U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR
Baltusrol's Upper Course Has Yet Another Opportunity to Impress
July 15, 2018 | Springfield, N.J.
By Stuart Hall
Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower and Upper courses are fraternal twins, born from course architect A.W. Tillinghast’s design genius as part of a Dual Courses project that was completed in 1922.
As the courses aged, though, a perception took root. The Lower Course was commonly believed to possess more beauty and brawn than its twin.
While Tillinghast intended to build courses with separate character – one of championship caliber (Lower) and one for members (Upper) – he wanted them “equally sought after as a matter of preference,” he wrote in his proposal for the two courses.
More so because of its length advantage, the Lower Course became a constant on lists of the country’s top courses. The Lower Course also has hosted more USGA championships – six to three – along with two PGA Championships.
This week, the Upper Course takes top billing, during the 71st U.S. Junior Amateur Championship. Competitors will play one round of stroke play at each course, before match play is conducted exclusively on the Upper Course. Previously, the Upper Course was the site of the 1936 U.S. Open, the 1985 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2000 U.S. Amateur.
“The Upper Course has just never received the same recognition,” said Rick Jenkins, chairman of Baltusrol’s club history committee. “Those who know about Baltusrol, though, know about the beauty and the brilliance of the two courses that sit side by side and yet are so different.
“Many believe the Upper Course is more of a shotmaker’s course, more strategic. A more complete course. It’s not as long, though it has caught up of late. With that it has jumped into the top 100 [of the course ranking lists].”
For nearly 200 years, the land on which Baltusrol sits was owned and farmed by the Roll family – the club was eventually named after family patriarch Baltus Roll. Oxen and cattle, along with an apple orchard, inhabited the plain and mountainside that was eventually inherited by Louis Keller, who founded the club in 1895.
In 1918, Tillinghast was chosen to build an additional 18 holes to complement the existing Old Course, which had already hosted five USGA championships, including the 1903 and 1915 U.S. Opens.
“The Old Course was already considered one of the best in the country,” said Stuart Wolffe, the official Baltusrol Golf Club historian. “And here was Tillinghast looking to do something radically different.”
Tillinghast recommended plowing up the Old Course to produce two courses. The project would also become the first 36-hole design built in the United States.
Work began in 1919, and for the Upper Course, Tillinghast integrated the Baltusrol mountainside into his design. The greens, especially on the first six along the mountain, were extreme in their contours.
“The greens are the key difference,” Jenkins said. “Those on the Upper are just so undulating. You will get some 10- to 12-foot breaks and the breaks start as soon as the ball leaves the putter head. I call them Tillie’s Sliders.”
Tillinghast accomplished what he set out to achieve, and was hailed by as the “Dean of American-Born Architects” by Golf Illustrated soon after the courses opened.
“In many respects, Baltusrol was a turning point in Tillinghast’s design strategies,” Jenkins said. “He began to abandon mounding and chocolate drops, and began to adapt strategies that you would later find at Winged Foot and Bethpage.”
For instance, Tillinghast started building the bunkers into the terrain rather than on top of the terrain. They were deeper and blended into the terrain better. He began to use the land that nature provided rather than manipulating it.”
“Tillinghast was a chameleon almost,” said noted course architect Gil Hanse recently on The Fried Egg golf podcast. “His courses changed. The looks, the presentations and the way he set things up. They were always just stout, good courses.”
Tillinghast was something of a visionary as well.
“Tillinghast built elasticity into these courses because the ball was going to change and the technology was going to get better,” Wolffe said. “He knew that. That’s why, I think, we have been able to host championships every decade since we’ve been around.”
In many respects, Baltusrol became his most pivotal work at a time when he was about halfway through this career.
Tillinghast’s design genius and the preservation of his work became the basis for the club’s application to recognize Baltusrol as a National Historic Landmark, which it was awarded in 2014.
Still, there is that nagging perception of the Upper Course as somehow lesser than the Lower.
In late August 2000, 21-year-old Jeff Quinney traveled east to New Jersey from Eugene, Ore., for the U.S. Amateur that would be contested on the Upper Course.
“I had barely even heard of Baltusrol, much less the Upper Course,” he recalls. “I remember watching Lee Janzen win the U.S. Open there [in 1993], and I had heard the Jack Nicklaus stories.”
Nicklaus won the 1967 and 1980 U.S. Opens on the Lower Course. In the first, he brandished a wicked 1-iron to help him outlast rival Arnold Palmer and establish a new championship scoring record. Thirteen years later, Nicklaus won his fourth U.S. Open and 16th major at age 40. He also eclipsed his own scoring record from 1967.
Quinney’s grinding style was ideally suited for the Upper Course. On his way to winning the championship, Quinney defeated Lucas Glover, who would go on to win the 2009 U.S. Open; Ben Curtis, the eventual 2003 British Open winner; Hunter Mahan, who became a three-time USA Ryder Cup team member; and David Eger, who went on to have a respectable PGA Tour Champions career. He defeated James Driscoll in 39 holes in the final.
“That week, the greens were so fast and basically if you’re above the hole you’re looking at a potential three-putt, or at least a long second putt coming back,” said Quinney, who played four seasons on the PGA Tour and is now a commercial real estate agent in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The greens were severe, you had to really control your ball. The rough was up quite a bit, and I remember it being hot and humid.
“You had to shape your ball into the fairway. A lot of extreme sidehill lies, especially the first seven holes if I recollect. Par was a great score on every hole, it was that kind of match-play course. You just tried hard not to make bogey to give the hole away.”
In the years since Quinney’s win, the Upper Course has been tweaked by Rees Jones, who expanded slightly on Tillinghast’s original design and added a bit of length. For the U.S. Junior Am, the Upper will play to a par of 71 at 7,280 yards, while the Lower, which will be used for 18 holes of stroke play, will play 7,313 yards.
Like Quinney 18 years ago, Hazen Newman, 17, of Las Vegas, arrived for his Upper Course practice round on Saturday with no previous knowledge of Baltusrol, much less the Upper Course, other than some old video footage.
“The Upper looks tougher because of the greens,” said Newman, who completed the round by holing out for eagle on the par-4 18th hole from 190 yards. “You have to really hit your shots in the right spot. I think putting and chipping are the keys, because you can hit a lot of good shots, but they will end up maybe off the green 15 to 20 feet away.”
Regardless of the eventual outcome of this week’s championship, Newman won’t be the only one leaving with a new appreciation for the Upper Course.
“Once anyone has played it, they tend to want to play the course again when they return,” Wolffe said.
Seeing is believing.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.