Watchung Valley Golf Club has a long and storied history, which can be traced through a change in location and several names changes. The club began as an outgrowth of the Park Club of Plainfield, which was founded in 1890. The Park Club was a hub of social activity on the north side of the bustling and prosperous city of Plainfield. A group of Park Club members first organized themselves into a subset of the Park Club for the purpose of playing golf in 1892. In 1895, this group of Park Club members set about developing a golf course on a piece of property owned by Park Club member Louis K. Hyde near the base of the First Watchung Mountain in North Plainfield.
The club was incorporated as “Park Golf Club” in 1898 whereupon the membership called upon Tom Bendelow to design a 9-hole course. Bendelow, known as the “Johnny Appleseed” of American golf, was a prolific designer and Park Golf Club was one of over 600 courses he designed across the country. Rather a simple affair with no bunkers, the Park Golf Club course opened for play on Election Day 1898. The club offered both golf and tennis and a small clubhouse atop the hillside afforded pleasant views of the grounds. In 1915, the club voted to formally change its name to Hydewood Country Club to avoid confusion with the Park Club and to honor of the club’s great benefactor (and landlord), Louis K. Hyde.
The early 1920’s would prove a difficult time for the newly-renamed Hydewood Country Club. The club faced an existential crisis when the State of New Jersey condemned a portion of the club’s property for the construction of Route 29 (now US-22), the road to the newly-constructed Holland Tunnel. The club would either have to find a new location or fold. The membership persevered and the members chose the former and selected a site on the other side of the ridgeline.
In approximately 1924, the club purchased the Ackor dairy farm in what is now the Borough of Watchung. The farm was nestled along the south-facing ridgeline of the Second Watchung Mountain. The site’s undulating topography and stunning panoramic vistas made it uniquely suited to produce a top course. The club called upon golf architect Seth Raynor to design the course. Raynor completed the routing, but sadly died before the course could be constructed. The membership retained Plainfield Country Club professional Marty O’Loughlin to complete the work.
O’Loughlin was a natural choice. Hydewood (and, earlier, Park Golf Club) had maintained a friendly rivalry with Plainfield Country Club since Hydewood’s inception. The two clubs played an annual match against one another dating to 1899 and a reciprocal relationship existed. When Donald Ross departed Plainfield Country Club prior to the completion of his major renovation of the course, O’Loughlin supervised the work on the last few holes. Moreover, O’Loughlin was familiar with Raynor’s unique design style as his greatest professional victory came in the 1922 Met Open contested at Lido Golf Club on Long Island, a course designed by Raynor and C.B. Macdonald. Under O’Loughlin’s guidance, the first 9 holes (more or less today’s back 9) opened on May 7, 1927.
Construction on the second 9 holes at what was by then known as Watchung Valley Country Club began in 1929. The work was carried out by Percy M. Beckett under the supervision of O’Loughlin. Beckett made numerous changes to the original plan and rerouted two holes. However, the core of the Raynor routing remained intact and Watchung Valley Golf Club boasts many fine versions of Ranyor’s famous interpretations of classic holes of the British Isles.
Newspapers showered praise on the new course both for its beauty and championship layout. One called it “the nearest thing to Baltusrol.” Another called it a course to “rival any layout in the state.” One thing was certain. From its inception, Watchung Valley Golf Clubhas been viewed as an exceptional course.
By 1944, however, Watchung Valley Golf Club had fallen on hard times. The Second World War had taken its toll on the club’s membership and Watchung Valley Golf Club , like so many clubs at the time, teetered on the edge of insolvency. Into the picture stepped David Cronheim, a successful realtor from Newark. Cronheim was an avid golfer who immediately saw the potential in the course. He purchased the club in 1944 and would be its steward until his death in 1959.
After his death and under the leadership of his two children - Robert D. Cronheim and Ruth Sampson - Watchung Valley Golf Club continued to grow and prosper. The course was lengthened, the 8th hole was entirely rebuilt to accommodate a driving range, and the clubhouse was substantially rebuilt. In the early 2001, the club hired golf course architect Tom Devane to renovate holes #1, #3, #10. Devane’s work helped improve the playability of several holes where steep grades made the existing greens unsuitable for modern greenspeeds.
The club is in the midst of a major restoration project spearheaded by lead golf course architect George Waters. The goal of the restoration is to bring the course closer to Seth Raynor’s original design while marrying the holes modified by Beckett and O’Loughlin to fit harmoniously into the layout. The future is bright indeed for one of America’s oldest clubs.