As has been the case many times in my Top 100 Odyssey, a stroke of blind luck put me in contact with a member of this club. Prior to playing there I knew little of Somerset Hills other than it was one of several Tillinghast designs on the Top 100 list located on the outskirts of New York City.
It turns out that my blind stroke of luck was quite fortunate as Somerset Hills Country Club has only 200 members so if not for the good fortune I would have found myself facing another needle in a haystack drill. Amazingly for a club so small they have outstanding facilities. In addition to maintaining a Tillinghast designed Top 100 golf course there are also eight grass tennis courts, several clay courts and a top notch clubhouse among the many facilities.
The original plan was to play Somerset Hills on Saturday and then on Sunday my SHCC host had arranged for me to play with one of his friends who was a member at Baltusrol Golf Club. Unfortunately we had a bit of weather on Saturday so we went to Plan B which consisted of a 7:30AM tee of at Somerset Hills leaving just enough time to make the afternoon game at Baltusrol which was about 30 minutes away.
Upon arrival at Somerset Hills the course was dusted in a beautiful misty fog . . . Am I sure this is really New Jersey and not Scotland?? Because today was to be a golf marathon of 36 holes we skipped warming up on the range and got right to the first tee. We started so early that no caddies had even shown up yet and we carried our own bags. At home I carry my own bag 95% of the time, so it was business as usual for me. Somerset Hills is essentially a walking only course. There are no cart paths and motorized golf carts are strongly discouraged except for those who are physically unable to walk.
So off we go into the mist to chase the small white ball. The photo below is of the 2nd Hole which is a 175 yard par 3 Redan. The Redan is one of the most famous hole designs in golf with the original being at North Berwick Golf Links in Scotland. A Redan is a mid-length par 3 where the green is wider than it is deep and angles away from the tee box. The slope of the green runs from front right to back left and the front is usually protected by deep bunkers. Though the mist mostly covers the photo below, this 2nd hole at Somerset Hills is widely considered one of the finest examples of a Redan hole in the US.
The first nine holes and second nine holes at Somerset Hills have a completely different feel. The first nine is fairly wide open and relatively flat. This is in part owing to the fact that the ground was originally a track for horse racing. The track stayed in place and Tillinghast laid the first nine holes out right over top of it. There are a couple of places on the first nine where play crosses right over the ghost of the track which is a really unique feature of the course.
The second nine holes have a completely different feel. They play through the wooded hillside with great elevation changes which is vastly different to the open and more flat feel of the first nine holes.
The photo below is of the 151 yard, par 3, 12th hole. Though water holes have become incredibly popular in recent golf course design they were not near as common for inland courses at the time this hole was built in 1917. Tillinghast does have a handful of them to his credit though. Note that the green is the second land mass and not the first. My tee shot flew just over the left edge of the green and was sitting with the bottom 1/3 in the water. I managed to get it out and onto the green though I did get a little wet in the process.
My favorite hole of the day was the Par 4, 407 yard 15th hole. A dogleg right where a tee shot not placed in the right spot could end up flying through the fairway and lost forever. A good drive down the right hand side of the fairway leaves a difficult approach shot most likely from a hanging lie to a green fronted by a creek. What a great hole! The photo below is of the green complex at this hole.
Somerset Hills finishes with fun holes all the rest of the way in . . . a very good par 3 and 2 fun par 4 holes playing down the hill and right back up to the clubhouse.
Having played several of Tilly’s courses now I can say that Somerset Hills has a different vibe from the others I have played. While my other Tillinghast experiences have had a large scale championship feel to them Somerset Hills feels more like a players course. Its a great daily play track with really fun and challenging greens that are at the same time very playable and fair. It is the type of course where a player can go out and have fun without grinding and yet still be required to make challenging shots and good putt reads to score well.
Overall Somerset Hills Country Club has a relaxed and low key feel to it. With such a small membership the course does not get much play and I only recall seeing one other two ball on the course the entire time we were there. It was a great place to start the day which, by the way, turned out to be perfect weather. You cannot complain about temperatures in the 60s on an October day in New Jersey. Next stop in 30 minutes at Baltusrol.