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 55 (Lakewood Country Club)

There are bound to be some awful rounds in my quest to play all the public golf courses in New Jersey. My day at Lakewood Country Club was one such round. My first Ocean County course, I played Lakewood CC on an early spring day. I’d love to be able to blame the wind or course conditions, but neither is a legitimate excuse for the round I had.

I’ll spare you the gory details that I normally give you in a hole-by-hole replay, but here’s a summarized look at my +24 round of 96.

Aces: Didn’t even threaten a par-3 pin.

Albatrosses: Not even close.

Eagles: Nope.

Birdies: (*sigh*) Unfortunately not.

Pars: 5

Bogeys: 5

Double-bogeys: 5

Triple-bogeys: 3

Quadruple-bogeys: (*whew*…)

Lakewood is an average public course, but it has a few characteristics worth noting.

  • The signature 12th hole has an elevated tee box that looks down on “bunkers” that make the letters ‘LCC’.
  • You have to avoid the two C bunkers in the ‘LCC’ when you’re coming back on the par-3 15th. (I didn’t.)
  • Unless you’re incredibly long off the tee with a lot of shape-at-will, the 16th hole is basically C-shaped and is guaranteed to be a three-shot par 5.
  • The course was opened in 1896.

Regarding that last note, one of the players I was paired with told me that he knew Lakewood CC to be the “oldest course in America”.

It’s not.

I wasn’t able to find that out until later, which turned out to be interesting research (thank you, internet). Here is a list of older American courses – both public and private – that I pulled from Wikipedia’s Timeline of golf history (1851-1945) and elsewhere. Enjoy!

1884 – Edgewood Club (Tivoli, NY).

1887 – The Quogue Field Club (Quogue, NY). The Foxburg Country Club (Foxburg, PA). Essex County Country Club (West Orange, NJ).

1888 – Kebo Valley Golf Club (Bar Harbor, ME). The Town & Country Club (St. Paul, MN). St. Andrew’s Golf Club (Yonkers, NY).

1891 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (Southampton, NY).

1892 – Oakhurst Golf Club (White Sulphur Springs, WV). Palmetto Golf Club (Aiken, SC). Glen Arven Country Club (Thomasville, GA).

1893 – Chicago Golf Club (Downers Grove, IL, site of the present-day Downers Grove Golf Course, now in Wheaton, IL as of 1895). Segregansett Country Club (Taunton, MA). Newport Country Club (Newport, RI). The Country Club (Brookline, MA).

1894 – Richmond County Country Club (Staten Island, NY). Otsego Golf Club (Springfield Center, NY). Tacoma Golf Club (Lakewood, WA – not NJ).

1895 – Brooklawn Country Club (Bridgeport, CT, then Fairfield, CT after borders changed). Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course (Bronx, NY). Cherokee Golf Course (Louisville, KY).

Number 55 (Lakewood Country 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 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)

Number 50 (Flanders Valley Blue)

Coming off the White after recovering my lost phone, I began the Blue (Number 50) at Flanders Valley with a quick change of shirt and hat, which I luckily had in my car. Thankfully, in addition to soaking my clothes and drowning my phone, the rain had also washed away any would-be golfers for the rest of the afternoon. My Good Samaritan playing partner and I were able to play on unimpeded. Some lighter rain would continue, but fortunately I was also able to grab my umbrella from my car.

We played out to the end of the peacock’s tail and back. I was able to hit five fairways and five GIR on the Blue, but my putting left much to be desired. I missed two 3-footers, and hit a poor lag on another to wind up with three 3-putts in nine holes. The highlight on the blue was the 6th hole, where – hitting both the fairway and green in regulation – I was able to card my second birdie of the day from five feet.

My new golf buddy was just along for the ride at this point, and after the 7th hole he took the cart back in as daylight was just about gone. I played out the 8th in twilight and finished the 9th in darkness. It cost me a ball on my approach, because while I struck it well, I had no idea how far it went. I dropped a ball, hit just short of the green, chipped on, and was able to two-putt for double-bogey to end my epic 36-hole adventure. Bogey golf on the White and +6 on the Blue meant I would finish +15 through 18 holes.

Last one off the course, and fifty courses completed on my journey.

Number 50 (Flanders Valley Blue)