Essex County, New Jersey golfers have it pretty good. They have access to three very good, historic courses that have been undergoing improvement projects to make them even better.
The Essex County courses include the Francis A. Byrne Golf Course in West Orange, built in 1926 and designed by legendary architect Charles Banks; Hendricks Field Golf Course in Belleville, opened in 1929 and another Charles Banks work but recently renovated under the guidance of Stephen Kay; and Weequahic Golf Course, opened in 1913 and the first public golf course in the state of New Jersey, designed by Baltusrol Golf Club’s first pro George Low.
Established in 1895, the Essex County Park system was formed to serve its residents and has over 6,000 acres of open space that offers a wide array of uses, which include, of course, the three above-mentioned golf courses.
“We have just finished a complete renovation of Hendricks Field Golf Course,” explained Tim Christ, Director of Golf Operations for the Essex County Parks. “Stephen Kay designed the restoration in keeping with Charles Banks’ principles and standards at the forefront of all design work. We have a state-of-the-art First Tee learning center under construction that will have a three-hole practice facility attached.”
Christ went on to say that “none of the renovation work would be possible without the support of the County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and the Essex County Board of Commissioners. Joseph DiVincenzo supports golf, and in government that is not always the case.”
Christ explained that Francis A. Byrne’s first and 15th holes were redesigned due to safety issues, and “obviously we utilize Stephen Kay whenever we do any design work.” Number 15 is now a par-five that plays 490 yards and the first is a par-four, 391-yarder. We established a chipping green, enlarged putting green, and a warm-up area. Since Hendricks is completely renovated, we have not had the rating and slope of that course finished.”
Here’s a look at all three courses:
Francis A. Byrne Golf Course was designed as a private country club layout. Through a renovation project, many of the course features have been restored to their classic roots, making Byrne one of the premiere public golf destinations in the state. A number of holes are based on famous courses from Scotland, including the par-five first hole that is modeled after the “Road Hole” at St. Andrews.
Among other classic holes on the Byrne course are the long par-three Biarritz second hole that measures well over 200 yards from the championship tee and the short 14th that is similar to the Eden hole that is also found at St. Andrews, as well as many of the best private clubs in the United States. The back nine at Byrne includes several long holes, such as the 12th and 15th, the latter champion golfer Bobby Jones considered to be one of the most difficult holes in America.
This scenic course features deep bunkers, hilly topography and rolling greens that combine to create a challenging layout that measures nearly 6,800 yards and offers public golfers the rare opportunity to play a course from golf’s “Golden Age of Design”.
Francis A. Byrne Golf Course plays 6,750 yards from the tips and has a par of 70. The par-fours are strong, especially a stretch from holes nine through 12 that play over 400 yards each, including the 465-yard ninth and 445-yard 12th. The other par-five on the course, the 490-yard 16th. In a testament to its challenge, the course has a rating of 73.6 and a slope of 135.
Hendricks Field Golf Course features well contoured putting surfaces and many interesting holes. Renovations at Hendricks have included the reconstruction of tees and bunkers, as well as extensive upgrades in drainage that have significantly improved playing conditions.
Hendricks has a number of classically designed holes, such as the par-four four hole that has a cluster of “Principal’s Nose” bunkers in the center of the fairway that present strategic decisions, and the exacting par-three sixth with a green that is almost completely surrounded by bunkers. Among the best holes on the back nine is the par-five 10th where golfers must negotiate a stream that crosses the fairway to reach the green. Narrow fairways and well-guarded greens at Hendricks require both accurate and thoughtful play.
Hendricks Field Golf Course plays 6,113 from the championship tees and has a par of 70. It’s what might be termed a player-friendly layout that features approachable holes for a majority of golfers with a few toughies thrown in for good measure. Two par-fours, the 437-yard seventh and 445-yard ninth, are a test for even the best golfer.
Weequahic Park Golf Course is set on beautifully rolling property. New bunkers have been added to the course through a renovations process and greatly enhanced its strategic and visual appeal.
Weequahic Park Golf Course is home to The First Tee of Essex County, a youth development program that teaches children ages 7 to 17 positive values through the game of golf. The program has a dedicated practice area for program participants adjacent to the golf course.
While Weequahic measures slightly less than 6,000 yards, the course offers an ideal golfing landscape and its small greens make low scoring difficult. Among the best holes are the uphill par-five third with two large bunkers carved in the hillside, as well as the long par-four 16th that plays to the crest of this same hill and down to the green that is set in the base of its long slope.
Weequahic Park Golf Course is on the short side, measuring 5,712 yards from the tips and also has a par of 70. But it’s not a pushover with three strong par-fives, including the 554-yard 11th. There are five par-threes on the course that range from 111 yards to 144 yards, allowing players good shots at birdie if they can find the green. The number one handicap hole is the 500-yard par-five fourth.
“All three courses are classically designed routings,” said Christ. “The significant history is felt by the design and surroundings of these parkland courses. It’s great to have good courses that are affordable to play and are close to home.”
Christ said play this year has been “crazy”, adding “The pandemic has created a new golf reality. Walk-on play almost doesn’t exist, people are coming out like never before. Our golfers are made up of 60 percent Essex County residents, 20 percent from other parts of New Jersey, 19 percent from New York, and around one percent are Liberty international Airport passengers who come to play.”
As for significant holes on the courses, Christ said, “At Francis Byrne we have several classics, the par-three “Biarritz” second hole measures well beyond 225 yards, the 14th par-three is similar to the “Eden Hole”, and a long par-four 12th that Jones said was one of the most difficult holes in golf. Hendricks Field has its “Principle’s Nose” on a newly restored 15th hole, a “mini-Biarritz” green measuring 49 yards from front to back, and the par-five 10th that plays 575 yards and is modeled after the “Road Hole” at St. Andrews.
Christ said the county is looking into possible restoration of the Francis A. Byrne Golf Course. “This would be similar to what we did at Hendricks Field Golf Course, where we would rebuild bunkers, restore sizes of greens, make drainage repairs to include greens drainage, cart path repairs, and re-grass tees.”