Course Tour: Essex County Country Club
Architects: A.W Tillinghast (1918), Seth Raynor/Charles Banks (1925)
Location: West Orange, New Jersey
Essex County Country Club (ECCC) is one of the finest golf courses I have had the privilege of playing to date. This private course in West Orange, New Jersey opened in 1918 at the hands of A.W. Tillinghast, and later extensively redesigned by Seth Raynor and his associate Charles Banks.
It is often said that Essex has the “best back nine in the state”, certainly a lively expectation to live up to in a state full of amazing golf courses, including the likes of Pine Valley, Baltusrol, and Somerset Hills. Today the course is a composite routing: 7 Tillinghast’s holes (#1-#6, #9), and 12 Raynor/Banks holes (#7-8, #10-#18).
Front Nine—A Compilation of Tillinghast and Raynor
The first hole is a downhill dogleg left par 4. This is a classic handshake opener we all know and love. The green is canted from right to left and back to front. The greens at ECCC play really fast, hopefully you had a chance to practice putting beforehand.
The 2nd hole is a great short Par 4 with a blind tee shot up over the crest of the hill. The aim point is the left side of the tree framing in the middle of the fairway. Most players only need a long iron or fairway wood to get inside 100 yards of the green. The magic of this hole is the green site. The bunkers surround the green on all sides and are fitted below the playing surface, giving a great visual appeal. Stay to the right side of the green for any chance at Par.
The 3rd hole is another Par 4 with the clubhouse off in the distance. Flanked by two bunkers, finding the fairway is crucial to success on this hole. A mid-length iron hit into the green which slopes front to back should provide ample opportunity to make a Par.
The tee box on the 4th hole offers a spectacular view of the remaining holes on the front nine. The golden fescue between holes waves like an ocean in the wind. The 4th hole is the third green in a row to have front to back movement, each getting more severe than the previous. Expect shots from the first cut or rough to carry all the way to the back of the green.
The first long Par 4 on the course, 5 has a difficult tee shot to a blind landing zone in the fairway. The tricky part here is where exactly to aim, golfers want to make sure they don’t hit it too far left leaving additional length into the hole and not too far right potentially being blocked out by the trees or into the bunker. The green complex on 5 is excellent, a few small contours feed the ball around the green and sometimes into the bunkers.
6 is the first par 3 on the course and a great one-shot hole. A short but tricky tee shot over a cleverly placed small pot bunker short of the green tests the eyes from the tee. I was the only one in my group to hit the green and was rewarded with the group’s first birdie of the day!
7, the first hole designed by Raynor and Banks, is a monster Par 5. It plays downhill to the fairway and then rising up the hill to the green. The back tee, playing 650 yards, is something to mesmerize at but I was thankful to not be playing from. From the blue tee, playing 560 on the scorecard, the hole is flanked with well-placed bunkers on either side of the fairway. Golfers who manage to avoid the bunkers and fly the one on the left side of the fairway can hit a bit of a speed slot and have less than 250 into the green. The large green is surrounded by bunkers and has a large false front which you want to avoid. Being at the back of the green is OK here.
The 8th is the second of back-to-back Par 5’s. A short Par 5 with a large pond about 280 yards down the hill presents a conundrum from the tee. Should the golfer lay up or hit a driver and narrowly escape putting it into the pond? At the suggestion of my host, I hit driver and wound up 10 yards short of the pond, phew! From here, the golfer plays back uphill to a green surrounded by two deep bunkers on either side. Best to avoid the bunkers if at all possible.
9, the last of A.W Tillinghast’s holes, is another visually appealing Par 3 guarded by a very large and deep bunker at the front of the green. Two other bunkers flank this green on either side. An extra club is required to account for the uphill tee shot to a green sloped back to front. A great way to end the front nine by making a Par.
Back Nine—The Best Nine Holes in New Jersey?
The start of the back nine opens with another long but gentle handshake hole. This downhill Par 4 plays to another large green surface sloped back to front. Those who avoid the bunkers off the tee can easily make a Par here, but for those less fortunate a tough up and down may await. The green site is subtle and brilliant. It falls away on every side and when the pins are tucked into edges make for tricky putts.
The 11th hole is the long Par 3 Eden template. Probably the most visually stunning hole on the course, this wonderful hole is a challenge for all golfers. A long uphill carry across the valley, avoiding the front right bunker, is required to get anywhere on the green surface. Missing left or long into other bunkers is a sure-fire way to make a big score. Happy to be the only one in my group to have made Par here.
The 12th is a road hole template which plays across and along the valley. The bridges built here are super cool. Love infrastructure like this on the course. Be careful to avoid hitting your tee shot down the right side of the hole, with the creek and large trees penalizing you. A long approach shot to a maiden green requires precision. Careful to not go long, as the up and down is a real challenge.
The only Par 5 on the back nine, 13 parallels the 12th hole, with the creek bordering the two holes down the right side of this hole. Once again, a tee shot to the left of the fairway is best to avoid any potential trouble from the creek area. For those playing the course for the first time, a blind uphill approach shot is cause for concern, with the bunkers strategically placed well short of the green in the landing zone. Another interesting green complex with a small false front and bunkers flanking either side of the putting surface create more challenges for the golfer to navigate.
The short Par 4 14th hole is an Alps template with large bunkers lining each side of the fairway in a zig-zagging pattern all the way up to the green. Avoiding the bunkers at all costs is the strategy here, 3 wood off the tee is plenty. A blind approach to a punchbowl green with lion’s mouth bunker covering front and centre is visually pleasing. A well struck wedge should get you on and provide a solid Birdie opportunity here.
The final Par 3 on the course is another incredibly strong one-shot hole. A “modified Biarritz” template as my host called it (not sure I would but let’s go with what the host knows, and I don’t) plays over 200 yards down the hill. With the pin at the back of the green on the day I played, it played 230 yards. A carefully placed tee shot down the middle or right side of the green will feed on and give opportunity for Par. Another successful Par for me left me happy as can be.
16 is definitely my favourite hole on the course and a strong contender for best Par 4 I have played. Another uphill blind tee shot should favour the right-hand side of the fairway to catch a speed slot and make this long Par 4 just a bit shorter. The approach plays over the beautiful principal’s nose bunker to one of the most well-defined double plateau greens I have ever seen. Each of the two tiers, back left and front right, is clearly cut by the channel/swale which flows from the back right to the front left lower portion of the green complex. A well-placed approach shot here is crucial to making Par.
Only two holes remain, and the charm doesn’t stop here. 17 is a Par 4 which requires a draw off the tee. I only hit a 3 hybrid and had a short iron into the green, but missing left or right here doesn’t leave much option to make a GIR. The approach plays uphill again to a reverse redan with the deepest bunker on the course on the right side of the green. Glad I didn’t have to even think about playing a bunker shot here.
The Home hole at Essex is a stunningly beautiful finish. This long Par 4 plays down the hill to a wide fairway, once again flanked by bunkers placed in the perfect locations for most golfers to hit directly into. From here, the massively uphill approach shot requires one or even two clubs extra to get your ball onto the putting surface. The green has a major false front and is sloped back to front. This is a really tough hole to make Par.
The back nine is as good as its reputation precedes, but the front nine is nothing to sleep on. It might not be as visually appealing or have template holes to drool at, but it is a solid nine holes of golf. The incredible routing around the hilly terrain, accompanied by the brilliant template holes, is awe-inspiring for architecture and golfing enthusiasts alike.
This is one of the best in a region full of incredible golf courses and deserves attention from any golfer. I hope to be back again someday, this was one of my all-time favourite days of golf.
1 thought on “Course Tour: Essex County Country Club”
What a place, The amount of Golden age gems in north east U.S. is impressive.