Number 57 (Neshanic Valley – Academy Course)

The Academy Course at Neshanic Valley is something of an unusual bird to me. As its name implies, it’s meant to be a learning facility, apart from the Meadow, Lake, and Ridge nines that offer championship golf. It plays at par 32 through its nine holes, with only par 3’s and 4’s on the card. From the longest tees, it’s just over 2,000 yards. Other than Galloping Hill’s Learning Center 9 – which I have not yet played at the time of writing – I haven’t seen or heard of any other courses like it.

In keeping with the spirit of the spontaneity of my 56th course, I also happened to make the Academy course the 57th on a whim. I was wrapping up my day at work, realized I would have time on that late-spring evening, and decided I would drive out there immediately after I had “clocked out”. It was the continuation of a great week for me, as I had just seen Iron Maiden in concert for the first time at the Prudential Center the night before.

Unlike my round at Town & Country Golf Links, where I was just hoping for decent golf and ended up playing some of my best golf, at the Academy Course I was hoping for some of my best golf… but only ended up playing decently. It was slightly breezy, but nothing unmanageable. I played poorly off the tee, only hitting one of five fairways and none of the par-3 greens. Still, I managed to make par on the 5th, 8th, and 9th and finished +7.

As with the championship layouts, the Academy Course is in impeccable condition. I have recently taken to walking courses more often; partly for cheaper greens fees and partly because I haven’t really been getting any other exercise. As short as the course is, I would strongly suggest walking it. From most of the Academy course, you have great views of some of the Meadow nine, and the course itself is beautiful. The walk down the hill on the 9th was particularly picturesque, with the sun setting in the distance to the left. Other notable features are the 2nd, which is a 166-yard par 3 that plays slightly over water, and the 8th which – at the back tees and depending on your strategy – has a tee shot that may need to be played through a window of natural overgrowth.

Overall, the Academy Course holds its own in adding value to the experience of golf that is on offer at Neshanic Valley. Yet another reason it remains, for the time being, my favorite public course in New Jersey.

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Number 57 (Neshanic Valley – Academy Course)

Number 56 (Town & Country Golf Links)

My stop for the 56th course on my journey was incredibly spontaneous and a lot of fun. I had just spent a week with my dad in North Carolina, where we got to enjoy a practice round as well as the exciting finish of the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship at Eagle Point Golf Club. I also got to play golf with my dad, which was amazing given it was his first time on a regulation-length course. Even though I played miserably (from the senior tees, no less) I got to witness my dad’s first legitimate bogey, which is a moment I’ll never forget.

I started my drive back to New Jersey late on Sunday, and stayed the night in Virginia. I resumed my drive on Monday morning, and under strict orders from my wife not to return home without Krispy Kreme donuts, I stopped in Maryland to get a dozen. As I continued my drive at around noon, I thought I could definitely get a round of golf – and another NJ public golf course – in before getting home. I would be in New Jersey around 2:00 pm, and with a four or 4.5-hour round, I would be home in the early evening.

I started calling a few places while I was in Delaware. I maintain a list of all NJ courses on my phone, so I just had to find contact information and see what would make the most sense. Coming back into the state over the Delaware Memorial Bridge, I was trying to find places that wouldn’t be too far off the NJ Turnpike. Salem or Gloucester County courses would be best. After a few calls I discovered that Holly Hills (Alloway) was no longer operational, and that Town & Country Golf Links in Woodstown had a 2:20 tee time available.

After playing awfully in North Carolina, I arrived at Town & Country  (my first Salem County course) with the desire to play some decent golf. It was pretty windy, so I committed to playing smooth, low drives. From the first ball, I just felt like I could hit anything. It was an incredible change from the prior week. I went out in 39 (+4) and came back in at 41 (+5), and that included a triple-bogey with a lost ball, which was caused by a departure from the game plan of smooth, low drives. That +9 round matched some of my best golf ever, and it felt like redemption for all the bad golf I had been playing, including my round at Lakewood CC.

It’s hard to be critical of a course when you’ve played well there, at least for me. Noteworthy features are the peninsula/island green on the par-3 13th, and a nice change from mostly links-style to some parkland-style chutes on holes 15 through 17. If I had any complaints, it would be that there aren’t any real elevation changes, but that is just characteristic of the low-lying, level farmland of the area overall. Architecturally, it seems they did try to compensate for this with a raised tee box here and there, like on the par-3 7th, or the raised green on the par-3 16th, but it is level for the most part.

Apart from the even-planed nature of the layout, it is beautifully maintained and has some very friendly service. It’s quite a hike from my Mercer County home, but it ranks highly for me among the public courses I’ve played so far. I would gladly recommend Town & Country Golf Links to anyone in the area, or even if you’re just passing through, trying to get a round in as you head back north.

Number 56 (Town & Country Golf Links)

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”.

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)

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)

Golf: How far have you driven?

A number of things have happened since my last post:

  • I have played four more courses for the first time, bringing my total to 38 (20.5%).
  • The weather in New Jersey has gotten significantly warmer.
  • I have moved home base for my golfing operations… which is to say I’ve moved altogether.

Looking back on this quest and reflecting on my recent move, I realized this is the fourth location from which I’ve ventured to new golf courses. Raised in Bergen County, I moved to Middlesex County with my wife-to-be in 2006, then to Somerset County in 2009, and we now call Mercer County home. With all of the moves and different home bases in mind, and knowing that I still had a long way to go in terms of New Jersey courses left to play, I wanted to get a sense of how far I’ve already gone. How far have I actually driven to play these courses?

Gathering the data told me some noteworthy things about my golf timeline.

  • While I first picked up a set of golf clubs sometime in the late 1990s, I didn’t play a regulation-length course in New Jersey until 8/13/2005.
  • Between 2005 and 2010, I only played seven different NJ courses. That’s an average of about 259 days between each new course.
  • After a hiatus from 2010 to 2013, I’ve played 31 additional courses. That’s an average of about 36 days between each new course.
  • I found out about my golf quest on 10/15/2015. Since then, I have played 11 new courses, an average of about 18 days between each new course.
  • To date, the furthest I’ve driven to a golf course (one-way) is 63.3 miles.

Taking a look at each course already checked off my list and factoring in when I first played them and where I had lived at the time, I was able to calculate that I have driven a total of 1,942.4 miles (round trip). To put that in context, here are the distances to different golf landmarks across the country from my current location in NJ:

How far have you driven?

Golf: How far have you driven?