Following my round at Medinah, I boarded a flight for my third and final trip to Northern New Jersey to play my fourth golf course in the area. The weather on the fall morning in this charming and quiet bedroom community was slightly better than that of the Chicago area on the day before. The morning showers had passed but the overcast clouds remained. The forecast however was good. I was looking forward to the more open fairways that awaited me at Somerset Hills Country Club, the 42nd course in my quest to play the Golf Digest Top 100 Courses in the US in one year.
I wanted to play the course when I was in northern Jersey a few weeks earlier, but they had an event scheduled at the time. My home club in Atlanta, Cherokee Town & Country Club was able to work with Daniel Joseph, the Head Pro at Somerset Hills to arrange for me to play there.
Somerset Hills Country Club in located in Bernardsville, NJ. The drive from my hotel to the club took me past the USGA headquarters and museum. I’d driven past their facilities when I came to the area to play the courses at Baltusrol but didn’t have time to visit them. I made a note of the location so that I could return following my round of golf.
As I turned off the main road I drove past beautiful well-maintained homes from either the late 19th or early 20th century on lots carved out of the trees. They foreshadowed Somerset Hills which was snuggled on a piece of property carved out of what appeared to have once been wilderness. I entered the property and drove down a tree lined narrow road that ended in the parking lot of a small but charming one story clubhouse. From the parking lot I could also see most of the course, the pro shop and the driving ranges. There were holes that started or ended near the clubhouse in almost every direction I looked. Had I grown up on a farm in northern Jersey, this is what I could imagine it looking like. It felt like I was about to play golf in the beautiful setting of a family farm on a fall day that was in full bloom.
After paying my quest fee in the pro shop and buying my customary medallion and golf cap, I went to the men’s locker room to change my shoes. I met the locker room attendant, Oscar who assigned a locker to me. Oscar and I had a nice chat about the top 100 courses in the country. He showed me several framed copies of the Golf Digest Top 100 rankings from past years that were hanging on the walls in the men’s locker room. Oscar asked me to give him my opinion after my round on whether I thought the course was fairly ranked at number 64.
With my golf shoes tightly on, I headed to the driving range. On this course with holes snuggled up against each other, the driving range had some limitations. The driving range had the fifth hole just off to the left and the fourth and tenth holes straight ahead. Golfers in the fifth fairway were reachable so those warming up on the range had to refrain from hitting drivers if someone was in the fairway.
Matt joined me just as I finished my warm up. I checked with the starter prior to heading to the first tee to see if there might be a member that would be interested in joining me for my round. He said there was no one else scheduled to tee off anytime soon. Matt and I headed to the first tee.
On this slightly wet and cool morning, I chose to play from the white tees which measure 6350 yards with a rating of 71.2 and a slope of 132. The first hole is a one of the longest par fours on the course. It is 445 yards with a fairway that makes a dogleg right at about 240 yards from the tee box. There is a series of three bunkers off the left off the fairway, that start just past the dogleg turn. There are also two long bunkers off the right side of the fairway just short of the green. I hit a low drive of about 180 yards to the left rough leaving over 270 yards to the flag.
I decided to play the hole smart and just lay up on my second shot to pitching wedge distant. I hit my second shot to middle of the fairway leaving 130 yards to a pin that was on a ridge on the back of the green.
I hit my third shot onto the green, but well short of the pin. I made a good putt, but it slid just under the hole to 2 feet past. I made the comeback putt to open my round with a two-putt bogey.
On this snuggly course, the tee box for the 175 yard par three second hole is just off the back of the first green. The hole is classic Tillinghast. It has several bunkers that are well short of the green that mess with your depth perception and try to distract you from the bunkers closer to the green. I’ve determine that a key feature of Tillinghast designs are bunkers that are not in play, hiding or distracting you from bunkers that are in play. There is one bunker off the right front of the green and one along the front left side. I hit a nice shot but hit it on the wrong line. My ball landed pin high on the up slope in the left greenside bunker, but very close to the edge.
I hit my bunker shot over the green. I chipped back on with my third shot and two putted for a very disappointing double bogey.
The third hole tee box is another short walk from the second green. The hole is a 365 yard par four with what is probably the widest fairway on the course. There are trees to the left of the tee box and about 150 yards of rough between the tee box and the start of the fairway. There are bunkers off both sides of the fairway at about 220 yards out. The fairway narrows some as it approaches the green. There is another one of those illusionist bunkers short of the green that hides the three bunkers off the front of the green and the two off the left side of the green. I hit my drive 225 yards to the second of the two fairway bunkers on the right.
I again decided to play conservatively by just pitching out of the bunker back to the fairway, leaving 90 yards to an elevated green.
I hit onto the green with my third shot and two putted for a bogey.
At 430 yards, the par four fourth hole is rated as the third most difficult hole on the course. The fairway is much narrower than the one on the third hole, but it is still generous. There is a bunker on the right at about 200 yards from the tee box and a couple more that cut into the right side of the fairway at about 65 yards from the front of the green. The green has one bunker along the right side. I hit a 250 yard drive down the middle of the fairway, leaving 175 yards to pin.
I made solid contact on my approach shot. The ball kicked off the slope to the right of the green and into the bunker. I hit my sand shot to 20 feet left of the hole and two putted for a bogey. After four holes, it was clear that my swing was slightly off. Except for my first drive, I’d hit the ball solidly but slightly offline. Out I’d been in a bunker on three of the four holes that I’d played. As a result, I was yet to make a par.
The fifth hole is a short par four. It measures 325 yards from the white tees. The fairway is nice and wide and like with most of the holes on the front nine, there are no trees in play. There is a fairway bunker on the left at about 160 yards out and one on the right at about 240 yards out. I hit my drive down the middle of the fairway.
I left my approach shot short of the green. The pin was on the front left side of the green, behind a bunker on the left front of the green. There was also a bunker in front of the green on the right and several other bunkers around the rest of the green. My pitch shot got hung up in the rough in between the green and the front left bunker.
I asked Matt to remove the flag and I took aim at the cup with the intent of chipping the ball in. I chipped just onto the green and let the ball roll down toward the cup.
The ball held its line but stopped a few inches short of the cup. I tapped in for yet another bogey.
The sixth hole is the first par five on the course. It measures 480 yards. There is about 190 yards of rough between the tee box and the beginning of the fairway. There is a large bunker on the right at the beginning of the fairway. The tee box is aligned with the right side of the fairway, but a 200 yard drive easily clears the bunker. There is a drive shallow ravine running across the fairway at about 275 yards out. While I was starting to groove my swing, I wasn’t concerned about the ravine which was covered with rough. I hit my drive 260 yards down the middle of the fairway, a little closer to the ravine than I had expected.
At only 215 yards from a back middle pin position, I decided to go for the green in two. There was a fairway bunker on the left about 110 yards away and high fescue on both sides of a narrowing fairway as it approached the green. The green had one bunker on the left and two on the right. I hit my five wood along a line just inside the left greenside bunker expecting to fade the ball to the middle of the green. The ball drew slightly and landed in the left greenside bunker.
No problem, I thought. At least until I hit my sand shot a little too far and it carried over the green into the deep rough just off the back.
I chipped onto the green to five feet past the flag. I missed the par putt and tapped in for disappointing bogey. The bunkers on the course were giving me fits. I hadn’t figured out the consistency of the sand and it was costing me strokes.
The 455 yard par four seventh hole is rated as the most difficult hole on the course. It is along the perimeter of the course, so there were trees lining the right side of the tee box. The trees ran all the way to the green. There was also a bunker off the right side of the fairway about 110 yards short of the middle of the green. The left side of the fairway had a bunker at about 250 yards from the tee box and two additional bunkers at 110 yards and 80 yards short of the green. I hit my drive down the middle of the fairway again, but only hit it 220 yards.
I made a tactical error on my next shot when I tried to hit my driver off the deck so that I could reach the green. My ball started left and stayed low. It caught the lip of the bunker and kicked back into the bunker. The ball was very close to the front lip of the bunker. The best I could do was hit a pitching wedge back to the fairway,
I hit my fourth shot onto the green and two putted for a double bogey. It was my first bad hole.
As I stood on the tee box of the eighth hole, I really felt like I was on a farm. There was a pond in front of the tee box and what looked like a barn and farm house beyond the green. The par three hole measured 205 yards. There were several bunkers short of the green and around it, but the front of the green was open. This was truly a beautiful hole. With some of the blue sky starting to break through the clouds, it was a beautiful fall scene.
I hit my tee shot to just short of the front of the green. I putted onto the green to three feet right of the hole. I made the putt to register my first par of the round.
The 510 yard par five ninth hole has a fairway that is divided into two parts. The first part of the fairway is aligned with the tee box and ends at an area filled with several bunkers and rough. The second part of the fairway starts just beyond the bunkers and rough at almost 90 degrees to the first part of the fairway. I hit my drive 260 yards to the rough near the end of the first fairway and off to the right.
I sliced my lay up to the rough on the right side of the second fairway. This gave me a good angle to the green. I hit my approach shot to left of the flag just off the green.
I putted to five feet and then made the five foot putt for my second par to finish the front nine with a 45. I made some mental errors on the front nine, but all in all, I’d struck the ball well. I’d put the ball in the middle of the fairway on four of my seven drives. I hit one drive in a fairway bunker and put the other two in the rough. It was my shot selection and my inability to figure out the sand that had cost me on the front nine. The good news is that I was striking the ball well.
The back nine starts with a 480 yard par five. The fairway was as narrow as l had faced so far. The fairway made a dogleg turn to the right. The tee box was aligned with a bunker in that the turn. Clearing the bunker required a 235 yard drive, which would shorten this already short par five. There were trees along the left side of the fairway as it approached the green. I took an aggressive line over the bunker and hit my drive 250 yards to the middle of the fairway.
This time I decided to play more conservatively than I did on the par five sixth hole. I decided to lay up to my lob wedge distance. I hit my second shot to 80 yards out. I hit my approach shot onto the green and two putted to open the back nine with a par.
We finally caught the group that teed off about 45 minutes before I did. They waited for us on the 11th tee box and asked if I’d like to play through. One of the toughest shots you have in golf is the one that you hit when a group lets you play through.
The view on the course changes dramatically with the 11th hole. The wide-open fairways of the front nine give way to fairways carved through trees. The eleventh hole plays 390 yards. The fairway is divided into two sections. The first section is downhill from the tee box and bends slightly from left to right though the trees. It ends at a creek 265 yards from the tee box. The creek feeds a small pond that is on the left side of the second section of the fairway. The right side of the second section of the fairway has a continuation of the trees from the first section. The green is uphill and severely slanted. This is not a hole for the faint at heart.
My drive sliced to the right. From the tee box it appeared that it could have gone in the trees on the right. I hit a provisional to the left side of the fairway. Matt found my first ball on slope in the trees on the right side of the fairway. My only shot was to punch out to the fairway, leaving 150 yards to the green.
I hit my approach shot just short of the green but left myself with a very difficult putt from off the green’s edge. There was really no way to get the ball to stop near the hole. My first putt rolled past the hole and off the green. At least I now had an uphill putt from off the green. I two putted from there for a double bogey.
The twelfth hole is another beautiful par three. The beauty of the course really shows on the back nine. The hole plays 140 yards over water. The left half of the green sticks out into the water. The right side of the green is up against a slope. There is a bunker hidden behind the green. The pin was on the front left of the green. I made good contact with my tee shot but was concerned that it might not clear the water.
My refrain of “go, go, go” quickly turned to “stay, stay, stay” after my ball hit pin high between the flag and the water off the left edge of the green. The ball started to roll toward the water but stopped at the edge of the green. I two putted for par.
The thirteenth hole is a 395 yard par four. It is ranked as the second hardest hole on the course and is along the perimeter of the course. The left side of the fairway is lined with thick woods. There is a small cluster of trees off the right side of the fairway at about 260 yards out. There is a bunker on the right at 140 yards from the tee box, but it’s not in play. The only other fairway bunkers distort your view at about 50 yards short of the green. I hit New Jersey before I hit Titleist. My drive landed in the middle of the fairway, but only traveled 180 yards.
I hit my five wood from 215 yards out, into the right green side bunker.
The hole was cut on a ridge on the back of the green. I hit my sand shot to 8 feet short of the flag. I needed a couple of more feet to get the ball to stay on the ridge. The ball rolled back down the ridge to 35 feet. I two putted for a bogey.
The 370 yard par four fourteenth hole plays parallel to the 13th hole, just in the opposite direction. There is a fairway bunker on the right at 190 yards from the tee box. There is a cluster of trees across the fairway from the bunker and another cluster also on the left side, just before the green. I hit my drive 240 yards down the middle of the fairway, leaving 125 yards to a front middle pin on a green with one bunker short of the right front and three bunkers along the left side.
My approach shot landed just short of the green. I chipped on to three feet and made the putt for par.
I remained among the trees to play the 375 yard par four fifteen hole. The fairway bows from left to right and slopes downhill to a creek that separates it from the green. The green is not visible from the tee box. It and the tee box are aligned on opposite ends of the bowed fairway with trees separating them. There is a bunker to the right of the fairway as it begins about 150 yards from the tee. There is also one off the left side of the fairway as it bends to the right at about 220 yards from the tee. Matt advised that I tee off with a three wood to avoid that bunker. My drive hit in the right fairway, 150 yards from the downhill green guarded by the creek and framed by tall trees.
The pin was on the back middle portion of the green, just beyond a ridge that sloped toward the front right portion of the green. I hit my approach shot into that ridge. An extra foot would have left the ball just short of the hole. Without that extra foot, the ball rolled down the slope and back to the front of the green. I missed my birdie putt but made the comeback putt for par.
The sixteenth hole is a devious 165 yards par three. There is a pond in front of the green that wraps around part of the right side of the green before meeting a creek. There are two bunkers on the back left corner of the green. The green slopes severely to the right. The flag was in the middle of the green. Matt told me that any ball hit to the right of the flag would roll off the green and into pond or the creek.
As I set up over the ball, the wind increased significantly. I changed clubs from a seven iron to a six iron. It was a good decision. I made solid contact with the ball and hit it to 15 feet below the hole. Unfortunately, the ball rolled to the right after it hit rather than forward toward the hole.
My birdie putt held its line until right before the hole. At the hole it made a slight right turn and missed the cup. With a little more pace it would have dropped in for a birdie. I tapped in for a par.
The short 355 yard par four seventeenth hole takes us out of the trees and back to the open part of the course. The hole plays uphill to a blind fairway and then back downhill to the green. The fairway starts out narrow but widens at about 175 yards from the tee. It then narrows again at 260 yards from the tee. There are four bunkers on the right side of the fairway that start right after it narrows. The green is guarded by one bunker off the front left and three along the right side. Matt gave me a line for my drive. I had to trust his line and make a good confident swing. I hit my drive along the line he gave me but couldn’t see whether it was in the fairway or not until I walked up hill and saw that it was on the right side of the fairway.
I had a nice easy 135 yard downhill shot to a left front pin position. I pushed the ball to the right. It landed to the right of the first green side bunker. I pitched over the bunker to fifteen feet short of the hole. I missed my par putt and settled for a bogey.
The finishing hole at Somerset Hills Country club is pure Tillinghast. The hole is a 300 yards par four. The fairway plays uphill from the tee box. The fairway is wide and with just one bunker on the right. I hit my drive to the right first cut of rough.
At 120 yards from the green, the approach shot is blind, hiding the trouble around the green. The green has a small bunker 10 yards before the front right edge and one that starts on the front left about the same distance out, but it also wraps around the left side of the green. There are two bunkers off the back of the green. None of this can be seen from 120 yards out. I hit my approach shot just off the left side of the green.
The left side of the green has a mound that slopes toward the center of the green. I chipped over the mound and the ball rolled to eight feet short of the flag.
I made the 8-foot putt to close out my round with a par. I made five pars on the par 35 back nine with only the one double bogey on the 11th hole. This gave me a 40 on the back nine for a total score of 85.
Following my round, I returned to the men’s locker room to change my shoes and to confirm to Oscar that I agreed with him that the course should be ranked lower than 64, I think it should be ranked between 20th and 40th. The course is very scenic, it requires shot making skill, and every hole is different. The first ten holes and the last hole are also very different from than holes 11 through 17. The course makes very efficient use of a tight property and it is an ideal course for walking.
As Oscar and I finished our conversation, Reynolds walked in. He is a member at the club. He told me that the assistant pro had told him that I was looking for a game. He said he tried to catch up with me and Matt to join me for the round, but we were moving too fast. He invited me to join him for lunch.
We had a nice discussion about the course and my quest over lunch and have exchanged a few emails since my round there.
I still had a couple of hours before my flight. I used the time to make a quick visit to the USGA museum. It was worth the stop. Somerset Hills was my 42nd course. While playing at 42 of the Top 100 Golf Courses in the US as ranked by Golf Digest, I had walked in the footsteps of legends. I studied the history of Bob, Ben, Arnold, and Jack and their contributions to the game. They each have their own rooms at the museum. There is also a trophy room with trophies from all, the USGA championships.
The walls in the room have plaques with names of the winners of each championship for each year. I spotted the name Danny Yates who hosted me at Augusta National, on the 1992 plaque for his Mid-Amateur win at the Detroit Country Club.
I finished my tour and headed to Newark for my flight home to Atlanta