player on an exploration of the land. You notice the way his holes meander, change direction, and bend, coherently combining to create moments of quiet intimacy contrasted with expansive views. He pauses on many greens to direct your focus backward as a reminder that what lies behind often foreshadows what is to come.

Like Macdonald before him, Tillinghast was entranced by North Berwick’s redan and created his version at the 2nd. Other “ideal hole” elements can be found throughout the course on the 13th, 14th and 16th. He points out the classic quirk of rugged mounds and bunkers cut into humps that were built by man, as well as the contours and creeks provided by nature for hazards. The greens are of such character and quality that you want to stop and spend extended time at each, but your guide will not allow for interruptions to the natural flow. As your tour and the story unfolds, the theme of variety becomes apparent throughout, maintaining the level of engagement even in moments of rest. With the afternoon light fading and Tilly’s cigarette smoke wafting by on the breeze, you find yourself mildly intoxicated by the combination of the journey completed and the stories told. Departing the property with a final glance back, it occurs to you that A.W. Tillinghast shared the story of golf architecture up to 1918, and his course at Somerset Hills embodies that history.

The 10th green, with 17th and 18th behind – Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

An Inflection Point

Somerset Hills was not Tillinghast’s first design, but it would come to be known as his first great one. He drew upon the standout courses and holes he had seen in the U.K., as well as home grown offerings like Myopia Hunt Club, Garden City, National Golf Links, Pine Valley and Merion. His experience afforded him a treasure trove of strategic and visual elements into which he dipped liberally, always adding his own creative flair. Somerset was not just important as an homage to the first twenty years of American design though. It was a jumping off point for an incredible run of courses—Quaker Ridge, San Francisco G.C., Philadelphia Cricket Club and Baltusrol, among others—each expressing Tilly’s grasp of the principles of strategic architecture and his commitment to variety, while always staying true to the unique sense of place of each site. His portfolio stands as a testament to his versatility, as well as an inspiration to the architects who followed in his footsteps.

Taking the time to look backward from each green at Somerset Hills provides insight into how the holes on all of his courses remain brilliantly relevant to this day. He had a gift for finding good green sites, and for building wonderful putting surfaces and surrounds on those sites. Working back, the ideal angles into the different sections of the green become apparent. Tilly positioned his tees and routed his fairways over the topography, accented by varied hazards, giving players a chance to work those angles to their advantage. Well conceived and executed shots are rewarded. From the tee forward, the ideal route is often not apparent. Somerset has its fair share of blind, semi-blind and visible-but-intimidating shots. Like many in the Tillinghast portfolio, it is a course that hides its secrets from first-timers, only revealing itself through repeat play.

The Course

A round at Somerset Hills is a tale of two nines. The outward half is routed intimately in a gentle valley below the clubhouse in a space previously occupied by a race track. Tillinghast incorporated remnants of that track into the design. The inward nine makes its way into the woods, past a lake, through wetlands and then takes a final hilly ride back up to the clubhouse. The only meaningful change Tilly’s original is a repositioning of the 10th green to stretch it from a par-4 to a par-5.

Although each nine has a distinct feel, the course retains its cohesion. Interestingly, the front nine is compact but feels more expansive than the back, which works back and forth over a ridge. Throughout the course, Tillinghast alternates between narrowing and widening the player’s focus, creating an enjoyable rhythm. Playing Somerset is truly like taking a journey.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

There is an optimal presentation standard that Superintendent Ryan Tuxhorn and his team nail on the head at Somerset—everything is done, but nothing is overdone. This is an old course and they allow it to exude that classic feel, without any hint of it being tired. Brian Slawnick from Renaissance Golf Design has consulted over the years on fairway lines, green expansions, bunker edges and tree management, but has thankfully not changed the character. Further, Tuxhorn takes what Mother Nature gives and provides the best playing conditions possible. The course is allowed to change with the weather and the seasons, very much in tune with the spirit of variety that Tillinghast intended. The course tour that follows, with photos from Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) is meant to convey Somerset’s gorgeous seasonal range.

The opener is a solid par-4 that bends right through the orchard and then runs downhill to a green that is open in the front. The 2nd is Tilly’s appropriately famous rendition of the redan with forebunkers center and a deep bunker left. The green is severely sloped from high front-right to low back-left and can be used to advantage, or spell disaster. Good shots are required right out of the gate.

The 3rd through 6th are intertwined on the interior of this portion of the property. Creativity abounds with the elevated 3rd green, the dolomites on the 4th and 6th, and the gloriously bold contours of the putting surface on the 5th. At no point does the player feel like they are on a bland march.

The final stretch of the front nine works around the perimeter and back up to the clubhouse. The 7th is a tough par-4 featuring a blind drive to a fairway that slopes all the way down into the front of the large green. The one-shot 8th plays perilously along a rock wall boundary to a green flanked by created bunkering. The 9th is a right-to-left par-5 where Tilly employed his trademark great hazard.

The back nine opens with the only hole that has been altered from Tillinghast’s design. The left-to-right dogleg now plays as a par-5 uphill to a green set on a hillside. The par-4 11th bends right past a lake and over a creek, and features one of the wildest greens on the course. The idyllic setting of the green at the par-3 12th distracts players from the punishment that awaits wayward tee balls.

The next two holes play on top of the ridge and have shades of Macdonald-Raynor influence. The par-4 13th features a left-center principal’s nose and a biarritz green. Quite the creative combination! The 14th turns around and heads back to a large, plateaued green that demands a much more precise approach than its footprint would indicate. A pair of outstanding two-shotters.

The par-4 15th is blind off the tee and requires a left-to-right shape to take advantage of the downhill fairway. The large green is fronted by a creek, creating a picture-perfect scene. The final one-shotter on the course, the 16th has hints of the Eden template, with Tilly’s creative twists of course.

Somerset Hills provides one last rollercoaster ride with its final pair of four pars. The 17th begins with a blind drive over a chasm to a fairway that rolls severely downhill. The 18th plays back uphill into the shadow of the clubhouse to one more boldly contoured green. Two par-4s that are ideal for match play as birdies and doubles are equally likely results.

By the time he arrived at the site that would become Somerset Hills, A.W. Tillinghast had a story to tell. It was a tale of where golf had come from, with hints of where it might be headed. He poured his heart and mind onto this land in the New Jersey countryside. Members and visitors ever since have been the beneficiaries, as they loop around and around, learning Tilly’s tricks and experiencing his tale for themselves.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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AN APPRECIATION OF GREAT COURSES BY JON CAVALIER

Over the years, I have learned a great deal about courses and architecture from the creators of GolfClubAtlas.com and its community.  Perhaps no other contributor has shared his knowledge and experience in a more impactful way than Jon Cavalier though.

His course tours are at once visually stunning and packed with information.  His perspective, and the unsurpassed manner in which he expresses it, stirs up my passion for the game.

Below are links to Jon’s tours.  And for a daily dose of Jon’s photography, follow him on Twitter (@LinksGems) and Instagram (@LinksGems).


JON’S NEWEST TOUR – LONGUE VUE CLUB

Longue Vue is a course that is under the radar of most, but for those who enjoy their golf fun, fast and challenging, and with some gorgeous scenery sprinkled in, Longue Vue is not to be missed.  Read more…


MORE LINKSGEMS TOURS

BANDON PRESERVE

The Preserve is one of those elements that makes a trip to Bandon so special.  The uniqueness of a short course in such a beautiful setting; the opportunity to add to long travel day with a quick loop; the fun of plunking down a few wagers with your foursome; or perhaps best of all, a solo walk around these thirteen holes at dusk, with only your wedge, your putter and your thoughts of rounds played and rounds to come.  See the tour here…

BANDON TRAILS

The uniqueness of Bandon Trails among the courses at Bandon Dunes Resort, coupled with the beautiful terrain and the outstanding Coore/Crenshaw design, make this golf course a favorite among many Bandon visitors.  See the tour here…

BAYONNE GOLF CLUB

Bayonne Golf Club is, to put it mildly, one of the more unique golf clubs in the United States.  Built entirely from scratch by Eric Bergstol, the course represents the antithesis of the “minimalist” trend in golf course architecture, and yet, somehow, appears more “natural” than many other courses built in the last 20 years.  The result is, in a word, spectacular.  See the tour here…

BOSTON GOLF CLUB

I had the privilege of seeing this 2004 Gil Hanse design on a beautiful late-October afternoon, and while I had heard good things about the club previously, to say that Boston Golf Club exceeded my expectations would be a dramatic understatement.  See the tour here…

EASTWARD HO!

I have had the great pleasure and fortune of playing some of the most “charming” golf courses in the east this year and Eastward Ho, in my opinion, belongs on any list of such courses.  It’s an exciting, fun, playable and unique golf course that deserves more than the share of accolates that it currently receives.  I can’t remember having such an enjoyable time on a golf course.  See the tour here…

FISHERS ISLAND CLUB

Some golf courses are special.  We all know that feeling we get when we play one of these courses.  Our senses are heightened, our memories are sharpened, our spirits are lifted, and our love for the game of golf is strengthened and vindicated by the experience.  Fishers Island is a special golf course.  See the tour here…

GARDEN CITY GOLF CLUB

I can’t really express how much I enjoyed this golf course, so for the most part, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.  See the tour here…

MAIDSTONE CLUB

On the other hand are golfers looking for something other than sheer difficulty in a golf course.  These players are looking for a course that provides something different, something out of the ordinary, something they’ve never seen before.  These players are searching for a place that provides an element of the game so often forgotten in modern golf: fun.  Maidstone is that place.  See the tour here…

MYOPIA HUNT CLUB

Suffice it to say that I loved Myopia.  There is a vibe emanating from certain of these old clubs that I find quite appealing, and Myopia has it in spades.  The building that houses the bar and dining areas was built in 1772.  The course is virtually unchanged from 19th century origins, save for a bit of added length.  It’s an incredible place.  See the tour here…

NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA

For me, this is sacred ground.  As a devout member of the church of MacRaynor, and indeed, as one who owes his very interest in golf course architecture and history to the golf courses these men left behind, playing a round of golf at the National was my pilgrimage, my Mecca.  Charles Blair Macdonald’s masterpiece did not disappoint.  See the tour here…

OLD MACDONALD

Drawing upon their extensive experience in restoring the classic work of Macdonald and Raynor, Doak and Urbina set about building a course that would allow players to experience this classic golden age style of design while independently providing a fun and engaging golf experience.  The result is an absolute triumph.  See the tour here…

OLD SANDWICH

Any modern architect working in the Boston area faces the challenge of designing a course that will inevitably be measured and compared to these venerable courses, which were built by Golden Age titans with names like Donald Ross, William Flynn, Herbert Fowler and Herbert Leeds.  Such is the tall task that faced Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in the early 2000s.  Suffice it to say, these two gentleman, as they have so often done, rose to the occasion with gusto.  See the tour here…

OLD TOWN CLUB

When it became apparent that time had taken its toll on this old beauty, the members chose Coore & Crenshaw to perform an extensive restoration of the property. Suffice it to say, the duo did a magnificent job.  See the tour here…

PACIFIC DUNES

Pacific Dunes is simply stunning — it is one of the most beautiful places to play golf that I have ever seen.  But beyond its sheer beauty, it is also an extremely well designed and very enjoyable golf course.  See the tour here…

SHINNECOCK HILLS 

The rich tradition of championship golf at Shinnecock Hills continues this summer.  The collaboration between Superintendent Jon Jennings and Coore & Crenshaw has brought out every ounce of the brilliance of William Flynn’s Long Island masterpiece.  Shinny is ready to test the best.  See the tour here…

SHOREACRES

Shoreacres not only occupies some of the most gorgeous golfing land in the United States, but it is also maintained in absolutely perfect condition.  Note that this is not to say that the club is focused on providing a flawless, manicured playing surface (though they do), but rather that the club’s focus on giving players a firm, bouncy and fast surface tee to green allows the course to playexactly as Raynor intended, and brings out all of the best features that Macdonald and Raynor viewed as essential to the game.  See the tour here…

SLEEPY HOLLOW COUNTRY CLUB

Sleepy Hollow is, quite simply, one of my favorite places in the country to play golf.  Exceptional golden age architecture, spectacular views, exciting shots, fabulous conditions — Sleepy Hollow has everything a golfer could want.  See the tour here…

SOMERSET HILLS COUNTRY CLUB

From the moment I hit the entrance to the property, Somerset Hills exceeded my expectations in every regard.  It’s beautiful, strategic, interesting, unique and fun, and the condition of the course was fantastic and conducive to good golf.  See the tour here…

WHIPPOORWILL CLUB

Whippoorwill is a Charles Banks design and is generally considered to be his masterpiece.  I’ve had the great pleasure of playing several Banks courses, and Whippoorwill is in a class by itself.  While this course is smack in the middle of one of the most golf rich areas in the world, the degree to which it is overshadowed by its neighbors borders on criminal.  This is simply a fantastic golf course, and it contains one of the most dramatic and memorable stretches of holes that I’ve seen.  See the tour here…


MORE FROM JON CAVALIER

BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE TO C.B. MACDONALD

On November 14, 1855, Charles Blair Macdonald was born in Ontario.  After growing up in Chicago, he attended St. Andrews University, where he learned golf from Old Tom Morris.  In 1874, he returned to Chicago but rarely played golf until 1891, calling these years his “dark ages.”  Read more…

WALKER CUP COURSE PREVIEW – LACC

The 2017 Walker Cup is being contested at the historic Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course.  Originally opened in 1911 and redesigned by George C. Thomas Jr in 1921, the North Course was recently restored by Gil Hanse’s team, with an assist from Geoff Shackelford.  Read more…

2016 YEAR IN REVIEW

It is clear at this point that Jon is a very talented guy.  He is also extremely generous to put this amount of work into sharing his photos with us, with no concern for remuneration.  Those of us who have had the pleasure of teeing it with him will tell you this about Jon as well – he’s as a good a golf buddy as you’ll ever find.  Read more…

TOP 10 NEW COURSES OF 2015

The end of the year is a time for reflection on days past, anticipation of days to come, and most of all, a time for … LISTS!  Top 10 lists seem to be everywhere this week, and far be it for me to resist this trend. So, in that vein, here are the Top 10 Courses that I played for the first time in 2015 (along with some honorable mentions).  Read more…