BOOK EXCERPT: The history of Baltusrol Golf Club and its Lower Course
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BOOK EXCERPT: The history of Baltusrol Golf Club and its Lower Course

Credit: Keith Leventhal/Golf News Net, Cannot Be Used Without Permission

Baltusrol GC was named after a farmer who owned land between Springfield and Summit, New Jersey, and was brutally murdered on the night of February 22, 1831, by two men who came to his house demanding money.

Baltus Roll, son of a Dutch immigrant, was a thrifty man by all accounts and rumored to keep a large sum of cash somewhere in his house. Sixty years after his death, Louis Keller, who now owned the farm but derived little income from it, decided to build a golf course. The publisher of a magazine that listed members of high society and reported gossip, Keller invited his socialite friends to become members of the club he founded in 1895.

The original course was designed by Englishman George Hunter and improved by the club’s first pro, George Lowe. But it became too cramped for the members so, in 1918, Keller hired A.W. Tillinghast to build him two new courses on 500 acres of additional land he had purchased to the west of the existing property.

Put That in Your Pipe and Smoke It

The Lower Course at Baltusrol GC, 20 miles west of Manhattan, has been ranked among America’s top 100 courses since golf course rankings began. It is set in beautiful parkland and is a classic Tillinghast design with tightly guarded greens, diagonal hazards, big, deep bunkers and an absence of parallel fairways thanks to a typically clever routing.

It has been the site of seven U.S. Open championships, the last in 1993 won by Lee Janzen. Jack Nicklaus won here in 1967 and 1980. It has also hosted four U.S. Amateur championships, a U.S. Women’s Open and, in 2005, the 87th PGA Championship which Phil Mickelson won with a birdie 4 at the last after tapping the Nicklaus Plaque (which commemorates Nicklaus’ superb 1-iron to the 18th green from 237 yards in 1967) for good luck.

The course for the 1954 U.S. Open—won by a journeyman pro named Ed Furgol whose crooked left arm, caused by a gymnastics injury at the age of 12, was responsible for his very awkward-looking swing—had been fortified by Robert Trent Jones after the club feared it was becoming too accommodating for the game’s top players. Indeed, Tillinghast had warned it wouldn’t take long for the rapidly improving professional golfer using rapidly evolving equipment to overwhelm both the Upper and Lower Courses.'

Jones, together with Francis Ouimet who served as a consultant, made several alterations to the Lower Course while attempting to keep the character of Tillinghast’s design intact. Four hundred yards were added to the total length, new fairway bunkers were built, and greenside bunkers enlarged. The biggest change, though, came at the short 4th, where Jones pushed back the championship tee 70 yards (to 186 yards), put a terrace in the green, reshaped the bunkers behind it, and replaced the logs and compacted soil that shored up the pond between tee and green with a stone wall.

The members didn’t care for Jones’ changes, however, complaining bitterly the hole was now too difficult. But Jones was so sure his changes were appropriate, he apparently offered to bear the expense himself. And he invited the most audible of the members, along with club professional Johnny Farrell, the 1928 U.S. Open champion, and C.P. Burgess, chairman of the 1954 U.S. Open Championship, to test the hole with him.

After his three “partners” had all found the green, Jones reportedly took out his “mashie” (though steel-shafted clubs had been in use for about 20 years by now, so it’s more likely he actually elected a 4-iron or 5-iron). Jones, now 46, hit a beautiful, high shot that pitched 6 feet short of the hole, took one hop and fell into the cup for an ace.

With considerable satisfaction, Jones turned to the onlookers and said, “Gentlemen, I think the hole is eminently fair.”

Well, that’s one version. The punch line inevitably changed a few times over the years.

Whatever he did say though, Jones certainly made his point. No mention was ever made of how the chief critic responded, but one can picture him looking on in utter disbelief, squirming a little, and eventually conceding that, OK, the hole was fine.

Jones proved it perfectly playable that day, but during the 1954 U.S. Open, the 4th was among the toughest holes on the course, the field recording as many bogeys (or worse) as pars.

Three years previously, Jones had done much the same at Rockrimmon GC in Stamford, Connecticut. There, members of the Greens Committee believed a 170-yard par 3 looked a lot longer than the stated yardage, and would require a full wood shot. Jones, playing the course with a committee man, sent his associate Frank Duane back to his car to fetch a 4-iron and a couple of balls. He needed only one, hitting his first shot to 3 feet.

Open Doctor

In 1947, Donald Ross was asked to return to Oakland Hills CC in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, 20 miles north of Detroit, to make revisions ahead of the 1951 U.S. Open. Ross passed away in 1948, however, meaning the club had to find another architect to implement his suggestions. Robert Trent Jones had been hired to co-design Peachtree GC in Atlanta with the great Bobby Jones (RTJ told Bobby there could be only one Bobby Jones in Atlanta, so insisted he would go by Trent Jones) and was fast becoming the architect du jour, so Oakland Hills was confident it had the right man.

Jones went a good deal further than Ross had intended to, however, removing 80 bunkers and adding 60 of his own. He narrowed the fairways and advised the club to grow the rough long and thick.

Ben Hogan’s winning score of 7 over par was a fair reflection of just how tough it had become. After shooting an impeccable final-round 67, Hogan said he was “glad to have bought this course, this monster, to its knees.” The South Course has been called the Monster ever since.

Despite the course’s difficulty, Jones’ work received many compliments and Joe Dey, Executive Director of the USGA, began recommending him to other clubs scheduled to host the U.S. Open. He altered The Olympic Club in San Francisco for the 1955 U.S. Open, Oak Hill CC in Rochester, New York for the 1956 championship, and Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma ahead of the 1958 event. He was next called upon by Oakland Hills for the 1961 U.S. Open and, three years later, the changes he had made to the Devereaux Emmet-designed Blue Course at Congressional CC outside of Washington DC, were in play. The 1965 tournament was played on a course of his own design at Bellerive CC, and he was brought back to Baltusrol in time for the 1967 U.S. Open, then Oak Hill for the following year. In 1970, the U.S. Open was held at his own Hazeltine CC, which received some fairly unkind feedback, prompting some drastic alterations.

That was the last U.S. Open venue remodeled by Trent Jones, who also worked on venues for the PGA Championship, U.S. Women’s Open and U.S. Amateur Championship.

He was known as the Open Doctor but, as Ron Whitten, Golf Digest magazine’s architecture editor, points out, he was really a Major Doctor. In the 1990s and early 2000s Trent Jones’ second son, Rees, took on the title, updating the venue for seven U.S. Opens, six PGA Championships, four Ryder Cups, two Walker Cups and a Presidents Cup.

Reprinted with permission from "The Story of Golf in Fifty Holes", Firefly Books 2015

About the author


Tony Dear

A former golf correspondent for the New York Sun, and a senior editor on Today's Golfer magazine in the UK, Dear works for a number of titles on both sides of the Pond, and has written five books on the game, the last two of which he thinks are actually pretty good. He is the golf coach of the Bellingham HS boy's team in Bellingham, Wash., and is looking forward to another cold, rainy, spring season.