The Greens: Tillinghast's Greatest Gift To Baltusrol
(Ed. Note: Baltusrol will host 56th Compher Cup, NJSGA vs. GAP, on April 26)
By Rick Jenkins
Lining up a thirty-foot putt on the No. 11 Lower, or lining up what appears to be a simple five- footer on the Upper’s No. 10. We’ve all had these putts, and we’ve all been consternated by their lines. What makes Baltusrol’s greens so vexing?
There are certain qualities that make Baltusrol’s greens special. Day in and day out, our greens are some of the best in golf. What makes them so? How can nearly 100-year-old greens be so magical, or is their age part of the answer?
To help us figure out Baltusrol’s greens, let’s go back in time. Baltusrol’s greens begin with a legendary pedigree, A.W. Tillinghast. As a general rule, greens figured highly in Tillinghast’s design philosophy. They were the most important feature of the golf course; in many cases, his design of a hole would begin with the green and work back toward the tee.
Tilly paid especially close attention to Baltusrol’s greens. He was a smart man (you only have to read his prolific writings to identify a man of intellect) and probably knew, rightly so, that his work at Baltusrol would be meaningful and garner a lot of attention in the golf world. After all, Baltusrol had achieved much prominence as a club by 1919 when Tilly arrived on the scene, having already hosted five USGA national championships, including two U.S. Opens.
Furthermore, its location in the metropolitan New York region would keep Baltusrol in the national spotlight. Tilly, based in Philadelphia, took up residence in New Jersey for the duration of the Baltusrol project— some six years—so he could keep a close eye on his baby.
Baltusrol’s greens are classic push-up greens. However, they are not as high profile as other push-up greens because Tillinghast tried hard to work with the existing terrain and make his courses as natural as possible. This is the philosophy behind “The Course Beautiful,” Tilly’s design mantra when he reached the Baltusrol stage of his career.
Yes, there are some greens which are more “pushed up” than others. Compare many greens on the Lower Course that are relatively flush to their fairways to a green like No. 18; obviously, a fair amount of earth was moved to support this green which gradually rises up from the fairway and showcases a steep right side (‘Old Course’ photos reveal a much flatter terrain around this area prior to Tilly’s arrival). Similarly, the green complex that encompasses Nos. 10 and 13 on the Upper Course probably was accomplished by a fair amount of earth moving; yet, the resulting look is very natural.
Our greens at Baltusrol were built with native soil, and soil alone. There are no prescribed layers of soil, sand, organic matter and gravel that you see in modern, USGAspec greens. In the 1920s at Baltusrol, the soil was excavated from bunkers and other parts of the courses, moved into place to form a green, and then shaped, compacted and contoured.
The soil at Baltusrol is high quality: it is rich in fertile glacial minerals, sandy and porous. Its loamy make-up has always allowed for strong, natural drainage. There is evidence that rock drains were built beneath the greens when they were first constructed; some still exist today and are functional, such as on No. 10 Lower and No. 3 Upper.
But the old rock drains of Tilly’s day were not replaced later on with piping; the drainage of Baltusrol’s greens relies on natural percolation and the contours funneling water away in certain directions. The one exception is the green of No. 9 Upper, where modern sub-surface drainage was installed when it was re-built in 2011.
Because our greens were built the “old fashioned” way, they are in need of more regular maintenance. The aerifications are in need of more regular maintenance. The aerifications that Mark Kuhns and his crews perform on them three times per year are important for adding sand to the soil and for inter-seeding, but they are most important for alleviating the compaction which has resulted from all-soil greens built nearly 100 years ago.
Deep down, the soil is naturally sandy, but the top few feet have been subject to compaction. Compaction stunts the turf plant’s root development, and, as we all know, healthy greens are determined by healthy roots. Plant roots can grow deeper in less compacted, sandy soil. Now we understand why aerification is so crucial to the maintenance of our greens, especially the “drill and fill” technique that penetrates further into the green’s sub-surface.
How did Tillinghast build the greens at Baltusrol? Laboriously, is the answer. Much of the work involved hand labor. Even when horses were used to pull scoops and Fresnos—the equipment that handled the earth moving— laborers had to direct the horses with ropes and ride on the metal parts to help guide the soil.
Much of the earth used to form the greens was pulled from bunker excavations near the greens, which would have provided plenty of soil because of the way Tilly started designing bunkers at Baltusrol. At his earlier courses, like Shawnee, Somerset Hills and Quaker Ridge, Tilly tended to build shallow bunkers (or “pits” as he called them) that were fairly flush to the ground or even raised above it.
At Baltusrol, he dug down into the earth to form bunkers. This change in style became a defining feature of his later work and, along with other features first implemented on our courses, helps Baltusrol stand out as his seminal design work. It would not be beyond comprehension to say that Tilly also used dynamite at Baltusrol, for he used it at plenty of other sites. It came in handy for felling trees and blasting tree stumps for easier removal, but it also was used to help move earth at a time when bulldozers did not exist yet.
Modest steam shovels were in use for golf course construction in the 1920s, and it’s also conceivable that they were used at Baltusrol, but we don’t know for certain. (While Tilly was a prolific writer and note-taker, and much of this material has survived, we have few records, notes or diagrams from his construction activity at Baltusrol; they probably existed at one time but have been lost.) It would not be difficult to imagine that dynamite was used to clear away a chunk of Baltusrol Mountain to make way for the green site of the fourth Upper.
Once Tillinghast formed the foundation for a green by moving the soil into place and shaping it, he finished off the structure with top soil that probably was taken from the same green site. If he used steam shovels at Baltusrol, he would have rolled the green to gain some compaction. Then began the process that Tilly lived for—shaping the contours. He performed a lot of this work himself, rake in hand, spending hours on the courses. We have a first-hand account from Emile Bontempo, George Low’s caddie, who witnessed the work and lived into the 1990s to tell about it. He recounts a horse-drawn drag which Tilly and his foreman, Tom Murphy, built specifically for the Baltusrol project and used to help shape some of the larger ridges and swales in our greens.
Tilly then stepped in to create the smaller contours with a hand rake, grooming the greens with the magic they still hold today. As the final step, the green was either seeded or sodded with turf from an Old Course green that was being taken out of play. George Low, Baltusrol’s first golf professional and greenkeeper, had a strong working relationship with Tillinghast.
Following the construction, Low was responsible for the grow-in of the turf, which proved to be a mighty challenge on the new fairways. Hampered by a damp and rainy 1920, the first attempt at the grow-in proved disastrous, with one problem begetting another. The 1920 golf season was largely a writeoff, as conditions did not permit normal play, and an impatient membership would have to wait another two years for their courses to open.
The fairways were better prepped and re-seeded and, with more favorable weather on hand, the Dual Courses finally opened in June of 1922 to much fanfare.
How are our putting surfaces affected by grass type? As you know, our greens contain two types of grass, bent and Poa annua. There are varying degrees of each type, but one of Mark Kuhn’s objectives over recent years has been to reduce the amount of Poa in our greens, and he has succeeded.
Poa often gets a bad rap, but it is a legitimate golf course grass. It’s temperamental, and this probably explains its disagreeable reputation, at least in the eyes of golfers. When the Poa plant seeds in the spring, it creates a slower and bumpier putting surface that will last for a few weeks. In extreme heat, it can burn out or discolor.
For superintendents, Poa must be closely managed because it is aggressive in spreading and prone to disease. But when held in check, and at the right time of year, Poa contributes to a nice putting surface. This still won’t stop Mark from ridding our greens of more Poa!
LOWER VS. UPPER
How do the greens of the Lower and Upper differ? Any observations would have to begin with the terrain. When Tillinghast first surveyed the property in 1918, he saw the appeal of the terrain and how two courses “different in style but equally sought after” could be built at Baltusrol.
Thus, the “Dual Courses” project was born, and with the Board of Governors signing off, Tilly would create two new courses side-by-side, some holes containing remnants of the Old Course, that would maximize the value of the property. He really took advantage of Baltusrol Mountain when he routed the Upper Course. Its slope would provide a very different layout than was possible on the Lower, which occupies the flatlands below the Mountain.
By routing the first several holes of the Upper along the side of the Mountain, and working hard to achieve it because a substantial amount of forest had to be felled, Tilly was able to create a set of greens unlike those on the Lower.
While most of the Lower’s greens are defined by subtlety, the Upper’s are anything but subtle. Long ridges rule the day on the Upper’s greens. Ride these ridges correctly and the putt has a chance to get close or drop; get off the rails and the putt could miss the hole by eight feet or more. The author fondly calls these putts “Tilly sliders.” The break is continuous from the time the ball leaves the putter until it reaches the hole; start it on the wrong line and you will pay the price.
Think of greens on the Upper like Nos. 3, 4, 5, 8, and 10 where Tilly sliders are common.
Speed also becomes more of a factor on the Upper’s greens thanks to the slopes, which usually run off the Mountain. When the greens are running fast, putts on holes like Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 and 14 need to be struck with the utmost care when above the hole or wedge could be your next choice of club. Of course, when these greens were built, putting surfaces ran more like closely mown fairways do today, in the range of 5–6 feet on the “Stimpmeter.”
This was the case because the first mowers, all hand-pushed, cut to heights of one-half inch and later one-quarter inch as they became more refined. Today’s high-tech mowers cut to .100 inches or any desired height. As a result, many sections of our Upper greens are no longer useable for hole locations; think of the right side of many greens on the first six holes or so.
The Lower certainly has an advantage over the Upper with more cuppable hole locations per green, and is one reason why it is preferred for major stroke play championships.
The greens on the Lower Course do not carry the slope of the Upper’s greens. Yet, in some ways, they are more difficult to putt. Subtleties are their trademark, and they can be vexing. The best players in the world have trouble figuring out breaks on the Lower’s greens. How often do they miss putts in the 5–10 foot range? How often do we as members miss them?
On such large and gentle greens, where do these subtleties come from? Part of the answer is certainly from the craftsmanship of Tillinghast. He took great care in designing these greens and paid close attention to the contouring details; perhaps this was the case because the Lower’s terrain lacks the slope of the Upper’s terrain and he needed to work harder to make the greens interesting?
Another part of the answer is Baltusrol Mountain; it has its influences no matter which course you are playing! The complete answer may remain a mystery, which is only fitting, but there is no doubt that the Lower’s greens are not as easy as they look.
Most, but not all, of the greens at Baltusrol slope from back to front. This is a style firmly advocated by Tillinghast, who as a fine golfer himself wanted the ball to have a chance to stop on the putting surface. There are some exceptions, however; the No. 10 Lower green runs away from incoming shots as does the No. 13 Upper. A notable feature of the Upper’s greens is shaping that favors left-to-right shots, or fades for the right-handed golfer, especially on the Mountain holes.
Although greatly facilitated by the terrain, this design is emblematic of another general Tilly belief that iron shots should be played with left-to-right spin because it helps stop the ball faster.
This article opened with a reference to the green on the Lower No. 11, which was deliberate. What is it about this green that makes it different from just about any other green on the 36 holes at Baltusrol? It is larger than most, sizing in at 9,000 square feet versus an average of 7,000 square feet at Baltusrol. It is also full of bumps and swales that send the contours running in multiple directions, in contrast to most of the greens at Baltusrol where the slopes run more consistently in one or two directions.
Just look at the green mapping from the PGA Championship Yardage Guide book, and you’ll see how this ultratextured landscape stands out. There may be a clue about this design in Tilly’s writings where he talks about greens on long, two-shot holes. He wanted to make those greens challenging, a way of rewarding the player who has struck the better shot to get home versus the player who did not; the player who missed the green and is faced with a chip should not have an easy task at saving his par four.
“It would add to the value of the shot chipped from off the green, for this stroke would have to be played with the greatest nicety,” says the architect. A few cousins of the Lower No. 11, like the Lower No. 3 and No. 10 and the Upper No. 18, seem to follow this same thought
So our first step toward supplying our putting greens with character is the consideration of the type of shot which is to find that green and construct with that thought ever uppermost.
We are blessed with legendary greens at Baltusrol. They are Tillinghast originals, both literally and figuratively. Many clubs are not able to say that their 100-year-old greens are original. Baltusrol can say that—with two exceptions, the fourth and seventh greens on the Lower that were re-done by Robert Trent Jones in the early 1950s.
We have treated our greens with great care and respect, and should continue to do so. We have made important restorations under Rees Jones, reclaiming outer green limits that were lost over the years to mowing patterns and rough encroachment, such as Nos. 5, 12 and 15 on the Lower where the putting surface now fills those greens’ original fill pads.
Says Rees Jones: “Tillinghast’s greens at Baltusrol are masterpieces. They have withstood the test of time and the lengthening of the courses by hundreds of yards since Tilly built them. They are not cookie-cutter greens and show the time and care that the architect put into designing them. We have enjoyed restoring parts of them with equal care. With the Dual Courses that so complement one another, the Baltusrol membership is sitting on two prizes of priceless value.”
Indeed, the Baltusrol membership is sitting on a National Historic Landmark.