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)

Number 70 (Plainfield West 9)

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Date played: 12/21/2017

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.

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Looking back on the 4th from the green. Though it looks small and unimposing from this angle, the greenside bunker is actually relatively deep.

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.

Number 70 (Plainfield West 9)

Number 69 (Galloping Hill Golf Course – The Learning Center Nine)

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Date played: 12/21/2017

Having finished a day of three courses (Bel-Aire Par 3, Bel-Aire Executive, and Spring Meadow) just a few weeks earlier, I had it in my mind again to get in as many courses as possible. Though cold, the December weather was great for golf and I knew there would be almost no one on the course (well, no one on any course really). I decided to head to the Union County area as there were a few courses in mind that are relatively close to one another. My first stop was The Learning Center Nine at Galloping Hill.

I got to play the regulation course at Galloping Hill earlier in the year, albeit with a busted wrist. It is reputed as one of the nicest courses in the area, with its well-maintained facilities and remodeled clubhouse overlooking the Garden State Parkway. I would say nothing to disagree with this notion. The course does well to maintain this reputation all year long, and it was looking no-less lovely when I showed up on this December morning.

Some may be able to remember that – prior to the renovations that included the building of the Learning Center – there was actually a pitch-n-putt course on that area of the property. The Learning Center Nine starts its routing near the clubhouse, runs along the left (south) side of the front nine of the regulation course, and finishes just alongside the new driving range where the actual Learning Center is.

Your round at the Learning Center Nine starts with a walk up to the top of what presumably is the actual Galloping Hill. The 1st hole plays into a miniature valley with your approach shot coming back uphill, while the 2nd is uphill the whole way, its green being just about the highest point on the property.

The 3rd hole is easily the most fun of the nine. Teeing off from the top of the hill, it’s a short par 4 that must be around a 40-foot drop to the green. Decent players probably won’t need driver for any of the nine holes, and unless you’re trying to putt for eagle, you certainly won’t need it here. If you’re going for the green though, just don’t lose it short right as there is a small pond about 50 yards out.

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The tee box on the 3rd. It’s all downhill from here.

After the 3rd, the Nine alternates between par 4 and par 3 holes. Holes of note are the par-4 6th, which is a hard dog-leg right teeing off from the woods, and the finishing par-3 9th, which needs a well-struck tee shot to clear water about 15 yards short of the green.

Much like the courses at Bel-Aire, the Learning Center Nine offers a great way to enter the game of golf or even a place to get in a practice round. At just over 2,300 yards from the back tees, it also plays just shy of 2,000 yards from the forward tees for youngsters who are just picking up the game and are looking for situational practice outside of the driving range. At $20 to walk, you can likely find cheaper places to play, but you get great value for the condition and challenge of the course.

With only one GIR to my name through the nine holes, I was lucky to get away with a 9-over 42. Regardless, it was the start of another all-golf day, and I was eager to continue to my next venue, the Plainfield West 9.

Number 69 (Galloping Hill Golf Course – The Learning Center Nine)

Number 68 (Spring Meadow Golf Course)

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Date played: 12/1/2017

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?).
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A look back from the 15th green out to the elevated tee boxes in the woods

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.

Number 68 (Spring Meadow Golf Course)

Number 67 (Bel-Aire Golf Course – Executive)

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Date played: 12/1/2017

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.

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There’s water to cover from the tee on the 7th. There’s plenty of room to land, but beginners should also be wary of the fairway bunkers.

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.

Number 67 (Bel-Aire Golf Course – Executive)

Number 64 (Crystal Springs Golf Club – Wild Turkey)

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Date played: 10/22/2017

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.
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The steeply downhill par 3 10th at Wild Turkey.

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.

Number 64 (Crystal Springs Golf Club – Wild Turkey)

Numbers 59, 60, and 61 (Ramblewood Country Club – Red, White, and Blue)

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Date played: 7/1/2017

If Ramblewood Country Club has any claim to fame in the list of public courses in New Jersey, it’s that it’s one of Ron Jaworski’s properties. Jaworski owns seven golf properties in all, and Ramblewood is the newest of his properties, purchased in 2016. It would be my first of the five in NJ.

Ramblewood CC is a 27-hole layout, split into the Red, White, and Blue nines. It was a bit of a drive for me, so I always had it in the back of my mind to play all three nines in one trip. Making a Saturday morning tee time though, I was conscious of not leaving my wife burdened with the kids for too long. To give myself the best shot at a quick round, I booked a 6:00 am tee time.

 

White (Number 59)

Meeting a Twitter golf buddy for the round, we were able to get squared away with the starter and sent out immediately. I was able to hit the fairway on the first, but bladed my approach slightly to put me over the green. After chipping on through a tree, I three-putt from 31 feet for double-bogey. I made five straight bogeys from the 2nd to the 6th, before finally making par on all three holes into the turn to finish +7.

The White nine is generally unremarkable. It is mostly level, with some rolling features. All three nines of the property are set inside a community, so there are house-lined holes and a few tree-lined fairways. Apart from its average routing and features, it is a well-maintained golf course. Greens are kept in great shape, and they roll slightly faster than the average public course in NJ.

 

Blue (Number 60)

After finishing the White nine, we knew we were making good time, so we jumped onto the Blue immediately. I continued the par streak on the par-3 1st and par-4 2nd. On the par-5 3rd, I lost a ball in a lateral hazard after my 3-wood flailed out to the right, and was only able to make double-bogey after the drop. After bogeying the 4th, I hit four of five fairways from the 5th to home. However, poor ball striking meant I only carded par on 7 and 9. Bogeys on the rest of the holes meant I would finish the Blue in +6.

Coming off the 9th, the starter was swarmed with groups, everyone waiting to get out – night and day from the start of our morning. We looked down at the time, and it was only 8:35. There have been a number of superlatives on my journey so far, but 2 hours 35 minutes is far and away the fastest I’ve finished 18 holes of golf.

The Blue made for more interesting play than the White as it is much tighter, particularly on the 3rd, 4th, and 8th holes, and it’s in equally good condition.

 

Red (Number 61)

Amidst all the groups looking to get out, full credit goes to the starter who was able to get us on the 1st tee of the Red nine in just 30 minutes. Perhaps excited that I was going to be able to complete all three nines, I completely botched the first. A weak and lazy drive meant I would slice it into the lateral hazard. A drop and a couple attempts to get onto the green resulted in triple-bogey.

That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the nine, over the course of which I played mediocre golf at best. There wasn’t anything particularly challenging about the Red nine, but I couldn’t put anything together. The highlight was certainly my approach on the 8th, a relatively long par 4. After pulling my drive left, I had 184 yards uphill to the green. I also needed to draw around some overhanging branches, and it came off just right. With a bit of draw, I was able to avoid the bunker on the right, and land just off the green. I chipped my third shot to 3 feet.

The lowlight was missing the 3-footer for par.

I was able to par the 9th to close, which was nice. But, with the 2nd being the only other par on my card for the Red, I would finish +9. Starting at 9:05 and wrapping up at 11:11, the Red nine took nearly as long as the first 18 we played.

The Red nine is much like the White, and perhaps even a bit more open. Again, the overall condition was great. Being the weekend before Independence Day, all pins flew American flags, which – according to my playing partner – is something Jaworski does at all his courses around the holiday. My only complaint was the “replay rate” we got for the Red nine. The fees for the pre-booked White-Blue combination was $69 ($34.50 for each nine), but we paid $37 for the Red. Not the end of the world – and both rates included the cart – but I would expect a rate that would beat an online booking through the course website.

Overall, however, the price of golf at Ramblewood is commensurate with its quality relative to other public golf in NJ – just a touch above average. I look forward to playing the other Jaworski-owned properties.

Numbers 59, 60, and 61 (Ramblewood Country Club – Red, White, and Blue)