Number 54 (Hanover Golf Club)

The northernmost public golf course in Burlington County, Hanover Golf Club was the 54th stop on my journey. Hanover holds itself out as “one of New Jersey’s finest daily fee courses”. I thought this was an interesting way to advertise itself as open to the public, presumably as opposed to a required annual membership fee.

A windy February day, with breezes blowing between 10 and 20 mph, I probably needed to bring my best golf to score well, and I came up short. Tee boxes seemed to be limited for the winter, with some holes only playing from Forward boxes. I took the liberty of teeing off as close to the White tee boxes as possible on a number of holes, especially on the back nine.

The first hole was played from 339-yard Forward/Red box, and I striped a 3-wood to leave an approach of 117 yards. Seemed like a fantastic start. Unfortunately, I overshot the green with a 9-iron, landing just at the back of the green, but bouncing off the firm ground. A poor chip left me with 27 feet, and I two-putt for bogey. The 2nd and 3rd were a par 4 and 5 respectively, both right in front of you. The fairways aren’t wide, but they certainly aren’t narrow either. Errant tee shots on both, and fat third shot on the par 5 meant I would card bogey for both. Then came the fourth hole.

The fourth is on the card as 128 yards from the White tees, playing as the third-easiest hole. That day, however, it only played about 95 yards from the Forward box. Though short, it’s a well-designed, downhill par 3. There’s a tree hanging over the left and some water to be avoided short and right of the green. I missed the green, got back on, and then inexcusably three-putted from 10 feet. I missed a two-footer. (There, I said it. Happy?)

I made the turn in better form, going +2 through the next five holes. The highlight of those five holes was making the par-5 8th green in two. The lowlight was three-putting for par (this time, from 45 feet).

Coming in, the wheels were coming off my game. An interesting stretch of five straight par 4 holes, 10-14 should be ones to score on. The 11th is an uphill, but drivable hole, playing at 276 yards from the White tees. I managed to pull it left under a small tree in some deep junk, take four more strokes to get on the green, and two-putt for 7. The 12th takes you all the way back down the hill. The White tees were well up, so I opted to play from the 399-yard blues.  Hitting the green in regulation, I three-putt for bogey. Finally, on the 14th, I managed to make my first par of the back nine.

The 15th, 16th, and 17th, are pars 3, 4, and 3 respectively. The only notable part of this stretch is that there is a massive difference between the Blue and White tee boxes on the 15th, with the Whites playing at 116 yards to the Blue’s 185.

Then, there’s the 18th

Playing at par 5, it can arguably be a par 6 for the average golfer. While the scorecard says 614 yards, the website advertises its “monster” finishing hole as 621 yards from the tips. The White tees are marked at 496, but I decided to finish from the Blue tees at 583 yards. Although it’s straight, it’s a beautiful hole. Downhill for most of the way, you’re probably level with the green at about 200-225 yards. The bottom of the fairway is a pond running perpendicular to the hole sitting across the entire width. The last 100-125 yards or so play back uphill. I hit a very good drive to the left side, but shanked my second shot. I managed to hit my third shot well, across the pond and 40 yards short of the hole. My approach from here left me at 13 feet below the hole, which was a gift, as it slopes severely from back to front. Unfortunately, my par putt lipped out, and I had to settle for a bogey finish to end the day at +18.

It’s difficult to judge the condition of a course during a winter round. I’ve since seen pictures of the course both on Hanover’s website and elsewhere. It seems to be kept in great shape during peak season, and if prices are comparable to my winter round ($34 with cart), it’s certainly worth a visit. If for nothing else, just to play the “monster”.

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Number 54 (Hanover Golf Club)

Number 53 (Crystal Springs Resort – Cascades)

If I haven’t mentioned it already, I love New Jersey. For better or for worse, it’s my home state, and I’m absolutely in love with it. Part of what I love about NJ is the diversity of geography and settings, allowing for a variety of activities year-round. The shore isn’t the Caribbean or Fiji, but there’s a shore. The mountains aren’t Utah or Switzerland, but there are mountains. Likewise, the golf isn’t Hawaii, Ireland, or Scotland, but there is golf, and plenty of it.

I know. It’s a ringing endorsement. But again, it may not be yours to love, and while I’d love for you to feel what I feel about it, it’s irrelevant. I love it all the same.

Over the last three years, I’ve become obsessed with golf to the point that I now play year round. For those of you that don’t know, New Jersey has four distinct seasons, and most people would rather be skiing or staying indoors in the winter than playing golf. In fact, on some winter days, I’ve played golf in what is essentially ski gear; winter cap, facemask, plenty of layers, and a jacket that’s (somewhat) impenetrable to wind.

Which got me thinking…

What if I played golf AND went skiing in the same day? I could do it. Here, in my home state, I could play golf and ski in the same day. I’m not exactly a “you-must-try-everything-there-is-to-be-tried” kind of person, but skiing and golfing in the same day just sounded amazing to me.

After taking to the internet to plan my magical adventure, I purchased my lift ticket and booked my tee time, and I was set… or so I thought. It turned out what I thought was a confirmation of my tee time was actually a notice that the tee time could NOT be booked. Either way, I took the weekday off, so I was headed for Vernon, NJ.

Planning to ski before playing golf, my first stop was Mountain Creek. Figuring that I would ski a bit and play nine holes before heading home to pick up my kids, I got to the mountain just after 10:00 am. As it turned out, the mountain didn’t open until noon, so I was headed over to Number 53 on my journey.

Just six miles down the road from Mountain Creek, Cascades Golf Club is a nine-hole layout at the stunning Crystal Springs Resort. For the most part, New Jersey is mostly suburbia, a few cities, and a ton of farmland. But the resort at Crystal Springs is an idyllic mountain getaway, something you’d more likely expect to see in a Bond film, but not in New Jersey.

Set at the back of the resort hotel, the Cascades course plays at over 3,600 yards from the back tees, all the way down to 1,538 yards from the most forward tees. I opted to play from the 3,022-yd white tees. Thankfully, even without a reservation, they were able to get me out. This was more than likely due to the fact that the high temperature for the day was 37 degrees, and there was literally NO ONE else on the golf course at 11:00 am.

After teeing off OB on the downhill first, there wasn’t a more fitting way to start my December round than with a snowman. After six horrible strokes, I finally managed to get on the green and two-putt for eight on the par 4 first. That really set the tone for the round, following with triple-bogey on the 2nd hole, and managing to card bogey on the 3rd. After finally putting a ball on the green in regulation at the 111-yd par 3 4th (AKA: the easiest hole on the course) I actually managed to card par.

After bogeying the 5th, I really took a moment to look around. I had the course absolutely to myself. I was playing some awful golf, but the peaceful solitude of winter golf is something I’ve fallen in love with. In that moment, I imagined how different a course it would be in the summer. With group after group of players, it would likely take 2.5 hours to get through nine holes. But, the course would also look tremendously different. The browns of winter grass would definitely be a picturesque green. Any fescue areas would be grown out instead of mown down. The howling winds accompanying my winter round would be replaced by gentle mountain breezes and perhaps even the sounds of local avian life. Either way, at the time, I wouldn’t have traded the freezing round to myself for any of those things.

Continuing on, I managed to finish the round in a relatively mediocre fashion: bogey, bogey, par (2nd easiest hole), bogey, for a nine-hole score of +12. An hour and a half later, my winter round of solitude had come to an end, and I was off to Mountain Creek (now that it was actually open for the day).

As I stated earlier, New Jersey skiing isn’t the powder skiing you’d find out west. But just as it was with golf, given that it was 1:00 pm on a weekday, South Peak at Mountain Creek was relatively empty, and I got to enjoy some quiet skiing. No lines for the lifts meant I was able to get in a series of back-to-back runs before heading home. As kids made it out of school and onto the mountain, I decided to call my adventure complete.

Highlights of my winter round of golf at Cascades included making par on the two easiest holes (did I mention that?) and trying to find a yardage marker for my second shot on the par-5 9th, only to find that it was covered by a layer of ice. Most importantly, public course Number 53 was successfully played, and I went skiing in the same day.

I love New Jersey.

Number 53 (Crystal Springs Resort – Cascades)

Number 52 (Neshanic Valley – The Ridge)

The 52nd course on my journey is at a facility that holds a special place in my golfing heart. It’s not somewhere I’ve played often, but Neshanic Valley was the first public course that blew me away.

Set just north of the Sourland Mountains in Somerset County, the Neshanic Valley Golf Course is a striking view from the main road to the course. As its name implies, turning into the course takes you down into and then back up out of a valley, where the clubhouse is perched at the highest point on the course. Driving through this miniature valley, you get to see about half the course layouts sprawling out to your left, and the driving range and Learning Center (also a Callaway Golf Performance Center) on your right.

The course comprises three championship, par-36 nine-hole layouts, as well as a shorter par-32 nine-hole Academy Course. Of the championship nines, I had already played the Meadow and Lake combination twice, so I needed to play the Ridge course for Number 52. The Ridge – named because it plays along the ridge that the clubhouse sits on, above the miniature valley – plays the shortest of the three nines, but only by a matter of the shortest of approach shots (3,516 yards to the Meadow and Lake’s 3,520 and 3,549 respectively). The Blue tees I played from measured at 3,106 yards. (The courses run by the Somerset County Park Commission don’t have White tees, and the Blues are comparable.)

Playing in late November, the weather was unusually warm. With the high temperature reaching about 65 degrees, as my playing partner put it, it felt like we were “stealing a round” from Mother Nature. But, as unseasonable weather usually goes, it meant a relatively windy round, particularly for the morning start we had.

I started the round bogey-bogey, which was alright for the 1st hole, but disappointing on the 2nd. A beautiful, short, dog-leg-left par 4, I managed to hit a decent draw to carry the corner, guarded by a menacing plot of fescue. I made poor work of the 59-yard approach, and ended up 42 feet from the pin. One of the characteristics that make Neshanic Valley an amazing public course is the speed of the greens. They roll as fast as any public I’ve played, probably between 10 and 12 on the stimp on any given day. Unfortunately, fast greens terrify me, and I three-putted for bogey.

The 3rd hole plays uphill the entire way. With the wind at my back, I hit a great drive a bit left, into a fairway bunker. From 142 yards, I managed to put the ball on the green, 15 feet past the pin. My birdie putt lipped out, but I was able to make par coming back for a sand save. The 4th hole is a straightforward par 3, but you must be accurate off the tee. Most tee shots that hit the green will funnel towards the lower tier in the back right corner. I pushed my tee shot right and got back on for bogey.

If the Ridge has a signature hole, I’d say it’s the 5th. A par-5 with something of a split fairway, you would need to carry about 270-280 yards slightly uphill to land on the finishing approach section on the left, which is essentially on the ridge itself. Otherwise, you make the smart play down to the main section of the fairway on the right, which plays back down into the second valley beyond the ridge. A long drive and a great second shot put me in position to score, but a fat third shot meant I would make bogey again.

After a “textbook” bogey (i.e. miss the green, chip on, two-putt) on the par-3 6th, I struggled coming in on 7, 8, and 9. I pulled the drive on the 7th, but managed to punch back onto the fairway and scrambled for par. On the par-5 8th, I topped both my drive and second shot, but managed to get just short of the green, then get on, and then two-putt for bogey. I hit the fairway on the 9th, but thinned my approach and went over the green. I got back on and made bogey again. My two pars and bogey golf meant I finished +7 for the nine-hole round.

If you haven’t been, Neshanic Valley is an absolute must-play. Designed by Hurdzan and Fry – most recently famous for their work at 2017 US Open venue Erin Hills – Neshanic Valley is consistently rated among the top 10 public courses in New Jersey. As with Erin Hills, there is plenty of fescue, so the play can be challenging, but the views are gorgeous. Whether you play the Ridge, Meadow, or Lake, or even the Academy Course, it is some of the most well-designed and well-maintained acreage of golf available in New Jersey. The experience is one you won’t forget.

Number 52 (Neshanic Valley – The Ridge)