Howell Park Golf Course became the sixth track I’ve played in Monmouth County when a Twitter golf buddy (shout out to @njcroatian) invited me out for a round on Independence Day. Located just east of the Manasquan Reservoir, the course is wonderfully maintained and is part of the Monmouth County system, which at this point in my journey is arguably the best in the state in terms of access for quality.
A parkland-style course that is known for keeping its rough up a bit, Howell Park rewards smart play that consists mostly of keeping the ball in front of you. The greens are some of the largest in public golf in New Jersey, averaging 34 paces in depth and some wider than they are deep. If you give yourself shots at the green and you putt well, this should be a course where you can score.
The only complaint from an architectural standpoint is that Howell Park sits on a very level tract of land, so it lacks the views that come with elevation. However, its flat nature also means that it is a very walkable course. At $62 to walk on weekends for non-residents/non-cardholders, there is certainly cheaper public golf in the state. Regardless, I consider it a top-notch course and absolutely worth a round (or three).
How I played…
Hot and cold: Somehow, with penalty strokes on four different holes, I almost played down to my handicap.
Highlights: The singular highlight is easily the 18th. After watching my playing partner drain a 65-foot par save from the fringe, I followed up with a very lucky 54-footer for birdie. I think it rerouted twice on its way to the hole.
Lowlights: Penalty strokes; especially a ridiculous attempt on the 10th to “cut” one into the dog-leg that ended up OB on the driving range.
When a golf course uses the ‘CC’ abbreviation in its name, it’s clear that’s short for “Country Club”. When “GC” is used, there can be slight uncertainty as to whether it’s “Golf Course” or “Golf Club”. The 76th course on my journey seems to have a more complex issue with its name.
According to the website (knollgolfclub.com) the facility is named “Knoll Golf Club”, and there is an East Course and a West Course. That is of course, until you click on the East Course info link. Then, it’s “Knoll East Course”… but also “Knoll East Golf Club” approximately two words later. When you pull up to the clubhouse, the sign reads “Knoll Country Club East”. When you get your scorecard, it says “Knoll CC – East Course”. Others may call it “Knoll East Golf Course”, or simply “Knoll East”.
Now that we have that settled…
Knoll East – which is what I’m gonna go with for brevity’s sake – is the public half of the Knoll facility. Located in Parsippany – Troy Hills, the course is a shorter one, tipping out at just over 5,800 yards. What it lacks in distance though, it makes up for in personality.
The clubhouse is the highest point on the property, which makes for great elevated tee shots on both the 1st and 10th holes. That also means challenging approaches on the 9th as well as the 18th, where the back-to-front sloped green can end a round on a three-putt low note.
The 5th is a demanding par 5 that requires playing to a distance off the tee and then navigating a chute on the approach shot(s). There are a couple fun short par-4s in the 7th and 11th, and the 12th is a straight-forward par 3 that might instill some doubt with thoughts like “don’t be left OR right”.
Whatever you decide to call it, Knoll East is nice stop for public golf in Morris County.
How I played…
While there were some birds in a nest on the exterior wall of the pro shop, unfortunately, there were no birdies on the card. That didn’t stop a good time though.
Highlights: Played +3 on an eight-hole stretch from 7 to 14.
Lowlights: You know that three-putt low note on 18 I mentioned? I write from experience. Also, the 5th hole ate me alive.
My journey took me to Eagle Ridge Golf Club after one of my best friends invited me to a golf outing. Located in Lakewood, Ocean County, Eagle Ridge is a facility with three distinct nines, named (or at least supposed to be) for their differentiating topographic and architectural features: Ridge, Pines, and Links. Interestingly, while the holes are numbered from 1 to 27 – Ridge 1-9, Pines 10-18, then Links 19-27 – the nines are all handicapped as individual nines. As I mentioned about my time at Flanders Valley, to me, this is a defining characteristic of considering the course as separate nines, as opposed to an 18-hole course and a 9-hole course (or in the case of Flanders, four 9-hole courses as opposed to two 18-hole courses).
The Shamrock Shootout (still the best name for any sporting event on St. Patrick’s Day) was set to be a 2-man scramble with Stableford scoring on the Ridge and Pines nines. If that would hold true, I don’t think I could’ve counted them as complete on my quest. Scrambles are fun, but playing them is not the same as playing your own ball, where you get a sense of the challenge of a course and its setup. Thankfully, we would be playing with some golf buddies of my friend, who were more than amenable to having us all play our own ball and enjoying the round.
The scramble began at 9:00 am with a shotgun start, which meant our round started on the par-3 16th of the Pines nine. Playing a course out of order is always an appealing change in principle – like my time at Beaver Brook – but it definitely leaves you wondering what the experience would be like on the normal routing.
The Pines is named for the trees that line most of the nine, though there are areas that open up, such as the 18th fairway, and an attractive set of approaches for the 12th and 14th greens around a pond. There is a good mix of both tight and wide landing areas, and you will need accuracy to score well here.
The Ridge nine plays as something of a ridge-and-basin layout. The “ridge” would be the outskirts of the Pines along the long par-5 7th and the bottom of the “basin” would be the body of water along the green of the par-5 5th. However, the slope across holes is gradual, making it more of a “side-of-a-hill” layout.
In general, the Ridge plays far more open than the Pines and is therefore much more forgiving. I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult for me not to enjoy or appreciate a layout when I’ve played well, and I played some of my best golf on the Ridge nine. I think of it as something of an ideal course. There is beauty in its elevation changes, there is character in its greens, and it’s almost impossible to be penalized by a good shot.
THERE’S AN ACTUAL 19TH HOLE! As I mentioned earlier, the Links nine are actually marked both on the card and the course as holes 19 through 27. I also alluded to the fact that, while Ridge and Pines are appropriate descriptions for those nines, I don’t think “Links” accurately describes its nine holes. There isn’t much on offer at the Links that you don’t see at the Ridge. The Links nine are spread out over a much larger plot of land, so you do have vast grown-out areas between some holes, but there isn’t anything that really offers a Links feel.
By far the most interesting hole on the Links is the 25th. A short par 4, the landing area for the tee shot is blind, requiring a stone at the end of a plateau as a target. The fairway is generous, so most tee shots will land safely, but the approach is 90 degrees left, almost entirely over water.
Eagle Ridge as a whole…
Apart from the two-out-of-three-ain’t-bad naming for its nine-hole courses, I rank Eagle Ridge highly among the public courses I’ve played so far. The course’s condition is more than worth the in-season rate of $86. Also, I’m not sure it applies all season, but I was able to get a great replay rate of $25 for playing the extra nine, which would be a great touch for a great course.
How I played…
Pines-Ridge wrap-around: Poorly on the pines, remarkably on the Ridge. The highlight would definitely be the lack of a three-putt hole
Links: Meh. Pressed for time, I was in a bit of a rush to get done and get home, but that’s no real excuse. I played mediocre golf.
A Tillinghast design brought to life in 1929, Old Orchard Country Club takes its name from the apple orchard it was built on. Located in Monmouth County, the course prides itself on a sense of family and community. While there certainly weren’t many on the course on a cold February day, that’s certainly the feeling I got when listening to conversations at the pro shop.
The front and back nines of the course are split in two by Turtle Mill Brook, which widens to surround the island green of the signature par-5 7th hole. The overall layout can be thought of as a butterfly, with the body running along the brook through the 9th fairway, and each nine as its two wings.
The routing traces the outer edges of the wings and then back inward. The front nine takes you around the southern perimeter of the course and back to the clubhouse along the brook. The back nine then runs around the northern edge and back inward again, but not before making an interesting stop at 13.
On the scorecard layout depiction, even though it’s a par 4, the 13th hole looks as if it plays in three shots like a C-clamp. I’m not sure if tee boxes have been moved since that layout was drawn, but in reality, it’s a relatively easy (14th handicapped) two-shot hole where you can play a mid or long iron off the tee and be left with a scoring club into the green if you find the fairway. The brave can even try to carry the trees right and go for the green off the tee, something one of my playing partners for the day did with decent success.
As I’ve mentioned before, part of the fun of this journey is meeting other golfers around the state. At Old Orchard, I joined a threesome of regulars who were great company, one of whom had what was easily the most interesting bag of clubs I had ever seen. There were nine fairway woods! That included an 11w, 13w, 15w, and a 50-degree “scoring wedge” (but definitely a wood).
The story goes that he had a bad bout of the shanks during a golf trip down in Myrtle Beach. He noticed the fairway woods for sale in the pro shop, and the rest is history. Well, at least local golf history among Old Orchard regulars, and in the playing of the 72nd public course on my quest.
How I played…
Pretty ******* terribly. It had been my first round in a month, and while I hit eight fairways, I really didn’t do anything else well. Having hit four GIR, I was 0 for 14 scrambling. Other than good company, it was a round to forget.
Rounding out a short winter day of golf after taking in the 27 holes at Bel-Aire Golf Course, I decided to see if I could walk on somewhere and finish another 18. Lucky for me, this area of Monmouth County abounds with courses, and Spring Meadow was able to get me out right away.
Less than two miles from Bel-Aire, Spring Meadow Golf Course is a short 18-hole layout, playing just over 6,200 yards from the back tees. Having walked and carried at Bel-Aire in new (uncomfortable) golf shoes, my heels and Achilles tendons were shredded. Lucky for me, one of the guys I got paired up with let me offer him cash to split the cart fee he paid to ride along with him.
Noteworthy features of Spring Meadow include:
The routing. Holes 1 through 4 take you in a counter-clockwise circle back to the clubhouse. After teeing off at the 5th, the furthest point from home are the 10th through 14th holes before making your way back. Reminiscent of places like Beaver Brook where you don’t make the turn at the clubhouse.
Good greens. Even in the winter, they rolled really well. My playing partners for the day assured me that they were definitely faster in the summer months, which would be saying something.
The 15th. A short par 4 from elevated tees, this is just a fun hole with a classic “do I go for it” tee shot dilemma. I imagine that what happens on the first fourteen holes “drives” this decision for most people (see what I did there?).
While I had an odd, hot-cold putting round – an average 34 putts that included four 3-putts – I hit way more greens than I normally do, allowing me to shoot +10 (+6, +4) from the 5,769 yard white tees. It was great to shoot below my handicap, but much like at the Executive course at Bel-Aire, that is definitely to be expected when the slope/rating is 67.7/117. That +10 amounts to a 13.8 adjusted differential, but that is still great for me at this point.
Forty-five holes done, and with the sun starting to say its goodbyes for the day at just after 4:00 pm, another great day of winter golf was in the books. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Spring Meadow, and would love to see it in other seasons.
Marking the first course I’ve played in Essex County, the East Orange Golf Course is a bit of golf juxtaposition. Set in the affluent neighborhood of Short Hills, it’s gained a reputation as a course that has fallen apart. I know people who, knowing almost nothing about the course, refuse to play it because its “reputation” precedes it. Getting out of my car in the parking lot, I was greeted by a gentleman who seemed to be stopping there on his way to work. He was surprised that the course was open, and then went on to tell me about how he used to hold outings at the course, “but then it went to hell.”
His words, not mine.
Having said that, when you arrive at the course, there is a sense of revitalization about the place. A construction trailer serves as a makeshift current clubhouse, while across the gravel and mud parking lot you could see them building what will be the future one. Behind the construction trailer is the putting green, with the first tee box just beyond it. On the course, there seemed to be a good mix of old course regulars, casual golfers, and first-timers.
If you had any biases against the course before playing it, I must say, they’re almost justified on the first hole when you notice the power lines that run the length of the fairway, with the second hole to the left. It’s not something you expect to ever see on a golf course, but it looks as out of place as you’d imagine it to be.
However, once you get beyond that, the course is absolutely worth playing. While the fairways could use some TLC, the greens are kept in good shape. The layout is short – only 5,700 yards from the back tees – but there are a couple tight fairways and some nice dog-legs that can make you work. I actually opted to play from the back tees, which I never do, and had myself another Jekyll-and-Hyde round. I played the front nine in +3, but played the back in +11. Overall, I didn’t match my best score over par for a new course, but I was pretty happy with +14.
The first Crystal Springs course off my list was half of a golfing-skiing adventure at the nine-hole Cascades layout, with the skiing taking place at Mountain Creek. My day at Wild Turkey was strictly a golfing affair.
An early tee time in late October in Sussex County meant we started our round in frigid temperatures and finished it in the 60s. Expecting Wild Turkey to be something of a tougher course, I told my golf buddy that we should just play “smart golf” on the day. It turned out to be one of those rare times when I had a plan and executed well.
I ended up shooting +12 (+6, +6) on the par 71, with nothing worse than my double-bogey on the par-5 17th, and that was primarily due to over-drawing my drive and not clearing the water/lateral hazard. Having hit only six fairways and six greens in regulation, the keys to my scoring well – for me – were definitely putting, putting, and putting.
Even though 33 putts is not a great number in the grand golf scheme of things, it is just below my average. That was remarkable for me, given that Wild Turkey has some relatively fast greens for a public course, and that I had putt as many as 41 times (!!!) just two rounds earlier at Beaver Brook CC.
Here are a few interesting notes on my putting for the round.
I was 15 for 15 from six feet and in. Admittedly, this was mostly tap-ins from 2.5 feet and in, but it included two six-footers, a five-footer, and a four-footer. Like most average golfers, I’m plagued by missed putts in this distance. On any other day, I could’ve been 11 or 12 for 15.
On the 3rd hole, I had 75 feet for my first putt, up and over a ridge. I would leave it a ridiculous 39 FEET short. Now faced with a breaking downhill putt, I putt past the hole and watched it break away to 10 feet for my third. I made the ten-footer for bogey.
From the 9th to the 14th, I made 46 feet of putts (5, 13, 12, 6, 4, and 6) to go +1 through those six holes. I struggle to make 46 feet of putts through most of my 18-hole rounds.
On the 10th hole – a beautiful downhill par 3 that has about a 30 foot drop – I hit the front right of the green, with the pin placed front left. Faced with a 55-foot putt, I COMPLETELY mishit it, ending well right of my intended line, and 13 feet away… only to drop that putt for par.
Again, if my putting wasn’t what it was, my +12 could’ve easily been +16 to +18. I’ve had plenty of those rounds this season. I was happy to add another great first-time score to my journey around the New Jersey publics, especially on a course as stunning as Wild Turkey.