PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY | A lot of second courses in USGA championships seem to get short shrift. They bask in a bit of glory when it is announced that they will co-host two days of stroke-play qualifying. And the spotlight shines on the layouts again when those rounds are actually played. But that often disappears once the competition moves entirely to the primary layout for the matches. That’s too bad, because many of those second courses are special in their own rights.
Consider Arcola Country Club, just northwest of New York City, which co-hosted this year’s U.S. Amateur with nearby Ridgewood Country Club.
Founded in 1909, Arcola certainly deserves props for longevity. It also merits praise for perseverance, and after losing significant chunks of its original course over the years, first to an expansion of state Route 4 in the 1930s and two decades later when government officials routed part of the Garden State Parkway through the layout, club leaders nonetheless found ways to re-create a track that has quietly come to be regarded as among the best – and toughest – in metropolitan New York.
Renowned for having F1-fast greens, Arcola also boasts one of the strongest collections of member players in the region, with roughly 100 carrying single-digit handicaps, a third of those being scratch or better. The club also is where PGA Tour professional Morgan Hoffmann learned the game.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the prowess of players here than recent results of a competition among north New Jersey clubs. Called the Red Hoffman Cup and named after a celebrated golf journalist (the late Hoffman is not related to the aforementioned tour professional), it features top golfers representing 36 clubs in that region, among them Baltusrol, Plainfield, Metedeconk National and Canoe Brook. The field is always composed of some very strong sticks, and Arcola has won six of the past eight competitions.
“It’s a real good golfer’s club,” said architect Steve Smyers, who knows something about good golfers, having played in multiple USGA championships and also having done some design work on the course.
Colin Sheehan, head men’s golf coach at Yale University, agrees. “Good players like Arcola a lot,” he said. “It is big and brawny and perfect for the kid who hits it 300 yards, and who can also putt.”
Adds Trevor Randolph, who has won many of the big amateur tournaments in the Met Area over the past decade: “For a competitive player such as myself, Arcola always challenges, is always in tournament condition and is never boring. If you can play well here, you can play well anywhere.”
To be sure, some second courses can ride the wave that comes from hosting a national tournament to an even more prominent position in the game. And that is what seems to be happening with Arcola, which is located some 10 miles from the George Washington Bridge and has a largely local membership, with perhaps 20 percent living in New York City. Being named the site of the prestigious Met Open next year is a sign of that.
The initial course at Arcola was routed in 1909 across land on which local farmers had once grown melons, corn and potatoes. It was hilly in places and located in a Paramus neighborhood that had taken its name from a famous painting by Antoine-Jean Gros commemorating Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians in 1796 in Arcola, Italy.
Moves like that are much deserved. For example, the club more than held its own at this year’s U.S. Amateur. Set to play at more than 7,200 yards as a par 70, Arcola produced an average score of 75.7 for the 312 qualifiers vying for 64 spots in match play, which was its first USGA championship. That meant it was at least as tough as Ridgewood, where the stroke average for the par-71 layout there was 76.4.
Having one of the oldest amateur invitationals in the country in the Arcola Cup also burnishes the club’s reputation. “That tournament was first played in 1916 and generally held around the U.S. Amateur, which in those days was often played in the Northeast,” said Arcola historian Jim Craffey, who at age 64 still carries a handicap index of 2.5 here. “It was played through 1948, with some interruptions during the war years and when improvements were being made to the course. But then it was replaced by a three-day member-guest. We brought the Arcola Cup back in 2007, though, and are able to get a very strong field each year.”
The initial course at Arcola was routed in 1909 across land on which local farmers had once grown melons, corn and potatoes. It was hilly in places and located in a Paramus neighborhood that had taken its name from a famous painting by Antoine-Jean Gros commemorating Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians in 1796 in Arcola, Italy. Though members called their new association Arcola Country Club, they did not offer any other activity but golf. There were no tennis courts, nor swimming pool. Lunches, dinners and drinks were served, however, in a clubhouse built on the highest point of the land.
Leaders of the nascent club hired Englishman Herbert H. Barker to design the layout. At the time, Barker was serving as the head professional of the Garden City Golf Club on Long Island. A strong player who competed in several U.S. Opens, he also was regarded as something of an expert in course architecture.
Willard G. Wilkinson came to work at the club in 1930 in the wake of the Route 4 project. A one-time assistant to architect A.W. Tillinghast, he had risen to the position of vice president at that firm and helped to finish a few of his boss’s most acclaimed creations, among them the East and West courses at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, and Fenway in nearby Scarsdale.
Then Robert Trent Jones came to Arcola in the late 1950s, after the Garden State Parkway had been routed through part of the club. The result of his work was the layout that largely exists today, and there is no denying that it is a good one. Alas, only four holes from the Barker original remain.
Decades after the Jones redesign, Smyers performed some minor work at Arcola, redoing the practice putting green, shifting the first and 10th tees and revamping No. 18. As for the other upgrades made to the course the past decade or so, they have largely been overseen by superintendent Paul Dotti – and have addressed longstanding drainage issues and removed trees to improve vistas, especially those of the skyscrapers in Manhattan.
After the 2023 Met Open, the club plans to install a new irrigation system and new linings in the bunkers. There is also talk about making some design tweaks as well, but nothing substantive has been decided.
Given the buzz that surrounds the course and club, no one should be surprised if Arcola is set to host another championship of note by the time that work is done.
Top: After the 2023 Met Open, more work is to be done at Arcola.
Photos: Kathryn Riley, USGA
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