Baltusrol has enjoyed a long and rich history in golf and has played a prominent role on the national golf stage for 120 years.
The Club was founded in 1895 by Louis Keller, also known for founding and publishing The Social Register. In their pre-golf days, the grounds were used by Keller and his society friends as a country refuge for weekend escapes from the hustle and bustle of New York City. When golf started to take hold in America in the 1890s, Keller had the perfect property for a golf course. Originally farmland worked by the Roll family in the early to mid-1800s, the Club is named for Baltus Roll, a family patriarch who was brutally murdered at his farmhouse during a robbery attempt in 1831. Some sixty years later, Roll’s farmland would be converted to a golf course, and the new club would contract his first and last names to form its name, Baltusrol.
After starting with nine holes and quickly expanding to eighteen as the game grew in popularity, Keller hired Scotsman George Low in 1903 to be the Club’s professional and greenkeeper. Low enjoyed a long tenure at Baltusrol, tinkering with the design and layout of the “Old Course” often. It would become a highly respected course, and hosted five national championships from the 1901 Women’s Amateur to the 1915 U.S. Open, won by Jerry Travers.
But with the game exploding in popularity and play improving, the Old Course soon outgrew its usefulness. Keller and the Board of Governors brought in A.W. Tillinghast in 1918 to re-make the course, employing principles of design which had developed as course architecture became more refined. What followed over the next four years was nothing short of bold, and launched Baltusrol on a new path to greatness in the game.
Instead of just re-working the Old Course, Tillinghast proposed that it should be plowed over to make way for two new courses. Such a venture, touted as the “Dual Courses” project, was a bold step for the Club to take. It meant destroying a course which had earned prominence hosting national championships and numerous regional events, and building two new courses side by side at the same time. It had not been tried before. In 1919, Golf Illustrated, one of the leading golf periodicals of the time, recognized Baltusrol as the most ambitious golf course development conceived in America.
Upon opening in 1922, Baltusrol’s Dual Courses elevated Tillinghast’s stature as a golf architect to one of the most eminent in the country. In fact, shortly after the opening of the Dual Courses, Golf Illustrated hailed Tillinghast as “The Dean of American Born Golf Course Architects.”
Tillinghast perfected a number of design features at Baltusrol that would appear in his later designs and become his architectural stamps. Some notable Tillinghast features on the Lower Course are the Great Hazard cross-bunkers on No. 17, the ramp approaches into the long holes, and the greenside bunkering and angled approaches which favor one side of the fairway over the other. With the exposure he received from Baltusrol, Tillinghast would go on to design many other highly acclaimed courses in the United States. In his advertisement for architecture services, Tillinghast would list Baltusrol at the top of his qualifications; he hailed himself as the “Creator of Baltusrol,” taking advantage of the prominence his new design had achieved in the golf world. Several of Tillinghast’s notable designs which came after Baltusrol include San Francisco Golf Club, the 36-hole design at Winged Foot Golf Club, the Five Farms course at Baltimore Country Club, the 27-hole design at Ridgewood Country Club, and the 54-hole design at Bethpage State Park.
Tillinghast’s work at Baltusrol also changed golf architecture for the better. Baltusrol demonstrated that the early courses in America could be redesigned and rebuilt to accommodate more “modern” design principles and the evolving equipment that was making them obsolete. In fact, Tillinghast believed that courses should be built with elasticity for future changes in the game, and he proved this point with Baltusrol. The Club has made many improvements to both courses since the time of their completion (indeed, Tillinghast returned often to make improvements himself), but adherence to his design principles and layout and routing has remained a fundamental rule guiding these improvements. The Lower Course has been lengthened by nearly 900 yards since the time of Tillinghast – with no routing changes or movement of greens. As designed by Tillinghast, the 36 holes at Baltusrol are substantially intact today, and display more representations of his design principles than any of his other designs still intact. In many respects, Baltusrol can be considered Tillinghast’s most important design. For this and other reasons, Baltusrol Golf Club was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2014 by the National Park Service, one of only four golf properties to hold this distinction.
The Dual Courses opened with much fanfare at a time when the fledgling game of golf in the United States was skyrocketing in popularity. Four years after the opening, the Lower Course made its debut in the 1926 U.S. Amateur Championship; it was a coming out party for Baltusrol. The ‘26 Amateur drew huge crowds to Baltusrol that watched a fierce battle unfold between the heavy favorite and double defending champion, Bobby Jones, and a persistent rival by the name of George Von Elm. After Von Elm’s upset victory and the success of the ‘26 event, Baltusrol became a regular venue for national championships for decades to come.
Of the 15 USGA national championships hosted by Baltusrol, seven have been U.S. Opens. Those seven Opens have been played on three courses at Baltusrol: the Lower, the Upper, and the Old. The 1954 Open was the first Open to be televised. The Champions Bridge crossing the Lower 18th fairway is dedicated to Jack Nicklaus, who won two of his four Opens at Baltusrol, in 1967 and 1980. The 18th fairway also sports a plaque 238 yards from the green where Jack hit the famous 1-iron shot to the green in the 1967 Open, cementing his victory over Arnold Palmer.
Baltusrol’s consulting architect for the last 25 years has been Rees Jones. His first major assignment came in the early 1990s as the Club prepared for the 1993 U.S. Open. There had been very little architectural work done on the courses since the early 1950s when Rees’ father, Robert Trent Jones, made modifications to the Lower to prepare it for the 1954 U.S. Open. Rees and the Club created a Master Plan in 1991 of which some of the proposed work was undertaken prior to the ’93 Open and the rest deferred until the late 1990s and early 2000s. The work focused primarily on adding length to the course, adding and tweaking bunkers, and rebuilding tees. Examples of some of the more prominent updates to the Lower during this period include adding the back tee on No. 3 to increase the hole’s length to 460 yards (1991), and again in 2003 to increase it to 503 yards; rebuilding the back tee on No. 4 at 200 yards (1998); adding fairway bunkers on No. 8 to tighten the landing zone (1991 & 1998); adding the right tee on No. 9 to create another angle to the green (1991); adding the two farthest fairway bunkers on No. 11 (2001); adding more fairway bunkers on the left side of No. 13 and angling the stream closer to the fairway (2003); adding the ultra-long back tee on No. 17 to take the hole to 647 yards (2002); and adding the fairway bunker complex on the right side of No. 18 (2003).
Rees Jones loves the design of the Dual Courses and how distinctly different they are. “The land helped accomplish that for Tillinghast,” he said. “The holes on the Upper are more pitched because of the mountain, and Tillinghast took advantage of the differences in the terrain to create two different courses,” he added. In fact, the beauty and genius of Tillinghast’s designs at Baltusrol is that he built two courses next to each other which are equal in stature but different in style. Tilly was right that they would be “equally sought after as a matter of preference.”
Following the 2005 PGA Championship, Baltusrol developed another Master Plan with a property-wide scope, encompassing not only the golf courses but the practice facilities and the Clubhouse. The Range was improved, the Performance Center was built, and multiple short game areas were added. Updates to the Lower Course, guided by Rees Jones and Steve Weisser, consisted of a bunker renovation plan which restored depth to all of the bunkers, added several new ones, re-positioned fairway bunkers to make them more relevant for today’s game, and returned bunkers to the Tillinghast style. Ramp approaches to the greens, a distinctive Tillinghast feature at Baltusrol, were restored to their original dimensions; a great example is the enlarged ramp leading to the 17th green. Green expansion occurred on several holes like #5, #12, #15 and #18, where back green sections were restored to their original dimensions. In addition, collection areas were added behind the greens on two holes, #1 and #12, complementing the one that existed already on #5. The renovation and restoration work undertaken by the Club has relied on archival photographs and aerial maps to help the design stay true to its past and the Tillinghast legacy.
Two par 4s on the back nine, Nos. 13 and 15, were stretched by 25 yards each with new championship tees. With its oblique angle framed by fairway bunkers on the left and a creek running diagonally up the right side, #13 is a fine example of a short par 4 design.
The 18th hole was the beneficiary of a dramatic improvement. The fairway bunkers on the right side, added in 2003, were re-styled, and one additional bunker was added to this complex. On the left side, the creek was enlarged to form a pond, now a significant water hazard. The combination of these improvements has made No. 18 arguably the toughest driving hole on the Lower. As Phil Mickelson tapped the Nicklaus plaque in the fairway ahead of his Sunday approach shot at the ’05 PGA Championship, he’ll now have to tap the tee marker for good luck!
The Lower Course should produce a challenging but fair test of golf for the 98th PGA Championship. As a par 70 course, it boasts many brawny par 4s. Each of the par 3 holes could exceed 200 yards in length depending on the set-up. With its classic demands, Baltusrol will be a course enjoyed and appreciated by the best players in the world. Tillinghast would be proud.
By Rick Jenkins
1901, 1911 US Women’s Amateur
1903, 1915, 1936, 1954, 1967, 1980, 1993 US Open
1904, 1926, 1946, 2000 US Amateur
1961, 1985 US Women’s Open
2005, 2016 PGA Championship
1903, 1907, 1913, 1925, 1941, 1979, 1998, 2012 NJSGA Amateur Championship
1983 NJSGA Open Championship
1989 NJSGA Women’s Amateur Championship