Editor’s note: This story originally was published on October 19, 2021, and is being rerun in advance of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
SPRINGFIELD, NEW JERSEY | Baltusrol is perhaps best known for being the site of multiple major tournaments, having hosted 16 USGA championships and two PGAs since its founding in 1895. The Scottish professional Willie Anderson and American amateur great Jerome Travers won U.S. Opens here, and Jack Nicklaus captured two of his at Baltusrol, in 1967 and 1980. When Mickey Wright prevailed in the 1961 U.S. Women’s Open at the club, it marked the third time in four years that she had taken that title. And Phil Mickelson’s triumph in the 2005 PGA gave him his second major, with several more to come.
That’s quite a legacy. But of equal import is Baltusrol being where designer A.W. Tillinghast created for the first time in America two different but architecturally equal, 18-hole layouts on the same grounds. Dubbed the Lower and Upper Courses, they enhanced the club’s already strong standing as a top golf association and led Tillinghast to implement his “dual course” concept shortly thereafter at Winged Foot, across the Hudson River in New York’s Westchester County.
A few years ago, the powers that be at Baltusrol turned to designer Gil Hanse to restore both the Lower and Upper using the original designs – and design intents – of Tillinghast. It was a bold move, and some club leaders likened it to the decision founder Louis Keller made nearly a century ago to replace its original Old Course, which had hosted a number of majors in its own right, with the “dual courses” Tillinghast proposed to build in its place.
Hanse began work on the Lower in the fall of 2019, and the course opened to play this past spring to rave reviews.
“What Gil has done is remind us of the subtlety, strategy and rolling beauty of the Lower,” said David Normoyle, the historical consultant who has been advising the club. “And he has made it tremendously fun to play.”
Now, those are not words golfers typically use to describe the course that has been the site of more major championships (10) than any other at Baltusrol. Difficult, yes. Demanding, too. But not fun. Yet Normoyle does not shy away from employing that adjective.
“And Gil did that without taking away its toughness,” Normoyle added.
Having teed it up on the Lower this past summer, I concur with that assessment. I am also excited to see what Hanse produces when he undertakes a similarly sympathetic restoration of the Upper in a couple of years. And when that job is done, likely in the summer of 2025, the “dual courses” that Tillinghast so artfully crafted a century ago will be fully restored.
“We were also keen to balance the advancements in technology and maintenance with the original Tillinghast design, and I believe that as a group, we were able to do that.” – Gil Hanse
Baltusrol was created at the turn of the 20th century by Keller, the publisher of the Social Register, a celebrated guide to members of high society in the U.S. He had chosen as his site a farm outside this town some 20 miles west of New York City. The property also happened to be where a previous owner, named Baltus Roll, had been murdered on Washington’s birthday in 1831. Some in Manhattan called it “the crime of the century,” and police eventually arrested two people in connection with the killing. One, a local innkeeper, was acquitted on a technicality, while the other, a drifter, committed suicide.
Soon after buying the land, Keller hired Englishman George Hunter to design and then route a nine-hole golf course across it. Upon completion, the course measured 2,372 yards, with only two holes being longer than 300 yards. It proved to be so popular with members of the nascent retreat that Keller asked Hunter to add another nine holes. In time, that track came to be called the Old Course.
As for selecting an appellation for his new association, Keller combined the first and last names of the long-departed murder victim, dubbing it the Baltusrol Golf Club.
Not long after Hunter expanded the Old to 18 holes, George Low, a clubmaker from Carnoustie, Scotland, who was also serving as the golf professional and course superintendent at Baltusrol, was tasked with modifying the layout. And the work he performed was so well regarded that the USGA staged several of its championships on it from 1901 to 1915, including two U.S. Opens, a pair of U.S. Women’s Amateurs and one U.S. Am.
Keller was an ambitious man who wanted Baltusrol to be the leading golf club for what he believed was the country’s leading city in New York. He liked the cachet those major championships brought, and he wanted to elevate the club’s profile and stature even further. So, he hit upon the idea of hiring Tillinghast to build a second 18-hole course to complement the Old. But after considering the ground on which he had to work, the architect suggested that Keller plow under the original course and let him design and construct two entirely new, 18-hole courses.
Keller liked that idea and directed Tillinghast to proceed accordingly, with construction starting on the new Upper and Lower Courses in 1918. Four years later, they both opened for play.
Roughly 100 years later, Hanse remembers walking the golf courses at Baltusrol with club leaders during the interview process and discussing what they wanted.
“I said that if they were interested in us restoring the courses back to what Tillinghast had done, we would be very interested in working with them,” he recalled. “But if they wanted us to put our fingerprints on it and update the course, we were probably not the right guys.”
Hanse says that comment resonated with club leaders, and so did discussions they had about making sure the tracks at Baltusrol, especially the Lower, remained strong enough to keep hosting majors while ensuring members still enjoyed teeing it up on the courses.
“We widened fairways after we had gotten the job and went to work, and we did that primarily for the average member who would hit a tee shot in those places while retaining championship width further down the hole,” Hanse explained, saying that he also added some 95,000 square feet of new and restored teeing areas to make holes more playable for that constituency.
Hanse says he and his team also took out trees where some had been planted through the years and where they negatively affected turf health, always remembering that trees were sometimes integral to Tillinghast’s design. And the designer oversaw the expansion of greens back to their original scale and size, again relying on old aerial photos and plans to inform their decisions.
“We were also keen to balance the advancements in technology and maintenance with the original Tillinghast design, and I believe that as a group, we were able to do that,” he added.
When asked about the biggest changes he made, Hanse said: “Lowering the golf features. Generally, the green was the high point of the green complex, the focus, and the bunkers were set down below the putting surface. There was very little framing of features. Over the years, bunkers and green surrounds were raised for framing, and it was our belief that the golf course would present itself more authentically if we removed these raised features. Now, the course better fits the ground and our perception of how Tillinghast presented it.
“Adding depth and raised surrounds to the bunkers also made it harder to get in and out of them,” explained Hanse. “So, we tried to make bunkers more accessible.”
Hanse has a habit of not allowing his name to be put onto a scorecard of a course he has restored, the thinking being that an original work of art must be credited to the person who actually created it.
True to form, Hanse’s name is not on the card for the Lower at Baltusrol. But he deserves tribute for bringing out the best in a century-old masterpiece and reminding us of the greatness of A.W. Tillinghast – and one of America’s best courses and clubs.
Top: The 18th at Baltusrol’s Lower Course, with the club’s Tudor Revival clubhouse in the background. Photo: Evan Schiller Photography
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