PARAMUS, NEW JERSEY | Though it traces its roots back to 1890 – and to a two-hole track that came to be called the Ho-Ho-Kus Golf Club – it was not until the spring of 1929 that the course on which this year’s U.S. Amateur is being contested opened. A.W. (for Albert Warren) Tillinghast designed and then led construction of 27 holes across rolling terrain in this town some 25 miles northwest of New York City. By that time, the association had taken a new name, Ridgewood Country Club, which seemed appropriate considering that the forested site was bisected by a ridge.
Golfers praised the new layout as well the stately stone clubhouse that Clifford C. Wendehack, who was as celebrated in that design realm as Tillinghast was in his, had crafted. And Ridgewood quickly became regarded as one of the finest golf clubs in the Northeast, as well as a terrific tournament site. The membership rolls filled quickly. And just six years after coming online, the club hosted the Ryder Cup, which an American team led by playing-captain Walter Hagen captured after beating Great Britain, 9-3.
All these decades later, the three nines at Ridgewood – East, Center, and West – retain the respect of the competitive golf world. That no doubt explains why the USGA, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America have collectively staged nine of their competitions here since those matches, among them the 1974 U.S. Amateur, the 1990 U.S. Senior Open, the 2001 Senior PGA Championship, the Barclays in 2008, 2010 and 2014 and the Northern Trust just four years ago. With the USGA playing the U.S. Am here this week, that number reaches 10.
Competitors in this event will play a composite course that employs holes from all three nines. That has been a common practice at Ridgewood, and the hole combinations have varied through the years. But members like to point out that every hole on their three layouts has been used in at least one of the big events it has hosted.
“This is a very elegant piece of property and very well suited for golf,” said Mike Policano, co-chairman of the club’s U.S. Amateur committee and former head of the club’s Green Committee. “There is great movement in the ground, and the holes fit together like an intricate puzzle, no matter which ones you play. I also like how the green sites lay quite naturally on the ground and are not built up like those at other Tillinghast courses.”
Another longtime Ridgewood member, Andrew Biggadike, who regularly competes in elite amateur tournaments and also officiates at USGA championships, agreed. “There is great variety to the holes and great subtleties to the greens,” he said. “I also think it is a superb routing and uses the land on which the courses are built so well. And I like that it is a great place for member play as well as a first-rate tournament venue.”
For this year’s U.S. Amateur, the championship course comprises Nos. 1-7 on the East, 2-6 on Center and 4-9 on the West. Par is 71. And the layout measures just a tad fewer than 7,500 yards.
“We first used (this) configuration for the Barclays back in 2008, and it is the best of all our routings,” added Policano. “It flows perfectly, and the spacing between greens and tees is quite close, even though it features holes from all three nines.”
None of that is to say that golfers don’t like the other ways that Ridgewood can be set up. “All 27 holes are open for play every day, and members don’t really care which nines they play,” he said. “In many ways, we really don’t have a set 18.”
What they do have is a terrific collection of holes, and Policano remembers a television commentator remarking during one of the PGA Tour events at Ridgewood that “there are a lot of good golf holes that are not even being played today.”
In designing those holes, Tillinghast routed most of the East on the east side of the ridge, and the majority of the West on the other part of the rise. As for the Center, they run along the top of the ridge as well as up and down both sides it.
“Tillinghast had a talent for responding to the property he was given and getting the most out of that land,” said Biggadike, who was unable to qualify for this year’s U.S. Amateur but will be officiating during the tournament. “At Ridgewood, he had variety in terrain, and the courses reflect that. Some greens, for example, are really in your face with their undulations and different levels. Others are much subtler, but you still have to be very careful, because the putts on them will break more than you think.”
Other features that appeal to Biggadike include the mix of both short and long holes and the ways that many are framed by specimen hardwoods and vast swathes of field grass that turn blond/brown in late summer. He also likes that no two tee shots are quite the same.
“For some reason, the par-5s really stand out, like 8-West, a double dogleg that plays uphill, and 4-West, which is some 620 yards long from the championship tees and forces you to hit a second shot over a series of moguls covered by deep rough,” Biggadike added. “And when it comes to shorter holes, there is nothing quite like 6-Center. Just 275 yards from the back tees and 283 from the championship markers, it is called ‘Nickel and Dime’ because that is what Byron Nelson called it when he was an assistant at Ridgewood in the mid-1930s. He usually played a 5-iron off the tee, the Nickel, and then a pitching wedge, the Dime, on the approach to a narrow plateau green guarded by six bunkers.”
Another standout is No. 2 on the West. Though it is not part of the championship course, the shortish 4-par is a delight that leaves golfers who put their tee shots in the fairway an approach to a wonderfully angled green that is guarded by a trio of bunkers, two of which are long and almost snake-like in shape
Tillinghast helped the club pick the land for its golf courses, describing it at one point as being “of unusual distinction.” By that time, he had come to be considered one of the finest designers of the so-called Golden Age, having just completed the celebrated Upper and Lower courses at Baltusrol in nearby Springfield, New Jersey, and the East and West at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York. His fee at Ridgewood was 10 percent of the $165,000 that had been allocated for the track.
“I will never forget him (Gil Hanse) saying, ‘You already have an architect in A.W. Tillinghast. I’m here to help you find him.’” –Mike Policano
Club records indicate that the club engaged the firm of William H. Tucker and Son to construct the course. It seemed a sensible choice, for the company had not only built several golf courses in the Metropolitan New York area but also the original baseball field at Yankee Stadium. But Tucker’s bid turned out to be too low, and midway through the project, he started having trouble meeting payroll. In time, he filed bankruptcy. But the bonding company that took over his business provided the funds that Tillinghast needed to complete the job.
The official course opening came on May 30, 1929, and it was celebrated with a 27-hole members tournament.
According to Policano, the routings of the three nines at Ridgewood have not changed since that time – and the playing corridors remain exactly the same. But the club brought in Gil Hanse to restore the Tillinghast gems to their former splendor as he also added some length, so it was better suited to the modern game.
“We first hired him in the mid-1990s to revamp the practice facilities,” Policano said. “Then, we brought him back in the early 2000s to perform some broader work on the courses and develop a master plan. We loved his approach to the job, and I will never forget him saying, ‘You already have an architect in A.W. Tillinghast. I’m here to help you find him.’”
Hanse did that over a number of years largely by bringing greens back to their original shapes and sizes and fairways to their original widths. He also orchestrated a tree removal program that not only expanded views around the property but also improved turf conditions considerably.
In addition, he rebuilt all the bunkers on the golf course while adding a few of his own, in the Tillinghast style, where he thought appropriate. In several cases, specifically on 4- and 5-East and 3- and 5-Center, Hanse created new championship tees.
Hanse has earned acclaim for his brilliant Tillinghast restorations at Baltusrol, Quaker Ridge and Winged Foot.
Contestants in this year’s U.S. Amateur are in for a real treat.
Top: Ridgewood clubhouse (Courtesy USGA Archives)
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