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.
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.
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.
I arrived at Plainfield West 9 from the Galloping Hill Learning Center Nine just after noon. Still cold in the middle of the day – which is no surprise on the winter solstice in New Jersey – I headed into the pro shop to see if I could get on the course. The woman behind the counter was kind enough to let me know that I could save a few bucks if I waited until 12:50, and I obliged.
I didn’t mind waiting, as it gave me a chance to warm up for a bit and charge my phone. While inside, I learned that the “West 9” actually offers a membership that includes the ability to occasionally play the distinguished neighboring Plainfield Country Club. I also heard accounts of how the West 9 course served as something of a practice facility for professionals in the week leading up to The Barclays in 2015, with the players setting up ad hoc holes, teeing off from one hole and playing to another, just to lengthen the course.
Inspired by the stories of recent history, it was time for me to get to the first tee. The West 9 starts off with two long par-4 holes, the 1st being a slight dog-leg left, and the 2nd a slight dog-leg right. Caution is warranted on the 1st tee in that, if you’re trying to shape your ball right-to-left to accommodate the dog-leg, anything pull-hooked will end up OB on Woodland Avenue. The 2nd is more forgiving, with only a few trees lining either side of the fairway.
The 3rd hole is the first of three par-3s on the course. Teeing off just beside the club house, it’s the shortest of the par-3s, but it plays a considerable amount uphill, with the green sloping back to front. Anyone moving the ball left-to-right would have to be cautious of the bunker that is front-right, as well as the drop-off to the cart path all along and around the right side of the green mound.
At only 241 yards from the “back” tees, the 4th is a short par-4 and the second-easiest hole of the nine. Its only protection is a bunker front right, but it is deep and does have a lip that rises above green-level which could provide some challenge.
The 5th is a mid-distance par-3, and it has trouble – AKA backyards – to the right. Club selection and shot choice will be keys to playing this hole well. Turning around and heading back the other way, the 6th hole is probably the most interesting of the par-4s, playing blind over a ridge that runs across the fairway at about 200-250 yards from the tees.
If you miss the 6th fairway right, you’ll have to contend with a lone tree that sits atop the ridge. If you miss the fairway left, the left rough slopes right to left and bad bounces could put you at the bottom of this hill, leaving you with a partially blind second shot.
From the 6th green you need to walk back uphill to play the longest of the par-3s, the downhill 7th. While on the card at 189 yards, the drop probably has it playing around 175, with pretty forgiving surroundings. There is a bunker left and short, but you have to miss the green by 10-15 yards to find yourself there.
Coming home, the 8th and 9th are both short par-4s, but the greens on these two holes are like night and day. The 8th green is small, but offers little in the way of contour, whereas the 9th is larger, but easily the toughest green on the course. It sits on a mound, and slopes left to right, dropping off severely as it approaches the right-side fringe.
I played Plainfield West 9 in +6, bogeying everything except the three greens I hit in regulation (4, 8, and 9). Go figure.
Playing the course not only meant the second of my three courses of the day was complete, but also that all seven Middlesex County public courses were checked off the list, joining Hudson, Hunterdon, and Somerset as completed counties on my journey.
A great place to learn the game, I would recommend the Plainfield West 9 to beginners and golf regulars alike. Apart from the holes on the perimeter, the course plays very open with little trouble with which to contend. Its greens are reputed as some of the best in the area, and they were in very good condition even in December. The walking rates are great and there are good deals on afternoon tee times through GolfNow.
This is a perfect course that fits the spirit of the USGA’s “PLAY9” campaign, and if it isn’t already occupied every spring, summer, and fall with people getting in nine holes before or after work, it absolutely should be.
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?).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Marking the first course I’ve played in Essex County, the East Orange Golf Course is a bit of golf juxtaposition. Set in the affluent neighborhood of Short Hills, it’s gained a reputation as a course that has fallen apart. I know people who, knowing almost nothing about the course, refuse to play it because its “reputation” precedes it. Getting out of my car in the parking lot, I was greeted by a gentleman who seemed to be stopping there on his way to work. He was surprised that the course was open, and then went on to tell me about how he used to hold outings at the course, “but then it went to hell.”
His words, not mine.
Having said that, when you arrive at the course, there is a sense of revitalization about the place. A construction trailer serves as a makeshift current clubhouse, while across the gravel and mud parking lot you could see them building what will be the future one. Behind the construction trailer is the putting green, with the first tee box just beyond it. On the course, there seemed to be a good mix of old course regulars, casual golfers, and first-timers.
If you had any biases against the course before playing it, I must say, they’re almost justified on the first hole when you notice the power lines that run the length of the fairway, with the second hole to the left. It’s not something you expect to ever see on a golf course, but it looks as out of place as you’d imagine it to be.
However, once you get beyond that, the course is absolutely worth playing. While the fairways could use some TLC, the greens are kept in good shape. The layout is short – only 5,700 yards from the back tees – but there are a couple tight fairways and some nice dog-legs that can make you work. I actually opted to play from the back tees, which I never do, and had myself another Jekyll-and-Hyde round. I played the front nine in +3, but played the back in +11. Overall, I didn’t match my best score over par for a new course, but I was pretty happy with +14.
Having played the West course at Tamarack in March 2016, I was glad to come back 20 months later to finish the facility by playing the East course. The further along I get in my journey, the further I have to drive to play new courses, since I prioritized getting to as many local courses as possible. Because of that, I now have it in mind to play all layouts at a particular facility in a single visit, whenever possible. My trips to Flanders Valley and Ramblewood CC are great examples. Luckily, Tamarack is relatively local, so going back for a second trip wasn’t difficult.
Of the two layouts, the East is the shorter, but locally known as the more challenging. Holes on the East generally play tighter than the West, and there is much more water to contend with. I didn’t play that well, and that was mostly due to bad decisions and poor putting. The greens had recently been aerated, so they were pretty sandy and not yet healed. But, that didn’t excuse some of the putting misses I had. I also had a number of wayward tee shots and poor club choices that didn’t help.
The course had consolidated all of its tee boxes to the front, with a couple holes playing even shorter than the most forward tees. That meant my +18 round (+7, +11) left much to be desired. As I mentioned in my recap of my round at Wild Turkey, it was unusual for me to be 15 for 15 on putts from six feet and in. At Tamarack East, I putt 38 times, and that included misses from two, three, and four feet.
Playing in late autumn, there were a ton of leaves to deal with when attempting to find your ball. While I didn’t lose any in the leaves, I lost four balls with wayward shots on the 3rd, 14th, and the 18th (two balls).
I was also challenged by the many dog-legs on this fairly short course, which included the 1st, 2nd, 7th, and 10th, which is a cleverly designed left-to-right hole with water right. The last of the dog-legs is the par-5 18th. A very fun finishing hole, big hitters can easily make this green in two. Much like the rest of the course, you have to be accurate off the tee to put you in position to do so.
If I had one complaint about the East course at Tamarack it would be the general lack of elevation change. It’s not entirely level, but the changes are very subtle. The highest point on the course with a view is the 14th tee. It made for great pictures on the day, so I leave you with this one, looking out onto the 14th. You can also see the green of the returning 16th in the foreground right, and though not seen in the shot, the NJ Turnpike is just beyond those trees to the left of the 14th fairway.
The first Crystal Springs course off my list was half of a golfing-skiing adventure at the nine-hole Cascades layout, with the skiing taking place at Mountain Creek. My day at Wild Turkey was strictly a golfing affair.
An early tee time in late October in Sussex County meant we started our round in frigid temperatures and finished it in the 60s. Expecting Wild Turkey to be something of a tougher course, I told my golf buddy that we should just play “smart golf” on the day. It turned out to be one of those rare times when I had a plan and executed well.
I ended up shooting +12 (+6, +6) on the par 71, with nothing worse than my double-bogey on the par-5 17th, and that was primarily due to over-drawing my drive and not clearing the water/lateral hazard. Having hit only six fairways and six greens in regulation, the keys to my scoring well – for me – were definitely putting, putting, and putting.
Even though 33 putts is not a great number in the grand golf scheme of things, it is just below my average. That was remarkable for me, given that Wild Turkey has some relatively fast greens for a public course, and that I had putt as many as 41 times (!!!) just two rounds earlier at Beaver Brook CC.
Here are a few interesting notes on my putting for the round.
I was 15 for 15 from six feet and in. Admittedly, this was mostly tap-ins from 2.5 feet and in, but it included two six-footers, a five-footer, and a four-footer. Like most average golfers, I’m plagued by missed putts in this distance. On any other day, I could’ve been 11 or 12 for 15.
On the 3rd hole, I had 75 feet for my first putt, up and over a ridge. I would leave it a ridiculous 39 FEET short. Now faced with a breaking downhill putt, I putt past the hole and watched it break away to 10 feet for my third. I made the ten-footer for bogey.
From the 9th to the 14th, I made 46 feet of putts (5, 13, 12, 6, 4, and 6) to go +1 through those six holes. I struggle to make 46 feet of putts through most of my 18-hole rounds.
On the 10th hole – a beautiful downhill par 3 that has about a 30 foot drop – I hit the front right of the green, with the pin placed front left. Faced with a 55-foot putt, I COMPLETELY mishit it, ending well right of my intended line, and 13 feet away… only to drop that putt for par.
Again, if my putting wasn’t what it was, my +12 could’ve easily been +16 to +18. I’ve had plenty of those rounds this season. I was happy to add another great first-time score to my journey around the New Jersey publics, especially on a course as stunning as Wild Turkey.
If you’re a golfer who’s trying to play all the public courses in NJ, what do you do when you’re still recovering from a hand/wrist injury, but someone invites you to play a course you haven’t played before?
You go and play (like an idiot) of course.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, Twitter has been fantastic for meeting other golfers and golf enthusiasts, especially those that are willing to share in my journey. I’ve had some great discussions about different public courses in the state, which includes people’s feelings on best/worst layouts, great places to eat, and what actually constitutes a golf course.
Regarding that last point, Galloping Hill is everything you would want in a course, so long as you enjoy variety. Very much like Beaver Brook, Galloping Hill has a bit of everything. As its name implies, you have a number of great holes that play both up- and downhill, some of which make for great views of most of the course. I’ve realized that elevation change is something that may not be absolutely necessary, but it is greatly appreciated when I’m considering course design.
I scored poorly overall (+21), but most of that was due to two quadruple-bogeys and one triple. I had been playing decently through 7 holes, but I finished the front nine with quadruple and triple, making the turn at +13. I actually played well on the back nine, with the quadruple on the 14th the only real blemish. I came home in +8, despite the quad.
While I only three-putt once (on the 1st hole), I couldn’t really get anything to drop. I made only 23 feet of putts for the whole round, with 2.5 feet being the longest putt I made all day. My putting has been something that has plagued me forever, with only the occasional great putting round, peppered in between rounds of all-too-frequent misses within 5 feet.
The great part about putting at Galloping Hill is that there is ample challenge, both in the design/contouring of the greens and their speed. It is a course that is maintained exceptionally well overall, and the quality of the greens shows it.
As I mentioned earlier, there are great views on the course, particularly on the 2nd near the green and coming off the 6th green when walking to the 7th tee. I’ve heard that slow rounds can be a problem at Galloping Hill, but I think our round moved along just fine. If I had one complaint about the course, it would be that the layout only features three par-3s and two par-5s (though the 18th is a beautiful finishing hole). Other than that, it’s a course I believe earns its price point ($66 to walk for a weekend round).
As a facility overall, it also has a shorter 9-hole course, which I love as a feature for new golfers. I can’t wait to get back and give it a go!
Have you ever booked a tee time, and then realize that you had other commitments on the same day? Ever still try to make both happen? My story of the 62nd course on my quest went something like that.
Located in Annandale, NJ, Beaver Brook Country Club is a beautiful 18-hole layout that almost has a bit of everything. You could argue that it could use more water to contend with (if you’re a sadist), or perhaps some more forced carries (definitely sadist).
But, there ARE a couple forced carries, as well as a creek to deal with on a number of holes. There are a few good dog-legs, a drivable par 4, and a par 5 you can get to in two (if you’re a long hitter). There’s a par 3 where you can tuck the ball in REALLY close (more on that in a bit). There are narrow fairways, changes in elevation, and some approach shot-making decisions into well-placed pins on contoured greens. On top of all that, there is great service and the place is maintained wonderfully.
One of my closest friends let me know that he had won a certificate for a free foursome at Beaver Brook after winning a contest at an outing there last year. A free round for a new course on my journey was like a godsend. The tee time he booked was 2:18 pm. As I mentioned earlier, I had an obligation I forgot about, and that was at 6:30 pm. Only realizing this the day before the tee time, I needed a plan.
The issue was primarily the course being over an hour’s drive from home. Unsure of pace of play, I figured I would need to shoot for finishing about nine holes from the tee time and then heading out for my commitment. That meant I would just have to show up early and play nine beforehand. I would leave work early after a half-day, and finish the back nine just as we’d be called to the 1st tee by the starter.
It turns out that Beaver Brook doesn’t offer a nine-hole rate. I would guess that may be in part due to its interesting routing. The ninth hole actually finishes in a stretch across the clubhouse road and you don’t “make the turn” until the 13th green.
After talking to the staff in the pro shop and the starter a few times (shout out to Pam and Ed), they agreed to get me out for the going rate ($45 w/ cart). Figuring that it was a long way from home and – if I didn’t finish on that day – I’d have to come back anyway, this was as good as I could do. Alas, my free round became a normal round.
The starter (Ed) took me out to the 15th. I was able to play back to the clubhouse with no issue, and almost no wait. Only discovering at that point that the 10th tee was nowhere in sight, I decided to jump onto the par-3 14th, with the approaching foursome’s permission of course.
Having played 14-18, I figured a 2:18 tee time would be good enough to play the first 13 holes and get me home on time. After waiting for the rest of my group to show, we would be on our way at around 2:30. (Tardiness is next to godliness, am I right?)
Whether it was the anxiety of not getting out on time or the fact that I was playing with an injured hand/wrist, a great round eventually went bad. I played my first ten holes (15 to 18, then 14, then 1-5, if you lost track) in +5, which included missing an ace on the par-3 4th by an inch. I then played the remaining eight holes in +10, which included three straight double-bogeys (8th to the 10th) and four straight three-putts (8th to the 11th).
I took a lot away from my round at Beaver Brook CC. Averaging about six GIR per round, I hit 10 that day. I had the great memory of an almost-ace. I discovered that I have a strong opinion that finishing a layout with two par 5s is an AMAZING design choice. Finishing Beaver Brook meant that I had now played all three courses in Hunterdon County. I also realized that my wrist was seriously injured, and that playing before it healed was probably a dumb idea.
But most of all, I found another public course that I would highly recommend to anyone.