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 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)