The Rees Jones Era: Part 2 ~ The Upper

by Rick Jenkins

The Upper Course’s heritage is much simpler than the Lower’s. Built at the same time as the Lower as part of A.W. Tillinghast’s Dual Courses project, and opened for business in June of 1922, the Upper for years did not receive the architectural attention that the Lower did as the august U.S. Open course. Last month’s story of the Lower started with Robert Trent Jones’ work in the early 1950s; RTJ never worked on the Upper. His son, Rees, did – but not until the 1990s and later. 

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 The only architect to work on the Upper prior to the 1990s was Tillinghast himself. He continued to tinker with the course after it opened and made several return trips to Baltusrol to correct deficiencies that had become apparent. One of the first adjustments he made was to the ninth hole. In the original design, the ninth hugged Baltusrol’s property line, with the tee on the right side of the eighth green, the fairway running along the edge of the property and the pond on the left side of the hole. In light of the residential neighborhood that was starting to encroach on Baltusrol, and the lack of any buffer, Tillinghast moved the ninth hole to the left, shifting the tee to the other side of the eighth green and taking the routing directly over the pond. We believe this work was done in 1929 or 1930. In President William McKnight’s Board of Governors report of September 14, 1928, he references “possible changes in the arrangement of certain holes which would permit adequate protection from adjacent property under development without impairment, and probably improvement in the character of the holes.” By 1931, the new ninth was in use, as borne out by aerial photographs in which the outline of the old hole is still visible. It is difficult to discern if the green site was moved or altered, but it likely was in order to adapt the hole to its new routing.

The Dual Courses had opened with much fanfare at a time when the fledgling game of golf in the United States was skyrocketing in popularity. Four years after the opening, the 1926 U.S. Amateur Championship was a coming out party for Baltusrol. It represented the debut of Tillinghast’s new Lower Course after the demise of the Old Course, which had played host to no fewer than five USGA national championships. The ‘26 Amateur drew huge crowds to Baltusrol that watched a fierce battle unfold between the heavy favorite and double defending champion, Bobby Jones, and a persistent rival by the name of George Von Elm. After Von Elm’s upset victory and the success of the ‘26 event, Baltusrol and the USGA turned their attention to the next national championship – and the Upper Course.

If the Upper was being eyed for a national championship, and several Board members were advancing this cause, the fourteenth hole would have to be fixed. A natural, underground spring coming off the mountain left the hole’s green swampy and posed a constant maintenance headache. A ditch fronting the green was dammed to create a small pond to hold the spring’s outflow, visible in the 1935 photo on the next page (this ditch still exists today but the spring has largely petered out). Tillinghast, with the assistance of Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet, set about re-designing No. 14. The two amateur stars, both of whom had played in the ’26 Amateur, were friends of Tillinghast’s and had become fond supporters of Baltusrol (Bobby Jones was elected to membership in 1936). While the original green was kept in play, a new green to the left was constructed. It was surrounded with bunkers, possibly owing to the fact the water hazard in front of the old green would be largely out of play. To add some girth to the hole, the tee was moved back from what is today the location of the forward tee to an expanded teeing ground that includes No. 10. Finally, a cross bunker on the left side of the driving zone was added. Thus, the fourteenth, a favorite golf hole of many Baltusrol members, received quite the makeover at the hands of Tillinghast in 1935! It paved the way for the Upper being chosen as the host course for the 1936 U.S. Open. Following two greenside modifications at the eighteenth hole which the USGA requested for improved spectator viewing (the subject of a BN article in April of 2012), the Upper would have its debut on the national championship stage.

 

 Fast forward to the 1990s and Rees Jones entering the picture. The Board had asked Rees to put together a comprehensive Master Plan for both courses in 1991. The work focused first on the Lower in preparation for the 1993 U.S. Open, and then Rees and Steve Weisser, Rees’ project architect, turned their sights to the Upper, which had not been touched since Tillinghast’s follow-ups sixty years earlier. The prevailing attitude about the Upper for years was that it constituted a wonderful layout, long on character but short on bite; hence the work in the mid-90s focused on adding length. Championship tees were added or extended on a number of holes, including 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 17. Altogether, approximately 200 yards were added before the 2000 U.S. Amateur Championship. Sections of several greens were reinstated to their original dimensions, notably the right side of No. 1, the right side of No. 3, where the approach ramp also was extended up to the front right corner of the green, and the right side of No. 10.

All in all, the work done on the Upper in the 1990s was modest outside the lengthening of the course. More significant updates came in the second Master Plan, executed between 2008 and 2010. This Master Plan was known for restoring and renovating the bunkers: deepening them; re-positioning many of them, both for the drive zone and closer to greens; and adding several new ones. A few more holes were extended in length even further; with new championship tees added on 1, 2, 4, 7, 13, 17 and 18, the Upper was stretched to 7,350 yards. But the second Master Plan also produced several updates that have enhanced the strategic value of the course. Two examples are shifting the tee complex on No. 5 to the side of the mountain, which Tillinghast had contemplated in his original plans, thereby creating a sharper dogleg (in addition to a great view!) that is more demanding as a driving hole; and pushing back the tee complex on No. 15, prescribing a longer iron into this sizable par-3 green.

A more subtle, but equally important, update has been the restoration of approach ramps in front of several greens. Tillinghast considered approach ramps a very significant feature of his architecture, and they stand out at Baltusrol as one of our more prevalent design characteristics. The restoration of approach ramps on Nos. 7 and 8, and the widening of ramps on Nos. 3, 4, 9, 10, and 13, may go unnoticed by many but are architecturally important. “Thanks to the Club’s excellent historical records, we were able to identify and reclaim different features Tillinghast incorporated into the Upper, some of which are seen at other courses and some of which are unique to Baltusrol,” according to Steve Weisser. 

As has been the case throughout Rees Jones’ long association with Baltusrol, the Tillinghast legacy has been respected and carefully protected. Elements of the Upper lost over the years have been restored, such as the cross bunker on No. 14 and the dimensions of certain greens and approach ramps shrunk by years of changing mowing patterns, and a few more restorations probably will follow. As noted in Part I of this article, changes such as lengthening holes from the tee and re-positioning or adding bunkers are consistent with the elasticity concept which Tillinghast preached and built into Baltusrol.

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The designs of 1922 are still in place. Says Rees, “Together, the Club’s and Tillinghast’s foresight have produced two playable, championship-caliber courses that have endured among the most highly regarded in the world of golf.”

Why do so many members of our Club revere the Upper? For starters, the setting has a lot to do with it. The location on the side of the heavily wooded Baltusrol Mountain gives the Upper a sense of isolation and tranquility not found on the Lower. And the mountain bestows a uniqueness to the Upper not shared by the Lower. We often gripe about the slopes on the first six greens of the Upper, and how a putt hit too hard from above the hole will run off the green, but therein lies the charm of the Upper. We point out to guests, and remind ourselves, how approach shots must follow a precise path, only to watch them run off the side of the green. This is the Upper; we know its challenges yet it continues to befuddle us. The Upper also offers a wonderful variety of golf holes: some long, some short. To many, there is no better hole in golf than a well-designed short par-4, and the Upper boasts three of them (Nos. 9, 12 and 13). In turn, the Upper’s variety places demands on every club in the bag, the ultimate test of a great golf course. It is a shot-maker’s course, even down to the putts, which offers more diversity than the Lower’s premium on length.

The wondrous accomplishment of the Upper is that it is so different from its sister down the mountain. The passion for this golf course lives in many members, but perhaps no more so than in long-time member and eight-time club champion Larry Carpenter, who has played it for 65 years. “Members feel challenged yet comfortable on the Upper. It has a magical quality, like Cypress Point and Merion,” Larry says.