WAYNE, N.J. – His name is Hank Gola, and for decades he was the voice of the Great New York Sports Fan as the New York Daily News beat writer for pro football and golf. Hank is beloved in NYC, a hometown boy who became a lifer of a local sports writer with a dozen national accolades to his name. If you grew up reading the New York sports pages, you saw the sports world through Hank’s eyes and loved every good word he wrote.
Hank still writes a football picks column for the Daily News called “Hank’s Honeys,” and his lifetime prognostication record is remarkably successful. Hank once predicted in the preseason that the Green Bay Packers would beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV 31-24. The final score was actually 31-25 (the Steelers went for 2…) making Gola the undisputed, all belts unified, reigning champion of football prognostication among the media scribblers. Gola's “Hank’s Honeys” column still runs even though Gola is semi-retired, working on a book, spoiling his adorable grandkids and stubbing pitch shots into greenside bunkers.
Hank’s got another Honey now as well: his newly-minted home course, North Jersey Country Club. Remember the name; you’ll be hearing it a lot in the coming years, because North Jersey is a stately club with both a venerable history and a solid architectural pedigree. It presents itself immaculately and impeccably, mostly due to the sterling work of superintendent Tyler Otero (formerly of Trump Bedminster) and the rest of the golf course maintenance staff. While the club dates back to 1895 when it opened as the Paterson Club, North Jersey’s present incarnation (its third different location) traces its architectural heritage back to the great Walter Travis, “The Grand Old Man.”
THE GRAND OLD MAN, HIS GRAND OLD CLUBS
Travis was both an excellent player and an outstanding architect, and it’s sometimes tough to distinguish at which he was more proficient. Most agree that his landmark achievement was his victory in the 1904 British Amateur, where he become the first American to win that venerable tournament and defeated the supposedly unconquerable Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the process.
In pop culture terms, that’s like beating Superman and Batman in the same fight.
Parallel to his tournament golf career, Travis also designed several quintessential Golden Age classic courses such as Ekwanok in Vermont and Yahnundasis near Utica, N.Y. Most notably, along with Devereux Emmet, Travis is credited as the co-architect of Garden City Golf Club, his home club, where his renovations prepared the course for the 1908 U.S. Amateur by deepening the bunkers and adding internal contours to the greens.
Hallmarks of Walter Travis courses include greens that are either wildly contoured, canted to one side, or both. They tend to be surrounded by equal parts deep bunkers and shaved chipping areas with sharp roll-offs, and frequently feature false fronts or even false sides. Many Travis greens tend to be particularly narrow, and some feature diamond-shaped entries, testing both distance control and accuracy. Travis also tended to design straight into the teeth of the most severe features of the terrain on which he built, opting for thrilling drop shots and steep ascents, and holes that cling to ledges. He was not afraid of blind shots, and neither are the ardent, knowledgeable, well-traveled golfers who play his courses. You’ll see all of these concepts at North Jersey.
Travis was also a colleague and contemporary of many east coast Golden Age architects, such as A.W. Tillinghast, Devereux Emmet, Donald Ross and Charles Blair Macdonald, and history has shown that these friends and friendly rivals would all riff off each other’s work from time to time, taking strategic and aesthetic ideas from one another and adding their own twists as they liked. You’ll also see several examples of Travis’s adopting ideas from other architects and providing his own spin on them at North Jersey. You’ll also see holes that may have inspired other architects to riff off of Travis’s work.
ON THE COURSE
Travis drew the long straw here; he got an excellent piece of property for golf. Set upon about 180 acres of a heavily forested 480-acre plot, the course tumbles over rugged, rocky, tree-covered terrain. He used only 38 bunkers, but they are interestingly placed, strategically cutting well into the line of play. You won’t find boring, cookie-cutter “5 o’clock, 7 o’clock, lather, rinse, repeat” here.
Like many Golden Age courses, the passing decades saw some substantial changes to parts of the course. Intervening architects and committees made some adaptations, and historical sources from the '60s and '70s clearly show that other hands, including Robert Trent Jones, came in and made other modifications to certain greens and bunkers. In 2016 the club brought in Tommy Fazio, Jr. (Tom’s son), with whom they are currently working.
As a result, only about eight or nine original Travis greens are still there, unmistakable with their sharp drop offs, wild interior contours, and mounding in the back and sides, a feature of Devereux Emmet’s that Travis imported from Garden City. Fairways bleed perfectly seamlessly into greens (you can putt from well off the green, like you’re supposed to at a great Golden Age course, and as Travis certainly intended) and with so many undulations, false fronts and sides, golfers risk putting off the green if they’re not careful. Whatever you do – WHATEVER YOU DO! – stay below the hole or you may well be walking back to your bag for your wedge for the next shot.
Still, Travis’s excellent routing is untouched and – interestingly – returns to the clubhouse at the third hole as well as the ninth and 18th. Par is 36-35--71 with four par 3s (Nos. 2, 7, 13, and 15) and three par 5s (Nos. 1, 4, and 17). Several front side holes criss-cross a long ridge across the property, so some tee shots or second shots to par 5s are blind but charmingly so, and must carry valleys and crest hills to get a look at the pin on the next shot.
The par 3s on the front are especially strong. Ordinarily, uphill par 3s don’t work well, and especially not with a blind bunker, like you find at the second hole at N.J.C.C. However, the payoff on the hole comes when you reach the green and look back. Aesthetically, the hole looks like a Reef Hole, with a hidden tongue of fairway winding around the bunkers, shaped much like the path a ship must take around a coral reef before entering a cove – hence the name “Reef Hole.”
Now a distinction must be drawn between Reef Holes designed by Tillinghast and those designed by everybody else. Many architecture experts – and especially the Tillinghast Association, a group of ardent Tillinghast fans interested in promoting and preserving his architecture - credit Tillie with creating the design template of the Reef Hole in a December 1926 article he wrote for American Golfer magazine, and therefore reject the notion that anyone else designed Reef Holes. Recent scholarship has debunked this as mere enthusiasm on their part because several other courses from the early ‘20s have par 3s that superficially look like the second hole at North Jersey, with Cherry Valley on Long Island being the most notable example.
What many scholars believe happened was that Tillie saw examples of holes that had the superficial appearance of a fairway swerving like a boat coming into port, and then added his own strategic twist - a long ridge that shed balls in two directions, back left and short and right. That’s the hallmark of a Tillinghast Reef Hole and the true strategy of the template. It’s unquestionably Tillinghast’s contribution and the identifying feature of the hole.
But as we said earlier, these guys copied off each other’s homework all the time. We’ll never know for sure, but perhaps North Jersey, designed a full year before Tillie’s article, may have been a progenitor for his template. No such ridge feature exists at North Jersey, so it’s not a “Reef Hole”, but it has the superficial appearance of one, and you can’t help but marvel at the sight once you ascend t the green and look back at the majestic sweep of the fairway around the bunker.
Seven, a short par 3 over water to a tiny turtleback green, showcases Travis’s penchant for designing some green complexes that were right at the edge of playability. The tiny domed green is severely pitched, and for left pin positions, there’s no way to keep putts above the hole from rolling off the green. Fazio, Jr. built a back stop on the right that helps retain mid-iron shots coming in, but like at most holes at North Jersey, the adventures ratchets up a notch once you reach the green.
The other two front-nine crescendos are the parallel third and ninth holes, both of which feature a thrilling downhill approach to greens set right beside the clubhouse, much like Travis’s fascinating work at Onondaga Country Club, near Syracuse. It’s exhilarating shots like that make you proud to be a golfer and keep you coming back for more.
The back nine features significant work by Jones and Fazio and, as expected, the results are mixed, because at times the changes don’t blend well with the rest of the course. No. 10 looks and plays far more penal than strategic, and the modern two-tiered green set well above fairway level is a Trent Jones staple that could have been copied from any one of a dozen of his courses.
Things rebound nicely at the wild and unpredictable at 12th. A long, blind tee shot to a plateau leaves the golfer a 200-yard drop shot all carry to the green. A creek and bunkers guard the tiny green. The par-5 17th is also a highlight, with its inimitable green surrounded by hillocks and swales. That green is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, and anyone who even jests about changing it in the name of “fairness” deserves a thumb in the eye. You might as well spray paint eye brows on the Mona Lisa.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Fazio, Jr. did when trying to rebuild the club’s par-3 13th green. The members didn’t like the original hole: all carry, steeply uphill, bland and uninteresting I’m told. So they asked Tommy to remedy it.
As an aside, I never saw the old hole, so I can’t opine on whether they tore up anything worth keeping, but I will observe that – generally speaking - you have to be particularly judicious in erasing Golden Age architecture. You don’t see the members of Forsgate saying the difficult par 3s at three, seven or 17 need to be made easier. You also don’t design and setup a golf course for the worst players in the membership. If you can’t reach the green on a par 3, move up a set of tees; don’t change the golf hole. But even assuming it was “the right decision,” for whatever reason, Fazio, Jr. made that a moot point by designing something completely cartoonish.
Set 10-12 feet below the level of the original, Tommy’s new green is shaped to look like waves lapping into the shore. Precisely crafted, hypermodern-looking mounds frame both sides of the wide, but shallow green. I don’t know whether this was a clumsy attempt to emulate the Travis mounding found at other holes, but the result is a parody and pale imitation of Travis’s greens. It looks completely fake and totally clashes with the natural feel of the rest of the course. This is the kind of thing that Fazio family detractors point to as Exhibit A in their grievances against them, and it lends credence to the well-founded criticism that they care more about what a golf hole looks like than how it plays…and that is diametrically opposed to Golden Age golf course architectural principles.
Conversely, you can’t deny that the Fazio family name also has a huge up-side as well. It generates value in a membership, and the club’s association with the name will add significantly to their appeal. But even so, if Tommy – or anyone else - tampers with 17 green, they should be fed to Danaerys Targaryen’s dragons on general principle.
MAKING NORTH JERSEY GREAT AGAIN
North Jersey is going to be a rising star over the next few years due to Fazio’s name, the outstanding work of Otero and his staff, and the formidable duo of Gola and PR maven Suzy Abrams Jones waking the world up to its Golden Age wonders. Hank and Suzy were integral in organizing a wildly successful day with the Met Golf Writers that was uniformly hailed as a great success. Word is spreading of the club’s resurgence.
The club must be careful to preserve as much of that precious heritage as they can. The more Travis they remove, the more ordinary their course will become. The Golden Age architecture is the major draw over the long haul. NJCC is also what golf needs more of: shorter courses that are more strategically interesting and that don’t take long to play.
It’s like what Hank said to me to bait the hook and get me to bite on the story:
“You’ll love it. It’s your kind of course: really great greens, some fun blind shots, not too long and a lot of fun. We’ll have a great day!”
He was right.
I can’t tell you how happy I am for Hank; he is rightfully proud of his home course, and it shows. You can see the spring in his step as strides to the tee box, beaming ear-to-ear (until he chips into another bunker…I hope this article doesn’t give him the wedge yips…). Hank’s overjoyed to be a member here, and the infectious camaraderie of the rest of the members makes it delightful place to hang your cap. There’s definitely an “all for one, and one for all” attitude at North Jersey. It just goes to show, Heaven can be found in any town where the golf is as good as the people.
- The club proudly counts among its former members Garret Hobart and William Griggs. Hobart was William McKinley’s VP and would have ascended to the presidency upon McKinley’s assassination but for predeceasing him. That’s how Teddy Roosevelt first got the job. Griggs was McKinkey’s Attorney General.
- The first event on the site was a 1925 ski jumping event. Are we in Jersey or Lake Placid?
- The clubhouse was designed by the great Clifford Charles Wendehack, who designed the clubhouses at, among others, Winged Foot, Bethpage, Forsgate and Ridgewood.
- You can get around NJCC in under four hours so log as they keep the rough down. Hank and I were a couple of Mr. Magoos all day, myopically looking for balls in the rough and pointing at bottle caps. "There it is! Oh wait..."
- Other versions of Reef Holes can be found at Bethpage’s Yellow Course, Paramount Country Club in the New York Palisades and New Jersey’s Shackamaxon Country Club.