Baltusrol Lower and Upper Courses
At Merion, I walked in the footprints of legends. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to play a round of golf on a course so rich in golf history and a club so strong in its traditions. When I arrived at Baltusrol the next day, I was overwhelmed with its place in the annals of American Golf. At 122 years old, it has hosted numerous US Opens, PGA Championships and US Amateurs. There are two courses, both were designed and constructed at the same time. This was a first in the history of golf in America.
I arrived at this club in the shadows of New York City with very little time to warm up. I had driven from Ardmore, PA on the night before. The team at Baltusrol was expecting me. They were very aware of my quest to play the top 100 courses in the U.S. as rated by Golf Digest for 2017-18. I am certain that my host for the day, Luther Griffith had informed them. I met Luther through a mutual friend, Martin Tilson. Martin and I play golf together occasionally. During one of our rounds he committed to helping me gain access to some of the top 100 courses. One of those courses was Baltusrol. With very little notice, he worked with Luther and Luther worked his magic to get tee time for me on both the Lower and Upper Courses on the morning following my planned round at Merion. I am exceedingly grateful for both Martin’s and Luther’s efforts.
Once on grounds at Baltusrol, I was directed to the men’s locker room so that I could change my shoes. Just walking through the hallways of the clubhouse felt like walking on hallowed ground. Much of the history of Baltusrol was on display. There was no doubt that this was a special place.
After changing into my golf shoes, I stepped back outside and was greeted by Beau Bryan. Beau was assigned as my playing partner for the day. He is a student at Mississippi State University who was interning at Baltusrol for the summer. Beau is from Alabama and told me that his father once told Bo Jackson that his son was named after him. Well while Beau cast some doubt on whether he was truly Bo Jackson’s namesake, I can tell you that Beau knows golf!
After meeting Beau, I had just few minutes before our tee time. I headed to the practice range to warm up. The practice range appeared to be carved out of the base of the mountain that overlooked looked the facility. There is a teeing area that is used for iron shots and another teeing area 90 degrees from that one that is used for long irons, fairway woods, and drivers. I used both areas and then headed to rejoin Beau for our walk to the first tee on the Lower Course. Our caddie Brian was with Beau.
Brian was all business and ready to ensure we kept a good pace on the course so that we didn’t hold up any members during their play. I think Brian quickly saw that there would be no problem with slow play from me. I found it charming that he referred to Beau as just “Pro.” We were all set for our 7:10 tee time. Beau asked for my USGA Index. He then suggested that we play the green Baltusrol tees. The course measured just over 6650 yards from the green tees with a 140 slope and 72.8 rating. For Championship golf, the course measures slightly more than 7000 yards with 143 slope and 74.4 rating.
As I stood on the first tee, I thought about walking in the footprints of legions at Merion and now I was at Baltusrol standing in the shadows of giants. The lower course opens with a very short par 5, followed by two tough par fours. Beau, the Pro, teed off first providing an excellent image of what a good golf shot looks like. I followed with a short 210 yard drive to the right rough. He was younger and more talented at golf, but I made up my mind that this first hole would be the last time I was 50 yards behind him on a drive. Brian let me know early on that he was going to manage my game for me on this beautiful sunny day in New Jersey. As I got ready to hit my second shot, he suggested that I lay up to 100 yards. I was 260 yards out. I followed his advice. I then hit my third shot on to the front of the green leaving a 40 foot putt for birdie.
I had good speed on my birdie putt, but missed the cup by a foot to the right. I tapped in the one for an easy par to continue my string of opening hole pars or birdies on my top 100 course tour. This was one stroke more than “Pro” who had reached the green in two on this 470 yard par five.
I wasn’t so fortunate on the second hole. It is a short par 4, but I double bogeyed the hole after hitting my drive into the fescue and having to pitch out. I shanked my third shot, made the green in four and two putted for the double bogey.
My best drive of the day came on the third hole. The third hole is rated as the most difficult hole on the course. Brian made it clear that I had to concentrate on this hole if I didn’t want to repeat my second hole blunders. Beau still had honors. I stepped up to the tee after he hit and followed his model of a perfect swing. My drive sailed right past his, and stopped after traveling 265 yards. This left me in the middle of the fairway only 160 yards out on this 435 yard top rated hole on the Baltusrol Lower Course. Yes, I felt just that good!
At least until I three putted after hitting my approach shot onto the green in regulation. This proves that in golf, its not how far, but how many!
I made par on the short 125 yard par three fourth hole. I hit my tee shot onto the green, missed my birdie putt, but made my second putt for par. The hole plays over water that runs up to the front of the green. There is a bunker on the left front of the green and three behind the green. I was pleased to have not allowed my disappointing three putts on the previous hole to linger in my head as I played this hole.
I think it was around the fifth hole that Brian noticed the condition of my golf glove. He then politely asked if I was planning to play all 100 courses with the same glove. I got the message and have now purchased a supply of gloves that should carry me through all 100 courses.
The fifth hole is the third toughest hole on the Lower Course. There are four bunkers on the left side of the fairway on this 395 yard hole and only one on the right side. Of course, I picked this hole to hit the dreaded straight ball. I had aimed left at the bunker expecting a fade that didn’t materialize. The ball flew 265 yards directly into one of the left fairway bunkers. I'm sure Mr. Tillinghast put this bunker in because he knew I would play this course one day. He also thought to surround the green with bunkers to increase the challenge of reaching the green after hitting into a fairway bunker.
There is one big bunker in the front of the green and two each on the left and right sides of the green. Much to Mr. Tillinghast’s dismay, I avoided the trouble around the green and put my shot out of the fairway bunker within 10 feet of the flag. My birdie putt looked good all the way as it rolled ever closer to the hole. It stopped about one revolution short of dropping into the cup. I tapped in for par.
As Beau, Brian and I walked the course, I learned even more about Brian. Not only was he an excellent caddie, he was a budding entrepreneur. He owned several businesses including a cleaning service and a delivery business. Brian had caddied at Baltusrol every since he was around 15 years old. He knew both courses very well. But he was also determined to do more with his life. He is clearly a hardworking young man.
I truly am enjoying the people I meet along my journey of playing the top 100 courses in the country. We do live in a great country. We often hear of the challenges that many face during these trying times. It is refreshing to meet those among us who understand that regardless of the circumstances, there are always opportunities to be had. I have met many such people in this diverse, enterprising country of ours. Every day I stand proud to be an American. Sure, we have our flaws, but we are still the land of opportunity to many.
I bogeyed the sixth hole after missing the fairway left with my drive, laying up and then hitting my third shot to within 10 feet of the cup. A missed par putt led to another easy bogey.
The seventh hole is the longer of the two par fives on the front nine, but still plays slightly less than 500 yards. I made my second best drive of the round with a 270 yarder to the left fairway. I went for the green on my second shot but missed to the right of the green. A chip and two putts later, I had another par.
I’m not certain, but I think it was around the seventh hole, that I got to taste one of the most delicious apples that I’ve ever eaten. Brain pointed out a barrel and said help yourself. He also told me that the property on which Baltusrol is built, was once an apple orchard. I’m not sure where the apples that were in the barrel came from, but I do know that they were good!
I finished the back nine with two bogeys. Both the one on the eighth hole and the one on the ninth hole were disappointing. The eight hole is relatively short and I hit my drive into the fairway. Unfortunately, my approach shot faded a little too much and landed in the rough to the right of the greenside bunker. I was unable to get up and down from the bunker for par.
The same occurred on the par three ninth hole where I put my tee shot in the front bunker and was again unable to get up and down for par.
Even so, I was pleased with my first nine holes at Baltusrol. I shot a 42 which was probably 6 to 7 strokes more than “Pro”. I didn’t keep track of his score, but I do know that he made more birdies than I made pars. Like I said, “Beau knows golf!” I’m just happy that he had such a great temperament and didn’t allow my golf game to take away from his.
The group behind us was doing a good job of keeping pace, so we moved quickly from the front nine to the back nine. The back nine opens with two long par fours. I had good par opportunities on both, but missed my makeable par putts and recorded bogeys.
On the par 3 twelfth hole, I missed my tee shot way right, pitched on and left my par putt 5 inches short of the heart of the cup. I played relatively well on the front nine of a difficult course, but was finding it hard to record a par on the back nine. Three close calls left me with three easy bogeys.
On the 375 yard thirteenth hole, I would have gladly settled for a bogey. After hitting my drive to the fairway, I had a little bunker trouble. My approach shot was short and landed in bunker in the front of the green. I hit from that bunker to the bunker behind the green. This all led to my first double bogey on the back nine.
I recovered nicely on the 380 yard par four fourteenth hole. I played it like a “pro”. My drive was in the fairway. I hit the green in regulation, pin high, just 12 feet from the hole. I then took that enjoyable long walk to the green with my putter in hand.
I barely missed my birdie putt and tap in for an easy par. Little did I know at the time, that it would be my only par on the back nine.
My drive on the fifteenth hole was a pure slice. Best I could do was to pitch out to 135 yards. I then hit my third shot onto the green, but way past the flag. I then two putted for bogey.
My second and last double bogey on the back nine came on the easiest hole on the course. The 16th hole is a 180 yard par three with a bunker ladened green. Mr. Tillinghast apparently really loves bunkers. I hit my tee shot into front bunker. It took me two shots to get out. I then two putted for my double bogey.
The Lower Course at Baltusrol closes with two par fives. The 17th hole is the longer of the two. I missed my drive to the right, but just into the first cut. I still had to muddle my way to the green and saved bogey with a one putt.
As we approached the final hole on the Lower Course, Beau and Brian pointed out the plaque that commemorates Jack Nicklaus’ two US Open wins at Baltusrol. The first came in 1967 and the second came in 1980. This plaque is the second one that I encounter during my Top 100 Tour, on the course’s final hole recognizing Jack Nicklaus. The first was the plaque at Valhalla where he and Tiger Wood finished the final round of Jack’s final major of his career, in style with birdies.
Inspired by the remarkable accomplishments of the Golden Bear, I striped my drive on this final hole, down the fairway. I then laid up with my second shot to about the same distance that I had to the pin on the final hole at Valhalla, 140 yards. As Brian and I walked down the fairway following that second shot, he pointed out a plaque that marks the spot where Jack Nicklaus hit his famous 1 iron shot. Unlike my tee shot on this hole, Jack missed the fairway on his drive and had to pitch back into the fairway, from the thick rough. He left himself 238 yards from the pin.
Jack had a lead over Arnold Palmer going into the final hole. He also had an opportunity to match Ben Hogan’s US Open scoring record. With the tournament on line and the scoring record in his sites, he faced those 238 yards to an uphill green. He took out his one iron and hit probably the purest 1 iron shots in golf history to 20 feet from the pin. He made the putt, tied the record and sealed the tournament.
Facing a shot which was 100 yards less, but still to that uphill green with the iconic Baltusrol Clubhouse in the background, I had no record on the line, and no tournament on the line. What was on the line was whether I could birdie the final hole as I had done at Valhalla, and shoot an 86 on this difficult course. I lined up my shot, took my club back and then hit behind the ball by several inches, sending a divot about as far as I hit the ball, 90 yards. 90 yards, when I needed 138. I then pitched over the bunker to 15 feet from the pin, but missed my par putt by just a few inches to the right of the hole. My final score was an 88. I didn’t ask Beau what his score was, but as I mentioned earlier, I do know that he had more birdies than I had pars, so he probably shot under par.
Following our early morning round on the Lower Course Beau, Brian and I took a short break before heading to the upper course. Beau and I stopped by the halfway house to grab a quick bite to eat. We had been very conscious of our pace on the Lower Course as there were several member groups teeing off behind us. This would not be the case on the Upper Course. On it we expected a more relaxed round. Throughout the first round, both Beau and Brian had remarked several times, that I would love the Upper Course. The starter also mentioned this after we finished our first round and headed toward the Upper Course. I took all of this to mean that it would be more forgiving. In other words, less punishing for my errant shots. With that in mind I was somewhat surprised when I looked at the scorecard for the Upper Course and saw that there was very little difference in the rating when compared to the Lower Course. The rating was 72.5 versus 72.8 and the slope was higher, 142 versus 140. Additionally, the Upper Course was 100 yards longer than the lower course.
Following our quick lunch, Beau and I met Brian on the first tee of the Upper Course. As was the case with the opening hole on the Lower Course, the opening hole on the Upper course is a short par 5. I hit my drive to the rough.
Brian continued to manage my game and advised that I not go for the green from the rough. I laid up and had an easy approach shot to the green. My ball stopped pin high leaving a 40 foot birdie putt. Unlike the first hole on the Lower Course, I couldn’t get the ball in the hole without taking three putts. My second round of the day opened with a three putt bogey. I have made par or birdie on the opening hole on most of the courses I’d played during my Top 100 Course Tour. I was hoping that since I had now broken that string, I’d also break the string of making a double bogey on the second hole.
On the second hole which is a long par four, my drive hit a tree left of the fairway and dropped into the rough. Again, Brian advised that I lay up. I laid up to my pitching wedge distance, but then hit my wedge about 10 yards longer than normal, landing over the green. I chipped on and two putted for a bogey. Alas, I didn’t make a double bogey on the second hole of a course!
The 165 yard par 3 third hole was pretty much the same. I missed the green to the right of the right greenside bunker.
I pitched over the bunker onto the green with my second shot and two putted for my third bogey in a row. The bad news is that I was riding the bogey train. The good news is that I’d gotten through the first three holes without a double bogey.
My first par came on the hardest hole on the course. In addition to being long, the fourth hole has trees tight on the left and right sides of the fairway. There are bunkers along the right side of the fairway. The hole plays pretty much straight. To avoid the bunker in the right half of the fairway, Brian advised that I hit a three wood rather than a driver off the tee. His strategy worked. My drive landed in the fairway, short of the bunker, albeit 215 yards from the middle of the green.
I then hit a three wood to the rough on the left side of the green between the green and the right greenside bunker. I chipped onto the green to 9 feet from the hole. Brian gave me a line about a half of a ball to the right of the cup. Bingo! The putt dropped and I had my first par on the Upper Course.
The fifth hole was heartbreaking. It was the second of a string of three holes that measured around 400 yards. I hit a great drive to the middle of the fairway, hit a nice approach shot that just leaked a little too much and landed in the right greenside bunker. My sand shot landed on the green, just 15 feet from the hole. I'd made three good shots in a row. The second shot was a good shot, it just landed in a bad place!
My fourth shot on the hole was a putt that some how traveled on what appeared to be the perfect line, but ended up 1 inch behind the cup. It looked like the ball just rolled over the edge of the cup without dropping. Like I said, a heartbreaking hole. I made four quality shots, but still couldn’t par the hole.
The sixth hole is the last of the long par fours on the front nine. It measured almost 410 yards. My drive landed in the right rough, my approach shot landed in the bunker guarding the front of the green, and my sand shot landed on the front of the green. Just like on the previous hole, Brian gave me a perfect read, I hit a good putt that looked like it was going in the hole, but somehow it didn’t drop. I couldn’t figure out how the ball managed to avoid dropping in the hole. Never the less, its not how good your shots are, its how many shots you take. On this hole, I took five.
I made par on the par three seventh hole. The hole plays close to 200 yards. It is classic Tillinghast in that he diverts your attention with bunkers that aren’t or shouldn’t be in play, while masking bunkers that are in play. There are six bunkers guarding the green. The first bunker used to distract is one that appears to be just in front of the green, when it is several yards short of the green. There is also a bunker to the far right of the green and one to the far left of the green. These two bunkers are likely out of play, but take you attention away from the actual greenside bunkers that run the length of the left and right side of the green. Well I ignored all of that and hit my tee shot to 20 feet from the flag. I made another good putt, but missed the hole and settled for par.
The eight hole is the longest of the two par fives on the front nine. It is pretty straight, just very narrow with trees tight on the left and right sides of the fairway. I drove the ball to the middle of the fairway, but hit my second shot fat, leaving me 180 yards for my approach shot. My approach landed just short of the green. I chipped on and two putted for bogey.
The back nine closes with a short and easy par four which plays just under 325 yards. There is a pond in the middle of the fairway, but a drive of anything over 180 yards, carries it. My drive landed in the middle of the fairway just 90 yards from the pin.
I hit my approach shot to 25 feet left of the flag. I missed my birdie putt by a foot and tapped in for a par to match the 42 I shot on the front nine of the Lower Course. What was different was that I didn’t make a double bogey on the front nine of the Upper Course, while I did make one on the front nine of the Lower Course.
The back nine opens with a short par 3 of 150 yards, apparently, about a club too short since I hit my tee shot to the back of the green. The pin was on the front of the green. I three putted for a bogey.
The 11th hole is the longest par five on the course. It plays 540 yards from the green tees. The fairway was a little too narrow to handle my drive. I hit into the trees off the tee. It only got worse after that. My shot out of the trees wasn’t quite out of the trees. I hit a tree and the ball came back toward me. I then did what I should have done on my first attempt and chipped out to the fairway. I made the green in two from there, but two putted for my first double bogey on the Upper Course.
The next hole was a nice respite after the long par 5. The 12th hole is a short par four playing 330 yards. As with many of the other holes, it has a narrow fairway with trees lining the right edge of the fairway, and just off the fairway on the left. There are no fairway bunkers, but the green is surrounded by four bunkers. There is a very narrow strip of the fairway that runs up between the bunkers to the green. I hit my drive into the trees on the right. I didn’t have a lot of options for getting to the green, but I saw an opening where I could potentialyl hit a fade around the trees and onto the green.
I made great contact with the ball, but it clipped a couple of the branches that hung over the fairway. The ball cleared the bunker on the front left of the green, but didn’t make it all the way to the green. I chipped on and two putted for a bogey.
The thirteenth and fourteenth holes both started well but didn’t end well. Both holes are around 380 yards. They both have narrow fairways and greens guarded with bunkers. I had bunker troubles on both holes and doubled bogeyed both. These were my final double bogeys during my round.
I recovered on the par three fifteenth hole with a par after narrowly missing my birdie putt. The hole is a short par 3 playing only 145 yards. The green is surrounded by bunkers and looks like the paw of one of Ernest Hemingway’s six-toed cats. I hit a shot right at the flag. The ball stopped 6 feet right of the flag. My birdie putt skimmed the right edge.
I followed my par on the 15th hole with another one on the 16th hole. The sixteenth hole has a narrow fairway, but a good bit of rough between the fairway and the trees on both the left and the right. I drove the ball to the left rough. The holes play 400 yards. I hit a 3 hybrid from 190 yards out and landed in the right greenside bunker. I hit my bunker shot to 5 feet and one putted for par.
The seventeenth hole is the longest of the par fives on the course, but still a short par 5 at 525 yards. I sliced by drive way right. I had to chip back out to the fairway. It took two additional shots to get to the green. I then two putted for a bogey.
I really enjoyed playing the final hole of my 36-hole day. The final hole on the Upper Course at Baltusrol plays 450 yards. I popped my drive up and landed in the right rough, but had a surprisingly good lie. I was still 300 yards out. It was time to bring out the big boy. It was time for a driver from the rough special. If I had hit my drive off the tee as well as I hit it out of the rough, I would not have needed to hit it a second time on the finishing hole. I hit the ball 270 yards to the fairway, just 20 yards from the green. I pitched on and one putted for a finishing hole par and a 45 on the back nine for a total score of 87, one stroke better than my 88 on the Lower Course.
Following our round Beau gave me a tour of the clubhouse and the famed Baltusrol trophy room. I thought I was walking in the footprints of legends at Merion on the day before. I was overwhelmed with the history of Baltusrol, the number of championship tournaments that had been held there for numerous years and the respect that the golf greats had for it most famed head professional, Johnny Farrell.
I again want to thank Martin for the introduction to Luther, Luther for hosting me, and both Beau and Brian for a very enjoyable 36 holes of golf at Baltusrol filled great stories about the course, and a lot more good golf shots than bad ones.
Next up Laurel Valley.