WEST CALDWELL, NEW JERSEY | “Hidden gem” often seems a hackneyed way of describing a lesser-known and brilliantly designed golf course. But sometimes, the shoe fits.
That is certainly the case with the Mountain Ridge Country Club, which is located in this suburban town some 20 miles west of midtown Manhattan. The centerpiece of the century-old retreat, which will be showcased this week at the Cognizant Founders Cup on the LPGA Tour, is a Donald Ross course that is routed across rolling terrain and features wide fairways; greens with subtle ledges, ridges and tilts; and well-placed bunkers, some of which jut into the fairways at angles. Several of the holes harken back to Old World classics like the seventh with its Punchbowl green and No. 11, where the putting surface has a bit of Biarritz to it. A creek cuts through part of the property, which is replete with specimen maples and oaks, and ponds come into play on a couple of holes. For those golfers looking to warm up before rounds or work on their games, there is a spacious practice ground between the first and 10th holes.
Members certainly appreciated what the Scot had created there, and those who teed it up on that course as guests or contestants in the regional tournaments the club hosted on rare occasions were equally as enthralled. Mountain Ridge, however, was one of those places that preferred to keep to itself. The club did not welcome course raters with great enthusiasm nor did it seek to stage national championships. Neither corporate nor charity outings were a priority either. Not surprisingly, it was regarded as something of an unknown in the greater game of golf.
But as the club approached the 100th anniversary of its founding in 1912, it started to welcome important state and regional tourneys with greater frequency. It also played host to its first USGA event, the U.S. Senior Amateur.
Around the same time, Mountain Ridge began to lose some of its squeamishness when it came to letting non-members on its grounds which, like those at Augusta National, are improbably located off a busy avenue.
As a result, the club’s profile started to rise. People began touting it as among the best courses in the Garden State, and Mountain Ridge made its way onto Golf magazine’s list of the top 100 courses in the U.S. And now, Mountain Ridge is playing host to one of the LPGA’s signature events.
More and more, golf has discovered what gems this course – and club – truly are. But they are “hidden” no more.
Mountain Ridge was officially formed in the spring of 1912 when 25 charter members, most of whom were German Jews who lived and worked in the city of Newark, filed a Document of Incorporation with the State of New Jersey. A year later, the club boasted a nine-hole golf course on 176 acres of rather hilly land in the town of West Orange, turning to a professional at the nearby Essex County Country Club named David Hunter to design and lay out the track. Though golf was to be the main athletic endeavor of this nascent association, it was nonetheless a new sport to most of the founding members. Which may explain why they celebrated the official opening of the club with a softball game.
In the winter of 1916-17, A.W. Tillinghast fashioned a second nine on the property. But it soon became apparent that the site the members had chosen for their club was not well suited for golf. The club turned first to Seth Raynor and Charles Banks and later Walter Travis for advice on how to rectify that problem. But those designers doubted that any amount of money could produce even an adequate course there.
Eventually, the club decided to sell that property (to the Public Service Corporation of New Jersey, which then built a power plant there) and relocate Mountain Ridge to nearby West Caldwell, where members had purchased 282 acres of farmland. To design a new course, the club hired Donald Ross. The year was 1929, and his design fee was $2,500. The architect also earned another $14,000 for supervising construction.
That course formally opened on June 6, 1931, and Ross was among those in attendance. What he had produced were two loops of nine holes that began and ended on the top of the hill where Mountain Ridge had located its clubhouse. The starting holes of both nines played downhill to ample fairways, and they each finished with longish holes that climbed back up the hill.
Two weeks later, Mountain Ridge members dedicated their new clubhouse. Crafted by architect Clifford C. Wendehack, who had also designed the clubhouses at Winged Foot and Ridgewood, it was a stately Tudor Revival structure with a brick and field stone exterior; a steep-sloped, multi-colored slate roof; and an expansive terrace that provided sweeping views of the course.
Eighty years later, it is clear that both course and clubhouse have aged beautifully.
Perhaps most remarkable is the durability of the course design. And while the order in which the nine-hole loops are played has changed a few times through the decades, Ross’ routing remains essentially unchanged.
That is not to say, however, that alterations have not been made to the par-71 course, and since the mid-1990s, Mountain Ridge has worked with architect Ron Prichard on ensuring that it stays as true as possible to its Ross roots.
According to Prichard, who has worked throughout the process from drawings that Ross produced, that effort has entailed significant tree removal; expansion of putting surfaces that had shrunk in size over the years; and rebuilding bunkers to restore original shapes and improve drainage.
“From studying him, I feel Ross was a kindly architect,” said Prichard. “He did not like to see players make mistakes that caused full-stroke penalties, and he didn’t want an enormous amount of water in play. He also had a match-play mentality and liked to keep both opponents in the game. He didn’t want a guy to hit a tee shot and then have to put the ball in his pocket. Even if a player was at a disadvantage, he didn’t want to prevent him from making a brilliant recovery.”
Another change of note, though entirely unrelated to matters of course architecture, had to do with a tin cup that used to hang on a chain alongside the brook in front of the 13th tee. Years ago, golfers often dipped the cup into the water to take a drink, but no more.
These days, Mountain Ridge measures a tad more than 7,000 yards from the back tees, and a little less than 5,500 yards from the front markers. All told, the course features five sets of tee boxes, which makes it playable for golfers of all ages and abilities. And the creation not too long ago of two combination tees further enhances variety.
“It’s just a very well-designed, very pleasant course to play and always well maintained,” said 76-year-old Ned Steiner, a third-generation legacy at Mountain Ridge who has won multiple club championships and played in seven USGA events. “It can test the best players in the game and also be a lot of fun for recreational golfers.”
It happens to be a pretty good place for this week’s LPGA tournament, too.
Top: The ninth hole at Mountain Ridge. All Photos: Courtesy Mountain Ridge Country Club
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