(Springfield, New Jersey) — After a year-long restoration led by renowned golf course architect Gil Hanse, the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club will reopen to members in May of 2021.
The Lower Course has already hosted 10 major championships—4 U.S. Opens, 3 U.S. Amateurs, 2 PGA Championships, and 1 U.S. Women’s Open—and after this restoration is ready to welcome its first KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2023 and its third PGA Championship in 2029.
Originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the Lower Course opened in 1922 as part of Baltusrol’s historic “Dual Courses” initiative, the first contiguous design and build of 36 holes in the U.S. In keeping with the “dual courses” theme, the Upper Course will undergo a Hanse-led restoration in 2024.
Having undergone numerous revisions, large and small, in their near-century-long existence, the club wanted to return the purity of the Tillinghast design to both courses. Hanse was retained in 2018 to help prepare a long-range master plan that included the most comprehensive restoration to the Lower, with particular attention to restoring Tillinghast’s design features and shot values.
Every hole on the Lower Course was affected, with special attention paid to widening and twisting fairways, removing trees, and returning greens to their original scale and size. On some holes, fairway bunkers that had been removed over the years were returned, while other bunkers were eliminated to bring back the ground game that Tillinghast favored.
But the biggest change to the course, according to Hanse, was an overall lowering of the course’s features, returning Tillinghast’s preference for making the green the high point—and focus—of a hole.
“Over the years, bunkers and green surrounds were raised for framing,” Hanse explained, “and it was our belief that the golf course would present itself more authentically if we removed these raised features. Now the course better fits the ground and our perception of how Tillinghast presented it.”
Lowering bunkers had another benefit: Making it easier for members to get in and out of them.
“We are extremely proud to have restored Tillinghast’s original vision for golf throughout the Lower Course,” said Matt Wirths, President of Baltusrol and Chair of the Master Plan Committee in charge of the project. The restoration also included substantial infrastructure improvements such as the installation of new drainage, an irrigation system, and a PrecisionAire sub-surface air system for the greens.
Added Wirths, “Updating the infrastructure of the Lower will have a material impact on its agronomic health and our maintenance procedures for years to come. We feel like we have more control over the course’s health and playability going forward.”
Hanse also added new tees that will allow more players to enjoy the course. Several practice areas also were renovated.
Interestingly, Hanse explained, some of the most dramatic changes were to what are arguably the Lower’s most famous holes—numbers 4, 17, and 18.
No. 4: The short grass that used to join the 4th tee to the 3rd green was restored. The 4th green was significantly expanded to the right after “old photographs showed the horizon line behind the green was dramatically different. So, we dropped the right side of the green to create a lower section.”
No. 17: The great “Sahara” bunkering complex was moved 40 yards down the fairway, putting it more in play for better golfers while giving average players the chance to lay up short of it. A narrow opening to the green was also restored.
No. 18: The entire 18th fairway was raised, bringing it level with the pond so “it feels more natural as it goes downhill,” according to Hanse. Bunkers were removed both along the right side of the fairway and in front of the green. And the fairway was merged with the 18th fairway from the Upper Course, “back to what Tillinghast had designed.”
Work on the Upper Course will be done in 2024 with reopening scheduled for 2025. Said Hanse, “The Upper Course has always remained much closer than the Lower to what Tillinghast originally designed. There’s still significant work to do to get the style back, but architecturally it’s a lot closer.”