Review: Knoll Golf Club (West Course)

Course Name: Knoll Golf Club (West Course)

Designer: Charles H. Banks (1929), George Bahto (2000s, Restoration)

Location: Boontown, New Jersey

History: Originally envisioned as an exclusive private club for the area’s millionaires, this Charles H. Banks design unfortunately opened just as the Great Depression was happening in 1929. Because of this, Knoll West never quite lived up to this vision and the Club was sold to the town of Parsippanny in the 1970s. In 1961, a fully public East Course was designed by Hal Purdy. Notable Raynor and Macdonald expert George Bahto was a member of Knoll West and tried admirably to revitalize the course in the 2000s by lengthening holes, removing trees, and improving bunkers and drainage. Knoll West is currently semi-private and has earned the following accolade:

  • #9 Best Public Course in New Jersey – Golfweek (2019)

Conditions: 7/10, Knoll West was in good but not great condition when I played during the Fall. The rough, teeboxes, and greens are all well-maintained, but the course does not drain particularly well and is plagued by too many trees.

Value: 5/10, As a semi-private course, Knoll West is open to the public during the shelf season and non-priority times. At $75 on the weekdays and $91 on weekends, this course offers fair value for what you get.

Scorecard:

Tee                     Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Black                 70           6878               73.2               131

Blue                  70           6479               71.3              127

White                70           5984               69.1              122

Gold                   70          5470               71.8              126

Red                    70          5264                70.5              122

Hole Descriptions: The story of Charles H. Banks goes like this: He was a schoolteacher at the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut when Seth Raynor was designing a course on campus. Banks became obsessed with golf course architecture and Raynor soon enlisted him to join his firm. Banks would go on to play an integral role in building The Course at Yale and would go on to have a successful career himself after Raynor’s untimely death in 1926. Banks would also pass away early in just 1931, but carried on Raynor’s legacy admirably with several fantastic designs in the New York Metropolitan area including Whippoorwill, Forsgate, Hackensack, and Tamarack. While these courses don’t have the big names of Raynor’s and Macdonald’s works, they too feature numerous template holes and large greens.

Knoll West is not Banks best work, but still includes an impressive variety of template holes including a Biarritz, Short, and Redan. True to his nickname “Steam shovel”, Charles Banks courses are notable for their deep greenside bunkers and Knoll West is a wonderfully bunkered course from start-to-finish. In summary, Knoll West represents a rare opportunity for the general public to experience classic, golden-age architecture in an area dominated by exclusive private courses and should be celebrated for this.

The opening stretch at Knoll West is fantastic and represents many of the best holes on the course. The 409 yard 1st hole is an excellent “Valley” hole with an elevated teebox running downhill then back uphill towards an elevated green. Giant crossbunkers line the left at 220 yards and right at 330 yards. This approach runs back uphill to a wide, elevated green guarded by deep bunkers short left and long.

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The strong opening hole at Knoll West exhibits excellent strategic bunkering

At 426 yards, the long par 4 2nd is a deserving number 1 handicap. This excellent hole runs slightly uphill and features a tight teeshot through a chute of trees with an 150 yard forced carry over water. Like many holes at Knoll, the trees have overgrown portions of this fairway so the drive is tighter than it should be. A crossbunker guards the left fairway at 320 yards, but should only be in play for those who need to lay-up. This is one of the most notable greens on the course as a large double plateau with three distinct tiers for pin positions. As I learned the hard way, putting from the wrong plateau all but guarantees a three-putt. Wide, deep bunkers guard left and short right of the green.

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The tight teeshot on the par 4 2nd
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The approach at 2
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A pin on the back right plateau at 2

The 3rd hole is the first par 3 at a strong 188 yards. This is an attractive redan design with a narrow green sloping hard right-to-left off of a hump in the fairway. Deep bunkers guard short left and long right. Unfortunately wet conditions and slow greens softened the redan design the day I played.

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The redan style par 3 3rd

The 4th hole demonstrates Banks command of sharp angles as a strong dogleg right. Almost completely blind off the tee, this confusing hole requires an immediate forced carry over a pond and calls for the golfer to carry a crossbunker on the right at 150 yards. For those who play a draw or go left of the crossbunker, you’ll run through the fairway, or worse – into the woods OB. This circular green runs back-to-front and is guarded by deep bunkers short, left, and right.

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The crossbunker down the right is the ideal line on the 4th
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The approach at 4

There are only two par fives on this par 70, with the first being the 525 yard 5th hole. Another dogleg right, the left side of this hole hugs the property line with OB. This is another rather confusing view from the teebox the first time you play it, with numerous crossbunkers directly in your view, including a trio down the right at 120, 160, and 190 yards and one down the left at 220 yards. The remainder of the hole is relatively straightforward until you reach a large, undulating green guarded by bunkers on either side and a hidden bunker behind.

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The par 5 5th from the teebox

I’m a sucker for a great short hole, and the 6th is exactly that at just 142 yards. This hole is reminiscent of the 5th at Yale with a large green surrounded by a moat of deep bunkers. There are very few straight putts on this bumpy green full of slopes.

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The excellent par 3 6th
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A look at the gorgeous bunkering surrounding the 6th green

The 7th hole is almost certainly the weakest hole on a very strong front 9. At 355 yards, this medium-length par 4 plays as a flat slight dogleg left around a crossbunker at 175 yards. This hole seemingly occupies the lowest point on the property and was absolutely a swamp when I played. A large back-to-front sloped green is guarded by bunkers on either side.

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The very wet par 4 7th

Playing at 406 yards, the par 4 8th demands accuracy with thick forests lining both sides the entire way. A nasty crossbunker guards the right at 150 yards while bunkers line both sides at 320 yards and are likely out of reach for the vast majority of golfers. This large, undulating green is guarded by cavernous bunkers on either side long.

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The long par 4 8th

While it could use some tree removal, I really enjoyed the 9th hole, a 380 yard straightaway par 4. Lined by thick forests on either side, this is a tight hole with wonderful crossbunkers at 180 yards on the right and 230 yards down the left. This green is elevated with a steep false front and two giant deep bunkers on either side. A ridge running down the back-middle of the green leaves some interesting putts.

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The classic par 4 9th
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The approach at 9 is somewhat marred by the gaudy clubhouse and its dumpster

Overall, I enjoyed the heavily treed back 9 significantly less than the front, but there are still some memorable holes, especially 13, 17, and 18. The start of the back 9 is a bit uninteresting with the 385 yard 10th. From an elevated teebox, this hole plays straightaway with no fairway bunkers and thick woods lining both sides. This green runs back-to-front with bunkers on either side.

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The par 4 10th

At 407 yards, the par 4 11th is basically a longer version of the preceding hole with a straightaway relatively uninteresting fairway lined by too many trees. This hole is adjacent to the 6th and again had major drainage issues, making it play much longer. The most interesting feature of this hole is the green, which is long, narrow, and runs back-to-front with a scooped out swale in the front right portion. Deep bunkers line both sides as well.

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The overtreed 11th hole

The 12th is one of the better holes on the back 9 as a 370 yard uphill dogleg left. This hole plays around two bunkers at the corner of the dogleg at only about 170 yards, necessitating the golfer to play a right-to-left ballflight unless they want to hit less than driver. A large green is surrounded by deep bunkers short left, right, and a hidden one around the back.

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The dogleg left par 4 12th
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The uphill approach at 12

At a prodigious 217 yards, the par 3 13th is one of the most fascinating holes at Knoll West. This hole features a curious Biarritz design, where only the back portion of the Biarritz is actually the green and the first two portions are fairway. Given that the bunkers lining this green run all the way to the front of the Biarritz, it’s fair to wonder if this was indeed all green at one point in the style of Yale’s famous 9th hole. Regardless of it’s history, the pin is always by default on the back of this Biarritz, which is the correct position for it and all too underutilized at Yale.

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The long par 3 13th
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Standing in the pseudo-Biarritz swale

The 14th is yet another long, difficult par 4 that’s been overgrown by trees. At 410 yards, this straightaway hole is lined by thick trees on both sides of a narrow fairway containing a left crossbunker at 150 yards. Like the 11th, the most interesting feature of this hole comes on the green, as a huge hump dominates the left side and leaves very difficult putts. Bunkers line either side of the green.

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Tree removal down the right would open up contours on the 14th

The 520 yard 15th is the second of only two par fives at Knoll West and plays as a tighter, more treed version of the first one as a medium-length dogleg right. This is a very tight hole for its entire length, but I really like the strategic crossbunkering with bunkers on the right at 140 yards, left at 260 yards, and several on the lay-up at different intervals, forcing the golfer to control their distance. This large circular green is guarded on either side by deep bunkers.

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The intimidating view from the 15th teebox
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Approach from the 15th crossbunker

The 16th is another nice dogleg right with a crossbunker on the inside of the dogleg at 180 yards. This approach plays towards a wide green guarded by deep bunkers short left and down the right.

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The par 4 16th

The 17th is the last of a rather strong collection of one-shotters. At 158 yards, this interesting hole features a large undulating green guarded by two deep bunkers on either side. A pair of bunkers guards about 25 yards short of the green but acts as a visual illusion by appearing much closer to the green than it actually is.

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The par 3 17th

The epic closing hole at Knoll West is my favorite hole on the course and has to be one of the best finishers in New Jersey. At a strong 427 yards, this is the longest par 4 on the course and plays longer uphill. Compared to preceding holes, there are very few trees on this hole but the bunkering is fantastic, with crossbunkers at 160 yards on the right and a bunker down the left at 220 yards. Two bunkers down the right at 300 yards are not in play for anyone but the longest golfers. The approach here is terrific with the clubhouse and “Knoll” bushes in the background and an elevated green guarded by cavernous bunkers short, right, and long. Those who reach this green in regulation will be rewarded with one of the flatter greens on the property.

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The majestic par 4 18th
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The walk up to the final green

General Comments: Knoll’s practice facilities include a recently added driving range and small practice green near the clubhouse. The clubhouse is not the original and is a bit too modern for my liking. Pace of play was below average when I played.

Verdict: While Knoll West could benefit from some tree removal and a renovation, this charming Charles Banks design is a rare opportunity for the public to experience classic Raynor architecture with numerous template holes and wonderful green complexes and bunkering. This is a worthwhile play to all those in the New York City area.


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