Historic Profile: Somerset Hills Country Club

Somerset Hills Country Club c1920 with logo
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Tucked behind the bucolic town center in the boro of Bernardsville, New Jersey lies one of the best kept historic secrets in the state, the Somerset Hills County Club. Actually a golf and tennis club as well, the low key very private club has served history well in the Somerset Hills.

Somerset Hills Country Club – The SHCC logo has a crest of the Duke of Somerset in the middle with a phoenix and crown.

Notable members of Somerset Hills over the years have included C. Douglas Dillon, Secretary of the Treasury for Eisenhower; Cyrus R. Vance, Secretary of State for Jimmy Carter; Nicholas F. Brady, Secretary of the Treasury for George H.W. Bush and New Jersey governors: Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman. The top executives of the U.S.G.A. are also given honorary membership in the club while serving since its headquarters is just a few miles away in nearby Bernards Township.

The Somerset Hills Country Club c2017 was updated by the firm JBD Designs and is approximately 3500 square feet The club was officially opened on Saturday, July 14, 1918. Source: JBD Design

The Club was originally situated along the Raritan River on Ravine Lake, partly in Far Hills and partly in Bernardsville. Nineteen years later in 1918, the Club changed locations and was relocated to its current site. Back in the day there were a number of alternatives including the Whippany Club, The Essex Fox Hounds Club, the Ravine Lake Club, and the Morris County Club to name a few. But there was a growing social class that wanted more.

A map showing the Ravine Lake Association and the Somerset Hills Country Club’s original locations in 1896. Source: John Charles Smith

It’s been noted that as early as 1894 a consortium of gentlemen joined to establish was was known as the Ravine Lake Association, an organization to oversee the formation of a country club on the Bernardsville Mountain. James Herbert Ballantine, George P. Post, Robert L. Stevens, and Edward T.H. Talmage each offered $8,000 to buy the land on the west side of Ravine Lake. A list of 31 shareholders stated the original RLA owners.

Later, C. Ledyard Blair, who arranged the creation of a dam to form a lake below his grand Blairsden estate, joined the gentlemen as the construction of his estate was just beginning in 1898, that was finally completed in 1903.

The Ravine Lake Club had not only a golf club, but it also had grass tennis courts, The SHCC resided here until 1917 when the stakeholders decided they wanted a bigger golf course and more space. This lake club became the Ravine Lake Swim and Game Club in December 1917 as a separate club to SHCC.
After the opening of the new club in 1918, the Somerset Hills Country Club relinquished a the partnership with the Raviine Lake Association and a new club was formed – the Ravine Lake and Game Club. Source: Images of America – In the Somerset Hills.

The SHCC Charter

The Somerset Hills Country Club was officially organized on June 21, 1899 at the prestigious Somerset Hills Inn on Mendham Road. The official charter was agreed on August 1 which was later certified by the State of New Jersey on October 11, 1899.

The Historic Somerset Hills Inn on Bernardsville Mountain
The historic Somerset Hills Inn off Mendham Road on the Bernardsville mountain served as the backdrop on June 21, 1899 where the SHCC organizing meeting took place. Thirteen men were selected as the founding board of governors who later laid out the charter and articles for the new club. This postcard is from 1906. The Inn burned to the ground on May 6, 1908.
Charles Ledyard Blair in his 30s. Blair was the president of Blair & Company, an investment firm in NYC.
Charles Ledyard Blair in his 30’s served as the first President of the Somerset HIlls Country Club in 1899. Source: NY Times

To join this new club, the first initiation fee was set at $50 and annual dues set at $100 for residents. Non-residents were charged only $20. Just to provide a little perspective, a $100 in 1899 would be worth about $3,100 today so based on country club initiation fees today, it seemed reasonable.

The first Somerset Hills Country Club c.1899 was located just east on the hill overseeing Ravine Lake in what is Far Hills today. C. Ledyard Blair, the founding President’s Blairsden estate was just across the lake to the west. The golf course was a small 9 hole design but there were only 65 members in 1902, so the members didn’t seem to mind. Source: SHCC
The original Somerset Hills Golf Club c1906 along the North Branch of the Raritan River. Source: Images of Somerset Hills

The SHCC was once part of a farm and estate owned by Frederic Olcott and purchased by a consortium for $66,000 containing 220 acres ($330 per acre). We learned also that the James Ballantine family of Bernardsville sold some additional property at the southern side of the property. (Ballantine later moved to what became the Bernardsville Boro Library). Work began on the course and property on April 20, 1916.

A Tillinghast Original

December 27, 1915 – Courier News

The new Somerset Hills golf course was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and is consistently rated as one of the top 100 courses in the country and top 5 in New Jersey with many charms such as its grass tennis courts, a modest and understated clubhouse in the English tradition and one of the best renditions of a Redan hole ever built. A Redan hole A “Redan hole,” or, simply “Redan,” is the name of a golf hole design typified by these elements: It is a par-3 hole. Its green is wider than it is deep, and it angles diagonally away from the tee box right-to-left (that is, the left side of the green is farther from the tee box than the right side).

Source: John Charles Smith

Take a Virtual Tour of one of New Jersey’s Most Iconic Golf Clubs – the Somerset Hills Country Club.

Somerset Hills Country Club scorecard and averages. Source:
1947 Somerset Hills Country Club Help Wanted Ad. 14 years and older. Source: Bernardsville News

John Babyak grew up in Basking Ridge in the 60’s and shared his experiences as a caddie at SHCC:

At the age of 15, in 1974, Clover Hill Club wasn’t hiring Lifeguards, so I got my working papers to start work at SHCC as a Caddie. Caddied 5 summers for many well-known scions of B-ville and Wall Street through some tough economic times. Rates started at $6-$7 per bag, per loop, which eventually made it to $8-$9 by 1978. On a good day, I’d make $20 on 2 bags per loop (including tips).  My best payday was the time I caddied for the same group of guests for 45 holes!! We started out around 9AM and our day ended at 9PM as the August sun was setting. They paid me $45 for about 12 hours of work. Then they drove me (with my bike in the trunk of their Cadillac) home to Voorhees Drive in Basking Ridge.  Every October, SHCC hosted a “Caddie Dinner” and gave each caddie a $20 cash bonus. Lots of fond memories…  

Other Notable Clubs

The Somerset Hills Country Club was officially organized on June 21, 1899 at the Somerset Hills Inn on Mendham Road. This photo shows the Somerset Hills Inn course just off Mendham Road where the deal was struck. Source: SHCC archives.

While the area grew out of equestrian and fox hunting fame, there was plenty of room for the gentlemen sports of golf and tennis. Other clubs were formed including one at the famed Somerset Hills Inn (1905) on Mendham Road in Bernardsville, the Hamilton Farm golf club in Bedminster, and there was even plans to build a grand course in Basking Ridge just down the street from the USGA Headquarters (in Harry Dunham Park). But none has remained as exclusive as the Somerset Hills Country Club (1899).

SHCC Labor Day Event on Sept.3 – Source:Sept 8, 1905 – Bernardsville News
The Michael S. Scott club tournament is held every April. Pictured: Ted Ray, Tom Whitehead, Harry Vardon, and Tom Kerrigan in 1920. Source: SHCC archives.
 

SHCC Major Events

  • Club championship has been held every year since 1903.
    Max. H. Behr won the inaugural event.
  • 1976 and 2006 – US Women’s Amateur Championship
  • 1988 and 2005 – Mid-Amateur Championship
  • 1990 – Curtis Cup
  • 2006 – New Jersey Womens’s Ameteur Championships
  • 1953 and 2010 – Four Ball Championship
  • 2017 – Event celebrating 100 years at the current course
Showcasing 100 years at the current course in 2917, the Somerset Hills Country Club honored the anniversary with these New Jersey Amateur Championship trophies.

Additional Information

Best Rated Golf Courses in New Jersey

  1. Pine Valley
  2. Bayonne Golf Club
  3. Somerset Hills Country Club
  4. The Ridge at Black Brook
  5. Galloway National
  6. Trump Bedminster
  7. Plainfield Country Club
  8. Baultusrol (Lower)
  9. Forsgate
  10. Mountain Ridge

Source: Forbes Magazine 2016

This photo was taken c1970 of the home of the USGA and USGA Museum is just 7 miles away from SHCC. Designed by John Russell Pope and built for Thomas Frothingham in 1919. (another tragic story). Learn about the history of the USGA and the history of the USGA facility.

Tidbits

  • 65 Members started the organization in 1899.
  • 108 members in 1908.
  • 450 members In 2018.
  • 126 employees (2018)
  • $6.2million in revenue reported in 2018.
  • There are no tee times.
  • SHCC is a 501(c)(7) organization (social club).
  • Clubhouse is approximately 3,500 square feet updated by JBD Designs in 2017.
  • Fourth of July fireworks were set in motion starting in 1908 with a charge of $80 to the stakeholders (Meeting minutes, April 16, 1902).
  • Golf Digest rank: 73
  • Golf.com rank: 38
Bit of humor to leave you with. This ad was placed in the Bernardsville News back in July 1903 – a tame monkey was lost at the Somerset Hills Country Club.
The ultimate history source – Somerset Hills Country Club 1899-1999 – Adele Nelson
One of our favorite images of the Somerset Hills Country Club in 2019.

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One Thought to “Historic Profile: Somerset Hills Country Club”

  1. Phyllis Matera O’Neill

    I have a very special place in my heart for SHCC – my dad, Guido Matera, worked there on the grounds and inside (in addition to his full time job!). He was only 6 weeks old when the current clubhouse opened in 1918!! He spoke so highly of many of the members and also some of the professional golfers he met. He was so proud to work at SHCC. Many special moments there as a kid and also an adult – and who can forget the July 4th fireworks!

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