Alpine Country Club: Tillinghast's Toughest Achievement

Alpine Country Club: Tillinghast's Toughest Achievement

Site of the 88th NJSGA Open Championship. Course Preview by Ed Brockner.

Perhaps no other figure in golf history has left a more indelible mark on the game in New Jersey than Albert Warren Tillinghast. The only son of a prosperous Philadelphia family, “Tilly” was born in 1874 and was an active participant in the game during its formative years. He made annual pilgrimages to the British Isles where he became acquainted with the legends of the game, including Old Tom Morris of St. Andrews. These experiences helped to inspire his interest in golf course design, eventually leading to his commission to design his first course for a family friend at Shawnee-on-Delaware in 1908.

The course at Shawnee was immediately hailed as a success and led to lucrative contracts to build or remodel numerous courses now regarded as classics, such as Baltusrol, Ridgewood and Somerset Hills, among others, in New Jersey. One of the defining characteristics of Tillinghast’s work is that it is difficult to discern a particular style or consistent pattern throughout his designs. Each of his courses is unique to the local topography and seeks to make the most of its exceptional features. He clearly disagreed with other architects of his era who sought to recreate specific holes from courses overseas. Tillinghast wrote:

“Not long ago I was amazed to hear a well-known golf constructor declare that there was but little that might be considered original in the golf construction of today. He asserted that our best holes were copies of time-honored and famous holes of British courses … Great Britain provides us with some excellent types … but attempts to copy them have produced holes of extreme mediocrity, and certainly a bit of originality would have been more effective.”

In 1929, a group of wealthy men from finance and politics approached the now seasoned golf architect to design and build them a golf course on a tract of land bordering the towns of Alpine, Demarest and Cresskill. The founders chose the name Aldecress for their club, combining the names of the aforementioned towns that surrounded the property. Located on the western slope of the Palisades less than a mile from the Hudson River, the terrain was extremely rocky and covered in dense forest. Tillinghast noted in his writings the intense difficulty of the work necessary to transform this rocky wilderness into a first class links:

“Among the hundreds of golf courses that I have designed and constructed, Aldecress was by far the toughest to build that I have ever encountered … There was a deal of tree removal (big fellows), draining and above all, far above all, we were messing around in huge stone outcrop over the entire area.”

Owing to the site conditions and lack of modern earthmoving equipment, the course took two years to complete and incorporated the designer’s modern philosophies of architecture cultivated over the past two decades on countless other designs. He also differed with other architects of the Golden Age of course design who expressed indifference or even contempt for the strategic and aesthetic use of trees on a golf course. Tillinghast believed that they added important qualities to his designs and took great pains to preserve impressive specimens. Tilly noted:

“I think that there is nothing more beautiful to look upon than a fine tree. Yet how many great specimens have been destroyed by builders of golf courses, who had no eye for the beautiful nor ingenuity enough to find a way to let them stand, not only to add charm but also to help the play.”

In laying out the holes at Alpine, Tillinghast made excellent use of the towering trees throughout the property, creating holes that highlighted countless specimens that added interest to the course. The routing over hilly terrain offered interesting holes winding through mature forest to reinforce the strategy of the course which was a departure from the primitive days of American golf course design:

“It may seem curious that early American courses were laid out on such puny scales and along such unintelligent lines … The inclusion of these very twisted (fairways) lends variety to any course, and in great measure they may eliminate the old evil of paralleling which is encountered so frequently on courses of common pattern. Then, too, these types require less bunkering than the straight-aways, for usually the projecting areas are provided by nature.”

While many of the holes at Alpine (the club was reincorporated under this new name in 1961) present wide corridors through the trees, the fairways play considerably narrower due to the sloping terrain and subtle doglegs. As Tillinghast noted, this permitted a relatively small number of fairway bunkers but still allowed the course to be challenging off the tee. In addition, many of the greens favor an approach from a particular side of the fairway to gain the best angle of attack to the sloping greens.

The Par 3s

“It has been said that no course is any greater than its one-shot holes. These should be stand-outs, altogether imposing and inspiring. Consequently, the green itself and its immediate surroundings provide all the character that such a hole has. Nothing other than these has any real value in the case of the hole which should be played with an iron.”

Alpine has undergone some major changes over the past few years as part of what Head Professional Kevin Syring describes as a “sympathetic restoration” under the guidance of golf architect Ron Forse. Much of this work has been rebuilding bunkers, restoring others that were lost over time and adding several new back tees such as those at sixteen. This beautiful, downhill hole offers a long vista resulting from tree removal behind the green and now requires a mid to long iron for professionals.

While Tillinghast chastised those designers who imitated classical holes, his eighth hole features a green reminiscent of the famous Redan hole, although it does not feature the severe front to back slope of the original at North Berwick in Scotland. Set at a diagonal from left to right off the tee, the reverse of the original hole in Scotland, players must find the correct line or have a nearly impossible recovery from either side of the green.

Tillinghast nearly always included at least one short par three on all of his courses and described both their merit and design philosophy in an essay entitled “The Tiny Tims of Golf:”

“Unless such a green stands forth impressively, despite its Lilliputian proportions, it is utterly wasted. It should be a little David, challenging the Goliaths of golf. Obviously the green should be small, following the precept that the shorter the shot the smaller the target, and here we have a green which should be fairly bristling with hazards, either naturally or artificially so.”

The fifth at Alpine illustrates this design strategy beautifully, calling for a well-judged, uphill shot to a green that is guarded by no less than six deep bunkers at the front and sides, with long rough and a down slope at the rear of this heavily contoured but impeccably sculpted green. Tillinghast was a very hands-on builder and his ability to blend his greens with the surrounding terrain is on full artistic display at this diminutive but difficult hole.

The Par 4s

“The character of putting greens and their approaches mark the quality of a golf course to a far greater extent that anything else. No matter how excellent may be the distances, how cunningly placed the hazards, or how carefully considered has been the distribution of shots, - if the greens themselves do not stand forth impressively, the course itself can never be notable.”

Tillinghast is often recognized for his incredibly challenging and varied green complexes, which helps explain why his courses are held in such high regard. The greens at Alpine represent some of the most beguiling putting surfaces anywhere, and the location of the hole can affect one’s strategy not just from the fairway but from the tee as well. This is true of the three unique, short par 4s on the back nine, particularly the risk-reward fourteenth hole that measures only 300 yards.

A group of bunkers divides the fairway about 200 yards from the tee with the second plateau leading up to the well-guarded green. While hitting this fairway beyond the traps is easily within reach for better players, a new bunker on the left side of the fairway has narrowed the landing area considerably, with additional bunkers and trees standing on the right to ensnare a misplayed shot. Depending on conditions and hole location, laying back off the tee may present a more sensible option, but requires players to have the discipline to hit a mid-iron off the tee. When the hole is located at the front of the green, the more conservative tee shot allows a full shot into the green, as opposed to a half-shot that would be more difficult to spin.

The tenth, another testing, short par 4, may be the most uphill hole of its length in New Jersey while, as Syring states, “the seventeenth hole may have the smallest green in the entire state.” Measuring less than 4,000 square feet but playing even smaller when its undulations are taken into account, the seventeenth will likely play a pivotal role in determining the winner of this year’s Open Championship. At about 315 yards from the tips, the hole’s fairway narrows to a mere fifteen yards where players may elect to lay up. The green is surrounded by bunkers except for a narrow opening at the front left; this entrance presents a sharp upslope to the putting surface where a misplayed wedge shot can easily retreat forty yards off the front of the green.

The remaining par fours on the course have great variety and several have greater length as a result of new tees built over the last few years. Most notable is the third, built in the shadow of the Club’s magnificent new clubhouse and extended over a hundred yards, and the eleventh, where the thirty additional yards requires a significantly more demanding approach to the green. Tillinghast, in writing about Winged Foot West leading up to the 1929 U.S. Open, provided commentary about his par four holes there that could also be used to describe the two-shotters at Alpine for this year’s State Open Championship:

“The contouring of the greens places great premium on drives but never is there the necessity of facing a prodigious carry of the sink or swim sort … It is only the knowledge that the next shot must be placed with rifle accuracy that brings the realization that the drive must be placed.”

The Par 5s

The three par fives each provide an opportunity for birdies or even eagles for long hitters, but those hoping to make up shots must also show a degree of caution as trouble abounds on each. The seventh has out-of-bounds down the entire right side of the hole, and players must avoid several deep bunkers at the front of the green. Those going long will face an impossible recovery if their approaches venture over the putting surface that slopes sharply from back to front. Each of the nines ends with long, but reachable, downhill par fives; the eighteenth will provide an especially entertaining conclusion to the Championship. Tillinghast noted the appeal of such a hole to players and patrons alike:

“Now the shot which seems to yield the greatest interest is one played from an elevation considerably higher than the green or fairway below. It is spectacular for the player and gallery alike, for the ball appears to travel prodigiously, much further than it does in reality, although of course, greater distance is achieved than on the level.”

A new tee was recently added to the finishing hole, as well as two bunkers that guard the fairway forty to seventy yards short of the green. Players unfortunate enough to find the sand will be faced with the dreaded long bunker shot with out-of-bounds looming just a couple of paces behind the green. Much like the short seventeenth, the final hole offers tantalizing opportunities for heroics, but possibilities for disaster as well.

A.W. Tillinghast’s contributions to the game of golf extend far beyond his work as a course architect. He was an extremely gifted writer, authoring countless articles on design, colorful portraits of golfers famous and otherwise, and he created yearly rankings for players both professional and amateur. He was a founder of the PGA of America, devoted his time and considerable energy to the formation of the USGA’s Green Section, and was the tournament organizer for the Shawnee Open, played on his first design. It is hard to overstate the importance of his role in the growth of golf in America in the early part of the twentieth century. As Tillinghast stated in his essay “An Architect’s Prophecy” in the mid-1920s:

“As one of the very early American players I have seen the game pass from the stage of a fad of the red coated few through a sturdy, healthy growth until it has become the popular recreation for millions of Americans.”

Tillinghast deserves much credit for this explosion in popularity, educating the golfing public through his extensive writings on the best traditions of the game and creating ingenious designs he would leave behind for millions to enjoy. The Herculean effort of carving out Alpine Country Club is testament to his commitment and passion for golf course design, and the course will provide an outstanding challenge and thorough examination for those competing in this year’s State Open Championship.

Ed Brockner is a frequent contributor to NJSGA Golf. He is Director of Development for The First Tee of Metropolitan New York and a course consultant for Essex County Department of Parks.

Play in the Challenge Cup Pro-Am on Monday, July 14th, one day prior to the start of the NJSGA Open Championship. Bring a threesome from your club or company and be paired with a NJ PGA Professional. For details and registration information, please click here.

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