SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – Raise a glass to 100 years of rousing cheers. Shackamaxon Country club in northwest New Jersey celebrates their centennial this year.
It’s another runaway success for the tandem of owner/developer/magnate Chris Schiavone and golf architect Stephen Kay. Finger pressed firmly on the zeitgeist of modern golf architecture, they’ve once again found a distressed Golden Age masterpiece, and restored/renovated it back to its former glory, this time an early work of A.W. Tillinghast that even many experts had overlooked or forgotten.
“We’re not entirely sure how early Shackamaxon is, but it’s definitely one of the first 18 hole designs Tillie ever did,” explained Kay, once again easing into his other supreme talent: teaching about golf design. Remember: he’s the Professor at Rutgers University everybody wants to take when they’re trying to break into the golf design business. Guys he’s taught are now head superintendents at places like Oakmont and Baltusrol.
“Tillie had one of the broadest palettes of any golf course architect. Here a Shack you get to see some of his first forays into ideas he’d build at many of his great courses, things like diagonal bunkering and the flashed-faced sand bunkers he employed at San Francisco Golf Club, which he designed roughly around the same time,” Kay stated energetically.
As primordial Tilllinghast, the course is an important mile marker; you get a clear look at the progression of an architect’s design ideas as you trace his chronology. Pundits disagree, but Shackamaxon may be as early as Tillie’s third or fourth 18 hole design in a career that ultimately spanned nearly 30 years, 400 courses, numerous criss-crosses of the country, and the broadest design palette of – arguably – any architect in history.
“Tillinghast courses are all different because he designed by being on the property and fitting the holes to the land as he found it, unlike Ross who used to design some courses through correspondence and drawings from time to time.,” explained Tillinghast Association head Bob Trebus.
(As an aside, don’t you just love it when a Tillie guy trolls Donald Ross? Frenemies much? Kidding! Kidding!)
Shack (to its friends) is also renowned for its set of perfectly preserved Tillinghast greens, the centerpiece of the golf course; they have excellent macro and micro-movement, fascinating contours that affect every putt on the golf course.
“We pulled the greens all the way back to the edges of their green pads, but other than that, we didn’t have to do anything. It’s original 1916 Tillinghast greens you’re playing on,” Kay noted enthusiastically.
In fact, Shackamaxon is pretty much 1916 Tillinghaast everything. Design-wise, the club chose preservation over renovation wherever it could. Other than the typical nips and tucks in vogue today, the course is all but untouched except for one new hole: born of necessity, but one which Tillie would be proud of. The club chose to turn the short par-4 13th hole into a par-3 Reef hole, one of Tillinghast’s rarest and most iconic template designs.
“We had to move the entrance road of the club, so we had to get rid of the short par-4 and make a par-3,” Kay explained. “So we looked at Tillie’s writings, and what he said abut the Reef hole was perfect. It has options, strategy, and the ground game.”
“At Shack, Tillie was obviously designing for the ground game, so we keep all approaches on he golf course fast and firm so you can play one bounce and on,” Kay continued magisterically, the gleam in his eye sparkling again as he waxed about his favorite subject. “That’s what they did back then, so that’s what we wanted to recreate here.”
Indeed, the ground game is pivotal to playing a Reef hole well. Like navigating a ship to shore through a reef, the fairway contours are used by the golfer to steer the ball around the bunkers and closer to the hole location. The slope of the terrain feeds the ball to the green.
The club’s choice of a Reef hole is also important architecturally because so few examples of the Reef hole exist: a mere handful nationwide even though Tillie was one of the most prolific designers in history.
“There’s only a handful in existence: Paramount Coutry Clubâ€¦Newport…Bethpage Blueâ€¦the 7th at Baltursol Upper – they are rare,” observed Tillinghast expert Rick Wolffe. “At Shackamaxon, Stephen Kay spent a lot of time trying to be faithful to Tillie, and he did a marvelous job with what he created.”
“Stephen captured both the Tillie feel and playability. He really made something truly special,” agreed Trebus. “It has the ground game in it. You must hit over he mound, and you can’t be right or long. The Reef hole at Shack is true to what Tillinghast might have done.”
Then again, that’s a Kay specialty. After all, he’s the designer who gave the golf world The Architect’s Club – his pastiche and ode to 16 Golden Age designers and Robert Trent Jones. Like musician Jeff Buckley, not only is Kay’s original work masterful, but he has the uncanny ability to imitate with letter perfection the greats that came before him. It’s as though he’s saying, “Oh you want Tillinghast? I got yer Tillinghast right here!”
Indeed, the new Reef hole is a microcosm of the resurrection of not just the entire club, but everywhere Kay and Schiavone work together. Turning a negative into a positive, (here the weakest and most problematic hole into one of the strongest and most revered), restoring classic courses to their former Golden Age glory, and infusing excitement and high morale back into a club’s membership – a sense of pride. Craftsmanship and quality, on time and under budget, a place where everyone has a great time: That’s the Schiavone-Kay Effect, and together they’ve had one mega-hit after another.
“Who says the golf industry is going through a tough time?” quipped golf commentator Bruce Moulton. “Things are great in New Jersey.”