Cognizant Founders Cup Commences Thursday
by Matt Ward
One of the most vexing of issues for any golf club is when a decision is made to update the layout. This can be an opportunity — it can also be a minefield too.
A number of clubs often leap into making “improvements” without really doing a preliminary deep-dive before going full speed ahead. Before changing anything, it pays to know the roots of a club’s design right from the start. Once changes get going — the net result can be an incoherent hodge-podge that is completely out of step.
When an architect is brought on board to do the work — it’s crucial to have one who doesn’t see fit to superimpose their fingerprints on the design. This is especially critical when the genesis of the course in question come from a creator of stellar talent.
Mountain Ridge went down this road and the pathway followed has produced a high-quality end result.
Mountain Ridge CC (1912)
West Calldwell, NJ
Architect: Donald Ross with recent
updating by Ron Prichard
Rating: Very Good
Clearly, a good portion of credit must also go to the club’ leadership at the Board level. The hiring of architect Ron Prichard was wise move given his clear understanding of the Ross design style. Hiring the right architect was a crucial first step in heading down the right pathway. Seeing through the entire effort — and providing the necessary dollars to carry that out — is always a question of staying power and Mountain Ridge was certainly up to the task needed.
Like many other clubs — Mountain Ridge had become tree-infested. The result meant spreading canopies and the unnecessary narrowing of fairway playing corridors. There was also invasive underbrush that engulfed many of the holes and had undercut playing options.
One of the most needed corrections came with poor drainage on several of the holes occupying the western property border. In years past, a heavy rain would see the spillover of water from creeks in that area of the property and the impact could last for a bit of time. When Hurrican Ida hit the northeast a few weeks ago — the sheer intensity of the rain resulted in flooding that covered a few of the holes — most notably the par-4 13th. But the updating of drainage helped minimize the lingering effects of that powerful storm and all is now set for this week’s playing of the Founder’s event on the LPGA Tour.
Prichard brilliantly brought back to life the genius of Ross. This can be seen with the fascinating greens. In some cases, the dimensions were expanded providing for more pin locations. Prichard also was the central force in creating “new” greens at the par-3 7th, par-5 17th and par-4 18th respectively. In each of the holes mentioned, Prichard added to the versatility of the holes. In years past, the aforementioned holes were very limited as to where pin locations could be reasonably placed. Now, there are a range of options and the overall qualities elevate the golf experience immeasurably.
The main weakness of Mountain Ridge comes from similar type holes at both the par-4 1st and 10th holes. They each run parallel to one another with the practice facility separating them. Each play downhill and are fairly close to the same yardage. While they are not complete clone of one another, the need for meaningful diversity is limited. The same thing happens with the 2nd and 11th holes. In this case — the holes go in the same direction – north to south — and feature a blind landing area. While not of exactly the same yardage — the diversity dimension is limited.
The four par-3 holes at Mountain Ridge are a quality quartet. The 4th seems rather straightforward but the green is truly mindboggling. Being in the wrong position on one’s approach will mean a very quick three-putt. The short, but uphill 7th gained in a big-time way with a new green being created. Now, there are multiple pin positions. On the inward half the par-3 14th and 16th holes are both good but a bit less so in term of the shotmaking challenges when held against the likes of the two on the outward side.
Prichard provided a winning creation at the par-4 12th. There’s a menacing creek that pushes in from the right and there are fairway bunkers that squeeze in from the left. Players have to decide if a bold or conservative play from the tee is in order. The 12th is less than 400 yards and it is one of the most memorable holes on the course.
There are only three par-5s at Mountain Ridge — the 6th, 9th and 17th holes. For the Founders event the nines will be flipped so play will conclude on the 9th. Be forewarned any ball above the pin position at the 9th encounters one of the most frightening situations as the green is considerably banked and those left with sidehill putts will need to provide for sufficient burrow and speed to reap a reward. Putting off the 9th is never out of the question.
As was done at the 7th, Prichard created a much more dynamic green at the 17th. The previous green was fairly straightforward but rather limited in terms of different pin locations. The new green is superb — internal contours require a deft touch with one’s approach. When the pin is cut in the far-right corner it appears to be totally protected by a greenside bunker on that side.
The ending hole at Mountain Ridge had much internal discussion at the club. The dog-leg right par-4 had a large tree at the inside corner of the hole and any tee shot coming near it would need to somehow figure a way to bypass it. The tree was planted many years ago and, as a result, had a built-in support audience that did not want it to be removed. The tree was not envisioned in the original design by Ross and the putting green was also handcuffed by major back-to-front slope that provided only a few pin positions.
The lone tree in question was removed — as were others on both sides. Fairway bunkers were added so that players have to carry a tee shot in the range of 280 yards to secure the most ideal approach angle. To protect the right side of the hole a series of perpendicular grass bunkers were included. Balls that find this location will pay a steep price as the rough grass is gnarly and lends itself to a wide assortment of lies that are hardly user-friendly. Prichard smartly recontoured the 18th green so that additional pin positions can be used. The 18th at Mountain Ridge ends the day in grand style.
The superb Clifford Wendehack clubhouse elegantly looks down upon the course and the structure gloriously adds to the experience when on property. The club also wisely improved its practice facility — a double-sided area sufficiently wide and deep enough to handle the needs of its membership.
Is Mountain Ridge a top ten course in the Garden State? Tough question. The competitive nature of New Jersey golf is certainly present and securing a position in such a high grouping is no small feat. It is, however, a legitimate contender. In years past when the name Donald Ross and New Jersey were mentioned together — the connection shined a spotlight on the qualities of Plainfield CC. Mountain Ridge has now elevated itself into that conversation.
The desire by clubs to bring back to life the inherent qualities they possess is a situation being pursued by a number of clubs. The Ross design at Mountain Ridge is truly inspiring from the moment when one arrives at the 1st tee. The glorious panorama highlights a number of holes to be played. Prichard eliminated all the mindless clutter so that the inherent character of the property now truly shines.
It’s also crucial to congratulate the superintendent and grounds crew for the detailed presentation. Tee pads are exquisitely prepared. Fairways cut tight and turf firm for a reasonable ground game option. The putting greens provide for a myriad of internal puzzles to be deciphered. There are also a number of closely mown chipping areas just off a number of the putting surfaces. The bunkering is now totally in sync with the Ross style with a strategic basis that’s front and center.
The playing of the Cognizant Founders Cup this week will shed considerable light on the qualities of Mountain Ridge to a far wider audience in the club’s history. Viewers will be amazed at how marvelous the layout is and what a test of golf it will be for the best women players in the sport.
Mountain Ridge is emphatically on the move — up.
Evan Schiller Photography
Mountain Ridge has brought back to the forefront the Donald Ross architecture
via the efforts of Ron Prichard
*Worthy of one’s time
*Only if you must