Magnificent Essex County Country Club to host 100th Junior Championship
In 1919 the New Jersey State Golf Association conducted its first Junior Championship at Essex County Country Club in West Orange with Charles Conklin of Hackensack Golf Club claiming the championship.
All these years later, the NJSGA/William Y. Dear Junior Championship is returning, appropriately, to Essex County Country Club for the 100th playing of the event. The championship was not staged during the World War II years of 1943, 1944, and 1945.
According to an article in the New York Herald, that first tournament, played on Sept. 4, 1919, had a field of only 26 players. Conklin won thanks to a birdie-three on the 18th hole, 1-up, in an upset over the medalist C.B. Mitchell of Woodbury Country Club.
This year, when the 100th Junior is played August 9-11 over the par-71, 7,122-yard venue, the field will be much larger, and the hope is for just as exciting a finish as the one that occurred in that very first championship.
"The NJSGA is very excited to have Essex County Country Club host the 100th W.Y. Dear Junior championship. It is fitting that the championship returns to its original host, and the club at which the NJSGA was founded. Essex County has always been one of our most supportive clubs, and I know they are excited to host us once again," Brad Bardon, NJSGA Director of Championships, said.
"The quality and challenge of the golf course make it one of the greatest in the state, and you can be sure that in the end that it will identify the best player in the field. We look forward to seeing who will add their name to the impressive list of past champions and become part of NJSGA history."
Essex County Country Club has an undeniable link to the NJSGA. It was at the club where the first organizational meeting of the NJSGA took place in June 1900. From that meeting sprang the first NJSGA Amateur Championship, played later that summer. Some 19 years later, the Junior was the second championship added to the NJSGA calendar.
The club has a proud legacy of hosting multiple New Jersey State Golf Association championships, 19 in total including nine NJSGA Amateurs (1900, 1910, 1915, 1923, 1935, 1944, 1962, 1982, and 2000) and six State Opens (1951, 1954, 1957, 1976, 1984 and 2014). It has hosted the Junior Championship previously in 1919 and 2006.
NJSGA Hall of Famer Billy Y. Dear, for whom the tournament is named, won three club championships at Essex County Country Club. In 1951, he won the NJSGA Amateur and was runner-up in the NJSGA Open Championship.
"Fairways are pretty generous here. For male, female, junior, and senior golfers, as long as they stay away from the fescue where they are sure to punch out, they should be okay,” said Essex County Country Club's PGA Head Professional Alex Hoyos.
“On the greens, they really must pay attention to the contours and the break. Bunkering is what makes us unique, too. There are multiple deep greenside bunkers which golfers must avoid.”
"At nearly every green, you are safe by aiming for the middle. You won't get yourself in trouble that way," Hoyos said. "And don't challenge flags that are in a risky location. "The greens are sloped, so approach shots have to land on the correct side of the green.”
The golf course at its current location was originally designed in 1917 by A.W. Tillinghast and later redesigned in 1928 by Seth Raynor and Charles Banks. Many of their "famous" holes are found here, including a reverse Redan (No. 17), a Maiden (No. 12), an Eden (No. 11), an Alps (No. 14), and a Double Plateau (No. 16). Banks was also known for deep bunkers and elevated, undulating greens.
Over the past decade, architect Gil Hanse brought the course back to Banks's original design. Greens have been expanded, trees removed, and the course lengthened. "We just completed a drainage project on all 18 greens," said the pro. "With this we are able to get moisture off the greens quickly. In any rainstorm, we are less prone to flooding. It’s led to better putting surfaces."
Hoyos said the considerable tree removal over the past five years created many more sightlines between holes. Hole No. 18 saw the most tree removal to open vistas and create airflow.
In 2020, club members stayed close to home due to COVID-19 considerations, and the golf course was a popular destination.
"This past summer, the course held up well despite a big increase in play," Hoyos noted. "The common theme this year from the membership is that the course was the best they've seen it, from beginning to end. It’s a tribute to superintendent Jason Thompson; he and his crew do an incredible job."
Hoyos offers some advice as the best ways to play the toughest holes, beginning with No. 1, a 385-yard, par-4. He recommends hitting a driver or three wood to the middle of the fairway which is sure to bound left down the slope for some extra run. The green runs back to front but can be illusory because of the green's elevation. The favorable approach is from below the hole to allow for an uphill putt.
The long 468-yard par-4 No. 5, a slight dogleg right, was originally a par-5 hole. Besides its length, it features a green that runs severely from front to back. The typical approach would be a long iron in hand. Golfers must be wary of bunkers on the side of the green. A run-up to the green is the play.
The 173-yard No. 6 is an outstanding par-3 hole, with the green heavily guarded by bunkers on all sides. Golfers are forewarned about a gulley on the right side of the green, one of the deepest drop-offs on the course. The average-sized green looks smaller from the tee, with a bunker protruding into it on the left side.
The 560-yard, par-5 No. 7 can play up to 650 yards from the back tees. Off the tee, there is out of bounds left of the landing area. Also, golfers must avoid a bunker about 230 yards from the tee and a cross bunker is on the right side of the fairway, 75 yards from the green. A full wedge shot from just short of that bunker into a generous green bunkered on both sides is the safest play.
Essex County Country Club is famed for its tough stretch of Holes 10, 11, and 12. The 437-yard par-4 No. 10 runs alongside the driving range with out of bounds down the right side. A cross bunker on the right side of the fairway sits in the landing zone, 240 yards off the tee. Missing the fairway to the left can be troublesome since the 12th hole runs adjacent to a shared tree line between Holes 10 and 12. The best approach to the green is from below the hole.
The signature hole at Essex County CC is the par-3, 185-yard No. 11. A ravine in the middle of the fairway leads to an elevated green with bunkering on the green's back left and short right. Missing the green short is costly, due to a huge false front. A shot missing short will run down the false front, and golfers are sure to have about a 40-yard chip shot back up to the hole. The green features a ridge which runs vertically through the middle of the surface. "The first big task is to hit the green. Being on the wrong side of the green could be a problem," Hoyos said.
No. 12, at 421 yards, is another long par 4, and it plays uphill and typically into the wind. A ball hit to the right half of the fairway that isn't quite deep enough will roll down into the rough and possibly into a bunker overhung by trees. That could leave a less-than-optimal shot out of that bunker and into the wind. Bunkers surround the green except for a narrow opening on the right side. There are plateaus on the back right and back left of the green, leading to small rises and a valley in the middle of the green.
An exacting tee shot comes into play on the downhill, par-3, 218-yard No. 15 which can play as far back as 255 yards. Precision is needed for golfers hitting into the generous-sized green which is protected by bunkers short left, and another running along the left side to the back of the green. The shot is generally subject to whichever way the wind is blowing.
The home hole, the 440-yard par-4 No. 18, is one of the most difficult on the course. A bunker sits left in the fairway, about 250 yards from the tee. Missing right can land the ball in the rough and in possible fescue. An overhanging tree from there could impede the shot into the green. Wayward tee shots to the left could also find the pond. The second shot may be into the wind and uphill with a long iron to a green that sits on top of a hill. An extra club is the smart play. Shots that are short of the green can roll downhill as much as 60 to 70 yards. The two-tiered green, which slopes back to front, is heavily guarded with bunkers left and right of the green.
"The juniors are going to have a lot of fun. It's a championship golf course, and there's no doubt it will be a competitive tournament,” Hoyos noted. “They will enjoy the challenge of the course. The way to approach this is to take in all the aspects. There's not a shot up on the mountain that won't be affected by the winds."
Entries for the centennial NJSGA/William Y. Dear Junior Championship will open in March, 2021.