For the men who founded Mountain Ridge Country Club in 1912, the idea of its hosting a USGA championship would have bordered on science fiction.
Mountain Ridge, which welcomes the 58th USGA Senior Amateur Championship from Sept. 29-Oct. 4, was born in an era of discrimination so commonplace that it was hardly worth mentioning. It has grown in the ensuing 100 years into a distinguished club, with a golf course ready to shed the adjective in its description as one of the nation’s “hidden gems.”
Its roots reach back to the bustling commercial city of Newark in the early days of the 20th century. According to the creation story shared by generations of members, two of Newark’s leading businessmen, A.J. Dimond and Louis Bamberger, wished to play some golf at one of the area’s leading private clubs. Dimond was the head of a steel and importing concern whose equipment was vital to constructing and operating the Panama Canal; Bamberger had turned a small dry goods shop into one of the largest department stores in the country.
These two prominent businessmen and philanthropists were told flatly that Jews were not welcome at the club they’d approached, either as members or as guests.
They resolved – like others before them at Inwood on Long Island, Losantiville in Cincinnati, and Ravisloe in Chicago – to make a place of their own, for their families and friends. Drawing members from the Progress Club, Newark’s leading Jewish social organization, they filed a charter on April 17, 1912, to create Mountain Ridge Country Club, a corporation whose purpose was “the promotion of physical culture and sociability among its members, and the participation in various branches of athletics such as golf, baseball, tennis and kindred games.”
They purchased land at the corner of Prospect and Mount Pleasant Avenues in West Orange, and asked Robert Hunter, the pro at nearby Essex County Country Club, to lay out a golf course for them on the hilly tract. The club’s first president, Felix Fuld, hit a ceremonial shot at the official opening in 1913; since the course was still being built, the group celebrated with a game of softball, the married men against the bachelors.
The initial nine holes were later expanded to 18 by A.W. TIllinghast, and further altered by Herbert Strong. By the mid 1920s, however, it was clear to the group that the steeply contoured course had its limitations. Mountain Ridge hired Walter Travis, the 1900 U.S. Amateur champion, to evaluate its site, and asked Charles Banks and Seth Raynor to weigh in as well. All three architects concluded that it would be impossible to design a first-class golf course at the current site.
In a stroke of good fortune, New Jersey’s Public Service Corporation decided it wanted the land for a power station. It agreed to purchase the property for $618,625 in January, 1928. The proceeds enabled Mountain Ridge to buy 253 acres in West Caldwell, about 7½ miles to the north, for $285,719.18 after a year-long search, to spend $186,000 building the golf course, and to get a head start on the approximately $300,000 to construct and furnish the clubhouse.
Despite the remarkable array of Golden Age course designers who passed through the West Orange site, the club had only one man in mind for the sweeping property in West Caldwell: Donald Ross. The golfers at Mountain Ridge were by then familiar with Ross’s work; in New Jersey alone he had designed courses at Deal Golf & Country Club, Englewood C.C., Montclair Golf Club, Plainfield C.C., and Crestmont C.C. between 1915 and 1923. In April 1929, the club agreed to pay Ross $2,500 to design the Mountain Ridge course, and his firm was paid $14,000 to supervise construction, which began in May. The course was seeded by August and essentially completed except for the placement of one or two tees by September that year.
The magnificent clubhouse is the work of Clifford C. Wendehack, the foremost architect of such structures in his day. The steeply sloped, multicolored slate roof and the brick and stone exteriors are very familiar to those who know his clubhouse at Plainfield. Much of the brick came from old houses that were cleared from the property; he had used similarly found material at Winged Foot, where the stone exterior is made mostly from rock excavated in the construction of the golf courses.
The golf course was an immediate hit. Ross utilized the natural fall of the property to create green complexes that are sometimes steeper, sometimes flatter than they appear to the naked eye. The two nines begin in parallel but soon diverge, the outward nine circling counterclockwise, the inward nine clockwise, both rising to the finish. The course has short, medium, and long par-3s; short par-4s as well as several of Ross’s beloved par-4½ holes, and one true three-shot par-5 for all but the very longest hitters.
Unlike many Ross courses, Mountain Ridge has seen little change from the original design. The routing was never altered, though the order of the nines was switched a few times. The green complexes are the layout’s strongest asset; Bradley S. Klein, author of Discovering Donald Ross, calls them “one of the best sets of greens that Ross ever did,” and they have been mostly left alone through the years. Some recent restoration work under the guidance of Ross specialist Ron Prichard brought back many of the sharpest green corners that had been lost to mowing and maintenance patterns.
Mountain Ridge hosted its first state-level event just seven years after its formal opening in 1931: the New Jersey State Golf Association Four-Ball. It has staged four New Jersey PGA Championships, three Metropolitan Golf Association Senior Amateurs, three MGA Met Opens, two Met Amateurs, and the MGA’s Ike Championship (stroke play) in 2007.
In preparation for its centennial in 2012, Mountain Ridge renovated its clubhouse from top to bottom. The high-ceilinged room that had been mostly used for banquet dining was restored to its original purpose as a living room, a beautifully decorated gathering place for the members. A one-time card room off the men’s locker room was converted into a sports pub, and the rooms that weren’t significantly altered were given a brighter, airier look.
The capstone to the club’s celebratory year is its first national championship. The 2012 USGA Senior Amateur may be Mountain Ridge’s coming-out party, but its facilities, infrastructure and golf course have been ready for their close-up for a good long time.
Jeff Neuman is a New York-based freelance writer, a columnist for RealClearSports.com and co-author (with Lorne Rubenstein) of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf.