A Brief History of Baltusrol Golf Club
Baltusrol has enjoyed a long and rich history in golf and has played a prominent role on the national golf stage for 125 years.
Baltusrol Golf Club’s story is much more than the history of a golf club; it is an integral chapter in the larger tale of golf in America.
Founded in 1895 by Louis Keller, the grounds were initially used by Keller and his friends as a country refuge for weekend escapes from the hustle and bustle of New York City. When golf started to take hold in America in the 1890s, Keller had the perfect property for a golf course. His goal was to develop the leading golf club for America’s leading city; a goal that has served as Baltusrol’s guiding mission for the last 125 years. The name of the Club was derived from the land’s previous owner, Baltus Roll, a Dutch farmer who was brutally murdered at his farmhouse during a robbery attempt in 1831. Some sixty years later, Roll’s first and last names were contracted to form the Club’s moniker: Baltusrol Golf Club.
Originally built with nine holes and quickly expanded to 18, the “Old Course” at Baltusrol quickly established itself as one of the most respected courses in the world. The course played host to five United States Golf Association (USGA) championships, from the 1901 U.S. Women’s Amateur to the 1915 U.S. Open.
As the game of golf grew in popularity and play improved, the Old Course quickly outgrew its usefulness, so in 1918 golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast was brought in to re-make the course. What followed over the next four years was nothing short of bold, and launched Baltusrol on a new path to greatness in the game.
Instead of simply re-working the Old Course, Tillinghast proposed that it should be plowed over to make way for two new courses. Such a venture, touted as the “Dual Courses” project, was a courageous step for the Club to take. It meant destroying a course which had earned prominence hosting national championships and numerous regional events and building two new courses side by side at the same time. It had not been tried before. In 1919, Golf Illustrated, one of the leading golf periodicals of the time, recognized Baltusrol as the most ambitious golf course development conceived in America.
Upon opening in 1922, Baltusrol’s Dual Courses elevated Tillinghast’s stature as a golf architect to one of the most eminent in the country. In fact, shortly after the opening of the Dual Courses, Golf Illustrated hailed Tillinghast as “The Dean of American-Born Golf Course Architects.”
The Dual Courses opened with great fanfare, and when the Lower Course made its major championship debut at the 1926 U.S. Amateur, huge crowds flocked to Baltusrol to see defending champion Bobby Jones engage in a fierce battle with rival George Von Elm. The success of the event would elevate Baltusrol to a new level of national prominence, and would set the stage for many more national championships of the next century.
In preparation for the 1954 U.S. Open, Robert Trent Jones began work to lengthen and modernize the Lower Course. Some 400 yards were added to the length of the course, making it more commensurate with the power game that was evolving since Baltusrol last had hosted the Open in 1936. In stretching the course to 7,000 yards, Jones added a number of fairway bunkers to emphasize the need for tee-shot accuracy.
Jones's most significant change was to the signature fourth hole. It was lengthened by nearly 70 yards with two new tees of 165 yards and 186 yards. In designing the fourth, Tillinghast had installed a pond which required a full carry to reach the green. Jones strengthened the hole with a longer carry, a terraced green, and a re-shaping of the bunkers behind the green.
The changes were not met with favorable reviews, however, as members criticized Jones for making the hole too difficult. Jones responded by leading a group including head professional Johnny Farrell and 1954 Open Chairman C.P. Burgess to the fourth tee, where he promptly struck his 4-iron and sank it for a hole-in-one. "Gentlemen, I think the hole is eminently fair," the architect said.
Baltusrol has played host to 17 major championships in all, including seven U.S. Opens and two U.S. Women’s Opens. In fact, Baltusrol is the only club in America to have hosted U.S. Opens for men and women on both of its dual championship golf courses. The 1954 U.S. Open was the first to be nationally televised. The Club welcomed its first U.S. Women’s Open in 1961, with Mickey Wright earning the victory. In 1967, Jack Nicklaus cemented his status as the game’s top player when he defeated Arnold Palmer in one of golf’s most legendary duals. Jack’s famous 1-iron shot on No. 18 of the Lower Course is commemorated with a plaque in the fairway, 238 yards from the green. Nicklaus further bolstered his legacy at Baltusrol in 1980, when he outlasted Isao Aoki to claim his second U.S. Open title on the Lower Course.
Baltusrol has also hosted two PGA Championships in 2005 and 2016. Phil Mickelson notched his second of six major victories with a triumph in the 2005 event, while Jimmy Walker outlasted defending champion Jason Day to claim the Wanamaker Trophy in 2016.
In March of 2020, Baltusrol Golf Club and renowned golf course architect Gil Hanse broke ground on a major restoration of the Club’s famed Lower Course. With the Lower having been modified over the years, the Club wanted to restore A.W. Tillinghast’s original design intent, while implementing the latest in agronomic technology to ensure near-championship level playability for its members on a daily basis. The Lower Course re-opened for play in May of 2021. It will return to the national stage in 2023 when the Lower plays host to the KMPG Women’s PGA Championship. The Lower Course will also serve as the site of the 2029 PGA Championship.