WATCHUNG, NEW JERSEY | To aficionados of golf course architecture, the sport is often as much about archaeology as it is athletics. Who designed a given layout? And when? How did they use the land? What were they trying to accomplish with their routings? The bunkering? The green complexes? Did they model certain holes after those on classic, Old World tracks? It is an especially interesting endeavor when the subject of such inquiries is a course that was crafted a century or so ago by a Golden Age architect – and then revamped decades later by a stylist of the modern era.
I am among those fascinated with such things, and a recent trip to Watchung Valley Golf Club, located some 30 miles west of Manhattan in this Garden State burg, turned out to be the golf equivalent of visiting a Louis Leakey dig in East Africa.
The history of the association – which was founded in 1890 as the Park Golf Club and featured as its first course a nine-hole track crafted by Scotsman Tom Bendelow – intrigued me. So did the Seth Raynor course the members built after the club moved in 1925 to its current locale, an old dairy farm tucked between a pair of wooded mountain ridges. The original plan was to construct 27 holes on the 180-acre parcel, but in the end only 18 were built. In addition to being one of the last courses Raynor designed, it featured many of the template holes that the architect, who was a protégé of Charles Blair Macdonald, was so famous for fashioning, among them a Bottle, an Eden and a Punchbowl.
Equally as enticing was the obscurity of a place that has long flown under the radar in course architecture circles. For decades no one was sure who actually designed the course, and its bona fides as a true Raynor track were only recently confirmed.
What also attracted me to Watchung Valley, which initially was called Park Golf Club and has undergone several name changes since its founding, was an extensive and very well-considered course renovation that its members initiated a few years ago. Executed by designer George Waters, who had worked as a shaper on construction crews for Tom Doak and Kyle Phillips before taking a job in the USGA’s Green Section, it endowed the layout with an overall cohesiveness and made it feel even more like something Seth the Surveyor had created.
Earlier this fall, I teed it on two occasions at Watchung Valley. My playing partner for the last of those rounds was David Cronheim, a 35-year-old attorney and the chairman of the committee that oversaw the golf course renovation. His great-grandfather had bought the club during World War II to save it from going under. Cronheim’s grandparents ended up living in a house along the Alps hole, which is No. 14. That is where his parents live to this day – and where young David resided for a spell. He proved to be a perfect Sherpa.
Cronheim started by relating how the club purchased the old dairy farm. “For years, no one really knew who designed the course,” Cronheim said. “But after doing a lot of research, we started noticing a trend. For one thing, a number of the golf holes were the sort of template holes Raynor was known for creating. For another, the architect of the original clubhouse on this property, Clifford C. Wendehack, also happened to have designed a number of similar buildings in New Jersey for clubs that featured courses designed by Raynor or his protégé, Charles Banks. We also found a newspaper article from 1925 describing plans for Watchung Valley and saying that ‘many of the holes … are to be replicas of the more interesting of the world-famous courses.’ ”
At that point, the club turned to the late George Bahto for help. The longtime owner of a dry-cleaning business in Pine Brook New Jersey, he also had come to be regarded as the leading authority on Macdonald as well as Raynor and Banks. And Bahto’s 2002 book, The Evangelist of Golf, is considered the last word on Macdonald and his work as a designer.
“George spent weeks out here, walking the course, reviewing aerial photographs and poring over other data,” said Cronheim, whose wife Hilary Coe Cronheim is the director of the USGA Golf Museum as well as the mother of their 2-year-old daughter, Cricket. “He determined that Watchung Valley was indeed a Raynor course, and gave us an opinion letter to that effect.”
“The indications were certainly there, on the golf course itself and also in old photographs,” added Waters. “The plateau greens. The horseshoe bunker encircling the back of the 15th green. The Punchbowl nature of the 13th green, the Eden hole at No. 11. The smoothness of the routing, too.”
Work on the second nine did not begin until 1929. And by the time those holes were completed, the club was teetering on bankruptcy due to the Great Depression.
In decreeing that Watchung Valley was a Raynor course, Bahto meant that Raynor had produced the design for it. But having died in January 1926, the architect had nothing to do with its construction. That job fell to Marty O’Loughlin, the head golf professional at nearby Plainfield Country Club. He was quite knowledgeable about course architecture, having supervised the building of the last few holes at the Donald Ross-designed Plainfield course. O’Loughlin also built several layouts of his own, with none of those featuring any template holes. In addition, he was very familiar with the work of Macdonald and Raynor. In fact, the old pro had secured his biggest professional win in the 1922 Met Open on the Lido Golf Club course on Long Island that Macdonald and Raynor had laid out.
The first nine holes at Watchung opened in the spring of 1927. But work on the second nine did not begin until 1929. And by the time those holes were completed, the club was teetering on bankruptcy due to the Great Depression.
“You could see a difference between the two nines and the way they were constructed,” Cronheim explained. “The ones that were built first, those on the back nine, had more Raynor character to them, probably because money was not an object during their construction. But a number of features that Raynor had called for in the second nine were never built because the club could not afford to do so.”
Shortly after determining that Raynor designed Watchung, Bahto died in 2014. He was 83 years old. With that, club leaders tasked Waters with the restoration job.
“My mission was to make the course feel more like the Raynor track that it really was,” said Waters. “It looked so open in the old photographs, with big wide fairways, for example. But when I arrived here, the fairways were quite narrow in many places and lined by white pines. Not only did they not fit with the hardwoods in the mountains around the course, they cut out any and all views and seemed contrary to what Raynor would have done.
“I also wanted to bring the strategic interest back to the holes and add some of the Raynor bunkering the club was not able to afford when they built the second nine in the early 1930s.”
It took Waters three years to complete his work, and the result is a par-72 gem that has four sets of tees and plays just less than 6,600 yards from the tips. As a rule, the greens are expansive, subtly contoured in many cases and tiered in others. During my rounds at Watchung, I found them to roll true and fast. Holes played up and down hills and required players to hit fades and draws, and to be able to handle the occasional sidehill lie. Cross bunkers enhanced the strategy in several instances and had ways of messing with depth perception and a player’s ability to discern how far or close the hazards actually were. On more than one occasion, I discovered when I got to a green that a bunker that seemed to be abutting the putting surface was actually 50 or 60 yards in front of it.
I loved the church pew bunkers to the left on the third, a par-5 dubbed Merry-Go-Round after the name that early club members gave the original nine-hole course because it had to be played twice in 18-hole matches. And the brutal Bottle at No. 12, which rivals the eighth at the National Golf Links as among the best renditions of that hole design ever produced in America. Measuring some 460 yards from the tips and modeled after the 12th at Sunningdale Old in England, the Watchung Valley version has a string of four bunkers that split the middle of the fairway at a slight left-to-right angle and force golfers to make a choice with their drives, left side or right. A wee burn some 80 yards from an elevated green presents its own set of problems, and so do the six bunkers that surround the putting surface, which is perched on a small rise. Then, there’s the 15th, a short and very drivable downhill 4-par called Toboggan, with a green that is backed by a horseshoe-shaped bunker. It is an absolute gas to play, especially as drives land in the fairway and start tumbling toward the green, holding every player in the group rapt until the ball finally rolls out.
“What they have done at Watchung Valley is the model of what a really good architectural makeover looks like,” said Colin Sheehan, the head coach of the men’s golf team at Yale University and co-founder of the Outpost Club as well as an expert on all things Macdonald and Raynor.
It is quite a find.
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