by Rick Jenkins

Montclair Golf Club is an enigma to many golfers. On paper, it looks ripe for scoring. In reality, that’s usually wishful thinking. Many locals call it the longest short course in the area. Others are perplexed by its greens. No doubt the hilly terrain and the acute greens combine to turn a 6,500 yard layout into a challenging test of golf.

Appearances could be deceiving when Montclair hosts the 109th Amateur Championship from June 8-10th. If spring rains and runoff are light and the course plays dry and firm, scoring will not come easy – especially to those unfamiliar with the course.

The State Amateur will use the Third and Fourth Nines, considered by most members to be the strongest nines in the unique four-nine layout at Montclair. What makes this mix interesting is that these nines were designed by different architects: the Third Nine was built in 1919 by Donald Ross; the Fourth Nine was added eleven years later by Charles Banks. When Ross was working on the Verona/West Orange hillside replacing an old 18-hole course with three distinct nine-hole layouts, the Club hadn’t acquired all of the land necessary to complete a 36-hole layout, which was the ultimate goal. The way was paved by 1928, however, when enough acreage was finally acquired. It remains a mystery why Donald Ross did not return to design the final stretch of holes. Perhaps he was busy with other assignments? Banks was certainly a familiar name in New Jersey in the 1920s, having completed designs at Essex County Country Club, Rock Spring Club, Hackensack Golf Club, and The Knoll, so he was hired by the Montclair Board for the project. In the fall of 1930, the Banks nine was opened and Montclair’s 36-hole layout was complete. Sadly, Charles Banks, the protégé of Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald, died less than a year later at the age of 48. The Fourth Nine at Montclair and Forsgate were among his final projects.

In spite of the different provenance, the Third and Fourth Nines are remarkably similar. The routing, length and playability of the Banks nine complements the Ross nines. Yes, the typical Banks features are evident on the Fourth Nine – the punchbowl green on the first hole, the Redan par-3, the distinctive, cavernous greenside bunkering – but it blends well with the Ross nines and actually provides for a uniform 36-hole experience. Banks obviously took into account what was fashioned at Montclair already and worked to synthesize his nine with the existing nines.

One area of notable similarity between the Banks and Ross nines is the greens. While the Banks greens tend to run larger in size, similar undulations from large humps and ridges permeate both putting surfaces. The deep swale often used by Banks on long par-3 holes and modeled after the famous Biarritz hole in France is present, ironically, in two Ross par-4 greens on the Third Nine but not in any of the greens on the Fourth Nine. A large Biarritz swale cuts through the green on the Third Nine’s fifth hole and another one bisects the ninth green on a diagonal. These swales make for some interesting putts when your ball is on one side and the hole is on the other. Another feature common to both nines is a bowl-like depression in several of the greens. Both architects molded compressions in parts of their greens that sink one or two feet below the surface of the rest of the green, almost like the effect from carving out that first scoop of ice cream in a freshly opened container.

Players at the State Amateur will have to use great care on the greens. The sharp movements will challenge every bit of their skills, and minimizing three-putts will be an important goal. Another way to remove some of the hardship on the greens is by hitting precise approach shots and placing the ball in the proper quadrant relative to the hole location. Avoiding cross-country putts at Montclair will certainly increase the chance of making birdie and decrease the chance of three-putting.

As Gregg Angelillo, a top amateur player in New Jersey and Montclair member, said, “Montclair’s greens are its greatest defense. I expect they will be fast. You should be prepared to confront several 3-4 footers where you have to play break outside the hole.”

The four nines at Montclair are cut from the same mold. Each consists of one par-5 and two par-3s, thus playing to a par of 35. The par-5s are all reachable by longer hitters and the par-3s on each nine are divided between one long hole, typically in the 200 yard range, and one short hole, typically in the 160 yard range. On both the Third and Fourth Nines, the long par-3 is the third hole (the Fourth Nine is home to Montclair’s version of the Redan) and the short par-3 is the seventh hole.

The Third and Fourth Nines contain three formidable par-4s each. Of course, this statement is subjective but the score card would support the claim: each plays to at least 400 yards in length and is ranked as one of the top three stroke holes on its nine. The Third Nine begins to bear its teeth on the second hole, a 426 yard downhill, dogleg right par-4 where the drive could mean the difference between birdie or bogie. A long drive that splits the curving fairway will rocket off the hill and could result in a short iron to the green; a drive pushed or pulled, or worse yet left on top of the hill, will result in a punch-out or long iron to the green. The next challenge comes at the fifth, where again the drive sets up the hole. A sharp dogleg right with a creek meandering along the right side, the fifth demands a perfect power fade off the tee to leave the shortest possible approach to an elevated green – and a sinister green with the aforementioned Biarritz swale cutting through it. The Third Nine culminates with a 386 yard uphill par-4 – but because it plays uphill the effective length is much longer.

After the Fourth Nine opens with a birdie opportunity on the short par-5 first hole, Montclair’s version of Amen Corner begins at the second. A 454 yard par-4 that can be stretched to about 470 yards, the second of Four is regarded as Montclair’s signature hole. It is not particularly Banksian in its design, but its downhill chute beautifully framed by trees and a pond makes it a particularly scenic hole, which obscures its difficulty. The next hole, the 217 yard Redan par-3, is quite Banksian in its design – or at least reflects the modus operandi he employed, which was to borrow designs and features from the classic holes of Great Britain and use them throughout his American layouts. The fourth hole is simply a brute: a tough par-4 that demands a strong tee shot with a slight draw to bore up the hill, avoid two bunkers at the bend and leave a mid-iron into a somewhat blind green. According to Head Professional Mike Strlekar, “If the Amateur contestants can survive Amen Corner at no more than one over, that will set the stage for some good scoring in their round.”

Local knowledge should play into Angelillo’s hands, as it should for Michael Deo, the defending Amateur champion and former Montclair member. The two teamed up to win the NJSGA Four Ball Championship at Montclair in 2007, and each has to be eyeing the other as a principal contender for the Amateur title. “It will be great to return to Montclair to play the Amateur this year. You never know, maybe Gregg and I can be in contention together,” Deo said.

Other players with strong credentials include Tom Gramigna of Tavistock, the 2008 Amateur champion and three-time Mid-Amateur champion, and Jay Blumenfeld of Mountain Ridge, who finished in the top ten last year and was 2009 Co-Player of the Year with Deo. Both are steady players with the precision and patience to score at Montclair. A great short game is an asset around Montclair, so keep an eye on Ron Vannelli of Metuchen. And as the only NJSGA player to capture all three Amateur titles in his career (Mid-Am, Amateur and Senior Am), Allan Small of Fairmount can always be mentioned as a serious contender.

Several players from the college ranks usually emerge as contenders at the State Amateur. Robert E. Cronheim, who graduates from Cornell this spring, has recorded several high finishes in NJSGA events and is looking for a break-through victory. Michael Meisenzahl, a junior at James Madison University, finished second to Deo last year by a single stroke and should be in the field this year. Jordan Gibbs, a senior at Rutgers, and Brian Leveille, a senior at LSU, both finished in the top ten at last year’s Amateur. Chris Gold, who won the Amateur in 2006 and finished third in 2008 while a Maryland Terp, has turned pro and isn’t eligible to compete this year.

This season will mark the return of Brian Komline to a full schedule of competition. A two-time State Open champion, Komline has contended in the Amateur but never won it. After scaling back on golf last season due to an addition to the family and a new job, Komline’s competitive juices will be flowing this year.

Montclair member Kevin McGlynn, who is exempt into the field as the reigning club champion, is no stranger to NJSGA events: he was runner-up at the 2004 Mid-Amateur.

As usual, the NJSGA Amateur Championship is a great opportunity to watch some elite golf at a premier course. The New Jersey golf community is invited to attend the Amateur Championship at Montclair Golf Club free of charge. The event is a 72-hole, stroke play tournament over three days beginning June 8th. The field is cut from approximately 90 players to 40 players after the second round.

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