Review: Rock Spring Golf Club at West Orange

Course Name: Rock Spring Golf Club at West Orange

Designer: Seth Raynor/Charles Banks (1926), Ken Dye (2001, Bunker renovation), Kelly Blake Moran (2008, Restoration)

Location: West Orange, New Jersey

History: Founded in 1925, Seth Raynor laid out the blueprint for Rock Spring but unfortunately died before the course opened in 1927. His associate Charles “Steam-shovel” Banks was the one to actually build the course. Rock Spring has hosted four New Jersey Opens and flourished for many years as a private club just outside New York City. In 2001, Ken Dye restored the bunkers but apparently ruined the Raynor elements so badly that Kelly Blake Moran was brought in in 2007 to restore Raynor’s style. With the recession and increasingly strong competition from numerous other courses in the area, Rock Spring suffered financially for much of the 21st century and was purchased by Montclair Golf Club in 2016. In 2019, Montclair sold the course to the town of West Orange, making it a very rare opportunity for the public to play a Raynor course. Unfortunately, Rock Spring’s future is murky at best so it’s best to get here as soon as possible.

Conditions: 7/10, While the greens are on the slower side, the conditions at Rock Spring are overall good with nicely maintained teeboxes, fairways, and bunkers.

Value: 9/10, Rock Spring provides pretty astounding value at $32 to walk with further discounts for seniors, juniors, military, and first responders. It doesn’t get much better for a course of this caliber.

Scorecard:

Tee                           Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Black                       71           6611              72.1               136

White                      71           6420              71.2               134

Green                      71          5860               68.7               129

Gold                         71          5379               72.0               132

Hole Descriptions: Seth Raynor is one of my absolute favorite architects, but unfortunately many golfers will never get to experience any of his courses because they are almost all private. That’s why it’s such an enormous deal that Rock Spring opened to the public in 2019, even if it’s only for a few years. However, after playing Rock Spring, I truly wondered how much Raynor still exists here. To be fair, Raynor died before the course even opened so Banks was probably more responsible anyway. There are definitely greens with MacRaynor features and several recognizable templates (Redan, Short, Eden, Double Plateau, etc.), but overall they seemed softer than I expected and I can’t tell if it’s because Banks built the course or because they’d been softened with time. Regardless, Rock Spring is an excellent public course that could easily become one of the top public courses in New Jersey with stronger conditioning and management. At its price and proximity to New York City, it should be in every New Yorker’s public golf rota as long as it stays open!

The opening hole is an interesting one as a straightaway 351 yard par 4. This is definitely one of the easiest holes on the course, but a semi-blind teeshot with an immediate 140 yard forced carry over water makes it much more intimidating than it should be. Trees line both sides of a fairway also lined by a bunker on the right at 240 yards. For the final 100 yards, this fairway runs downhill towards a back-to-front sloped green with a prominent front plateau. Additional bunkers line this green on either side.

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The 1st teeshot is not ideal for first-timers to Rock Spring
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The downhill approach at 1

The 2nd hole is another par 4 that plays much harder than its 385 yard distance implies. This hole features another completely blind uphill teeshot to a narrow dogleg right fairway lined by trees right and a hidden water hazard beginning at 225 yards on the left. This water runs all the way to a large, back-to-front sloped green that features Road hole-inspired bunkering.

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The blind uphill teeshot at the 2nd
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The approach at 2

At 201 yards, the 3rd hole is the first of three tremendous one-shotters at Rock Spring. This is the best of the group and will be a recognizable template for any casual MacRaynor enthusiast. Featuring a beastly carry over wasteland, this green plays as a right-to-left sloped Redan with a deep, narrow bunker running down the left. It’s worth noting this hole also features the best views of the Manhattan skyline as well, but overgrown vines and shrubs made it difficult to photograph on the day I played.

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The excellent 3rd is my favorite hole at Rock Spring
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A closer look at the 3rd green

After crossing Walker Road, you reach the secluded 4th and 5th holes, two strong par fours. At 445 yards, the 4th hole is the longest par 4 at Rock Spring and a very deserving number 1 handicap. For some reason, this dogleg right teeshot really doesn’t suit my eye with OB down the left the entire way and a tight fairway lined by a bunker on the right at 240 yards. This approach plays downhill to a giant double plateau green complex that runs hard left-to-right and back-to-front. A deep bunker guards just right of my favorite green on the course.

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The intimidating teeshot at 4

Running parallel to the 4th, the 428 yard 5th is another nice hole that plays as a straightaway uphill par 4. This fairway is again rather tight with bunkers lining the right at 215 yards and left at 250 yards. Another bunker guards about 75 yards short left of a back-to-front sloped green guarded by additional deep bunkers on either side.

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The par 4 5th
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The approach at 5

A nice Short template is always appreciated and that’s exactly what you get with the 145 yard 6th hole. This one-shotter features a characteristic moat of bunkers surrounding an elevated, back-to-front sloped green with a thumbprint swale in the middle a la Sleepy Hollow’s 16th.

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The par 3 6th

The 7th hole is a 377 yard downhill dogleg left that rewards accuracy over length. This teeshot is very difficult and semi-blind to a tight fairway lined by a giant bunker on the right at 240 yards and tall trees down the left that are probably in need of some management. Because of how tight the fairway is, laying back off the tee is not a bad option here. This approach plays shorter downhill to a heavily sloped green guarded by bunkers short and right.

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The 7th teebox also provides an excellent view of the Manhattan skyline
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The par 4 7th
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The approach at 7

At 414 yards, the 8th hole is another strong and difficult par 4 playing uphill as a dogleg right. Thick trees run down the right and ideal drives will land just short of a skinny crossbunker on the left at 275 yards. From here, the hole continues uphill to a lovely circular green surrounded by mounds of rough. Two additional geometrically-shaped bunkers run down the right side just short of the green but really shouldn’t be in play.

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The dogleg right par 4 8th
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The approach at 8 from just short of the crossbunker

There are only two par fives at Rock Spring and the 9th hole is the shorter of the two at just 495 yards. With a straight downhill teeshot, this dogleg left features a narrow fairway lined by a large bunker at 280 yards on the right. This dogleg doesn’t occur until after this bunker and trees down the left may block those going for the green in two. This diagonal, perched green is well-protected with a deep bunker short and another one to the right. While there’s sufficient danger, anything worse than par here will hurt the scorecard.

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The par 5 9th
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The approach at 9

The straightaway 10th hole is the shortest par 4 at Rock Spring at just 328 yards but plays longer uphill. Some people have called this an Alps hole, but I don’t see it. It is, however, one of my favorite holes on the course with a wide fairway lined by two bunkers on the left at 200 yards. This approach is excellent to an elevated back-to-front sloped green guarded by a giant, almost Principal’s nose bunker short right.

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The par 4 10th
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You don’t see bunkering like this on many public courses!

At 429 yards, the par 4 11th is another lovely dogleg right running downhill the entire way. A trio of bunkers down the right between 170 to 220 yards frame this teeshot gorgeously and the ideal drive should carry these. This approach plays downhill to a diagonal, back-to-front sloped green lined by bunkers on either side and a steep drop-off long. This is another green that brings the Road hole to mind.

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The downhill par 4 11th
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The approach at 11

The 12th hole is another short par 4 playing uphill at 342 yards. The golfer is afforded many options on this teeshot to a split fairway with a giant bunker in the middle at 175 yards and another bunker down the right at 230 yards. This entire fairway slopes hard left-to-right up the hill, but the green plays more level with bunkers on either side and a steep drop-off right.

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The uphill par 4 12th

The par 4 13th hole is one of the least noteworthy holes at Rock Spring but still packs a punch as a 417 yard uphill dogleg right. Short trees line both sides of a wide fairway and a bunker lines the left at 220 yards. This approach plays a half-club uphill to a back-to-front sloped, slightly elevated green lined by a bunker right.

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The par 4 13th
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The approach at 13

At 528 yards, the 14th hole is Raynor’s Long template as a lengthy straightaway par 5. With a wide fairway and little danger besides bunkers down the left at 235 yards, golfers should rip driver with little fear here. The fairway narrows slightly with a bunker about 130 yards short of the green on the lay-up. For the final 100 yards, this fairway drops straight downhill towards a large, severely back-to-front sloped green lined by bunkers on either side and a steep embankment long.

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The par 5 14th

The 15th hole is one of my favorites at Rock Spring as a beautiful 379 yard par 4. Running along the edge of the property, this downhill par 4 features a hard right-to-left sloping fairway lined by trees right and OB and a pair of bunkers left at 245 yards. This green complex is again tremendous, running diagonally and sloping back-to-front with Redan-like elements. A deep bunker and false front short leave very difficult up-and-downs.

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The par 4 15th
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The fantastic approach at 15

Although lacking the characteristic front bunker, I feel comfortable calling the 187 yard par 3 16th an Eden template. This gorgeous downhill one-shotter features a severely back-to-front sloped green defended by deep bunkers left, right, and long and a false front short.

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The par 3 16th

The 17th is a difficult penultimate hole as a straightaway uphill 415 yard par 4. There’s not much to this teeshot to a tight fairway lined by a left bunker at 220 yards, but this approach is excellent. Inevitably blind uphill, this approach features a giant, multi-tiered, bunkerless green that predominately slopes back-to-front. Whereas many greens have shrunk since Raynor’s time, I feel confident this square green is close to what it was in 1927!

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The par 4 17th

The closing hole is an interesting 345 yard straightaway par 4. While the fairway is rather generous here, you must carry your drive at least 200 yards or so to reach a plateau and avoid a blind approach. This green slopes back left-to-front right and is well-protected by giant bunkers short on either side.

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The semi-blind par 4 18th
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The closing approach

General Comments: As a former private club, Rock Spring’s locker room is still very strong to go along with a nice clubhouse and bar. I don’t believe there’s a driving range, and the only practice facility I used was a small practice green near the 1st teebox. Pace of play was nothing short of disastrous when I played on a weekday afternoon. They paired me with three very nice elderly gentleman, but with the sun setting by the 11th hole, I had to abandon them with multiple holes open in front of us to finish.

Verdict: While I think Rock Spring is more Banks than Raynor, the bottom line is that the general public won’t get a much better opportunity to experience templates and MacRaynor architecture than this. At under $50, I implore all those interested in architecture to check out Rock Spring as soon as possible, especially considering the property value may cause this course to be lost forever soon…


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