BAYONNE, NJ – James Milton was wrong. Shangri-la – his fictional land of incomparable beauty and peaceful unity – was not deep in the Himalayas, it was hiding in plain sight in northern New Jersey. It just took the right kind of eyes to see it…and the strength of will to see it through.
Just as Shangri-la does, Bayonne Golf Club sits atop the roof of the world, or at least its corner of it. Like a mariner aloft in a mountainous ship, from the circular rotunda of the maritime-style clubhouse one can look sheer down to the fairways 200 feet below, or gaze 360-degrees around to New York harbor and upper Jersey. It’s one of the most staggeringly panoramic views in golf. By day players cheerfully embrace the wild hooting and hallooing of the freighters’ horns as they chug in and out of port across the river – it’s part of the inimitable charm and character of the golf course. And by night it’s as though you can reach out and touch the billions of stars or the lazy haze of the Milky Way.
It took singular vision to get here, though, and seven long, tumultuous years. Most shoreline properties in industrial areas have environmental issues, but Bayonne, just across the river from TriBeCa, was a reclamation site that required major mitigation over every square inch of its 135 acres and 7,000,000 cubic yards of trucked-in sand before it became a faithful reproduction of a UK/Irish links. Owner and developer Eric Bergstol had to navigate through a maze of permits, a forest of regulations, a phalanx of agencies, and do it all on a small, irregularly shaped parcel that had congested ingress and egress points.
“Building it was complicated,” Bergstol explained in his typically graceful, understated way. “It was industrial area….it survived every environmental scrutiny imaginable and regulatory agencies that put requirements on us that most people wouldn’t dream of being able to meet.”
Happily, Eric Bergstol isn’t “most people.” His company, Empire Golf Management developed and owns over a dozen golf courses peppered along the eastern seaboard, each one better than the last, many of them public.
At almost each one, however, there were severe restrictions of some sort. Call Bergstol a magnet for the difficult and the strange, because over the course of his career he’s had to overcome obstacles like:
—blasting an entire rocky mountaintop (Hudson National);
—avoiding an environmentally sensitive pine snake habitat by actually microchipping the snakes to define the area in question (Pine Barrens); and
—electric shocking an entire stream to count how many fish might be affected by the building of the course. There were exactly seven. Don’t worry, they fish were fine (Pine Hill).
So when you think about it, who better to deal with endless permitting Bayonne would need? Bergstol’s remarkable ability to “get to yes” and creatively solve problems made him uniquely qualified to navigate the Byzantine maze that was Bayonne.
The first consideration was to create a site impervious to water penetration into the core of the property. This was easier said than done, since the entire property is an inverted bathtub.
“We brought in sheet piles – steel plates that interlock and anchor into the soil. Along with that is a bentonite slurry wall. That is created from the grade level to the bedrock around the entire perimeter of the property,” Bergstol began. “That prevents any ground water under the golf course from exiting the property. All the ground water is contained there, and we mechanically pump and treat 60,000 gallons per day, pumping it to the sanitary sewer system.”
Once the property was fortified, the next task was to route the golf course. Bergstol decided he wanted a fast and firm links faithful to his favorite UK/Irish venues such as Birkdale, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Portstewart, Royal County Down, and more.
Now Bayonne is not so much a tribute to them, but an amalgam of them, uniquely all its own, with flashes and flavors of inspiration from those courses, while being uniquely Bergstol at the same time. Putting the clubhouse roughly in the middle of the parcel, on its highest point, he decided on returning loops of nine holes rather than the traditional links out-and-back routing. From there, the course was routed and built piecemeal, in fits and spurts, through a narrow point of entry and departure.
“Everything was different here because of the permits we had to get…it wasn’t just go out and rout the golf course and look at a bunch of different 18-hole plans,” explained Bergstol. “I couldn’t design holes until the permits for that part of the golf course were in. And even then, you got one kind of permit for one part, and others for the rest,”
It was as unrehearsed as a hiccup. There were shoreline areas, mitigation areas, and habitat restorations, all of which had different requirements. Plus with the 7,000,000 cubic yards of sand trucked in at a 1,000,000 per year pace, the design process was “truck in sand, put it somewhere, get a permit, build that little section, all the while trucking in more sand, getting more permits, then building the next holes,” as Bergstol put it.
He worked the perimeter first, then the shoreline edge where boats could also offload material. Then he worked his way through the center of the property, and then up to the construction ingress and egress.
“I’ll tell you what was last: The first hole!” Bergstol laughed. “When you build something like this you tend to finish away from the area where the importing is going on. The area where the first hole is was the last to build because that’s where all the traffic had to come in, through the main entrance of the property.”
Bergstol employed some fascinating architectural techniques to solve the jigsaw puzzle of putting 18 great holes on this small, strangely shaped parcel.
First, he terraced fairways, placing them far above or below the adjacent fairways, but making them look like natural erosion had taken place and using the different levels as both a hazard and natural retention. Then he incorporated old world crossovers like you find in the UK, designed “Great Hazards” A.W. Tillinghast would have loved, like the gargantuan “7 sisters, 6 brothers” bunker complex at the 12th, and even built a shoreline practice range where players hit floating golf balls into the river to be collected by a boat.
It was a Herculean effort and as remarkable a transformation of land uses as golf has ever seen, but to do it all in greater-NYC is historic. Perhaps only Pine Valley, Garden City Golf Club, Yale, and California Golf Club of San Francisco match Bayonne when it comes to world class golf courses in neighborhood settings; Shangri-Las hidden I plain sight.
Moreover, Bayonne is – for the present – Bergstol’s magnum opus, his indelible contribution to golf. Glorious and majestic, yet charmingly authentic, it looks and plays eminently natural.
“It took a lot of years, but we stuck it out,” he declared. “I probably opened 7 or 8 courses while I was building this one.”