A Look at The Architects Golf Club

By: Jay Flemma

Stephen Kay isn't just a golf course architect; he's also a professor of golf course design and construction, lecturing regularly at universities, conferences, and even the New York State Bar Association. Ron Whitten is one of the pre-eminent golf course architecture critics. When the two get together, it's as though Aristotle and Plato were back at their old haunts in Athens discussing "The Poetics."

At Architects Golf Club in Phillipsburg in north-central New Jersey, these two formidable minds united to create a living historical tour of golf course architecture. All 18 holes are designed in the style of a different pre-eminent architect from 1885-1955, from Old Tom Morris to Robert Trent Jones. The entire day introduces you to the lives, times and ideas of the greatest designers of golf's gilded "Golden Age."

Let's be clear - this is NOT a "pastiche" or tribute course; these holes are not copies of holes from other designers. They are, instead, faithful imitations of the typical style of the architect. The RTJ hole (the 18th, a long narrow par-4) features a runway tee with penal bunkering on both sides of the fairway, 290 yards on the left, 270 on the right from the tips. It looks remarkably like a great many of Jones' real holes. The Charles Blair Macdonald hole features a pedestal green ringed by a wraparound strip bunkers set nine feet below the putting surface. The Alister Mackenzie hole, (the 13th), a showstopper of a par-5 with strategic options dictated by a creek fronting the green, will recall to mind the par-5 13th at Augusta National.

Even old hats at golf architecture can learn a few things. Take the A.W. Tillinghast hole, the 7th, a 400-yard par-4. A sharp dogleg right with the inside of the turn guarded by a bunker, the hole looks nothing like any of the typical par-4s at Bethpage Black, Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Alpine C.C. in New Jersey or even Southward Ho! I was puzzled. The hole seemed completely different from everything I knew about Tillie. But then I got the chance to visit Baltimore Country Club's fabled East Course and now I understand.

"Tillie's style was not simply the penal architecture and bunker-ringed pedestal greens you see at Winged Foot or Bethpage" notes Charles Cordova, who played the East Course many times when his brother Andrew was the club's racquet sports professional. "Tillie's green complexes at Five Farms can be attacked from many more angles and are not as claustrophobic. The fairways are not as narrow as the major championship venues either," Cordova continued. "I really like Architects' Tillie Hole because it didn't give me what I expected - a narrow bunker lined straight pa-4 - but showed me something different."

Perhaps therein is an even greater benefit to Architects Club: it smashes misconceptions about designers who have become prevalent through seeing only one or two of their courses on television. It also showcases some epic designers casual fans never knew, such as Devereux Emmet (Wee Burn and Leatherstocking Golf Club) and Walter Travis (Garden City Men's Club and Yahnundasis Golf Club).

Best of all, the course not only looks and feels natural, but looks and feels like one continuous whole despite the holes being products of 18 different theories about golf design. The holes fit marvelously with the land, following the natural contours. Kay and Whitten adhere to minimalist principles while not being slaves to them. They seem to employ a light tough, merely building up some higher points and scooping out some lower ones without manufacturing any of the disasters that blight modern golf courses like cookie-cutter mounds and ridiculous waterfalls. Moreover, the course has a smooth flow from hole to hole even though 17 different architects are showcased (Donald Ross is used twice).

At Architects Club, the golf is the star, not the window dressing, as it should be. The accomplishment of Kay and Whitten can not be understated. It's tough enough to find great, flowing 18 holes on a piece of property. It is a greater feat still to lay out 18 great holes in a roughly chronological order, an extra dimension of difficulty. Mensa members would be proud. At $79 for Monday-Thursday play, the price is more than reasonable given the course's proximity to New York City. The Friday rate of $95 is fair, but the increased to $120 on weekends might keep some people away. Twilight begins at 3:00 p.m. and the $59-$69 rate is a bargain.

If there is one drawback, club owners Dennis and Lawrence Turco hired a new marketing team to increase the course's reputation and presence in the marketplace. I understand that end, but perhaps the means could be adjusted. The pendulum has swung too far the other way. Now, when arriving at the course, it's not just the ubiquitous cart boys who swarm around you, but glad-handers in suits and a phalanx of administrators. It's one thing to ask "may I help you?" if I look lost; it's another all together to be herded to as many people as possible to make sure I really was certain I didn't need help when I said, "Thanks, I'm OK" the first three times. There's even a Help Desk in the atrium to foster the "country-club-for-a-day feel," but it feels out of place.

The hard sell continued during the presentations. While we come to expect "brand-speak" from people selling new lines of golf clubs or clothing, the remarks by Architects' new marketing team - which featured the word "brand" no less than six times (and which were two to three times longer than the lecture by Kay and Whitten!) - felt cold and disconnected from the atmosphere of golf and the golf design education that the designers strove so hard to create. Neither subtle nor graceful, it reached a comical end that caused several people to look at each other bemusedly when it was announced that "We've even branded lunch! Our restaurant is called 'Thyme' and lunch is called 'A Taste of Thyme" so you'll be Thyme traveling today!" (For the record, yes, the food was excellent. Try the steak or the scallops, or both.)

I play golf to find solace away from the traffic of the world, not to find the traffic of the world in a cloister of solace. I'm not helpless, nor do I seek to surround myself with servants. If I need anything, I'll seek it out when I wish. The excess people end up catering to exactly the opposite type of player this intellectual golf course was designed to attract. Rule No. 1 of branding is: "Know your clientele and sell to them and people like them, not the casual walk-ups." At times, the overkill detracted from the pastoral peace and quiet true golfers seek when they go out to play and the holistic experience Kay and Whitten sought to promote. As the owner of one nationally-acclaimed private club once accurately described the best golf course employees: "When you don't need them, they are invisible."

Nevertheless, thank goodness, they don't follow you out on this excellent golf course. Architects rightfully deserves its place as one of the premiere public courses in the Northeast corridor. It makes a strong argument to be considered a course of national significance. If one were to start in Boston and end at Pinehurst, the daily golf pit stops along the way would certainly include Architects as a perfect place between, for example, Bethpage Black and Beechtree or Bulle Rock two days later as you made your way down the coast for a makeshift public course "trail."

Far more authentic and much less expensive than most courses in the area, Architects should and will take its rightful place in the pantheon of the country's best public golf courses. The only question is, "When will Kay and Whitten reprise this effort and give us holes from Mike Strantz, Tom Doak, Jim Engh, Jeff Brauer, Gil Hanse and the rest of the great modern designers?" Come on boys; if you build it, we will come.

The Architects Golf Club
700 Strykers Road
Phillipsburg, NJ 08865

Architects: Stephen Kay with Ron Whitten
Par 35-36=71
Design: Six Stars (all ratings out of seven)
Natural Setting: Five Stars
Conditioning: Five and stars
Value: Five Stars
Overall: Six stars
Difficulty: 7
Excitement: 9

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.