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)

Number 46 (The Meadows at Middlesex)

Known as Princeton Meadows until 1999, The Meadows at Middlesex is a tight, tree-lined 18-hole layout in Plainsboro (Middlesex County). I made my way over to the course after finishing nine holes at Clearbrook, one of the few times I’ve played more than 18 holes in a day. Just under 6,300 yards from the back tees, I played from the Whites, which were carded at 6,027. With a bit of wind blowing about, and not being able to get much right with my game, I suffered a boringly average round.

I raced my way to the first tee, where an elderly couple was kind enough to let me play ahead of them as opposed to joining. The first is a dog-leg right par 5, and just as I had done at Clearbrook, I blocked myself off to the right, just short of the corner. Forced to just kick out to the fairway, I knocked it to 170 yards, but still took another three strokes to get on. Two putts later, I had a two-over start.

For holes 2, 3, and 4, I carded bogey, triple, triple, putting to bed any ideas of a good round. However, while +9 through four holes, I made the turn at +13. Coming in, I was able to finish the back nine in +6, for a round of +19 on the par 70. Highlights on the back included sticking it to four feet from 148 yards, and one-putting a five-hole stretch from 12 through 16, over which I also scored +3.

Overall, I enjoyed the course. Sometimes it’s tough for me to be objective because it’s difficult for me not to enjoy a day golfing. Having said that, as my journey widens the gamut of types of public courses I’ve seen, from neglected municipals to those that are top-rated, I would have to place this at just below average. As much as I’d come back and play the course again and again, I’d have to admit there were a few greens that are burnt out. The par-3 17th seemed in particularly bad shape.

However, apart from a few bad greens, it was a challenging course on the shorter side that will truly exercise your course management skills. If you haven’t checked it out, you should. Who knows… maybe with a bit more love from golfers, they’ll be able to address the issue with the greens.

Number 46 (The Meadows at Middlesex)

Number 45 (Clearbrook Golf Course)

Set in an adult living community in Monroe, Clearbrook Golf Course is a 9-hole layout that offers some of the cheapest golf in the central New Jersey area. At just over 2,800 yards from the White tees, it’s also one of the shorter regulation-length courses I’ve played to date (something I enjoy).

The 1st hole is a very reachable par 5, so long as you can negotiate the slight dog-leg-left fairway from the tee. If you push or slice your tee shot – for right-handed golfers – there is a landing area to the right of the fairway if you don’t hit it too far. However, your second shot will potentially be obscured by trees, forcing you to hit across the fairway to get anywhere close for a third shot.

Needless to say, that’s how I started my round.

An unassuming par 3, the 2nd hole makes for excellent reprieve if you made a rough start. 133 yards on the card – 140 from the “tips” – playing slightly uphill, this hole is played with a scoring club from the tee for most average golfers. A well-struck and well-placed tee shot allowed me to make a two-putt par from 18 feet. Coming off the green, a short walk through the woods to the next tee box reveals that the course turns 180° to come back in the other direction, parallel to the 1st and 2nd holes.

The 3rd and 4th holes are a straightforward par 5 and par 4 respectively, while the 5th is a medium-length par 3. I hit a decent shot that went a bit long and left, and subsequently made a meal of my attempted chip back onto the green. Overthinking the slope of the green, I thought I should take my 60° wedge to loft it softly onto the putting surface. Loft it I did… but short of the green. I hit my next chip heavy, and two-putted from 33 feet. First double bogey of the round carded, and onto the well-designed sixth hole.

(Spoiler alert: it caught me out.)

The 6th has a pond directly between the fairway and the green – sat where the fairway would normally end – with a narrower fairway continuation to the side of the pond, shifted about 15-25 yards left. My phone had died, so without my GPS (#excuses) I relied on my playing partner that day to tell me that the pond was “probably about 270 or 275 yards out”.

It wasn’t.

Headed directly for the pond, I hit a straight drive which took one hop and went in. It was probably about 235-240 yards out. Thankfully, I hit my drop (3rd shot) onto the green and was able to two-putt for bogey. Knowing the yardages now, the hole makes for a great tee-box choice. Hitting short of the pond leaves your second shot directly in line of bunkers guarding the front of the green. Attempting to go left of the pond requires a very accurate drive, and anything left of that fairway section will potentially be obscured by a few trees.

I bogeyed the 7th and did the same on the 8th, which was a crime, because I putt off the green from 56 feet (14 feet beyond the hole). The green does have a slight ridge in it, so the putt did need to go up and over, but it was simply a terrible lag (something I definitely need to work on).

The 9th is a 154-yard par 3, guarded by a front-right bunker, with the pin – on that day – set in the front of the green just beyond it. I hit a good tee shot onto the green, left of the pin, and found myself with 16 feet for birdie. Breaking right-to-left – a putt I prefer over the sinister left-to-right opposite – I hit it on a good line, but lipped out. After not doing much good on the day, tapping in a one-footer for par was a pleasant way to end the round. Too many bogeys and one double meant I finished +8 through the nine holes.

Clearbrook bills itself as “one of only two courses in the U.S.” with a 9-hole layout that has different tee boxes that allow for “the experience of playing 18 holes”. The scorecard lists the tees I played from as a White/Blue combination. Normally, I would have expected that the Blue tees were simply longer for each hole, so that your “back 9” would just be tougher overall due to the added distance. I hadn’t noticed it during the round, but the White tees I played from are actually longer on the 3rd, 5th, and 9th holes. The 3rd hole even plays as a 332-yard par 4 from the Blues as opposed to a 483-yard par 5 from the Whites.

Having seen all nine holes of the layout, I’m happy to consider this course marked off the list as Number 45. I would even add that the course is good value for the money. Nine-hole rates are around $20 to walk. Knowing that the White/Blue combination might offer something different for 18 holes is a nice bonus, and a reason to go back.

Number 45 (Clearbrook Golf Course)