Numbers 47 through 50 (Flanders Valley Golf Course)

You may be thinking “how does a single course count as four?” I’ll try to explain.

Flanders Valley Golf Course, set in Flanders, was only my second Morris County course after Pinch Brook. It features four 9-hole layouts that fan out something like a peacock’s tail; Gold, Red, Blue, and White. The scorecards treat these as two courses.

The Gold & Red Course would be the outermost “feathers” on the tail. If positioned with your back to the clubhouse, looking out onto the courses, the Gold nine is laid out to the far right, and the Red nine is laid out to the far left. Flanked by the Gold & Red, the Blue & White course is the center of the peacock’s tail, with the 5th tee on the Blue nine being the absolute tip, furthest from the clubhouse.

Sounds like two courses.

Struggling how to count these on my list of public NJ courses for my journey, I kept looking for details in the scorecards. For the Gold & Red, the Red nine is listed as holes 10-18, even on the course map. The same goes for the White nine on the Blue & White.

The Gold & Red list a total yardage of 6,770 from the back tees, and the Blue & White also has a combined yardage, marked as 6,765 from the tips.

Still just two courses. But, then I noticed how they handicapped the holes:

Gold: 2, 8, 3, 1, 6, 7, 4, 5, 9

Red: 4, 5, 2, 6, 9, 3, 1, 8, 7

Hmmm…

Blue: 5, 1, 8, 2, 4, 7, 6, 9, 3

White: 3, 7, 8, 4, 5, 2, 9, 1, 6

Why handicap them separately if these were supposed to be two 18-hole courses?

It made me think of other courses in the state that are only nine holes (e.g. Skyway in Jersey City, Hudson County) as well as some 27-hole layouts (e.g. Neshanic Valley in Branchburg, Somerset County). In these set-ups, all nine-hole layouts are handicapped separately. For 27-hole layouts, even though you can play any combination (i.e. 1-2, 2-3, 3-1), you’ll find them handicapped as individual nine-hole tracks.

That makes Flanders Valley four distinct nine-hole layouts, and four courses on the list.

I’ll touch on some of the differences between the four nines in the following posts when I talk about my rounds, but overall Flanders Valley is a beautiful place. If you play all 36 in a day (as I did) you’ll experience a great variety of holes and be challenged with shot-making decisions. The greens roll exceptionally well for a public course – something I had trouble with – especially on the Gold. If I had to guess, I would say they roll about a foot farther/faster on the stimp than your average public in New Jersey.

Bonus GolfingNJ (and Footgolf) Fact: Flanders Valley also has the distinction on my journey as being the only course where I’ve played footgolf before I’ve played golf. The 18-hole footgolf course is laid out on the White nine.

Numbers 47 through 50 (Flanders Valley Golf Course)

Number 46 (The Meadows at Middlesex)

Known as Princeton Meadows until 1999, The Meadows at Middlesex is a tight, tree-lined 18-hole layout in Plainsboro (Middlesex County). I made my way over to the course after finishing nine holes at Clearbrook, one of the few times I’ve played more than 18 holes in a day. Just under 6,300 yards from the back tees, I played from the Whites, which were carded at 6,027. With a bit of wind blowing about, and not being able to get much right with my game, I suffered a boringly average round.

I raced my way to the first tee, where an elderly couple was kind enough to let me play ahead of them as opposed to joining. The first is a dog-leg right par 5, and just as I had done at Clearbrook, I blocked myself off to the right, just short of the corner. Forced to just kick out to the fairway, I knocked it to 170 yards, but still took another three strokes to get on. Two putts later, I had a two-over start.

For holes 2, 3, and 4, I carded bogey, triple, triple, putting to bed any ideas of a good round. However, while +9 through four holes, I made the turn at +13. Coming in, I was able to finish the back nine in +6, for a round of +19 on the par 70. Highlights on the back included sticking it to four feet from 148 yards, and one-putting a five-hole stretch from 12 through 16, over which I also scored +3.

Overall, I enjoyed the course. Sometimes it’s tough for me to be objective because it’s difficult for me not to enjoy a day golfing. Having said that, as my journey widens the gamut of types of public courses I’ve seen, from neglected municipals to those that are top-rated, I would have to place this at just below average. As much as I’d come back and play the course again and again, I’d have to admit there were a few greens that are burnt out. The par-3 17th seemed in particularly bad shape.

However, apart from a few bad greens, it was a challenging course on the shorter side that will truly exercise your course management skills. If you haven’t checked it out, you should. Who knows… maybe with a bit more love from golfers, they’ll be able to address the issue with the greens.

Number 46 (The Meadows at Middlesex)

Number 45 (Clearbrook Golf Course)

Set in an adult living community in Monroe, Clearbrook Golf Course is a 9-hole layout that offers some of the cheapest golf in the central New Jersey area. At just over 2,800 yards from the White tees, it’s also one of the shorter regulation-length courses I’ve played to date (something I enjoy).

The 1st hole is a very reachable par 5, so long as you can negotiate the slight dog-leg-left fairway from the tee. If you push or slice your tee shot – for right-handed golfers – there is a landing area to the right of the fairway if you don’t hit it too far. However, your second shot will potentially be obscured by trees, forcing you to hit across the fairway to get anywhere close for a third shot.

Needless to say, that’s how I started my round.

An unassuming par 3, the 2nd hole makes for excellent reprieve if you made a rough start. 133 yards on the card – 140 from the “tips” – playing slightly uphill, this hole is played with a scoring club from the tee for most average golfers. A well-struck and well-placed tee shot allowed me to make a two-putt par from 18 feet. Coming off the green, a short walk through the woods to the next tee box reveals that the course turns 180° to come back in the other direction, parallel to the 1st and 2nd holes.

The 3rd and 4th holes are a straightforward par 5 and par 4 respectively, while the 5th is a medium-length par 3. I hit a decent shot that went a bit long and left, and subsequently made a meal of my attempted chip back onto the green. Overthinking the slope of the green, I thought I should take my 60° wedge to loft it softly onto the putting surface. Loft it I did… but short of the green. I hit my next chip heavy, and two-putted from 33 feet. First double bogey of the round carded, and onto the well-designed sixth hole.

(Spoiler alert: it caught me out.)

The 6th has a pond directly between the fairway and the green – sat where the fairway would normally end – with a narrower fairway continuation to the side of the pond, shifted about 15-25 yards left. My phone had died, so without my GPS (#excuses) I relied on my playing partner that day to tell me that the pond was “probably about 270 or 275 yards out”.

It wasn’t.

Headed directly for the pond, I hit a straight drive which took one hop and went in. It was probably about 235-240 yards out. Thankfully, I hit my drop (3rd shot) onto the green and was able to two-putt for bogey. Knowing the yardages now, the hole makes for a great tee-box choice. Hitting short of the pond leaves your second shot directly in line of bunkers guarding the front of the green. Attempting to go left of the pond requires a very accurate drive, and anything left of that fairway section will potentially be obscured by a few trees.

I bogeyed the 7th and did the same on the 8th, which was a crime, because I putt off the green from 56 feet (14 feet beyond the hole). The green does have a slight ridge in it, so the putt did need to go up and over, but it was simply a terrible lag (something I definitely need to work on).

The 9th is a 154-yard par 3, guarded by a front-right bunker, with the pin – on that day – set in the front of the green just beyond it. I hit a good tee shot onto the green, left of the pin, and found myself with 16 feet for birdie. Breaking right-to-left – a putt I prefer over the sinister left-to-right opposite – I hit it on a good line, but lipped out. After not doing much good on the day, tapping in a one-footer for par was a pleasant way to end the round. Too many bogeys and one double meant I finished +8 through the nine holes.

Clearbrook bills itself as “one of only two courses in the U.S.” with a 9-hole layout that has different tee boxes that allow for “the experience of playing 18 holes”. The scorecard lists the tees I played from as a White/Blue combination. Normally, I would have expected that the Blue tees were simply longer for each hole, so that your “back 9” would just be tougher overall due to the added distance. I hadn’t noticed it during the round, but the White tees I played from are actually longer on the 3rd, 5th, and 9th holes. The 3rd hole even plays as a 332-yard par 4 from the Blues as opposed to a 483-yard par 5 from the Whites.

Having seen all nine holes of the layout, I’m happy to consider this course marked off the list as Number 45. I would even add that the course is good value for the money. Nine-hole rates are around $20 to walk. Knowing that the White/Blue combination might offer something different for 18 holes is a nice bonus, and a reason to go back.

Number 45 (Clearbrook Golf Course)

Number 44 (Skyway Golf Course at Lincoln Park West)

Opened in June 2015, Skyway Golf Course in Jersey City is easily the youngest course I’ve played, and with its youth comes beauty. Having the distinction of being the only public golf course in Hudson County – a small county of almost entirely urban geography – Skyway is breathtaking.

I mentioned how East Orange Golf Course’s downtrodden reputation is juxtaposed against its affluent background, but Skyway is juxtaposition in its purest form. Newborn lush fairways and greens set against aging man-made materials: concrete, asphalt, and steel. The drive up to the diminutive parking lot is on an absolutely beaten and forgotten road, littered with potholes and lined with truck yards and industry to the right. It is the last road you’d imagine leading to a clubhouse. But once you’ve entered and walked onto the course, it is another world.

Being on the course feels like being inside a sci-fi dome. With countless dunes and rolling fairways, almost the entire nine-hole layout is elevated from the topography of the surrounding area. From the tee box on the third hole or from the 5th green, that road to the clubhouse seems like a dried-up asphalt river at the bottom of a valley off in the distance. You have incredible views in multiple directions, with the Manhattan skyline to one side, the remaining marshlands on the inlet from the Hackensack River on the other, and the Pulaski Skyway – for which the course is named – joining the two.

Considering golf an 18-hole event, I was sort of resigned to the fact that I would only be playing nine holes. As I described, all of that resignation went out the window once I was on the course. I could have played three holes and been grateful to have been there.

Whether it was inspiration from the splendor of the course, or if it was just that I was “on”, I enjoyed a great round of nine holes. I carded nothing higher than bogey, and finished +5 on the day. It was hard-earned by scrambling most of the round. I only hit three of the nine greens in regulation, but my short game carried me. On the 5th, I hit a soft-landing sand wedge from 40 yards that ran eight feet to the pin and lipped out after going 450 degrees around the cup and stopping just an inch outside. On the 7th, I hit the pin once again and lipped 180 degrees around it, stopping at 2.5 feet. I finished with only 9.2 feet of putts made.

Having been in Jersey City for work for the day, there was definitely the excitement of playing a round of golf after a day at the office. But being on the first tee at Skyway was something beyond that. I experienced a deep appreciation for everything they accomplished in designing and building the course, and I felt like I was truly somewhere special, which is what golf courses should feel like.

The word “infant” comes from the Latin for “unable to speak” or “speechless”. If you are a golfer within 30 miles of Jersey City on the New Jersey side, you must play this infant course. Unable to speak for itself, it may just leave you speechless.

Number 44 (Skyway Golf Course at Lincoln Park West)

Number 43 (Rancocas Golf Club)

Named for a Native American Reservation (now Rancocas State Park) that was not far from the course, Rancocas Golf Club was my first Burlington County course. Skeptical about how much light would be available to start play, I booked a 5:00 am tee time nonetheless. I arrived at the course in almost pitch black, and while I was the first to get out, it certainly wasn’t at 5:00.

Although there were no blow-up holes, I struggled to make par on the front nine, and didn’t do so until the par 3 seventh. After putting my tee shot out of bounds on the 9th, I recovered to card bogey and make the turn at +8.

I thought being first out onto the course would mean I could get in a fast round, but returning to the clubhouse and the 10th tee, I noticed groups had been sent out onto the back nine. Thankfully, after taking a quick look to the left, I noticed no one seemed to be on the rest of the course, so I was able to play through on the 12th. With the exception of a par on 15, I played 12 through 17 in all bogeys. The 17th was an awful tee shot into a short par 3 green. I struck it fat from 136 yards, and was still left with about 70 yards. The maintenance crew was on the green and allowed us to play the hole while they broke from work.

They gave us interesting information in that they hadn’t cut the greens for two days, due to heavy rains. Up to that point – and even on the practice green – I was wondering why they were rolling so slowly. However, the crew let us know that they just mowed the 18th green, and that we should see the difference.

The 18th is a dog-leg left with the second shot into an uphill green. The fairway just before the green is still guarded on the left side by a few trees, and I had drawn my tee shot far enough left that I was blocked. With 138 yards left, I had to decide to go around right, or cut a shot to the left. I decided the draw would be too difficult from that distance, and played the shot to the left.

Incredibly lucky, I intended to fly it between two trees, but actually cut around the left-most tree. The shot landed in the rough, just shy on the left side of the green. Sure enough, I thought I hit the chip too fat to reach the pin, but it was just as the grounds crew said; it rolled three times as fast as any other green I played that day and stopped two feet beyond the hole. I would make par, and then make my way back to see if I could play 10 and 11.

As busy as it was getting, I was fortunate to run into a group that was gracious enough to let me join. My drive found the fairway, so I waited to allow others to find their tee shots. In waiting, I noticed the 150-yard stake and was attempting to give an estimated yardage to my new playing partners. Walking around, I then spotted a sprinkler head marked “149”… about six yards in front of the 150 stake. It’s not the worst mislabeled yardage I’ve seen, but it’s always a shame when you’re not getting numbers you can trust.

Hitting the 10th green in regulation, I two-putt for par. A really poor tee shot on the par 3 eleventh meant I got the chance to hit a pitch back onto the green, only to nearly miss entirely and barely move it. I got on with my 3rd, missed a short putt, and finished up with a double bogey. A shame to finish that way, but that concluded my out-of-order back nine at +7, for a total of +15.

Overall, Rancocas is a lovely course. However, the only notable blemish would be the power lines on the 8th hole. After seeing my first golf course power lines at East Orange GC, I would say these are actually worse, as they are high-tension power lines – 13 of them that I can count from a picture – that run across the fairway. That means the flight of your drive has a pretty good chance of clipping one of them (and mine did).

Apart from that, again, Rancocas GC is a course definitely worth playing.

Number 43 (Rancocas Golf Club)

Number 42 (The Architects Golf Club)

Consistently rated one of the top public courses in New Jersey, The Architects is named for the fact that its layout pays tribute to holes designed by famous golf course architects. Each tee box sign shows the architect’s name and the courses designed by that architect that inspired the particular hole. Even without considering the excellent execution, the idea alone makes for a wonderful experience.

My round started with the ghost of Old Tom Morris bleeding me for every stroke he could possibly take. A well struck drive left me in position to reach the green in two on the par 5 first, but a perfectly placed pot bunker swallowed my well struck second shot. Overnight rain left the sand compacted, but it was simply a bad decision that prevented me from getting out towards the pin. The front wall of the bunker is probably about 2.5 feet tall, and although I almost cleared it, the ball sat right back down where it started. I turned to the right, hit out, bladed my 4th shot over the green, hit my 5th short in the rough, and after finally making it on in 6, I three-putted from 45 feet.

That made 9 for the 1st. Wonderful.

I played well after that, with a series of pars and a bogey on the 6th, but made 9 again after placing my tee shot out of bounds and taking an unplayable on my 4th shot. Thankfully, that was the end of the implosion holes. I finished the remaining 11 holes in +7 for a +17 round (+12, +5).

There’s nothing more I can say about the course that I’m sure hasn’t been said already. When you play a nice public course, you get level tee boxes, beautiful fairways, and well-manicured greens that roll true. The Architects is no exception. In terms of my journey, it is the third course I’ve played in Warren County, and it also has an interesting place in my chronicles thus far as the westernmost public course I’ve played in New Jersey to date (albeit probably by a fraction of a minute of longitude).

Number 42 (The Architects Golf Club)

Number 40 (Black Bear)

Another course on the expensive side, but well worth it, is Black Bear in Franklin (Sussex County). What my 39th course (River Vale CC) might have previewed in elevation changes and blind shots, Black Bear offers in spades. Set essentially into the side of the mountain, Black Bear is as challenging as it is attractive.

I spent most of the summers of my teen years in Sussex County, so I vaguely remember when the course was built. I was not yet playing golf at the time, but I remember thinking that it was one of the few courses I had even seen (or given notice to) and it had magically just appeared on a familiar route, seemingly out of nowhere. Route 23 was long stretches of nothingness for parts, and small bastions of civilization at others. When anything was being developed, it was easy to notice. The course is tucked away but when it was finished, the sign at the road announced its existence and you could just about see it in the background.

My round at Black Bear started the way no other round in my life had. Bogey on 3 and birdie on 6 meant I was even through six holes. I bogeyed the 7th but parred 8 and 9 to make the turn at +1. I hit 6 fairways and 6 GIR. To put that in perspective, to date for the year, I am averaging 5.17 FIR and 5.56 GIR per round. I didn’t know what I was doing right, and I desperately wanted it to continue coming home.

Alas, I let it get inside my head.

I started the back nine bogey-bogey, and then it unraveled (relatively, of course). I hit the 12th green in regulation from a difficult lie, but I was 36 feet out. I then proceeded to 4-putt. A birdie opportunity turned into double bogey. Something of a running theme for me, my lag putt left much to be desired, as well as another 9 feet before I could hole out. I got careless with a 2-footer coming back, and that is the story of my 4-putt.

I made it through the closing 6 holes in +6, with one highlight and one lowlight. I took triple bogey on 17 after putting my approach into the woods behind the green. That’s the lowlight. My highlight, however, was driving the green on 15. I not only drove the green; I hit what must have been the top of the pin. I initially thought it hit the flag and dropped straight down. However, after taking the carts up to the green, I noticed the ball actually ended up about 3 feet over the green on an awkward downslope. Luckily, I chipped to one foot and carded my second birdie of the round.

And so it was a tale of two nines. After going out in +1, I came back in at +10 to tie my best first-time-on-a-new-course score of +11, set a month earlier at River Vale CC. In a two-round fight, I got the best of the bear at first, but then The Bear got the best of me.

Number 40 (Black Bear)