Celebrating the Centennial Open: Knickerbocker Country Club
The history of Knickerbocker Country Club is marked by resiliency and adaptation. As it settles into its second century, it has grown into one of the finest clubs in New Jersey.
Knickerbocker Country Club and the 100th edition of the NJSGA Open Championship are a match made in heaven. As the first-ever club to host the NJSGA’s flagship competition, there is a pleasing historical echo to this centennial return. Just like the event itself, Knickerbocker’s marvelous golf course, designed by Donald Ross and later by Herbert Strong, has stood the test of time, while the club continues to thrive on the foundation of its active membership, outstanding staff, and strong leadership.
Knickerbocker’s story begins on December 1, 1914, in the home of Malcolm Mackay, one of the six incorporators of the club. Mackay and his family lived just up the street from the future club property, in a home on Knickerbocker Road in Tenafly, where he was a highly respected member of the community and active in local government. A banker by trade, Mackay owned significant parcels of land in both Tenafly and adjacent Bergenfield, some of which was later donated to the Borough of Tenafly, where a park was built. Part of the land on which Knickerbocker resides also owned by Mackay. Considered to be the founder of the club, Mackay shepherded Knickerbocker through its early years. He contributed financially to the fledgling club and guided it through its infancy through his business acumen and leadership. It was Mackay’s actions that ensured stability, providing the groundwork for the club to become successful.
As Knickerbocker gained its footing in its early years, the course opened in portions. Its first nine holes—designed by Donald Ross—opened on the east side of Knickerbocker Road on July 4, 1915. The front nine was built on land leased from Mackay for $1 a year. The second nine, also designed by Ross, opened in December of that year on the west side of the road.
Over the next five years, Knickerbocker’s trustees realized the need for improvements. In May of 1920, the club was refinanced through the sale of bonds, which resulted in the sale of 350 membership certificates. This provided the financing necessary to enhance the clubhouse and build new locker space. The project concluded in early 1921, and the formal re-opening of the club took place on May 14, just in time to host the inaugural NJSGA Open Championship.
In 1922, the club purchased an additional parcel of land on the west side of Knickerbocker Road. Two years later, in 1924, the club decided to build a third nine on its recently acquired land. The English architect Herbert Strong was chosen to design these holes, and the newest nine opened in 1928. The quality of Strong’s work soon led the club to announce that the eighteen holes on the west side of Knickerbocker Road would be the primary course. It would hold all formal competitions and members’ handicaps would be based on scores from only those holes.
While the course on the west side of Knickerbocker Road has remained generally similar since its full opening in the late 1920s, the evolution of its routing is important to note. The holes designed by Strong are the present-day holes two through nine, plus thirteen and fourteen. Today’s twelfth hole (an original Ross design) is the former fourth hole, which played to a green left of the pond where the current twelfth green is located. Today’s twelfth green was the original location of the old fifth green, which played from a tee next to the old fourth green over the pond. The old fourth green and fifth tee no longer exist.
In total, eight Donald Ross holes remain. The first hole, a Ross design, interestingly plays through two different towns; players tee off in Tenafly and hole out on the first green in Bergenfield. Today’s tenth and eleventh holes were two and three (respectively), while the fifteenth through eighteenth holes were Ross’s original sixth through ninth. The resulting layout is a spectacular and unique blend of some of Ross and Strong’s finest work.
On the heels of the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression of the 1930s, the club went into significant debt. The nine holes east of Knickerbocker Road were deemed a maintenance burden and were ultimately abandoned. After many attempts, the club finally sold most of the land in 1948. The club retained the land on which the clubhouse currently sits, as well as the present-day golf practice facilities, paddle and tennis courts.
The club’s infrastructure was greatly improved during the 1950s, which coincided with a rejuvenated atmosphere around the club. The entire clubhouse and kitchen were completely renovated, a new golf course irrigation system was installed, and swimming pool was built. By 1955, the club had 659 members and found itself in its best financial position in years.
In 1961, the Schnitzler house (which today houses the golf shop) on the west side of Knickerbocker Road was purchased. It would be used as a rental property until 1969, when it became a pro shop and living quarters for the golf staff. A practice putting green was built outside the golf shop shortly thereafter.
The golf course remained very similar until 1973, when Geoffrey Cornish repositioned and remodeled six greens. For the next three decades the course saw little significant change. In the late 2000s, architect Ron Forse was retained to institute a major restoration project, which took place over the 2007 and 2008 off-seasons. The project was completed in early 2009; every bunker on the course was rebuilt and several greens were expanded.
One of the many reasons that Knickerbocker has maintained its sterling reputation is its staff. Only six head golf professionals have worked at the club in over 100 years; Otto Greiner (1952-83) and Ed Whitman (1984-2010, and still teaching at the club) are the two longest tenured in that position. Both have highly successful playing records; Greiner won the 1954 Met Open, while Whitman is considered one of the best players in New Jersey history, with four NJSGA Open titles to his credit. Bill Hook, who started in 2011, continues the tradition of longevity which began with Knickerbocker’s first head professional, Willie Collins, in 1915. Succeeding Collins were Jack Hobens (1925-41) and Willie Walker (1942-51), both of whom served the club for prolonged tenures.
In addition, golf course superintendent, Sam Juliano, has worked at Knickerbocker for more than three decades. He is credited in keeping the course in magnificent condition; it was Juliano who also oversaw the major renovations in 2009.
The enduring and distinctive characteristics of Knickerbocker have led to major accolades for the club. In 2014, on its 100th anniversary, the club received the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association’s Club of the Year Award. In Golfweek’s 2019 listing of America’s Top Classic courses, Knickerbocker was ranked No. 169. Both are well-deserved honors which truly represent a club whose place is among the finest in New Jersey.