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 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)

Number 49 (Flanders Valley White)

I parted ways with my normal playing partner who packed it in after the Gold & Red, walked onto the White (Number 49) with two other golfers, and I was on my way. Excited about 36 holes in a day, I took my phone out to snap a picture on the 1st fairway.

Whatever I had going for me on the Red, I couldn’t keep going on the White. Nothing was terrible, but errant tee shots had me working for bogeys, and I made double on the 1st and 4th. Bogeys followed on the 5th, 6th, and 7th. Having made par on the 2nd and I was hoping to at least finish the nine in “bogey golf”, so I needed at least one more.

The weather worsened and the sky absolutely opened up. Luckily, we were just coming of the 7th green, and there was a rain shelter before the 8th tee. As it poured all around us, I went to my bag to find my phone out to check the weather and tweet about my adventure.

No phone.

The main pocket zipper on my golf bag was open, and the phone was nowhere to be found. Between bouts of cursing myself out for being an absent-minded idiot, I tried to think of where it could be on the course while we waited for the rain to subside. Other than taking a picture on the 1st, I couldn’t think of any place else it could be.

Determined to finish the round, we saw an opening in the weather and decided to continue play. I would worry about the phone later. I would par the 8th and bogey the 9th. Bogey golf achieved. The White was finished in +9.

Running back into the clubhouse, I told the staff my missing phone plight and they let me take a cart out. One of my new playing partners even offered to help look, which I thought was incredible. With some good fortune, we were able to find it about 40 yards short of the 1st green, where I had pulled my approach shot. It was drenched and out of battery. Once again, I would need to worry about my phone later.

The Blue was calling me.

Number 49 (Flanders Valley White)

Numbers 47 through 50 (Flanders Valley Golf Course)

You may be thinking “how does a single course count as four?” I’ll try to explain.

Flanders Valley Golf Course, set in Flanders, was only my second Morris County course after Pinch Brook. It features four 9-hole layouts that fan out something like a peacock’s tail; Gold, Red, Blue, and White. The scorecards treat these as two courses.

The Gold & Red Course would be the outermost “feathers” on the tail. If positioned with your back to the clubhouse, looking out onto the courses, the Gold nine is laid out to the far right, and the Red nine is laid out to the far left. Flanked by the Gold & Red, the Blue & White course is the center of the peacock’s tail, with the 5th tee on the Blue nine being the absolute tip, furthest from the clubhouse.

Sounds like two courses.

Struggling how to count these on my list of public NJ courses for my journey, I kept looking for details in the scorecards. For the Gold & Red, the Red nine is listed as holes 10-18, even on the course map. The same goes for the White nine on the Blue & White.

The Gold & Red list a total yardage of 6,770 from the back tees, and the Blue & White also has a combined yardage, marked as 6,765 from the tips.

Still just two courses. But, then I noticed how they handicapped the holes:

Gold: 2, 8, 3, 1, 6, 7, 4, 5, 9

Red: 4, 5, 2, 6, 9, 3, 1, 8, 7

Hmmm…

Blue: 5, 1, 8, 2, 4, 7, 6, 9, 3

White: 3, 7, 8, 4, 5, 2, 9, 1, 6

Why handicap them separately if these were supposed to be two 18-hole courses?

It made me think of other courses in the state that are only nine holes (e.g. Skyway in Jersey City, Hudson County) as well as some 27-hole layouts (e.g. Neshanic Valley in Branchburg, Somerset County). In these set-ups, all nine-hole layouts are handicapped separately. For 27-hole layouts, even though you can play any combination (i.e. 1-2, 2-3, 3-1), you’ll find them handicapped as individual nine-hole tracks.

That makes Flanders Valley four distinct nine-hole layouts, and four courses on the list.

I’ll touch on some of the differences between the four nines in the following posts when I talk about my rounds, but overall Flanders Valley is a beautiful place. If you play all 36 in a day (as I did) you’ll experience a great variety of holes and be challenged with shot-making decisions. The greens roll exceptionally well for a public course – something I had trouble with – especially on the Gold. If I had to guess, I would say they roll about a foot farther/faster on the stimp than your average public in New Jersey.

Bonus GolfingNJ (and Footgolf) Fact: Flanders Valley also has the distinction on my journey as being the only course where I’ve played footgolf before I’ve played golf. The 18-hole footgolf course is laid out on the White nine.

Numbers 47 through 50 (Flanders Valley Golf Course)