THE KNOLL COUNTRY CLUB – WEST COURSE
Knoll and Greenbank Roads
Architect – Charles Banks, Restored by George Bahto
Excitement Level – 10/12
Difficulty – 11/12
Design – Seven stars
Natural Setting – Four stars
Conditioning – Five and 1/2 stars
Cost – $65 peak
Yearly Memberships – Yes, and dirt cheap!
Value – Seven stars
Overall – Six and Â½ stars
In 1928 thirty New Jersey millionaires, seeking to emulate the founders of the great clubs of the age found on the north shore of Long Island and other wealthy areas, such as Piping Rock, Baltusrol, The Creek Club and Essex joined together to found a private country club just outside New York City. Since many of them were elderly and wishing to promote the spirit of the game, they desired an easily walkable course and hired the talented protÃ©gÃ© of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor, former English master at the prestigious Hotchkiss School, Charles Banks. Banks placed the clubhouse high on a knoll and routed what is now known as the West Course of the country club around the remainder of 360 acres, choosing as design concepts many of the holes featured at Macdonald’s fabled National Golf Links of America.
Within a year, the club was in the terrible clutches of debt. Spiraling ever downward financially as the depression progressed, the club owed massive amounts to a Montclair, New Jersey food distributor named Aiello. To alleviate their obligations, the members sold the club to Aiello, who turned it into a haven for local Italian celebrities, athletes, and their influential friends. From Sarazen to Mantle to DiMaggio, to musicians, politicians and those seeking their favor, the club flourished with style and opulence for the next thirty years.
Aiello wished the course to be sold upon his demise and in 1970 Bloomfield College, a small seminary school purchased the club. Their ownership did not last long and, under the auspices of the New Jersey Green Acres program, the club was purchased by the Town of Parsippany.
Since the early ’70’s the course was open to the public, but from that time, the course design slowly changed. During Aiello’s stewardship, he resisted the urge to refine, satisfying his need to tinker only by modifying some bunkers. Finding the bunkers too difficult, Aiello ordered several filled with many feet of sand, making escape far easier than when Banks originally designed them. In some cases many feet of newly-deposited sand brought the bunkers from an original depth of five to fifteen feet deep, to a mere two or three feet deep.
However, as we know, golf courses are living things and evolve due to mowing patterns, tree and vegetative growth and many other factors. Over the early days during which the Town of Parsippany ran the club, mowing patterns for the fairways and greens caused the holes to take on shapes completely different from their original designs. Some fairways moved over fifty yards from their originally planned corridors, changing the strategic requirements of the hole or removing them entirely. Some bunkers, deemed “out of play” since they were able to be carried easily off the tee with new technological advances in equipment, were filled in. The course took on a shape completely different from its vibrant heyday. So many decades removed from the time of Banks, it seemed none remained who remembered the truly great pedigree of the Knoll. It seemed the true greatness of club’s strategic design would be lost to the mists of time.
One minor miracle continued to persevere during this long period of doldrums; mercifully, nobody changed the greens and the myriad fascinating original internal contours, worthy of mention beside mighty Winged Foot or Oakmont, remained unspoiled. Maybe the backbone of the course had changed, but her heart and soul survived many years of neglect, remaining untouched, waiting to be rediscovered like a lost city hidden in the dense Central American jungle for some intrepid explorer to penetrate her secrets.
As we now know, George Bahto was an unlikely hero. Part hard-boiled, no nonsense, Navy airman in the Korean War, part pragmatic humble-born, Assyrian-descent dry cleaning business owner, nothing outwardly indicated a gift for golf course architecture. But his skill at comparative analysis of golf holes led him to discover subtle similarities between three courses he called home, The Knoll, Hendricks Field Golf Club and Essex County Country Club. He discovered all three were designed by Charles Banks.
This led to a new career as a golf writer (he wrote a short history of The Knoll after researching Charles Banks) and as an expert in restoring Macdonald, Raynor and Banks courses. At the Knoll Club, Bahto has resisted the temptation to add improvements and has slowly, surely and accurately restored the course to the specifications found in the oldest known aerial photos of the course; there are no modifications or “enhancements.” “We put it back as it was built” Bahto says firmly.
As a result, the course can be spoken about in the same breath as fabled Bethpage Black when it comes to being a great American public golf value. One of only a handful of public Raynor/Banks designs (and the best preserved, only seven bunkers were removed), a steal at $60, and mere minutes from the George Washington Bridge, the course is easily one of the best golf values in the country and especially so with it’s proximity to pricey New York City. One can make a solid argument that it has replaced Pinon Hills as the best municipal golf deal in the country and serves as a strong New Jersey rejoinder to the Black, especially now that the Black has raised prices significantly.
We’ll talk more about the course later this week.
2006 Winner: Black Mesa