Review: Francis A. Byrne Golf Course

Course Name: Francis A. Byrne Golf Course

Designer: Charles Banks (1926)

Location: West Orange, New Jersey

History: Built in 1926 by Charles Banks, Francis Byrne was originally part of the adjacent Essex County Country Club and was the West Course at the 36-hole facility. The course operated as private for many years, but the Club began offering the West Course to the public due to financial difficulties at some point. In the 1980s, it was officially sold to Essex County and renamed Francis A. Byrne. Today’s course features eighteen original greens but many holes have been shortened or altered since its inception.

Conditions: 6/10, Francis Byrne is in overall average shape with decent fairways and teeboxes. The greens run on the slower side while areas off the fairway can be a bit scruffy.

Value: 8/10, Like other Essex County courses, Francis Byrne offers strong value. Passholders pay $42 to walk weekdays while the general public pays $56. There are additional discounts for twilight, seniors, juniors, and off-season.

Scorecard:

Tee                           Par         Yardage         Rating          Slope

Blue                           70            6648             73.6              135

White                        70           6202             71.2               132

White/Gold               70           5790             69.0             130

Gold                          70           5289             66.0             122

Red                           72           5220              70.5             124

Hole Descriptions: While New York City’s public golf scene is generally viewed poorly, nearby Essex County has one of the strongest and most underrated municipal collections in America. Newly public Rock Spring (Raynor) has gotten a lot of attention lately, but munis Francis Byrne (Banks), Hendricks Field (Banks), and Weequahic (George Low) provide affordable classic architecture and are at least close to Rock Spring in terms of quality. While I enjoy all three munis, Francis Byrne is the best in my opinion and is one of the better public courses in New Jersey. While many online lament the course’s decline over the years following its break-up from Essex County Country Club, the course still features numerous template holes, original greens, and a true challenge with a 73.6/135 rating from the Blue Tees.  The course is built into the side of a hill and features many elevated greens, forcing the golfer to hit long irons off awkward lies. There are not many 6600 yard courses that feel as difficult as Francis Byrne!

Francis A. Byrne begins with a 391 yard slight dogleg right par 4 that’s meant to be a “Road” hole. I think it’s worth noting that both times I’ve played, I started on the 10th hole and this is a much more difficult start than the 1st. This hole was apparently a par 5 originally with a teebox well-behind the current clubhouse. Today, the teebox is set up at an awkward angle to a tight, right-to-left sloping fairway defended by mounds down the left and a bunker on the right between 215 and 255 yards. This approach plays to an elevated, severely back-to-front sloped green defended by a Lion’s Mouth bunker short.

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The par 4 1st
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The 1st green

The 2nd hole is one of the best and most memorable on the course as a lengthy 230 yard par 3. From an elevated teebox, this hole features OB right the entire way and a classic Biarritz green defended by skinny bunkers on either side. The front half of this Biarritz was fairway when I first played but recent efforts to expand the green have markedly improved this hole.

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The par 3 2nd is an excellent hole
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A closer look at the 2nd green

The 3rd is another nice hole playing straightaway from an elevated teebox at 400 yards. While this fairway is generous, trees line either side and your teeshot must carry a small creek to reach a fairway 170 yards away. This approach then runs back uphill at least half a club to a Leven-like, back-to-front sloped green defended by a bunker left.

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The par 4 3rd

At 360 yards, the 4th is perhaps the most interesting and unique hole at Francis Byrne. Featuring an uphill teeshot to a fairway that immediately turns hard left, it might not be clear to first time golfers where to aim here. The good news is that the fairway is extremely generous, but drives further left will yield easier shots in. This approach also plays uphill towards a small, elevated, right-to-left sloped green that feels a bit awkward because it’s actually a former Tillinghast green. I truthfully don’t know how I feel about this strange hole but am somewhat partial to it considering I made my first ever par 4 eagle here.

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The cart in the distance is a good aiming point at 4
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The uphill approach at 4

At 140 yards, the 5th hole is the shortest of Francis Byrnes’ three par threes. Originally designed to play as a Redan, the builders made a mistake on the routing and instead made this a Short template. It’s still a pretty hole featuring a slightly elevated, small green perched on the side of a hill. A deep bunker guards short left and this green primarily runs back-to-front with pinching in from both sides.

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The par 3 5th

The next three holes run parallel to each other on the side of the hill beginning with the 424 yard 6th hole. Running slightly downhill, this fairway slopes right-to-left with OB left the entire way. This green is defended by a very steep bunker left and runs both back-to-front and right-to-left.

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The par 4 6th

The par 4 7th hole runs back uphill and straightaway at 395 yards. While the fairway is generous here, it slopes severely left-to-right leaving very difficult lies for this approach. This elevated green plays at least one club extra and is one of the best on the course with a severe false front and back-to-front tilt.

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The par 4 7th
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The tough approach at 7

Continuing the string of nice par fours, the 8th hole runs back downhill at 385 yards. With the teebox occupying the tallest point on the property, you can best see neighboring Essex County Country Club from this hole. This hole is most notable for its excellent front-to-back sloped, undulating green defended by a bunker right.

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The par 4 8th

Francis Byrne contains fourteen par fours and the 9th is the longest by far at 470 yards. While this straightaway hole plays severely downhill on the teeshot, it still takes two mighty shots to reach this green in regulation. This teeshot is certainly fun, but there’s not much else to this bunkerless hole until you reach a large back-to-front sloped green.

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The par 4 9th shares a teebox with the 7th

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve started on the 10th hole both times I’ve played. This is definitely a tougher start and the back 9 overall plays almost 300 yards longer. The 10th hole is a 411 yard par 4 running uphill the entire way. This is a really fun “Bottleneck” template with a left-to-right sloping split fairway divided by a midline bunker between 190 and 240 yards. This approach runs half a club uphill towards a narrow, back-to-front sloped green defended by extremely deep “steamshovel” bunkers on either side.

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It’s better to aim left at 10 to avoid the slope but doing so requires a carry over the Bottleneck bunker
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The classic Banks green at 10

The 11th hole runs parallel to the 10th as a slight downhill dogleg left par 4 at 407 yards. There’s not a single bunker on this fairly uneventful hole culminating in a back-to-front sloped green.

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The par 4 11th
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The approach at 11

Although not as long as the 9th, the 445 yard par 4 12th hole usually plays longer running straight uphill the entire way. With thick forest left and a left-to-right sloping fairway, you’ll need a decent teeshot to reach this green in two. This approach plays at least one club uphill to a tricky green that slopes both severely left-to-right and back-to-front and is defended by a bunker right.

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The lengthy par 4 12th

At 375 yards running downhill the entire way, the par 4 13th is an easier hole featuring a generous left-to-right sloping fairway lined by trees left. The most notable feature of this hole is an excellent green which features two tiers and slopes back left-to-front right with a bunker short right.

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The par 4 13th

The 14th hole is Francis Byrne’s lone par 3 on the back as an 165 yard Eden template. Running slightly downhill, this is a good-looking hole featuring bunkers left and short of a back-to-front sloped green that’s crowned along the back edges.

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The Eden 14th

At 490 yards, the 15th hole is the shortest par 5 at Francis Byrne, but this hole wasn’t always a par 5. Originally, it was a long and difficult par 4 “Prized Dogleg” template that Bobby Jones supposedly made a 12 on. From the current extended teebox, this teeshot is quite awkward playing uphill to a severe dogleg left fairway guarded by a bunker down the left at 260 yards. The problem here is that it requires a 220 yard carry just to reach the fairway, taking a lot of strategy and interest out of this hole. From the dogleg, this hole is treelined with a crossbunker down the right about 90 yards short of a shallow, back-to-front sloped green defended by a bunker left. I understand the course’s hesitancy to become a par 69, but this hole would be dramatically improved if the teebox were moved up about 50 yards and it became a par 4 again.

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The par 5 15th features a cramped teebox and lengthy carry
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The approach at 15

The 16th hole is another tough par 4 as a 430 yard dogleg right. Featuring a downhill tight teeshot, this hole could probably benefit from some tree removal as tall trees crowd the fairway as it turns right around 260 yards. From here, this approach plays over a creek to an elevated Maiden green defended by a false front. Par is a strong score here.

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The par 4 16th
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The approach at 16

The 17th hole is a nice strategic par 4 at just 340 yards as a Cape dogleg left. This teeshot must carry a creek at least 150 yards to a fairway that turns left immediately. This creek runs down the left side the entire way and golfers looking to cut the corner here must be wary of this. Bunkers guard short and right of a back-to-front sloped green.

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The golfer is given numerous options off the tee on the short Cape 17th
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The approach at 17

Sadly, Francis Byrne’s closing hole is perhaps its most boring as a flat, straightaway 390 yard par 4. Yes, this teeshot plays over a creek that extends down its left side, but otherwise there’s no danger or compelling land movement here. This green is also one of the flattest and largest on the course, only defended by a bunker well-short right.

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The par 4 18th

General Comments: Francis Byrne’s amenities are mediocre at best with a net to hit balls into near the 1st tee and practice green adjacent to the clubhouse. The clubhouse is extremely rudimentary and not a place you’d want to spend extended time. Pace has play has been average the times I’ve played here.

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Looking up at the course from the practice green

Verdict: Offering a strong challenge on a hilly property, great value, and classic template architecture from Charles Banks, Francis Byrne is one of the more underrated public courses in the greater New York City area and is certainly worth a visit.


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