“I maintain that the Suneagles Course ranks among the best of my creations.”
– A. W. Tillinghast
That quote can be found on the scorecard for Suneagles Golf Club, the 123rd stop on my quest. For those familiar with Tillinghast’s courses, that is really saying something. In New Jersey alone, he designed the layouts for renowned private clubs such as Ridgewood, Somerset Hills, and Baltusrol.
Whether or not he meant it, it’s always interesting to play a course designed a famous architect. For the average golfer playing municipal courses and other daily-fee publics, it’s unlikely you’ll run into many of them. Oddly enough, Suneagles is about two miles from another Tillinghast design, Old Orchard Country Club. However, having the same designer is where the similarities end.
The quality of Suneagles is certainly above what I found at Old Orchard. Granted, while I played them at two very different times of the year – October versus February – the condition of tee boxes, greens, and bunkering at Suneagles were noticeably better. The bunkers in particular seemed brand new, just one example of an ongoing renovation effort.
With that renovation has come increased cost to golfers, which is certainly understandable. Peak season rates can reach over $100 to ride on weekends. Thankfully, I was able to walk the course on a weekday for $37. Apart from knowing that you’re playing a course with some history, I don’t know that I could justify $100 tee time to the average weekend golfer.
The course is in good enough shape, but there are some low-lying holes – like 8, 10, and 11 – that did hold some water which made conditioning difficult. At that price point, though, you’re approaching some of the best publics in the state, and most golfers will want to see that value all around the course.
Having said that, I liked my time at Suneagles. I chose to play from the 6,385-yard back tees and managed relatively well for my game. That is about the course length limit that I enjoy playing and none of the holes felt too long, with its yardage being distributed evenly among the par 3s, 4s, and 5s. One interesting note about the course is that the holes are each named, something which is almost an exoticism for public courses – at least in New Jersey – and that I can only remember seeing at Laguna Oaks. The par-3s, for instance, are named “Puck”, “Lake”, “Clipper”, and “Island”.
Whether you’d like to add Tillinghast to your list of architects whose courses you’ve played, or you’re just looking for another public golf option in Monmouth County, Suneagles is certainly worth a look at its cheaper rates. If you need to play on a weekend, I recommend walking in the afternoon. At the time of writing, that should get you a rate between $50 and $60, a price for which the course can certainly provide adequate value.
After finishing up at Colonial Terrace, I headed over to Colts Neck Golf Club. Being a semi-private course, I had a short debate with myself about whether or not it should count on this journey. When posting about it on Twitter, most responded that it should, with sentiments like “if you can get on without an invite, it counts”. I’m not sure where I draw the line on what should be considered “public”, but ultimately, I felt like there were enough tee times available to the general public on a daily basis for it to count on the journey.
The course was an absolute treat to walk for $40 on a weekday in October. I’m not sure if that’s just a fall rate, but that is easily one of the best values in the state. I haven’t listed it as one of my “must play” publics – though, as I write this, I’m debating whether I should – but I do highly recommend it, especially if you can get that anything close to that price.
The course has just the right amount of elevation change – particularly through the middle third – striking a great balance between a completely flat layout and a mountain golf course. The conditions are some of the best I’ve seen in the state, which perhaps should be expected, given its semi-private status. Were it a strictly daily-fee course, it would be among the very best in that category in New Jersey.
I happened to play exceptionally well, scoring my best ever differential to par. While I did not make an eagle at either of the par-5s at Colonial Terrace, I did hole an 18-foot putt on 17 at Colts Neck for my third career eagle. (To be fair to the course, the tees were probably 60-80 yards up from where they should have been, so it was more like a birdie on a long par-4.)
Overall, I felt that most of the course sets up nicely for the average golfer and does well to provide variety in its 6,281 yards. A majority of driving holes have room to miss, a couple of the par-5s are reachable in two shots for long hitters, and there are six par-3s with a decent mix of yardages (as short as 133 to as long as 233).
If I had to pick one blemish at Colts Neck, it would have to be the approach shot at 13. The green is oddly guarded by two massive trees, making 2nd shot efforts like aiming for a railway tunnel. But as you can see from the rest of the pictures, that is me really looking for something to pick on. This Monmouth County course is absolutely worth a play.
At 2,616 yards for its nine holes, Colonial Terrace was a short stop on the journey. Dedicated to William F. Larkin – long-time mayor of Ocean, NJ where the course is located – the course plays to a par of 35, which includes two par-5 holes.
The 4th and 7th holes are 415 and 430 yards respectively. If you’re still searching for your first eagle, this may be the place to do it.
Or is it?
The USGA states that in order for a hole to be considered a par-5, it must have a minimum yardage of 450 yards for men, and 370 yards for women. Which raises an interesting quandary: if you hole out in three shots on one of these holes, are you counting it as an eagle?
I say ‘yes’. To me, you can only play what’s presented to you. If the scorecard says it’s a par 5, then it’s a par 5.
The layout is entirely flat and plays generally open, where even the holes around the perimeter have some room to bail out towards the center of the course. The greens are small and will test your approach play.
Overall, I enjoyed my time at Colonial Terrace. For $13 to walk nine holes on a weekday, it’s tough to find a better place to practice. It’s about a mile from Asbury Park and would make for a great casual round on a beach weekend.
As the summer closed out in 2021, my good friend Ed and I took a look at our schedules to see when we could meet up to play some golf. Everything lined up for us to get out on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. We chose Pebble Creek, a Monmouth County course I still hadn’t gotten to.
As I waited for Ed to arrive, I spent time chipping and putting at the practice green. Ed had a long drive and was set to get to the course just in time, so I moved all my stuff onto the cart and queued up. When I saw his car pull in, I drove out to the parking lot and helped him get his bag set up so we could get back to the first tee as soon as possible. Thankfully, we made it without issue.
We teed off at the first, and after I hit a sweet little pull-hook, we were off. Once I played my recovery shot, we both hit our final approaches and made our way to the green. As I stood over my ball to putt, I noticed that something looked off.
I was only wearing one golf shoe. On my right foot. My left foot still had my sneaker on it. We laughed about it and I rolled my 15-footer to save par. “I might wear one golf shoe all the time!” I joked.
As we continued the round, I was impressed by the value the course offered for the cost. It was $55 to ride for a weekend round. In retrospect, I’m not sure if September marked the end of peak summer pricing for the course, but that is incredible value relative to other public courses in New Jersey. The condition of the greens, in particular, was fantastic at that price point.
There are a number of memorable holes as well. 7 is a fun, drivable par 4 with a small but wonderfully shaped green. It’s guarded by a few small bunkers, though they’re relatively tame. 14 is a tough par 5, that starts to narrow out as the water encroaches onto the target landing area ahead of you. If you happen to hit a drive past this point, you can take a dangerous diagonal route over the water to reach the green in two. And 16 is another drivable par 4, albeit a 90-degree dog-leg right that would require an almost all-carry-over-water tee shot to get there.
While not my favorite way to finish, Pebble Creek closes out on a par 3. Not sure what it is about par-3 closers, but it almost feels like an unresolved melody. My feelings about them aside, much like most of the rest of the course, 18 is another quality hole.
Again, I was very impressed by what this Monmouth County course had to offer. I’d probably stop short of a phrase like “hidden gem”, but it’s absolutely a strong competitor in a list of value courses. Definitely worth it if you’re in the area, and it wouldn’t be a bad course to travel to if you’re looking to mix it up.
P.S. BIG shout-out to the group that held onto my 4-iron after I left it at 7. Much appreciated!
It took a bit of planning and matching up our schedules, but a couple months after said trip, we were able to find a Wednesday in August where we could both take the day off from work to knock out a few courses.
While there were still 50+ courses left to choose from, I knew I wanted to target Atlantic County. At the time, I still had 15 courses there that remained unvisited, and a number of them were relatively close together. There were also a few that I knew had reputations as great or well-liked courses. After a short look at Google Maps, we decided to book times at Twisted Dune and McCullough’s.
We arrived at Twisted Dune at 6:00 am, in advance of our 6:30 tee time. A light fog was still sitting over the course, but just from what we could see on our walk to the clubhouse, you could tell the course was special.
Once you’re on the course, it can seem visually daunting in places. But in truth, there is room to score. Players will likely be psychologically put off by some of the traps, waste areas, and tall grasses, but if you’re playing from the correct tee box for your game, they should be little more than distractions.
There were a couple things about the course that really hit me in terms of making an impression. The first is that its overall look is (relatively) unique. The second was the almost-disbelief that this was a place in New Jersey.
When you’ve played 100+ courses in the state, there is a lot of overlap in terms of style and feel. Generally, there are parkland courses and links-style courses. I don’t think Twisted Dune fits into either of those categories. It’s heavier on heathland surroundings, and there’s almost a hint of what Tobacco Road would feel like if it were tamed and had less tall pines around. Not that it should be tamed of course, but that version would be as close as I could come to accurately describing Twisted Dune.
In addition to the sand and overgrown areas that might steal a ball or two, there are water hazards on the course in a couple places. You’ll have to contend it with it on 9 and 10, and then again on 13 and 14.
Between the views, the uniqueness, and the playability, Twisted Dune is just a great course overall. I highly recommend it, and I’ve included in my list of must-play public courses in NJ.
McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links
There are a few places in New Jersey in which you could stand anywhere, throw a stone, and hit a golf course. This is probably most true of Atlantic County, where there are 17 public courses, and a number of which are in very close proximity. McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links happens to be 1.3 miles down the road from Twisted Dune.
I have to say that after being thoroughly impressed by our morning venue, McCullough’s did not live up to expectations. There have been a number of places that have been brought to my attention on my journey, and McCullough’s was one of them. Called the “Emerald Golf Links”, it’s a Stephen Kay design that is inspired by holes from a number of famous Irish and Scottish golf venues, like Royal Portrush, Prestwick, and even the Old Course at St. Andrews.
It’s not a bad course by any stretch of the imagination, but unless you are deeply familiar with those places, it’s tough to appreciate. This also may be odd, but I think one of my complaints about McCullough’s is that there is so much green color throughout the course. I never thought this would bother me, but visually, everything seemed to just blend together in a lot of places.
My gripe about the aesthetics aside, the course does play well. It is very open to wind, which can make for some challenging holes around the course. Water will make tee shots a challenge at 8, 13, and 18, and there is some elevation change on 3 and 11. The most notable hole though is the signature 7th, which is inspired by a Mackenzie design that was meant to go in the Lido Club.
Again, this is a course that comes up a lot in conversations about golf in Atlantic County, and while I prefer Stephen Kay’s Scotland Run to his design at McCullough’s, it may very well be one that makes your list of favorites.
After finishing up at McCullough’s and stopping for something to eat, we played a third and final round at Hamilton Trails. With its logo featuring what appears to be a soldier from the American Revolution in a ring of stars, the course is almost undoubtedly named after Alexander Hamilton. Nevertheless, I can’t find any history on the name and what it means to the area.
A 9-hole course that doesn’t seem imposing as you pull into the parking lot, it actually measures 3,265 from the back tees, providing decent length to the average golfer. The course looked almost completely flat, so Matt and I closed out the day walking the round.
The first hole is the most exciting on the property, an almost-90-degree dog-leg left par 4. From there though, it’s relatively plain. There are creeks that cross – or run alongside of – almost every hole, but they likely won’t threaten a mid-handicapper. The biggest hazard that a body of water will pose will be the small pond that is short and left of the par-3 green at the 9th hole.
At $30 to walk nine holes, it’s probably punching above its weight at that price. But, it’s an area of more expensive courses, so it’s relatively in line with the local market. Plus, it was a fine way to end another long day of golf on the journey. Forty-five holes played, and three courses knocked off the list.
My alarm goes off. Not wanting to make a long day even longer – especially in the early morning hours – I had set the alarm to give me only 15 minutes to start my travels. I quickly wash up, brush my teeth, and change into the clothes I set out the night before. I head downstairs, grab some water and protein bars, and jump in the car. Success. By 4:50 am, I’m on the road.
I’m headed back to Cape May County. For those unfamiliar with the geography of New Jersey, Cape May is the vestigial tail at the southernmost end of the state. It juts out into the Atlantic, effectively sheltering the Delaware Bay to its west. It’s a frequent tourist destination in the summer for both beachgoers and golfers alike.
Back in 2018, on the day after Christmas, I made my first trip there. With limited winter daylight, I was able to play both Cape May National (a course I consider a “must play”) and Avalon Golf Club. Remembering how long the drive was, I do not want to leave myself multiple trips back to the county as I look to close out my journey.
With six courses remaining, I’m looking to play three of them. That would allow me to make a third trip to complete the county in the future. Armed with plenty of daylight provided by a long summer day, it seems reasonable.
Time: 6:32 am
I arrive at The Pines at Clermont. My tee time is 6:38 am, so I hurry to get my clubs out of the trunk and head to the pro shop. The good news is that no one else is really here. There is one group that has already gone out, but the woman behind the counter lets me knows that there is no rush beyond that. That puts me at ease.
I get my clubs onto the cart, take a quick photo of the green to my left – presumably the last of the nine holes on this course – and make the short drive to the first tee.
Pines at Clermont is a short course, playing at 2,202 yards from the back tees for a par of 31. There are four par-4s and five par-3s, with water potentially coming into play on a number of holes, most dangerously to the left of 7 and short of 9 green.
I tee off on 1 – the first of the par-4s – and chase the group ahead of me. The par-3 2nd – only 127 yards from the back – continues in the same direction. After hitting the green and cleaning up a straightforward par, I head to the next tee. I notice that the group I was chasing is no longer in front of me.
I figured that perhaps since they were walking, and I was riding as a single, they decided to play the holes out of order to end my pursuit of them. Not giving it much thought, I tee off on the par-3 in front of me, hit the green, and collect another par. I keep it moving to the next tee.
When I get to what I think is the 4th hole, I realize the sign says it’s actually the 7th. The group wasn’t playing out of order – I am.
I check the map and realize this presents an opportunity. After playing 7, I could actually play 5 and it would put me back by 3 tee. I get done at 7 and drive around the tee box at 8. I get on the path from 4 to 5, and thankfully, no one is at the tee. I tee off, hit another par-3 GIR, but only manage to three-putt for bogey. Nevertheless, no one is in front of me.
Having played the three par-3s at the far end of the course, I finish out the par-4 3rd, 4th, and 8th and after a short wait on some sprinklers at the tee 9, I’m able to complete the round in just over an hour.
I get back to my car and realize by completing the round quickly, I’ve just bought myself some more time for the day. While the Pines at Clermont was my only booked tee time, it was only 7:53 am and there was likely another 12 hours of daylight ahead of me. I push on.
Time: 8:25 am
I pull into the parking lot at the Cape May Par 3, throw my clubs onto my pushcart, and head inside. After paying up, I head around back to the first tee where the starter tells me that I can skip a group of juniors and join the threesome that’s already on the green at 2.
I yell over to them to let them know that I was told I could join them. I’m not sure how much they heard, but they got the gist from the fact that I was getting their attention from the tee box, and they made just enough room for me to hit my shot while still remaining perilously in my dispersion circle. Thankfully, I hit the green and the ball just rolled onto the back fringe.
I walk up, thank them for letting me join them, and we make our introductions. They are Tom, Jimbo, and Stanley.
Not wanting to hold the group up, I make my way to my ball and look to get up and down for par. It’s about 20 feet from the hole. I hit the putt, and it drops. Birdie start.
We all head over to the 3rd tee and get chatting. I let them know about my journey as well as my plan to play a few courses in the area on the day. We hit our tee shots on this 80-yard hole, and I stick mine to 4 feet. Everyone putts out, and I hole mine as well. Two holes in, two under.
The group takes an interest in my quest and we talk about golf in the area. The guys are regulars here at the Cape May Par 3. As we continue from hole to hole, I note that the greens are extremely well kept for a course of this nature, and the group takes some local pride in that fact. We discuss some of the subtle breaks from green to green, as well as some of the details about the course.
Tom and Jimbo let me know that the course used to be a vast area of asparagus field to one side, and a strawberry field in another area. It’s amazing to listen to the group describe the history of the area. As we continue our chat and close out the front nine, I break my streak of GIRs on both 8 and 9. While I got up and down on 9, I could only manage to two-putt on 8.
We make the turn and I realize that there is no one at the 1st. Given that the morning was aging, and not wanting to risk a long wait at the end of the round, I run over to make up my missing hole. I stick the tee shot and make an 8-footer. Jimbo sees this play out, and when I get back, he asks, “Another birdie?” I confirm that it was. I’m back to -2, with the card looking like I started birdie-birdie-birdie. At this point, I think I might frame it.
We continue on the back nine and I ask the group how I should map out the rest of my day. The guys let me know that traffic going out to Ocean City Municipal may be difficult, especially since it’s a Sunday. I make note of that and try to finish out a very nervy closing half to the round. My lightning start is now completely in my head.
Nerves notwithstanding, my excellent walk with Tom, Jimbo, and Stanley continues. I learn that Stanley was an admiral in the US Navy – “of a whole FLEET” as Jimbo put it – and that his service travels took him around the world. We also talk about how Arnold Palmer served in the Coast Guard and was stationed right here in the Cape May area.
After a lengthy lag putt on 18, I finish the back nine in even par. I hit every green except for the one on 14, but was I able to scramble for my 3 there. I shake hands with the guys and thank them for a truly memorable round. While the course is only 1,862 yards, I walk back to my car feeling good about my two-under 52. More than that though, I take a moment to appreciate the experience I just had with an excellent group of local golfers, something I’ve come to treasure on the journey.
It’s just after 11:00 am. At this point, I’m certain I’m playing four courses, not just three. It’s just a question of which two to play. I take Tom and Jimbo’s advice into account and get back on the road.
Time: 11:39 am
After a quick stop for a bite to eat, I arrive at Laguna Oaks before noon. The sign says it’s “a special par-3 layout”.
What makes it special?
Designed by Fred Langford, the course originally had 10 holes. It’s also the only course I’ve run into so far that has an Honor Box, allowing you to drop cash when no one’s around in exchange for an off-hours round of golf.
When I pay up, the gentleman in the pro shop lets me know that a couple holes have closed, but that work is being done to at least bring the routing back to nine holes.
When I look at the scorecard, I see that the holes are numbered from 10 to 18 (with “11A” and 12 being the ones that are closed). I ask about it and the gentleman explains that there were plans at one point to make the course an 18-hole layout with a number of homes also being built on the property. Alas, some hard times hit, and the plans were never fulfilled.
I move to the 1st tee of this now 8-hole par-3 (hole number 10) with the wind picking up. While there are a few groups out on the course, I walk the entire round in solitude. The holes that remain in play at Laguna Oaks play anywhere from 120 to 170 yards from the back tees. Longer hitters could probably get around the course with just a few clubs. Nevertheless, I decide to push my entire bag around on my cart.
Here are pictures of a few of the holes, along with their names – as designated on the scorecard – another detail that makes this place special.
I wrap up “Peninsula Waterfall” – the last of the eight holes in operation – and walk back to the parking lot. It’s 1:00 pm. There are only three courses remaining for me to play in the county. Thinking of what Jimbo and Tom said about the traffic to and from Ocean City Municipal, I wonder whether to save that for another day. I get in my car and use my phone to start navigating to the three options. I make a decision.
Time: 1:20 pm
I arrive at my next destination. I take a moment to record my thoughts.
I arrive at Heritage Links. I decided that if I was going to deal with New Jersey shore traffic returning north on a Sunday, I may as well save Ocean City municipal for last. After navigating to each of the remaining three courses, I saw that Heritage Links was a 15-mile ride north back up the Parkway. Whether I decide to call it a day after this fourth round and head back home or play Ocean City afterwards – which I fully anticipate doing – it would work.
After walking at the Cape May Par 3 and Laguna Oaks, I decide to take a cart again. It’s been a few hours in the sun, and since it’s only 1:30 pm and I’m looking to play again after this round, I figure I can use a break for a couple hours.
As I make my way onto the course, I’m glad I chose to take a cart. I see that in contrast to the three very flat layouts I’ve played so far today, Heritage Links has some decent elevation change throughout.
While there aren’t many trees running through the holes in the center of the course, there are other hazards to avoid, like bunkers lined with ornamental grasses, some holes with water, and a few native areas. The greens are beautifully shaped and contoured, but they roll amicably for the most part, stopping short of having any real teeth.
After squandering a driven green at the par-4 6th, and making bogey on the par-3 7th, I finish up with straightforward pars at 8 and 9. I feel good. Though they’re short courses – Heritage Links being a 1,900-yard par 30 – I feel incredibly accomplished knocking out four of the six I had left in Cape May County.
But it’s only 3:10 pm. I make the call to continue.
Time: 3:30 pm
After a shirt change, a protein bar, and a short drive that was thankfully void of the typical traffic Tom and Jimbo told me about, I arrive at Ocean City Golf Course. I make my quick stop in the pro shop to pay, and I head out to the first tee. I decide to walk again with my pushcart.
I make my way onto the first of the 12 holes. It’s the shortest of 11 par-3s at only 60 yards and sets the tone for most of them. The green is small and rolls very slowly, but this place isn’t about the conditions. It’s different. Ocean City is a beach town, and it’s clear that this a beach town golf course. The vibe is super casual. I see a couple people in t-shirts and sandals.
I make my way around the “front six” in +2, with bogeys on 2 and 6. I notice that while there were people here when I started, I essentially have the course to myself from here on out.
I make the turn and continue pushing on through the “back six”. Fatigue is starting to set in. Between Cape May Par 3, Laguna Oaks, and the holes at Ocean City so far, I’ve only walked a couple miles and change, and I’ve only taken about 120 swings. But, I’m feeling it. My walking is now labored. My swing is becoming stiff.
After making a routine par at 7, I put my tee shot on 8 into the adjacent water hazard. While the courses have all been casual/executive style with limited challenges, that’s my first penalty of the day. I take a moment to breathe and recover, and I press on. I hit my third onto the green and putt twice to hole out. That’s also my first double bogey of the day.
I close out as best I can. I make bogeys the remainder of the way, with the exception of the par-4 10th.
I get back to my car at around 4:45 pm. I’m exhausted. But there is probably another four hours of daylight, and only one course left for me to complete in Cape May County. The risk I run is either a) getting to the course with no available tee times, or b) the course only having a tee time that is too late to complete all 18 holes before sunset.
I would hate to start a round, not complete it, and have to drive back down on another day. Then again, if I head home now, I’m committing to a future trip back to Cape May County anyway.
I decide to go and take the chance.
Time: 5:12 pm
After a stop for a grab-and-go dinner from Wawa – an East Coast and New Jersey staple, for the uninitiated – I head back south, further into the county, and make it to Shore Gate. There are still just over three hours of daylight left and if there’s no traffic on the course, I’m confident I can finish. I head inside to get the verdict.
They got me out! The time of day dictated that I had to walk – since carts had to be in by 6:00 – but they got me out. The gentleman behind the counter let me know that I may run into a couple groups. My hope is that they’ll let me play through as a single.
Sure enough, I run into a group on the 2nd hole. As they stand around the green, I wait over my ball, just left of the fairway. They wave me up. Ten hours of golf, multiple hours in the sun, and I have to hit an approach shot into a green with an audience. Not my favorite scenario, but I realize it means I get to play through and beat the sunset.
I hit the green. I put my PW back into the bag and head up as fast as I can, which is really just a brisk walk given my current state. After a couple “nice shot” remarks, I say “thank you”, try to get a quick read on my putt, and then address the ball. I see there’s a right-to-left break, and I commit to the line. I take the putter back and through. The ball drops. Birdie with an audience. Another sweet memory on this incredible day.
I jog with the pushcart to the 3rd tee and set up to hit my tee shot as quickly as I can, hoping to put some space between me and the group I just played through. I promptly snap-hook my drive out of bounds. Snap-hook with an audience. Not sweet, but another memory.
Too fatigued to truly be phased, I continue on and discover that Shore Gate is an absolute gem. My slightly-worse-than-average play does not distract from the course’s beauty. Hole after hole is littered with outstanding design. Incredible bunkering, some waste areas, and the pines of southern New Jersey all frame this perfectly manicured layout. At this point, I’m almost focused more on where I can get good pictures to capture the landscape than how I’m playing.
I make the turn at 7:00 pm. I realize that the light is fading, and my job isn’t done yet. Nine holes in an hour-and-a-half isn’t out of the question, but I can’t stop for long for any reason. My driver – the club I hadn’t used all day before this round – continues to be wayward. I tell myself that the score is irrelevant. I need to enjoy the course, keep the ball in front of me, and finish before it’s dark.
Time: 7:43 pm
I get to 13, and I’m teeing off directly into the setting sun. Enough time has elapsed in this round where I would have finished any of the previous five courses I’ve played today. But Shore Gate isn’t an executive course. It’s a par-72 that plays over 7,200 yards from the back tees. I’m playing from the White tees, just shy of 6,400. It’s honestly my limit and I’m regretting not playing the 5,940-yard Gold tees.
However, I’ve only got about 1.25 miles left to walk over the remaining six holes. The end is (almost) in sight.
Time: 8:06 pm
I tee off at 15. With some luck, my ball manages to be in the fairway. But my swing is now being held together with some loose threads. I put my approach in the water. After a drop, I finish and move to the 16th tee where I do the same. My drive doesn’t even make it 200 yards, fails to reach the fairway, and ends up alongside some swimming turtles.
But it’s not about the score.
That 2+ miles I had walked up through the middle of my round at Ocean City was now about 6 miles total. The count of 120 swings of a golf club was now pushing 170. My burning quads and calves and my aching back notwithstanding, I keep moving.
I walk onto the tee box at 18 with the sun now completely below the tree line. There is a large section of waste area and bunkers to the right of the fairway that is now directly overlapping the likely landing area for my absolutely bone-weary driver swing. Sure enough, I hit a heel cut that starts on a good line but is moving towards the sand. I put the cover back on my driver for the last time, slide it back into the bag, and start my walk out to the final fairway.
I spend about two minutes looking for my ball in the low-light environment, thinking that for sure it ended up in the sand somewhere. After walking in circles a few times, I realize the ball had stayed in the fairway. Though it’s safe, I hit my drive absolutely nowhere in terms of distance. I’m left with a 5-iron into the green. I address the ball and hit another sapped fade that heads to the greenside bunker.
I walk the 180 or so yards to the bunker, grab my sand wedge and stand over the ball. I successfully scoop it out and onto the green. I tuck the wedge back into the pushcart and grab the putter for the last time. With no interest in stressing about the read on this last hole, I just step up and hit it. It misses on the low side. I clean up for bogey, put my putter away, and grab my camera again.
Time: 9:00 pm
What an unforgettable day. What started out as a hope to play three Cape May County courses, turned into the reality of finishing all six that were unchecked when the day began. 74 holes played and roughly 7.5 miles walked. Five rounds solo, and one under-par round with an incredible group of regulars on a short par-3 course. A must-play gem discovered.
I was invited out for a weekday round at Running Deer by Chuck Wanamaker, who also had me out at Scotland Run in 2019. The course is just a 3.5-mile drive from Centerton Golf Club. In fact, if you walked off the 12th green at Running Deer and headed west-northwest through the forest, it’s only about a third of a mile to reach the 11th green at Centerton. As close as they are geographically, these two Salem County courses are worlds apart in terms of quality.
One thing about this journey that I’m not ready to burden myself with is ranking the courses I’ve played. For one thing, there are 169 public courses (as I’ve defined them) in New Jersey. I couldn’t possibly tell you the difference between what might rank a course 38th as opposed to 37th, let alone 138th as opposed to 137th. The gradations over 169 courses would become extremely fine.
Having said that, what I am comfortable doing is maintaining an unranked list of “must plays”. These are courses that immediately come to mind when I think about my journey. Running Deer absolutely makes that list with an indelible first impression. One of a handful of Ron Jaworski golf properties in New Jersey, it is far and away the best of the ones I’ve played to date.
Many public courses suffer from a lack of variety. Whether it’s multiple adjacent holes that just run back and forth like the line for an amusement park ride, or flat, unappealing terrain, you sometimes feel like you’ve seen the hole already. At Running Deer, you may not be able to find two visuals on the course that are similar.
There are short par 4s, forced carries for par 3s, water featuring in a number of places to make you tentative, and par 5s that are reachable in two but require excellent approaches. Whether natural or not, the end result of the terrain gives every hole a unique look. The bunkering alone really allows for even the straightaway holes – like 4, 6, 8, and 10 – to appear incredibly different.
The stretch from 9 to 12 are some of the most memorable in the state. Here’s a look:
To top it off, the green complexes are incredible. Many of the putting surfaces have significant undulations, some funnel-esque slopes, backstops, and tiers. Surrounding them are excellent bunkers and run-off areas. They’re also likely to be some of the biggest you’ve seen on a public course that isn’t a resort. Even if Running Deer were as flat and open as a parking lot, the greens alone would make it a great course.
If I haven’t made it clear already, let me be explicit: I highly recommend this course.
My friend Matt and I wanted to get a round of golf in before an outing on Good Friday. We decided to take the Monday of that week off from work and head to Monmouth County to play Knob Hill.
A semi-private course situated on the westbound side of Route 33 in Manalapan, Knob Hill actually teases travelers with a peek at its 15th hole, which has its green placed just a partial wedge shot from the road. The course is a wonderful option for the golfing public, and I’ll try to cover some of its memorable features in a bit. But the story of my time at Knob Hill is really about its 7th hole.
It is a straightaway par 5 that plays with a good deal of width for about 300 yards. A good drive put me in the fairway and about 175 yards from the green with the wind blowing in and across a bit. I took a 5-iron for some extra club, and though the ball started on a good line left of the flag, it seemed to quickly fail in the wind. I honestly thought it would die short in the water.
Nevertheless, it carried, landed, and stopped safely on the lower tier on the front right side of the green. I was on in two.
Having never made an eagle before, I really wanted this putt to sink. At the same time, it was such a difficult putt that part of me just wanted to park it close for a birdie. I notoriously leave lag putts short, and at just over 30 feet, I was psychologically in lag putt territory. I didn’t want to be struggling for a three-putt par.
I was left with a 33-foot putt that moved right to left, with probably five feet of break. It was also a couple feet uphill. I had a putt on a preceding hole the rolled out almost 40 feet on a much more level green. Given the uphill lie, I decided that same putting stroke should be just about right for 33 feet on this green. With my speed decision made, I took a couple looks at the break again, put my head down over the ball and made as good of a putting stroke as I could to at least ensure that I started it on the line I saw.
The ball made its way onto the upper tier, and started banking left quickly. I started to doubt my line and speed, worried that it would miss on the low side. But about five feet from the hole, it seemed to maintain its pace and definitely had a chance. I shouted “go in!”
It went in! The ball rolled in perfectly! After 20 years of playing golf, I finally had my first eagle!
Elated, we moved on to the 8th hole, where I immediately gave those strokes back. I struggled with the water-surrounded green, and would make double bogey. That’s golf.
As its name implies, Knob Hill plays with a good deal of elevation change on a number of holes. The clubhouse is the highest point on the course, and whether you start your round on 1 or 10, your tee shots into either of these par-4 dog-legs will play to a pretty severe drop.
Other downhill holes include 15 and 17. The 15th is a downhill par 3 where over-clubbing coupled with a tailwind might put your tee shot into the passenger seat of a passing car. The 17th is a picturesque, drivable par 4, playing with some width, unless you choose to drive the green.
The 12th is a very short par 3 – only 125 yards from the back tees – but plays about 20 feet uphill. Also playing uphill is Knob Hill’s closing hole. Though it tees off from elevated boxes, the 18th plays into a valley and back up the hill towards the clubhouse.
I would leave the undulating terrain of Knob Hill with a couple notches in my golf belt – another course played on my journey, and my first eagle.
Having carried over vacation days that I didn’t use during the COVID lockdown of 2020, I took the first forecast of warm weather in 2021 as an opportunity to take the day off and knock another course off the list. Heading to Atlantic County for only the second time on my journey, the Bay course at Seaview Golf Club would be my 108th destination.
Built in 1914, the Seaview Bay course is known to LPGA fans as the venue for the Shoprite Classic. In 1942, it also provided half the holes – along with some of the resort’s Pines course – for the tournament setup of the PGA Championship, where Sam Snead won his first major. While Donald Ross receives top billing for designing the Bay course, it more accurately credits its design to Hugh Wilson, with only the bunker work being installed by Ross in the course’s completion after Wilson’s death.
My first round of the new year was an extraordinary one with quite a few highlight memories. I started the round with a birdie and would go on to card the most I’ve ever made in a single round. One of those was a chip-in from 25 yards on the par-4 14th. On 16, after essentially shanking a low bullet off the tee towards OB on the right, I watched it hit a tree and carom left into the first fairway bunker. I successfully scrambled from there to make par. It was just one of those rounds where it felt like not much can go wrong.
I had a great time being paired up with three members, two of which have either worked at or caddied at the course. It was fun to listen to stories of how the Bay Course has changed over the years, having been a private club until the 1980s. It was described by the members as a course that used to be pristine.
Conditions have changed however, attributed in large part to increased traffic over the years since opening to the public. Among public courses though, it remains a beautiful layout and pretty well conditioned. Interesting views are always a bonus for a golf course, and you’ll get a number of peeks at Atlantic City from the holes just along the marsh area of Reeds Bay.
In trying to find a course to play, I debated whether it would be worth playing Seaview in winter conditions. Greens were recently punched, and – being a links-style course – the native grasses lining the lateral limits of many fairways were cut accommodatingly low. But $39 for a course that costs well north of $100 in prime season was too good to pass up. Overall, it was great value for a winter round and easy to see why this history-laden course should be a “must play” for any public golfer.
Having wrapped up at 12:25 at Westwood, I raced over to Wedgwood Country Club to make my 1:00 tee time. I rushed to get my clubs and pushcart out of the trunk, ran into the pro shop to pay for the round, and was able to get onto the course right away. The sun was projected to set at roughly 4:30 that afternoon. While no one else was visible from the first tee, I wanted to make sure I kept good pace, not knowing if I would have enough daylight to finish.
The front nine at Wedgwood plays with a great deal of width. Most tee shots have generous landing areas and there are plenty of places where you can miss wildly and still be in play with a shot at the green. The highlight of the front nine to me is the 3rd hole. Unless you’re playing from the back tees, driver is not necessary on this par 4 and could even be a dangerous choice as water lies 50 yards short of the green all the way up to the front edge.
The graffiti on the arch of the tunnel on the way to the 7th hole says “Abandon all hope”, but this would’ve been a more appropriate warning at the entrance to the back nine. Where the front plays relatively open, the back nine plays far more tightly with a number of tree-lined holes. There is OB left on 10, 11, 17 and 18, and not much room to miss in that direction.
The only semblance of reprieve on the back, apart from the par-3s, are 13 and 14 which do have some width. But even 13 is a beast of its own, a long par 4 with a forced long approach. Playing at 435 yards from the back with water in play from the tee, coming up short to avoid the water altogether will leave an approach shot of about 180 yards. If they could stretch the tee boxes back 75-100 yards, it would be a fun par 5. As it stood, it was another deeply black number on the scorecard.
Being a weekday, there were certainly fewer golfers than normal, even for a winter round. Nevertheless, I only caught up to groups ahead of me a few times, and they quickly kept moving. After being battered by the closing half of Wedgwood, I walked up 18 with enough light to finish. Thirty-six holes of golf completed, and two Gloucester County courses checked off the list.