Baltusrol: Inside Rees Jones’ Renovations For The PGA
Courtesy of Kathlene Bissell
Pro Golf Now
Baltusrol Golf Club has retained its classic design throughout its history, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some modifications over the years.
Rees Jones is just the third golf course architect to touch Baltusrol Golf Club’s historic Lower Course since it opened in June 1922. On that day, not just one, but two courses were revealed to the membership: the Upper Course and the Lower Course.
Renowned Golden Age designer A. W. Tillinghast was the creator of both tracks at Baltusrol, and the project was referred to as the Dual Courses while being discussed, planned and built.
Until the 1950s, the Lower Course, currently hosting the 98th PGA Championship, remained unchanged. It measured between 6,400 and 6,500 yards, perfectly acceptable for golf’s highest level in these early decades.
Much of the course still retains its historic essence. The club says that hole routings have not been modified. Holes have not been redesigned, except for changes to the fourth and seventh, both of which were done in preparation for the 1954 U.S. Open. Those changes were made by Robert Trent Jones, Rees Jones’ father. In addition to modifying the fourth and seventh holes, the elder Jones repositioned bunkers to be consistent with the modern, post-WWII game.
According to the club history, Rees remembers walking the course with his parents during the 1954 U.S. Open. Rees was given the job of charting drives on what he believes was the 15th hole, because his father wanted to use the information in planning renovations to other courses.
Four decades later, in the early 1990s, Rees Jones’ firm followed in the family tradition and was hired to prepare the Lower Course for the 1993 U.S. Open. Length was added to accommodate the longer distances of the modern game. The addition of new bunkers made the course more difficult. Some tees were rebuilt.
A back tee was added to the third hole, increasing the length to 460 yards. A third fairway bunker was added to the right landing zone on the seventh. Fairway bunkers were added on No. 8 to tighten the landing area. A new tee was added on the ninth to create another angle to the green. Finally, the 12th tee was enlarged and elevated.
After the 1993 U.S. Open, Baltusrol set about making more renovations in preparation for the 2005 PGA Championship. Once again, Rees Jones headed up the team. He added more yardage to the back tee on No. 3 to increase the hole’s length to 503 yards. Another back tee was put in on the fourth to increase its length to 199 yards. More fairway bunkers were added to No. 8, further tightening the landing zone. Two more fairway bunkers were added on No. 11. Four fairway bunkers were inserted on the left side of the 13th, and the stream was angled closer to the fairway. A new tee on No. 17 stretched that hole to 647 yards, while a fairway bunker was added to the right side of No. 18.
After the 2005 PGA, Baltusrol turned its attention to restoring the Lower Course in an attempt to make it more similar to Tillinghast’s original design. Historic photos and aerial maps were employed to place bunkers. Bunker shapes were recreated in the Tillinghast style.
According to Rick Jenkins, general chairman for the PGA Championship, the new bunkers are deeper and more difficult to escape. This evokes the challenge that Tillinghast created in 1922.
New collection areas, typical of Tillinghast designs, were added to the first, fifth and 12th greens.
The par 3 ninth .was lengthened to 211 yards, courtesy of a new tee.
While Baltusrol has water in play in just a few locations, primarily from a creek, those areas had become overgrown. The edges of the creek had moved away from play. The result was that the creeks were no longer the hazards that Tillinghast had intended.
Jones rediscovered the creek and brought it back into play on the 10th, 13th and 18th holes. The most dramatic change was on the 18th, where the creek on the left side was enlarged to form a pond. Several players have found that hazard this week, including Dustin Johnson.
In 2016, the Lower Course at Baltusrol is playing at 7,428 yards. The PGA Championship is the sixth men’s major to be held on the historic property.