Somerset Hills: A Rejuvenated Gem Awaits the Ike
By Thomas Dunne
Somerset Hills Country Club has long been one of the MGA’s most-loved competitive venues, having hosted the 1982 and 2003 Met Amateurs, won by George Zahringer III and Mike Stamberger, respectively. But the field for this season’s first MGA major, the Ike Championship presented by Canon Business Solutions (June 27 & 28), has a special treat in store. The Bernardsville, N.J., club is poised to play better than ever, thanks to a restoration by Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf Design.
When it comes to renovation work, there are bold transformations, where heavy machinery is called in to reinvent entire holes or even alter the routing plan, and then there are efforts where subtle work across the entire course creates an effect much greater than the sum of its parts. Somerset Hills falls very much in the latter category. Over the years, the club effectively preserved its 1916 A.W. Tillinghast design. Seventeen of the great architect’s original greens remain intact, as do a number of charming features, like apple orchards and a sunken racetrack—remnants of the property’s previous life as a gentleman’s horse farm that Tillinghast craftily incorporated into the design. Elements like these, as well as Tillie-made hazards like the “Dolomite” mounds guarding the fourth green, help the course stand out as one of the finest examples of early American golf course architecture.
“Somerset Hills was quite early in Tillinghast’s career,” Tom Doak points out. “I think he was still finding his way as to what his style would be, as opposed to when he got to Winged Foot and Quaker Ridge and Baltusrol just a few years later.”
But just as the smallest slippage in a golfer’s fundamentals can lead to wayward shots, by the mid-2000s Somerset Hills had begun to notice a kind of maintenance “drift.” The integrity of Tillie’s design wasn’t compromised, but it no longer packed its hardest punch. Fairways had gradually narrowed. Greens had shrunk, too, losing interesting hole locations. New teeing grounds erected on “cake box” earthen platforms didn’t fit with the landscape or with Tillie’s original teeing areas, which were low-profile affairs built at grade.
Changes were in order, but with such a design pedigree, both the club and Renaissance Golf wished to proceed with caution. Before agreeing to take on the project, Doak asked the club to draft a mission statement. This established a basic framework for the restoration, of course, but it also serves as a document to protect the course against “creative” future greens committees. The statement’s three boldface points: Preserve the integrity of the golf course; Restore critical design features; and Improve the efficient maintenance of the course and its surroundings.
Design Associate Brian Slawnik was Renaissance’s man on the ground in Bernardsville. In the summer of 2009, he produced a report outlining specific recommendations. For everyday play, Slawnik highlighted the “dysfunctional relationship” between the member and championship tees that began at the very first hole, where those wishing to play from the more forward tees were compelled to awkwardly pass by the most appealing teeing ground, next to the clubhouse. Slawnik also advocated close-mowing of the fairways near bunkers to allow the hazards to “gather” more effectively, and developed a plan for extending approach areas near the greens in order to encourage running shots.
In his effort to recover Tillinghast’s strategic width to the fairways as well as reclaim hole locations on the greens, Slawnik was guided by aerials comparing each of the holes in 1940 and 1995. Although this led to the restoration of a magnificently artistic bunker crossing the sixth fairway (it had been partially filled in), for the most part the widening brought features that Somerset Hills already had into sharper focus. “We brought back into play hazards which were once marooned out in the rough,” Slawnik says. “In short, we now give better players more options for attacking the hole and going low while also providing more opportunities for them to think their way out of position and into trouble.” But best of all, he adds, “the average- to high-handicapper has more room to find his way around and enjoy the day.”
However, club members indicate that as much as anything else, bringing a new superintendent on board was critical to the project’s success. In 2009, Ryan Tuxhorn came over from Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., which under head golf superintendent Matt Shaffer is well-known as a breeding ground for young greenkeeping talent. Tuxhorn, among many other things, has been responsible for the transition toward expanding the native areas on the course’s periphery, which should yield dividends both financially—in the form of more efficient maintenance—and aesthetically.
“Driving around the course,” he recalls of his first season at the club, “I noticed a lot of fine fescue in the rough, but kind of assumed it was there due to lack of rough irrigation. After speaking to a number of members, I found out there used to be many more fescue areas about twenty years before I started. We identified these areas, added some areas [in consultation with Renaissance], and then let [them] grow.”
“The goal with all the high grass areas,” Tuxhorn continues, “is for them to look thick and nasty from the tee. But once you find yourself walking through them, you should be able to find your ball and get a club on it, with it being a less than desirable shot. To do this, we have to eliminate all the weeds and unwanted grasses and have pure stands of fescues.”
Ike competitors will surely note the beginnings of this native growth as a driving hazard, but Somerset Hills will still primarily protect par around the greens. “As far as I’ve seen,” says Tom Doak, “the greens at Somerset Hills are the most bold and varied set of putting surfaces Tillinghast ever built.” A remarkable statement, given Tillie’s body of work, but one look at holes like the 2nd, a wickedly sloping Redan, and the 13th, which combines a fronting “Valley of Sin” with a Biarritz-like swale in the green’s midsection, and it starts to ring true. Brian Slawnik adds, “The greens at SHCC will continue to defend against anything equipment technology can throw at them.”
Somerset Hills is a case study in how careful planning can improve a golf course for both everyday member play and competitive events. And this, too, was part of the club’s mission statement: “Remaining available for, and maintaining course condition and playability appropriate to the highest caliber events, is consistent with the golf course mission.” Club president Kelly Doherty expressed this idea more succinctly: “We think we’re sitting on a national treasure, and we want to share it with the wider golf community.”
The Ike’s field will be among the first lucky beneficiaries of this mission, as they compete over a brilliant Tillinghast design with all of its beauty and challenge expressed to the fullest.