Number 80 (Cruz Golf Country Club)

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Date played: 10/23/2018

Some golf courses have stories. Almost any course that has hosted a professional tour event likely has at least one great tournament moment. At the very least, they have the fact they’ve been a tournament host. Older courses have their history. Other courses are known for being designed by renowned architects.

Accessible publics, on the other hand, are mostly just the storiless courses that people in the area happen to play. They’re the courses whose greens fees might be discounted with a county card. Number 80 on my journey to play all publics in NJ is different. Cruz Golf Country Club definitely has a story: the course was built by Evaristo Cruz.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of this particular architect, it’s because he’s not one. Cruz emigrated from his native Portugal in 1946 and was not in golf course design by trade. He started a successful public works construction company in the early 1950s. Then, in 1976, with the help of his construction crew, he designed and built nine holes of golf on some of his own farm land. After adding an additional nine holes in the 1980s and opening it up to the public, it would eventually become Cruz Golf Country Club.

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Cruz’s craftsmanship can be seen in a few places around the clubhouse, like this water source near the practice green

One of the shorter 18-hole courses in NJ, Cruz plays at just over 5,000 yards from the back tees. While it may be deficient in distance, it has a number of quirky holes. The 4th is a short, 286-yard par 4 that would normally be drivable, if not for the 90-degree dog-leg around the surrounding woods to the right. Holes 6 and 13 have prominent trees in or hanging over the fairway, making tee shot decisions important. The 16th is a short par 3 whose front edge is only a pace-and-a-half from the water hazard before it.

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Fall colors starting to come in on 13

The course may not be anything special to a design aficionado, and its conditions generally won’t impress a seasoned golfer who has a number of gem-course notches on their belt. But, with its “no tee times” setup and only $26 to walk, I think it is more than deserving of a place in public golf.

There is a lot to be said about loving a game so much that you’d build a place to play it. It deeply resonates with the childlike spirit in each of us. It’s one thing to appropriate couch cushions and pillows for a “fort”, or to fashion a makeshift basketball hoop. Perhaps beyond that, one might build an actual tree house. But it is some serious love that would drive one to build a golf course.

I’m thankful that Evaristo Cruz had such a love for the game, and I believe I share that passion. Maybe I might build a golf hole or three in the future.

How I played…

Not bad, but at par 70 with a course rating of 64.3 and a slope of 114, this is a course where everyone should look to shoot a personal best relative to par.

Highlights: Once again, it would be enjoying the round with good company. It was a colleague from work that actually told me about the place, so it was good to finally get out there with them.

Lowlights: Nothing awful. Perhaps just not really capitalizing on scoring opportunities.

Number 80 (Cruz Golf Country Club)

Number 79 (Weequahic Golf Course)

Date played: 9/3/2018

The 79th course on my journey has been called “a hidden gem” by Matt Ginella of the Golf Channel, and it even made his “ladder of value golf courses”. It’s hard to argue with that.

Located in Newark, NJ, and just four miles from Newark Airport, you might be able to play Weequahic Golf Course during a long layover between flights. Designed in 1913, it’s one of the older public courses in the state, but its length doesn’t match its age. It’s also one of the shortest for its par, playing as a 5,700-yard par 70 from the back tees.

You can absolutely get around this course without your driver, the only possible exception being the 16th, which plays as a 401-yard par 4. Having said that, the course can be a challenge for first-timers as it plays tightly. Its close-knit layout does make for some interesting views on the course, like being able to see the 17th and 16th greens while standing on the green at 7.

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On 7 green, looking out at 17 and 16 greens. A “threen” view.

Walking might be a challenge for some, as the course rolls over a number of hills and changes in elevation, but as I’ve said before, it makes for beautiful golf. You immediately get a feel for the sinusoidal layout playing a par 4 straight uphill on 1 and then right back downhill on 2, a short par 3.

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Up, up, and away on the 1st tee.

As I mentioned when writing about Skyway, there is something really special about courses in a city setting. It’s very much why Central Park is so magical to so many. Were it not in the middle of Manhattan, it probably wouldn’t be as special. But it is, and so it’s adored.

The same goes for Weequahic. It’s a beautiful stretch of well-maintained grass, precisely mown to different heights in a place called “Brick City”. So, for about $50 to walk on weekends, you should absolutely check it out – before you have to catch the second leg of your connecting flight, of course.

How I played…

I should’ve left the driver in the bag. Let’s leave it at that.

Highlights: Enjoying the round with a good friend of mine. Other than that, it would be almost driving the short par-4 15th, chipping to three feet and making birdie. (Still should’ve left driver in the bag.)

Lowlights: Too many to choose from. Looking at the yardage of the course, I think my eyes went black like a Great White Shark about to enjoy a meal. I did no such thing. Play smart, people. Play smart.

Number 79 (Weequahic Golf Course)

Number 78 (Beckett Golf Club)

Date played: 8/16/2018

I’ve reached something of a somber moment in my journey in writing this post about my time at Beckett Golf Club. While there will be more stories like it to come, this marks the first time that I get to talk about a course that has since permanently closed.

Located in Woolwich Township in southwestern New Jersey, Beckett was the first Gloucester County course I played. Built in 1977, it was originally a 27-hole layout with Red, White, and Blue nines. What remained when I played was an 18-hole course straddling Kings Highway, and an actual 19th hole – a vestigial remnant of the abandoned nine.

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You actually needed to play the 19th to get back to the clubhouse.

While there were plenty of signs of the course being neglected and possibly headed for closure – bare tee boxes, some burnt out greens, and areas of poor drainage – I want to focus on the positives and imagine the course in its heyday.

With fairways cut in a centerline mow pattern and lined mostly with beautiful evergreen trees, Beckett was a classic parkland course. A majority of holes played over level terrain, but there were a number that had some character.

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In position for a good approach into 8.

The 8th was a short par 4 where your approach played over a valley of overgrowth. The 15th was a long par 3 that could be visually intimidating, with a large deciduous tree overhanging and possibly blocking potential tee shot trajectories. The landing area for your tee shot on the par-5 16th was blind, just over the top of a hill. Pepper in some dog-legs, some interestingly sloped greens, and there was decent variety for this 6,025-yard course.

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A bench at 15 tee offered a seat upon which to contemplate navigating that massive tree.

It’s disheartening for me to think about any course shuttering for good, but the truth is this course was nowhere near halcyon days when I played it. Demand was almost certainly non-existent. I imagine some may even be muttering “good riddance” at the thought of its passing. I only wish I could have seen it in better times.

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The sun sets on Beckett Golf Club.

Though the 18-hole course at Beckett joins the already defunct nine, my journey continues. I look forward to seeing what the remaining public courses in Gloucester County have in store.

Number 78 (Beckett Golf Club)

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.

Number 77 (Howell Park Golf Course)

Number 76 (Knoll Golf Club – East)

Date played: 5/28/2018

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.

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Bombs away on the 1st!

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”.

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The 12th is a scoring hole. Just 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.

Number 76 (Knoll Golf Club – East)

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 71 (Ash Brook Pitch & Putt)

Date played: 12/21/2017

Arriving at Ash Brook at 2:40 pm on the winter solstice, daylight was at a premium. Lucky for me, I was only looking to play the pitch-n-putt course to wrap up my three-course day.

Pitch-n-putt golf will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s how I learned to play the game with a group of high school friends. I discovered the Ash Brook pitch-n-putt when I played the regulation course in 2015. It seemed like a sequestered practice area, and I didn’t give it much thought beyond that, but this was also about six months prior to realizing that I would want to play every bit of public golf in New Jersey.

A nine-hole course spanning 673 yards, there is no hole over 100 yards. Depending on a golfer’s ability, there may be a couple holes where you’re taking a full wedge shot – like the uphill, 92-yard 1st – but most holes will be “feel” shots from the tee box.

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A look at the 2nd hole. Even though you’ll tee off from mats, you will appreciate the quality of the maintenance on this short course.

Which brings me to the one point of disapproval most golfers will have with the pitch-n-putt course; it plays off mats (the horror!). Personally, I don’t mind. It certainly isn’t good practice for ball striking, but the pitch-n-putt isn’t about that. This is really a place for beginners and younger players to learn the game. And with that in mind, I have yet to play at a better place than the Ash Brook pitch-n-putt.

Beyond the mats for tee boxes, the course is in immaculate shape. The greens are expertly manicured, with clear distinction to the fringe and again to the rough. The rough around some of the holes will be a true test, especially for someone learning to play the game. There is a mix of level holes and a few with elevation changes. It is remarkable what they squeezed into this plot of 700 yards. Again, you would be hard-pressed to find a better pitch-n-putt facility. All of this for a twilight rate of $7 on a December afternoon.

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Beginners will learn to hone their tee-shot accuracy as the well-grown rough is a deterrent

There are some who might argue that this shouldn’t count as a course on my journey. Whether it’s the mats, or the overall (lack of) yardage and (lack of) club choice, there are reasons “this isn’t real golf”. That may be true. For me, it’s somewhere the game – or at least some semblance of it – can be played, and it’s open to the public. And for that, it will be counted as Number 71.

Number 71 (Ash Brook Pitch & Putt)