The oldest country club in New Jersey, the Essex County Country Club has a long and glorious history dating back its inception in 1887 as a club for the ‘encouragement of athletic exercises and sports.’ Since that time the membership roll has included notable Americans such as Colonel Austin Colgate, Hendon Chubb and local inventor Thomas Edison. Edison’s son was also a member of the club, and Governor of the state of New Jersey.
Today the Essex County Country Club’s membership is no less influential, and the course they golf on remains one of the genuine prized asset’s in this part of the state. What’s interesting about the layout, is that it was originally designed by AW Tillinghast but overhauled by rival Seth Raynor and his partner Charles Banks in 1925 shortly before Raynor’s passing. The pair retained Tillinghast’s six opening holes, as well as his 9th, but tweaked a number of greens and bunkers and arranged the brilliant back nine along entirely new lines.
It’s believed that most of the design work done at Essex CCC during the 1920s was by Banks, who continued the Raynor method of building steeply pitched template greens, square-edged putting surfaces and protecting them by deep linear bunkering. Pleasingly, despite natural deterioration in the last half of the previous century, today’s layout is once again faithful to the Banks version thanks to the sensitive restoration work of Gil Hanse and consultant George Bahto during the early part of the 2000s. Gone are many of the internal trees and shrinking fairway edges, and back are the bold green shapes and sizes and much of the strategic fairway bunkering.
Essex County Country Club is rightly noted for its back nine, which by any definition is a super impressive stretch of golf. Of the earlier holes, there are fine green complexes at the long 5th and 7th holes as well as terrific par threes at the 6th and 9th, the latter an all-carry affair across sand and into a small tabletop target. The back nine is full of outstanding design features, and best remembered for sharply angled green sites like the 12th, 15th, 17th and 18th, the brilliant double-plateau target at the 16th and its two incredibly bold par three holes. The 11th calls for a 200-yard shot across a creek and into an angled green perched beyond a yawning bunker, while the 15th plays 255 yards downhill from the back tees and falls steeply across a string of diagonal bunkers to an enormous rectangular target. This shot, as much as uphill approaches into the final two holes and the obscured punchbowl green on the 14th and double plateau on the 16th, are among the highlights of Jersey golf.
The time-honored Essex County Country Club is a terrific establishment, notable not only for its fabulous golden age golf course but also a friendly, historically aware membership. This isn’t the easiest golf course to get onto, but visitors to the area looking for a fun, enjoyable round of golf could do worse than start right here.