2005: America's Best - Baltusrol: Longer, tougher, blander

Springfield, N.J.

This must be is what it takes to get a golf course into shape for a major these days. First you stretch it, then you narrow it at the landing areas. Make sure it’s dense, lush and green from wall to wall so that no one has a bad lie. Finally, add 156 players, all trying to bash the ball as far as they can before they look up at the course.

Critics who suggest Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course lacks strategic variety and interest are only slightly misplaced in their concern. There is much subtlety and character in the form of canted fairways, uneven lies, up-and-over approaches into greens, complex putting contours and sharp roll offs around greens. But the course also has lost some character from A.W. Tillinghast’s original 1922 design.

Prior to the 1954 U.S. Open, Robert Trent Jones Sr. toughened up the fourth hole, a 194-yard par 3 over water, mainly by making the green very hard to hold along its back shelf. Less well known is that he also softened the bite of Baltusrol’s bunkers, and in subsequent years they became even more maintenance-friendly.

In recent years, with considerable input from architect Rees Jones, there has been an effort to deepen the bunkers and more carefully define lines of play so that longer hitters at least have to keep the ball straight.

It’s no easy thing, juggling the needs of a golf membership that plays the course every day and the needs of a major championship that arrives every decade or so. It helps at Baltusrol that there’s sufficient room for lengthening tee shots so that intended landing areas can be recaptured – even if it means introducing a blind tee shot at the third hole, which is one of two par 4s now measuring more than 500 yards (that’s not a misprint).

Extensive renovation of the roughs since the 1993 U.S. Open has guaranteed thick bluegrass rough in the 5-inch range. When the championship is over, says Rees Jones, they’ll just shave the rough back and members can have a chance.

At 7,392 yards, the par-70 Lower Course certainly has length. Much of it can be found on No. 17, now 650 yards, making it the longest hole in the history of major championship golf. Interestingly, there’s nothing strategic about the hole – once you thread your tee shot through a ridiculous dawn redwood that creates a narrow chute for the drive. In recent years, club officials have taken out 500 trees to promote air movement and turf growth. Too bad they didn’t take out 501.

One idiosyncrasy of Baltusrol that is sure to receive much media attention is the only back-to-back par-5 finish in a men’s major championship. With the 18th hole also a par 5, this one 554 yards, Baltusrol presents a 1,204-yard final march to glory. That’s two-thirds of a mile if you’re counting.

Baltusrol always has had tradition and history. But with each renovation, the quirkiness and inherent interest of the ground features have become layered over with dross. It’s like taking an Arts and Crafts cottage and covering it in vinyl siding. As for the doctoring that’s gone on, some of it looks like breast enhancement surgery – especially those silicone mounds that are part of the newly installed bunker complexes on the 13th and 18th holes. Not only do these complexes not fit, they also bunker the outside of the hole and punish players who play away from the bolder line of attack. In other words, optional paths have been taken away in the name of playing the holes one way – straight.

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