A Major Return – Baltusrol Welcomes Back PGA Championship

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(Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

By Bill Alden

The northern Jersey town of Springfield has the feel of a typical upscale, leafy, east coast bedroom community with impressive homes, well-manicured lawns, and quiet neighborhoods.

But tucked into 474 acres in the northwestern part of town, off of Shunpike Road, stands one of the iconic sporting venues in the world, the Baltusrol Golf Club.

The club was founded in 1895 and famed golf architect A.W. Tillinghast completed his “Dual Courses” project in 1922 which he built two championship courses side by side and boosted Baltusrol’s status in the golf world. It has hosted 16 major championships, including the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur the U.S. Women’s Open and the PGA Championship.

This July, the eyes of the golf world will again be on Baltusrol as it hosts the 98th PGA Championship on its Lower Course, the traditional fourth and final major of the season which has a field including 136 top pro stars and 20 club professionals, whose slots are determined by a separate tournament.

Having held the PGA in 2005 to rave reviews from players and spectators alike despite some stormy weather that pushed the tourney’s completion to Monday, the club was primed to hold the event again.

“The championship we helped host in that year was a huge success, especially in light of the planning time frame which was not as long as it usually is,” says Rick Jenkins, a longtime Baltusrol member and the 98th PGA Championship General Chairman.

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“I know that Baltusrol definitely wanted to do it again and obviously the PGA of America did as well. We talked about it and got behind an agreement pretty quickly and the agreement for 2016 was signed in 2008.”

From the PGA’s perspective, returning to Baltusrol was a no-brainer. “Baltusrol Golf Club is just a treasure in the history of the game of golf at the highest level and the membership is willing to make the commitment and to share that with everybody else,” notes Ryan Cannon of the PGA of America, who is serving as the Championship Director of the 2016 PGA for the organization.

“We are just all fortunate that that is the case.”

Having been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2005 and recently gaining National Historic Landmark status, the club boasts a rich tradition.

“I think we have a wonderful place in golf history, not just from all of the championships we have hosted over the 120 years but from our original architect, A.W. Tillinghast, who was just inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last summer,” says Jenkins of the club which was named after Baltus Roll, who was murdered in 1831 in his farmhouse on the land that would later be transformed into the golf course. “We have a membership that supports it and wants to be part of it.”

The stately clubhouse, a Tudor revival style stone and stucco structure designed to emulate a British manor, brings that history to life.

“It is very historic in its own right as well as a living museum,” adds Jenkins.

“We have a very active archives and history committee and they have brought alive all of our rich history; most of it is on display on the walls in the locker rooms and the main floor of the clubhouse.”

For Scott Bertoli, the Princeton Day School boys’ hockey coach and avid golfer who has played four rounds on the Lower Course, walking through the clubhouse took him back into the lore of the game.

“I really appreciate the history of a place like that; I think the locker room at Baltusrol and the hallway that leads down to the locker room is really, really neat in that they have pictures of all the champions from all of the big events,” says Bertoli.

The 7,400-yard layout of the Lower Course, which is normally par 72 but is reduced to 70 for majors, also made a big impression on Bertoli.

“I just remember it being long,” said Bertoli with a knowing laugh, noting that he has played such other famed courses as Pine Valley, Merion, Pebble Beach, Congressional, and Oakland Hills.

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“The first hole and the seventh holes are shortish par 5s that are theoretically scoring holes. When they are hosting those major events, those are converted into long par 4s and they are probably stretched out close to 500 yards. To me, it is just unfathomable. What I take away from experiencing it like that is just an appreciation of how good these guys really are. You stand on the tee just hoping to make a bogey.”

Pursuant to a master plan adopted after the 2005 PGA, which was won by Phil Mickelson with a four-under 276, a number of changes were made to the course to make it even more challenging, including the deepening of bunkers, stretching two par 4s, Nos. 13 and 15, by 25 yards and re-styling No. 18 to convert a creek into a pond, making it a significant water hazard.

“We have done master plans periodically throughout our history but probably the biggest one we have done and have ever undertaken was right after the ’05 championship and it was really implemented between 2008 and 2012,” explains Jenkins, adding the club’s range and practice facilities have also been upgraded.

“A big piece of it is just keeping the championship caliber standards that we have been used to having for so many years and keeping the courses updated for the changes in the game brought about by technology and player conditioning. A lot of it has to do with restoring parts of the Tillinghast design, remembering that we are 125 years old and the Tillinghast courses themselves are almost 100 years old. It is something that we take seriously.”

A serious challenge involved in hosting the PGA revolves around the logistics of transportation, crowd control, and security, dealing with the hordes of people descending on the normally sleepy neighborhood.

“I think you learn a lot from every event and the championship is a constant evolution and improvement on itself,” says Jenkins.

“The logistics alone are enormous to try to plan and execute. While Baltusrol is a world class venue to host this championship, it was not designed and or intended to host all the logistics that come along with a major championship. It is not Met Life stadium.”

As a result, nearly 500 members of Baltusrol and 3,500 members of the community are involved in the effort for the 2016 event, which will take place from July 25-31, with practice rounds the first three days and the tournament slated to begin on July 28.

“To figure all of that out and put forward a plan that really hits all the metrics of convenience, security and hopefully delver and exceeds everyone’s expectations takes an enormous effort by a lot of different people, entities, and agencies beyond even the PGA and Baltusrol,” says Jenkins. “It is really a community regional effort to put this together.”

Viewing the PGA of America as a partner with Baltursol, Cannon appreciates what club brings to the table, both as a venue and in terms of its enthusiasm for the event.

“Across the board, it really is an ideal host venue for a championship of this significance,” asserts Cannon, noting that one can go the website, PGAChampionship.com for information regarding volunteer opportunities and tickets, including a package which allows juniors 17 and under to be admitted free into the Championship grounds when accompanied by a ticketed adult.

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 (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

“It starts with the golf course itself; it is one of the classic venues in the sport around the world. To have that as the backdrop to test the best players in the world is going to be really exciting to watch play out. As you start to go beyond the golf course, as it relates to the membership and their support of the endeavor, it is tremendous.”

For Jenkins and his colleagues at the club, it is a labor of love that comes naturally. “It is more or less in our blood, we have done it for a long, long time,” says Jenkins. “It goes all the way back our early days. We have hosted something major in almost every decade over the last 100 years plus. It is part of our culture and part of our heritage.”

And this July another proud chapter will undoubtedly be added to 
that heritage.