My destination was The Architects Club in Lopatcong, New Jersey. It is just a few miles across the icy river from Easton, PA. The course opened for play on July 24, 2001 and it touts itself "Distinction By Design." The reason for that is while the playing field is a shade over 10 years old, the design goes back nearly a century. And from most of Bucks County, you can be there in about an hour.
The premise is that each hole designed by Stephen Kay and Ron Whitten would be in the style of the great golf course designers of the past. Seventeen architects were selected to be represented from Old Tom Morris as the oldest and Robert Trent Jones as the youngest. I say 17 because one man, Donald Ross, got two holes on this outstanding and challenging layout.
The Architects Club, being built on farmland, doesn't have a forest of trees to evade. To be sure, most of the trees are near property boundaries, and some provide framing near greens while still allowing allowing more of a parklands feel and offering views of the nearby mountains. It plays to a par of 71, and is a robust 6,863-yards from the back tees.
One thing needs to be made perfectly clear however. This is not one of those replica hole courses where the holes were recreations of holes built by these masters. Each hole was designed to fit the terrain of the property using the design features each of the individual architects used to build golf courses over their careers. So it is more of an "in the mold" of the Hall of Fame designers, not exact replicas of holes they had built.
That said there is one hole that does play a lot like the design where it has its roots. The 13th hole is a fairly straight short par 5 of 494 or 475 yards from the Gold or Blue tees respectively - the tees that most players will use. Water and trees line the left side and a bunker lurks almost in range from the tee on the right of the wide fairway. If you crank one out near the bunker the green is reachable if you want to challenge a small creek that winds its way diagonally from the left across the front of the green.
Does this hole sound a little familiar? Hint: this is a Mackenzie hole and he designed Augusta National.
Playing the course, the casual golfer he will see 18 challenging and different golf holes. The yardage book will give you a little insight to each architect and the design of the hole as well as give you a basic idea of what the hole looks like. The more serious golfer will study each hole and its nuances like huge gaping bunkers (Alister MacKenzie), tiered greens (Seth Raynor), or a bunker that tease the eye with its placement set back from a green and not green side as it appears (Donald Ross).
One thing all of these architects had in common was to test your skill with every club. Also you can be sure a good shot will be rewarded and a less than good shot will offer a difficult recovery. On some holes there will be bunker complexes visible from the tee and your first thought is that you want to stay away from them. You do of course but what the designer is doing is challenging you to land your drive on that side of the fairway for the best angle of approach to the green.
A good example of that is the 355-yard (the back Black tee) par 4 fifth hole in the style of Walter Travis. The fairway slope to the right and offers a blind or semi blind shot to the green while a well place tee shot rewards you with an open approach of about 110 yards. It is a short hole with an attitude. Of course you can try to bomb your drive over the bunkers (about 220 yard carry from the 335 tee marker) but if you fail you pay the price with tall fescue grasses surrounding that series of bunkers stretching maybe 30 yards on the left side of the fairway in the driving area.
Other holes will give you a wide open fairway such as the par four 447-yard (back tee) 9th hole. There are two bunkers pinching the fairway at 160 yards off the very back tee. Ross often did this to force you to hit over them, and while they aren't in play for today's players, Kay and Whitten put them in play and Superintendent and Director of Golf Dave Eichner maintains them because they are part of the Ross design history.
The real challenge on nine is a tee shot up hill to a wide fairway and a lone bunker 265 yards out on the right. Here would Ross ask for your skill with the long iron. The second shot must carry onto the green, at least from the left, where a severe slope will not allow your ball to bounce forward. What is likely to happen is that a short approach will trickle down the slope toward a pond short left of the green.
It was a challenge to bring this all together and Kay and Whitten did a masterful job of making it work. I have to admit that when I first heard of it I was skeptical. Why would I want to play a golf course with 18 different design philosophies? That could be a disaster I thought. I was wrong.
OK, I could go on and on about each hole but that can get boring. You have been teased enough. It is time to go see this course for yourself. Go to http://www.thearchitectsclub.com/ for more information or to make a tee time or phone them at 908-213-3080. This is a fine, must play layout.
Course notes: For purists, this is a course one can walk, and walking is allowed throughout the year although a cart fee is included in the cost. It's your choice. While there are a couple spots that test ones stamina, it's a walkabout course...As mentioned, this is not a course that attempts to use the original designers creation to weave together a disjoined course today. It's clearly in the mold of the original designer, but Kay, whose work includes Blue Heron Pines, Scotland Run, McCullough's Emerald Links and Harbour Pines in South Jersey, and Whitten did a great job transforming the vision to reality. Their goal was to pay homage to the designers of the past, and they did so...Whitten insists it is not a "links" course but an early American style course...