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 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 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 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 and 48 (Flanders Valley Gold and Flanders Valley Red)

My day at Flanders Valley was only the second time on my journey that I had played 36 holes in a day. Playing the Gold & Red with a good friend of mine, I had something of a tale-of-two-nines round.

The Gold (Number 47) is the hilliest of the nines, and playing it feels like you’re traversing the side of a mountain. Fairways are relatively narrow for the most part, and there is a decent amount of elevation change within holes, with a few semi-blind shots.

I had a miserable start to the day on the Gold. The first hole is a beautiful, uphill-all-the-way-to-the-green par 5. My drive and lay-up weren’t terrible, but from 102 yards, my third shot managed to come up short of the green by committing the amateur mistake of failing to account for the elevation. An awful chip placed me 28 feet beyond the hole – and above it – which I rolled down the hill, 26 feet PAST the hole.  I was able to lag this one a bit closer (2 feet) and holed out at double bogey.

Some more of the lowlights from the Gold were 4-putting the 2nd, losing a ball on both the 5th and 7th, and putting a total of 21 times, for a score of 49 (+13). Scared to death of the greens, I was now worried that I could possibly shoot over 100, something I hadn’t done in two years.

On the other side of the course premises, and something of the Gold’s opposite, The Red (Number 48) is the flattest of the nines. I wouldn’t describe it as a links layout, but its lack of elevation change and relative openness (at least for the first three holes) are definitely a stark contrast to what was experienced on the Gold. I played well here.

Coming off two pars on the Gold 8th and 9th, I was able to salvage an 18-hole score, continuing at even par by going bogey-birdie-par through the first three on the Red. A string of bogeys with a par on the par-5 6th meant I finished the Red in +5, for an 18-hole score of +18.

If you play Flanders Valley, I highly recommend playing the Gold & Red combination first. The contrast between the two nines makes for a nice experience. You essentially have to play two different types of golf to score well overall.

Playing in late October before Daylight Saving Time had ended meant there was still a decent amount of light left. I decided that I should try to get all four nines in by continuing onto the Blue & White. The weather looked questionable, but it was a long drive home, and I was already at the course. To seal the deal, they offered a great replay rate, and so I couldn’t refuse.

Numbers 47 and 48 (Flanders Valley Gold and Flanders Valley Red)

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)