Number 77 (Howell Park Golf Course)

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Date played: 7/4/2018

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.

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Quality dew tracks on the 1st

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.

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The green at the par-3 4th

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).

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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.

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Number 77 (Howell Park Golf Course)

Number 72 (Old Orchard Country Club)

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Date played: 2/21/2018

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.

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Scorecard artist’s rendition of 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.

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… 13th hole in reality

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).

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Best. Bag. Ever.

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.

Number 72 (Old Orchard Country Club)

Number 68 (Spring Meadow Golf Course)

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Date played: 12/1/2017

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?).
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A look back from the 15th green out to the elevated tee boxes in the woods

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.

Number 68 (Spring Meadow Golf Course)

Number 67 (Bel-Aire Golf Course – Executive)

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Date played: 12/1/2017

Just coming off a miserable three-putt finish on the 9th of the Par 3 course, I immediately went into the pro shop to pay for a round on the Executive course. Much like the Par 3, the Bel-Aire Executive layout plays very short overall, at only 3,201 yards from the “back” tees. Like most executive courses, the lion’s share of holes is par 3, with six par-4 holes that bring par for the course to 60.

I’ve never started a round as well as I have on the Executive Course. A group had just walked off the first tee, and I was playing solo. They waved to acknowledge that I could play through once I finished the first. I quickly got up to the 1st tee box, hit a ¾ knockdown shot – to stay out of the wind – to a foot from the hole and tapped in for birdie.

The group let me tee up on the 2nd ahead of them, and I proceeded to hit the essentially the same shot, this time to four feet. I felt great about the shot, and unlike MANY times where I’ve missed a putt from that distance, I made it (even with the small audience behind me watching).

Two under through two. I felt absolutely invincible.

Of course, as it often goes in golf, my invincibility was fleeting, and apart from another (more straightforward) birdie on 10, I couldn’t produce any other bits of magic. I would play both nines in +4 each, but to give you a sense of how easy the course plays, my +8 for the round against the 55.9/84 rating/slope translates to a 16.3 adjusted differential.

Unlike the Par 3 course, the Executive seems much flatter overall, with the exception of an interesting routing choice that puts the 17th tee on top of the hill in the middle of the Par 3 course (a bit further back and higher than the 7th hole on the Par 3). Most holes are right in front of you, but the 9th is a slight dog-leg right and the 15th actually has a corner you have to negotiate.

The best hole in my opinion is the driveable par-4 7th, which has the most water you’ll contend with at Bel-Aire. It’s a clever setup because it’s bunkered in front, and for the average player that isn’t trying to drive the green, there are a couple fairway bunkers both left and right that could swallow timid, misplaced tee shots.

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There’s water to cover from the tee on the 7th. There’s plenty of room to land, but beginners should also be wary of the fairway bunkers.

As an average golfer, it’s difficult for me not to enjoy a course in retrospect when I’ve played it well. Most of the start of my golfing “career” was playing pitch-n-putt, par-3, and executive courses, so they’ll also always have a special place in my heart. However, I can objectively say that the Executive Course at Bel-Aire is definitely a wonderful place for beginners to ease their way into eventually playing regulation-length golf.

Number 67 (Bel-Aire Golf Course – Executive)

Number 66 (Bel-Aire Golf Course – Par 3)

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Date played: 12/1/2017

Looking back at pictures from the day, Bel-Aire is an incredibly well-maintained facility of short courses. Part of the Monmouth County Park system, Bel-Aire comprises both a Par 3 course and a Par 60 Executive course. Described on the park system website as “a wonderful place to learn the game of golf in a fun and relaxed setting,” I couldn’t agree with the description more.

Able to get out during the week on a late autumn day, I was looking to play as many courses as I could. I figured I could knock out the two courses at Bel-Aire as quickly as possible, and then see what other local Monmouth course would be available. Arriving to Bel-Aire with only two other cars in the parking lot, I liked my chances.

While a few people were out on the Executive Course, I was able to immediately walk onto the Par 3. It’s difficult to describe – at least to non-golfers – the feeling of having a golf course to yourself. I suppose it needs to start with an appreciation of the outdoors. You can hear every sound for large portions of a mile, and on good weather days, the scenery is usually a picturesque escape from the regularly-scheduled programming you call life.

Over the last three years, I’ve taken to playing in colder weather, simply because it means there’s a greater chance that I might have tens to hundreds of acres of course to myself. Most times, I would take freezing temperatures and an open course over hot/muggy conditions when it’s crowded.

Though it was a great walk in some uncomfortable new golf shoes, my game wasn’t quite there. Two doubles, two pars, and a bunch of bogeys meant I would finish the nine in +9. Notable holes are definitely the 169-yard 1st, which plays to a nicely sloped, slightly-elevated green, and the 158-yard 7th, which plays a touch downhill. All greens are small – probably no more than 10 to 15 paces at their widest – which adds some challenge to make up for the lack of yardage (1,142) overall.

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As always, the picture belies the elevation. Nevertheless, the 7th hole plays a bit downhill.

I was really impressed with the Par-3 course at Bel-Aire. For a December round, the course was in great condition, and the greens seemed to roll true and with decent speed. I would highly recommend the course to anyone in the area that’s just learning to play the game, and it’s even a great stop for a quick round if you’re headed into or out of the shore area.

Number 66 (Bel-Aire Golf Course – Par 3)

Number 51 (Charleston Springs – North)

Located in western Monmouth County, Charleston Springs Golf Course is a beautiful, sprawling facility. Comprised of two 18-hole courses, a driving range, and 5-acre Short Game Area, it was definitely one of the nicer courses I had seen to date. The two courses available are the links-style North course and the parkland-style South. The North is where I took my first swings at Charleston Springs for Number 51 on my journey.

Apart from seeing all the public courses on offer in New Jersey, the other great thing about my quest is meeting other golfers along the way. My ideal company for a round of golf is people who have fun, maintain a positive attitude, keep an honest score, and have an aversion to the word ‘mulligan’. My company on the day was just that. After waiting out a frost delay in the pro shop, we headed out to the putting green before finally being called out to the course. (Though, we almost missed our group being called, thanks to a muffled, low-volume PA system.) From there, a short, winding drive through the woods led us to the first tee.

I normally play from the white tees, or whatever would be considered their equivalent. On most of the New Jersey courses I’ve played thus far, there normally is an actual white tee box. When there’s not, anything between 5,800 to 6,300 yards will do. As a mid-handicapper, I’m not out to play from the back tees and have a bad time. I like the idea of having a consistent tee box choice, and having that tee box vary from course to course, each with its own variety of lengths, layouts, and challenges.

At Charleston Springs, we played from the ‘one-up’ tees, which was a method of choosing tee boxes that I hadn’t heard before. For those – like me – who didn’t know, this is a reference from the back tees; i.e. playing the next tee box up/forward from the back. I would’ve chosen the ‘two-ups’ – which were actually the 5,758-yard white tees – but I was outvoted, and happy to oblige.

Playing in the morning after a frost delay in early November, it was a windy and cold start. Nevertheless, I made a decent start through the first five holes, playing them in +3. The layout for the opening five is actually something I don’t think I’ve seen before, with the 1st and 2nd taking you away from the clubhouse, slowly turning tighter in a counter-clockwise spiral, culminating in the lakeside par-3 fifth, which also heads away from home.

As well as I had scored, I had been hitting poor shots from the fairway – both fat and thin – most of the round to that point. After bogeying the 6th, I lost a ball off the tee on 7 and had trouble getting out of a bunker on 8. I took double-bogey on both, but made par on 9 to make the turn at +8.

As the day started to warm, so did my game. After bogeying the 10th, I carded my first (and only) birdie on 11, and that began a 4-hole GIR streak. A shank off the tee and some poor iron play brought me back to earth with double-bogey on both 15 and 16. The penultimate hole is a semi-long, but wide open par 3 (at least from the ‘one-ups’). Headed back towards the woods that lead to the clubhouse, the closing hole is a departure from the design of the rest of the North course. Done in parkland style, the 18th has an incredibly tight tee shot around a large tree hanging over the right side of the fairway, and woods all along the left. I closed bogey/par, coming in at +6 for a round of +14.

While the facility is so much more than what I got to experience, I can say that the North Course at Charleston Springs is among the finer public golf you’ll see in New Jersey. Plenty of challenges, multiple tee-shot decisions, beautiful layout and flow, all on very well maintained grounds make this a public course worth checking out. I had heard this course referred to as ‘better than Neshanic Valley’, a course I hold in high esteem, both in beauty and experience. I don’t know if I would put Charleston Springs North quite there, but I can certainly see it being up for debate.

Number 51 (Charleston Springs – North)