Kevin Shea has a pretty good sense of how to pay it forward. He’s the co-chairman of the 122nd U.S. Amateur at The Ridgewood Country Club, and he also led the club’s efforts in 2016 when it hosted its fourth USGA championship, the U.S. Girls’ Junior.
Shea’s affiliation with the renowned club began when he started as a caddie and a locker room attendant at age 13 in the late 1970s. Several Ridgewood members took Shea and his three brothers under their wings, mentoring them and helping them through college.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to the members that can never be repaid,” said Shea, 57. “They taught my brothers and me about kindness and leadership and dignity. Mentoring wasn’t a word that was used back then, but there was a member, Mr. Griffith, who brought me a book to read every week and told me he would come back and talk to me about it the next weekend. If you didn’t read the book, man, you were in trouble.”
As club historian and longtime member David Clark put it, the rationale behind Ridgewood hosting the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship back in 2016 was simple.
“We can all sit and lament that golf is not growing as fast as we would like it to,” said Clark. “Do we just talk about it and go home, or do we actually do something about it? We all want it to happen, so let’s put our money, our mouth, our facility behind what we’re wishing for, and host something like the Girls’ Junior to promote growth in the game.”
Ridgewood is back again this week to host its second U.S. Amateur. The Paramus, N.J., club’s role in the game is difficult to match – it moved to its present location in 1929, and a lobby display includes trophies from several of the prestigious events it has hosted; not only the U.S. Amateur, but also the U.S. Senior Open, the U.S. Senior Amateur, the Senior PGA, and four editions of The Barclays/Northern Trust, a PGA Tour playoff event, most recently in 2018.
Ridgewood was founded in 1890 as a two-hole course called Ho-Ho-Kus Golf Club, off Route 17 in the town of the same name. Three subsequent moves brought the club to its current name and its present site, where A.W. Tillinghast designed a 27-hole facility on 225 acres that opened on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), 1929.
The course is complemented by a stately Norman-style clubhouse by architect Clifford Wendehack, who found the surrounding terrain evocative of that region of France. Wendehack designed clubhouses for numerous courses in the New York metropolitan area, including those for Tillinghast designs at Winged Foot and Bethpage State Park.
It wasn’t long after the course’s debut that it was sought for major golf events. The 1935 Ryder Cup Matches, the fifth edition of the storied competition, was played at Ridgewood, and the winning American side featured Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Henry Picard, Craig Wood and Horton Smith. That 9-3 USA victory began a seven-match run of dominance that would not end until 1957.
“To have that international competition awarded to what was then a relatively new golf course was a real feather in Tillinghast’s cap,” said Clark.
Tillinghast is revered among students of golf architecture for his classic, enduring designs that include 36 holes at both Baltusrol and Winged Foot, four courses at Bethpage State Park, as well as Quaker Ridge, Somerset Hills and San Francisco Golf Club. When he came to Ridgewood, he and the game of golf were both on a roll.
“The economy was great during the 1920s, and Tillinghast was at the peak of his productivity, his work at Baltusrol having truly launched his career,” said Clark. “Everyone was making money, land was cheap, and people were starting to live a little farther from the city, so the courses were accessible. There was an abundance of work in this area.”
Tillinghast lived in nearby Harrington Park, and his stamp on Ridgewood is felt particularly on the eighth hole of the West nine, a par 5 that features a massive, 130-foot tulip tree, nicknamed “Tilly’s Tree.”
“Rumor has it that he would sit under the tree, one of the grandest on the course, and watch the laborers sculpt the layout,” said Todd Raisch, who has been the golf course superintendent since 1995. “It’s one of the widest fairways on the course, but the tree fundamentally changes the way you play the hole. If you don’t want to challenge the out of bounds [on the left], the tree becomes a real issue for you.”
The tree has taken its share of hits through the years, and not just from errant golf shots. According to Raisch, they include a tornado that “took a chunk out of it” in 2013, and a direct lightning strike a few years later.
“The tree is protected by a lightning rod, but lightning strikes sometimes take three to five years to play themselves out,” said Raisch. “But the tree is still kicking.”
Like the “Tilly Tree,” the 93-year-old Tillinghast layout requires thoughtful stewardship.
“In 2000, our golf chairman wanted to add a fourth set of tees, but we didn’t want to go about it haphazardly,” said Raisch. “We asked Gil Hanse, who had worked with us on our short-game area, to help us develop a master plan. He was an unknown at that time.”
As Raisch recounts it, “Gil came in and told our board, ‘You don’t need a golf course architect. You already have one – his name is A.W. Tillinghast. I’m just going to help you find him again.’ They were immediately sold on him.”
Ridgewood has long kept a focus on its history, which includes an assistant professional named Byron Nelson, who worked in 1935 and 1936 under George Jacobus, the club’s head professional for 50 years (1915-1965). A plaque on the patio marks the spot where Nelson, then 23, won a bet with a group of caddies, hitting the flagpole 100 yards distant with a 3-iron shot on his second try. Nelson won 55 cents for his marksmanship. The legendary Nelson later described his time under Jacobus as “the most important of my career” and he kept up a lifelong relationship with the club.
Along with Nelson and the Ryder Cup squad of 1935, champion players associated with Ridgewood include Lee Trevino (winner of the 1990 U.S. Senior Open, by two strokes over Jack Nicklaus); Jerry Pate (1974 U.S. Amateur); Tom Watson (2001 Senior PGA Championship); Kathy Whitworth (1981 LPGA Coca-Cola Classic); Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Vijay Singh (The Barclays); and J. Clark Espie (1957 U.S. Senior Amateur). A longtime club member and metropolitan-area legend, Marge Mason, won the 1967 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur.
On Friday of U.S. Amateur week, the club is hosting a reunion of players from the 1974 U.S. Amateur, after exhaustive research and contact with the field by David Repetto, another former caddie who looped for that championship and is a current Ridgewood member.
“I’m incredibly proud of the club,” said Shea of its USGA ties. “Our staff been remarkably accommodating. All the different constituencies of the club are helping the USGA in its effort to demystify golf. We’re all in this together, so let’s enjoy it.”
The inspiration that brought the USGA as well as recent PGA Tour events to Ridgewood have also brought renewed appreciation for its timeless Tillinghast layout.
“Tilly’s Tree” may or may not survive the next lightning strike, but Ridgewood is poised not only to endure but to strengthen its place in golf history.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.