U.S. GIRLS' JUNIOR
Renowned Ridgewood Adds to Championship Lore July 23, 2016 | Paramus, N.J. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

The Ridgewood Country Club's proud history includes having Byron Nelson work there as an assistant professional. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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Club historian David Clark explains the spirit behind The Ridgewood Country Club hosting this week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, the 68th edition of the most prestigious title in girls’ golf:

“We can all sit and lament that golf is not growing as fast as we would like it to,” said Clark, a longtime Ridgewood member. “Do we just talk about it and go home, or do we actually do something about it? We all want it to happen, so let’s put our money, our mouth, our facility behind what we’re wishing for, and host something like the Girls’ Junior to promote growth in the game.”

Ridgewood’s role in the game is difficult to match – the club moved to its present location in 1929, and a lobby display includes trophies from some of the prestigious events it has hosted: the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Senior Open, the U.S. Senior Amateur, the Senior PGA, and most recently, three editions of The Barclays, a PGA Tour playoff event, with another scheduled for 2018.

Ridgewood was founded in 1890 as a two-hole course called Ho-Ho-Kus Golf Club, off Route 17 in the town of the same name. Three subsequent moves brought the club to its current name and its present site in Paramus, where A.W. Tillinghast designed a 27-hole facility on 225 acres that opened on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), 1929. The course is complemented by a stately Norman-style clubhouse by architect Clifford Wendehack, who found the surrounding terrain evocative of that region of France. Wendehack designed clubhouses for numerous courses in the New York metropolitan area, including those for Tillinghast designs at Winged Foot and Bethpage State Park.

It wasn’t long after the course’s debut that it was sought for major golf events. The 1935 Ryder Cup Matches, the fifth edition of the storied competition, was played at Ridgewood, and the winning American side featured Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Henry Picard, Craig Wood and Horton Smith. That 9-3 USA victory began a seven-match run of dominance that would not end until 1957.

“To have that international competition awarded to what was then a relatively new golf course was a real feather in Tillinghast’s cap,” said Clark.

Tillinghast is revered among students of golf architecture for his classic, enduring designs that include 36 holes at both Baltusrol and Winged Foot, four courses at Bethpage State Park, as well as Quaker Ridge, Somerset Hills and San Francisco Golf Club. When he came to Ridgewood, he and the game of golf were both on a roll.

“The economy was great during the 1920s, and Tillinghast was at the peak of his productivity, his work at Baltusrol having truly launched his career,” said Clark. “Everyone was making money, land was cheap, and people were starting to live a little farther from the city, so the courses were accessible. There was an abundance of work in this area.”

Tillinghast lived in nearby Harrington Park, and his stamp on Ridgewood is felt particularly on the eighth hole of the West nine, a par 5 that features a massive, 130-foot tulip tree, nicknamed “Tilly’s Tree.”

“Rumor has it that he would sit under the tree, one of the grandest on the course, and watch the laborers sculpt the layout,” said Todd Raisch, who has been the golf course superintendent since 1995. “It’s one of the widest fairways on the course, but the tree fundamentally changes the way you play the hole. If you don’t want to challenge the out of bounds [on the left], the tree becomes a real issue for you.”

The tree has taken its share of hits through the years, and not just from errant golf shots. According to Raisch, they include a tornado that “took a chunk out of it” in 2013, and a direct lightning strike earlier this year.

“The lightning went into the ground and trashed our computerized irrigation system,” said Raisch. “The tree is protected by a lightning rod, but we don’t know what damage the lightning did to its root structure. Lightning strikes sometimes take three to five years to play themselves out. But the tree is still kicking.”

Like the “Tilly Tree,” the 87-year-old Tillinghast layout requires thoughtful stewardship.

“In 2000, our golf chairman wanted to add a fourth set of tees, but we didn’t want to go about it haphazardly,” said Raisch. “We asked Gil Hanse, who had worked with us on our short-game area, to help us develop a master plan. He was an unknown at that time.”

As Raisch recounts it, “Gil came in and told our board, ‘You don’t need a golf course architect. You already have one – his name is A.W. Tillinghast. I’m just going to help you find him again.’ They were immediately sold on him.

“We ran into some disease problems on our greens, and that jump-started our tree-pruning program,” said Raisch. “We took down a couple of thousand trees in the first couple of years, while picking and choosing a few other projects: green expansions, some new tees. You have to realize the golf course is ever-changing, with new needs, a new demographic of members. We have since done two pond projects, redone all the bunkers, brought hazards more into play… we’ve tried our best to put it back to what Tillinghast envisioned. A master plan helps you codify that and keep everybody focused.”

Ridgewood has long kept a focus on its history, which includes an assistant professional named Byron Nelson, who worked in 1935 and 1936 under George Jacobus, the club’s head professional for 50 years (1915-1965). A plaque on the patio marks the spot where Nelson, then 23, won a bet with a group of caddies, hitting the flagpole 100 yards distant with a 3-iron shot on his second try. Nelson won 55 cents for his marksmanship. The legendary Nelson later described his time under Jacobus as “the most important of my career” and he kept up a lifelong relationship with the club.

Byron Nelson's relationship with The Ridgewood Country Club lasted throughout Lord Byron's golf career and beyond. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

Along with Nelson and the Ryder Cup squad of 1935, champion players associated with Ridgewood include Lee Trevino (winner of the 1990 U.S. Senior Open, by two strokes over Jack Nicklaus); Jerry Pate (1974 U.S. Amateur); Tom Watson (2001 Senior PGA Championship); Kathy Whitworth (1981 LPGA Coca-Cola Classic); Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Vijay Singh (The Barclays); and J. Clark Espie (1957 U.S. Senior Amateur). A longtime club member and metropolitan-area legend, Marge Mason, won the 1967 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur.

The PGA Tour will return in 2018 for another playoff event, the Northern Trust. It almost didn’t come to Ridgewood at all, and that would have been disappointing for all concerned.

“It’s important to us to be good neighbors, so when we host an event like The Barclays, it builds goodwill and provides proceeds and donations to area charities,” said Clark, who is the son of author Mary Higgins Clark.

The Tour and the club were hammering out details of the Tour’s initial visit in 2008 before a major snag ensued: despite the available 27 holes, they could not come up with a course routing that worked logistically.

“We talked for hours one day with the Tour folks,” said Raisch. “It was a cold fall day and everyone was getting tired. We talked about building roads and all kinds of contingencies, but nothing seemed to resolve the issues. Finally, John Mutch of the Tour said, ‘I don’t think Ridgewood’s going to work.’ We didn’t want to hear that.”

Raisch, who had studied potential routings ever since the Senior PGA event in 2001, thought he had exhausted every option – until a plan popped into his head out of the blue, moments before the Tour was going to write the club off as a viable site. It involved making the sixth hole on the club’s East nine No. 10 for championship play.

“It gives us a routing that highlights our best holes, and allows us to handle big-time golf,” said Raisch. “You can get anywhere you want to easily, and the holes lay out in the right order. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come up with it before.”

The inspiration brought the Tour, and renewed appreciation for the Tillinghast classic.

“Many of the Tour players remarked on the trees that frame so many of our holes,” said Clark. “They’re so majestic. People also get to walk the course – it’s a very nice walk – and see it on TV. There are a lot of really nice clubs in the area, but not many can host the level of event that we can here.”

“Tilly’s Tree” may or may not survive the next lightning strike, but Ridgewood is poised not only to endure but to strengthen its place in golf history.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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