Baltusrol – Famed Tillinghast Design Remains One of Major Championship Golf’s Most Honored Venues
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian
Albert Warren (A.W.) Tillinghast believed in making a statement.
So, when tasked by the Board of Governors of Baltusrol Golf Club – which had already hosted two U.S. Opens and other premier championships before Tilly’s arrival in 1918 – to build a second layout to complement its Old Course, the flamboyant golf architect pulled a wild card, suggesting that they plow under the Old and build two entirely new layouts.
The resulting Upper and Lower Courses opened in 1922 to great acclaim. Since then, the two Baltusrol layouts have hosted nine combined men’s and women’s majors, including the 2005 and 2016 PGA Championships. In doing so, they lived up to Tillinghast’s goal of designing two courses “equally sought after as a matter of preference.”
Many consider Baltusrol to be Tillinghast’s most important design. In 2014, it received National Historic Landmark status by the National Park Service, one of only four golf properties to hold the distinction.
In 1926, the Lower Course made its major-championship debut by hosting the U.S. Amateur Championship. That event drew huge galleries, who watched a battle unfold between double-defending champion Bobby Jones and George Von Elm. Tillinghast predicted Von Elm’s upset victory and the success of the championship made Baltusrol a regular venue for national championships.
Somewhat overshadowed by its big brother, Baltusrol’s Upper Course offers a commanding view of the property and sometimes extending the 20 miles to New York City. During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers used the high ground to trace the watchfires of maneuvering British forces before the neighboring Battle of Springfield. The Upper has hosted two major championships, the 1936 U.S. Open and the 1985 U.S. Women’s Open. In 2000, the Upper hosted the U.S. Amateur.
Of the 16 USGA national championships hosted by Baltusrol, seven have been U.S. Opens, including the first to be televised in 1954. Jack Nicklaus won two of his four Opens at Baltusrol, in 1967 and 1980. The 18th fairway features a plaque 238 yards from the green where Jack hit a 1-iron to the green in the 1967 Open, securing victory over Arnold Palmer.
Phil Mickelson tapped the plaque on a Monday after rain extended play in the 2005 PGA Championship. Mickelson hit a 3-wood approach into rough 50 feet from the hole, then executed a flop shot to within two feet for a tap-in birdie and a one-stroke victory.
"It's one of the best, fairest, toughest setups that I think we have had in years," said Mickelson prior to his victory. “I understand why this golf course gets so many major championships."
In 2016, Baltusrol provided still more drama. Nearly four inches of rain saturated the grounds to set up the longest final day of a PGA Championship in 64 years. Preferred lies were allowed on Sunday as Jimmy Walker finished 68-67 – playing his final 28 holes bogey-free – and made a nervy par on the par-five 18th hole for a one-stroke victory over Jason Day.