Not one to waste a two-hour drive, after playing Cape May National in the morning, I decided to try to play another course in the Cape May area before heading home. After a quick search online and a couple phone calls, I was on my way to Avalon Golf Club.
Set in a residential community, and playing at only 6,300 yards from the back tees, Avalon is a nice option for locals. Much like Cape May National, I was very impressed by the condition of the greens for a round in December. But where Cape May seems to do more with the flat, sea-level landscape, Avalon does very little.
As an everyman golfer, a flat layout is something I personally don’t have a problem with. Between executing a planned tee shot, hitting greens in regulation and putting well, the game itself can be hard enough for most. But for those that are looking for a course to put their game to the test, you may not find it here. There are a number of holes at Avalon that play dead flat and straight away.
That’s not to say there aren’t some relatively challenging holes. There are two par 3s – the fifth and seventeenth – that play almost entirely across water. And while straight and flat, a number of the par 4s and par 5s are narrow enough where trees will cause trouble for higher handicap golfers.
After finishing up at Avalon, I decided to make the most of my time in the area. I had never been to Cape May and not knowing when I’d be back, I got in the car and headed to the beach as the light faded. Yes, it was December and nothing like it would’ve been at 5:00 on a summer night, but it was great to explore the area.
I was able to see the lighthouse and walked out to what a quick Google Maps search seemed to suggest was the southernmost point in NJ (though I’d later find out I was wrong). I capped off a great 36-hole day with a walk out onto one of the stone jetties at this point and caught a view of everything off the coast of the tail-end of the state.
Number 81 on my journey took me to about 10 miles from the northern border of the state. For Number 82, I decided to go in the opposite direction. On the day after Christmas, I would head to the southernmost course in New Jersey: Cape May National Golf Club.
“The Natural”, as it’s colloquially known, would be my first course in Cape May County. Situated at sea level and right down the centerline of the Cape May peninsula, the course is also home to a nature preserve and bird sanctuary that splits the front and back nines. While the course in its current form was designed in 1991, the club boasts history going back to the late 1800s when it was known as Cape May Country Club.
An 8:02 tee time on one of the shortest days of the year meant I would have to leave well before dawn to make the two-plus-hour trek to get to Exit 0 on the Garden State Parkway. Stopping only to get a few photos of the rising sun, I arrived at the course early. I knew immediately that there would be a frost delay, something almost inevitable for a December morning in New Jersey. After about 45 minutes, I was able to get on my way.
The first three holes play southwardly down the east side of the nature preserve before turning back north along the Parkway on the dog-leg-left fourth. It’s clear immediately that the sea-level layout will be flat throughout, but mounding is used to add character to holes, like at the par-3 sixth.
The green at the sixth is slightly raised, running off at the front left which increases the danger of short shots caroming backwards and rolling into the water. Along the right and around the back of the green, there is mounding that may provide challenging stances when trying to scramble for par.
The scorecard boasts a quote (from The Jersey Golfer) that the course has “three of the top ranked holes in New Jersey”. That’s quite a claim, and as of the time of writing, I can’t find any record of these rankings. I will say though, that on the back nine, numbers 11 and 18 are highlights on the course.
All around, I was thoroughly impressed with the condition of the course in December. While considerably further south than most courses I play, I still didn’t expect everything to be in the shape it was for the winter. I’ve seen many public courses that don’t look as well maintained in their prime season.
Being in such a remote corner of the state, it’s hard to recommend as a “must play”. Having said that, there are plenty of things to do in Cape May in warmer weather. So, if you’re looking for a beach weekend that includes some golf, then Cape May National is definitely worth a visit.
Saddled between Routes 15 and 23, the 81st course on my journey is technically a county-less one. Berkshire Valley resides in Oak Ridge, NJ, an “unincorporated community” (gotta love that designation) between West Milford in Passaic County and Jefferson Township in Morris County. As far as the golfing community is concerned though, it is part of the Morris County Park Commission, and it was the last one I needed to play to complete the county altogether.
Designed by Roger Rulewich – whose work can also be found in the Crystal Springs Resort courses in Sussex County – Berkshire Valley is a picturesque ridge-and-basin layout beside Green Pond Mountain. It starts on the ridge with five holes playing in one direction along the side of the mountain before returning in the other direction with some eye-catching undulation on holes 6, 7, and 8.
After that, it’s down to the basin on 9. Where it felt tight on the ridge, the course exhales here for the first time with a wide-open fairway. The lower side of the course continues and features some great holes where water is in play, either to carry or to mind as a hazard to one side. The basin rolls delightfully around these bodies of water in links-style, where you’ll contend with native grasses more than trees.
The morning I played, all players were sent out on 9 – to play 9 through 18 twice – as the first five holes were closed due to snow that still needed to melt. It would’ve been disappointing to have to come back to the course to complete it, but by the time we wrapped up on 18, enough snow had melted that they allowed us to play the front after all.
Berkshire Valley is truly a hidden gem. It’s the one course I’ve played so far where enough people haven’t heard of it, and it is an absolute recommendation in my book. The views from the ridge are striking and make for great pictures, not to mention the challenge you’ll face in that first third of the course. Its width in the basin makes it quite replayable, offering multiple angles on a number of holes.
If you haven’t seen it, it is an absolute must play. Give the unincorporated community of Oak Ridge a visit and discover a public treasure in Berkshire Valley.
Some golf courses have stories. Almost any course that has hosted a professional tour event likely has at least one great tournament moment. At the very least, they have the fact they’ve been a tournament host. Older courses have their history. Other courses are known for being designed by renowned architects.
Accessible publics, on the other hand, are mostly just the storiless courses that people in the area happen to play. They’re the courses whose greens fees might be discounted with a county card. Number 80 on my journey to play all publics in NJ is different. Cruz Golf Country Club definitely has a story: the course was built by Evaristo Cruz.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of this particular architect, it’s because he’s not one. Cruz emigrated from his native Portugal in 1946 and was not in golf course design by trade. He started a successful public works construction company in the early 1950s. Then, in 1976, with the help of his construction crew, he designed and built nine holes of golf on some of his own farm land. After adding an additional nine holes in the 1980s and opening it up to the public, it would eventually become Cruz Golf Country Club.
One of the shorter 18-hole courses in NJ, Cruz plays at just over 5,000 yards from the back tees. While it may be deficient in distance, it has a number of quirky holes. The 4th is a short, 286-yard par 4 that would normally be drivable, if not for the 90-degree dog-leg around the surrounding woods to the right. Holes 6 and 13 have prominent trees in or hanging over the fairway, making tee shot decisions important. The 16th is a short par 3 whose front edge is only a pace-and-a-half from the water hazard before it.
The course may not be anything special to a design aficionado, and its conditions generally won’t impress a seasoned golfer who has a number of gem-course notches on their belt. But, with its “no tee times” setup and only $26 to walk, I think it is more than deserving of a place in public golf.
There is a lot to be said about loving a game so much that you’d build a place to play it. It deeply resonates with the childlike spirit in each of us. It’s one thing to appropriate couch cushions and pillows for a “fort”, or to fashion a makeshift basketball hoop. Perhaps beyond that, one might build an actual tree house. But it is some serious love that would drive one to build a golf course.
I’m thankful that Evaristo Cruz had such a love for the game, and I believe I share that passion. Maybe I might build a golf hole or three in the future.
How I played…
Not bad, but at par 70 with a course rating of 64.3 and a slope of 114, this is a course where everyone should look to shoot a personal best relative to par.
Highlights: Once again, it would be enjoying the round with good company. It was a colleague from work that actually told me about the place, so it was good to finally get out there with them.
Lowlights: Nothing awful. Perhaps just not really capitalizing on scoring opportunities.
The 79th course on my journey has been called “a hidden gem” by Matt Ginella of the Golf Channel, and it even made his “ladder of value golf courses”. It’s hard to argue with that.
Located in Newark, NJ, and just four miles from Newark Airport, you might be able to play Weequahic Golf Course during a long layover between flights. Designed in 1913, it’s one of the older public courses in the state, but its length doesn’t match its age. It’s also one of the shortest for its par, playing as a 5,700-yard par 70 from the back tees.
You can absolutely get around this course without your driver, the only possible exception being the 16th, which plays as a 401-yard par 4. Having said that, the course can be a challenge for first-timers as it plays tightly. Its close-knit layout does make for some interesting views on the course, like being able to see the 17th and 16th greens while standing on the green at 7.
Walking might be a challenge for some, as the course rolls over a number of hills and changes in elevation, but as I’ve said before, it makes for beautiful golf. You immediately get a feel for the sinusoidal layout playing a par 4 straight uphill on 1 and then right back downhill on 2, a short par 3.
As I mentioned when writing about Skyway, there is something really special about courses in a city setting. It’s very much why Central Park is so magical to so many. Were it not in the middle of Manhattan, it probably wouldn’t be as special. But it is, and so it’s adored.
The same goes for Weequahic. It’s a beautiful stretch of well-maintained grass, precisely mown to different heights in a place called “Brick City”. So, for about $50 to walk on weekends, you should absolutely check it out – before you have to catch the second leg of your connecting flight, of course.
How I played…
I should’ve left the driver in the bag. Let’s leave it at that.
Highlights: Enjoying the round with a good friend of mine. Other than that, it would be almost driving the short par-4 15th, chipping to three feet and making birdie. (Still should’ve left driver in the bag.)
Lowlights: Too many to choose from. Looking at the yardage of the course, I think my eyes went black like a Great White Shark about to enjoy a meal. I did no such thing. Play smart, people. Play smart.
I’ve reached something of a somber moment in my journey in writing this post about my time at Beckett Golf Club. While there will be more stories like it to come, this marks the first time that I get to talk about a course that has since permanently closed.
Located in Woolwich Township in southwestern New Jersey, Beckett was the first Gloucester County course I played. Built in 1977, it was originally a 27-hole layout with Red, White, and Blue nines. What remained when I played was an 18-hole course straddling Kings Highway, and an actual 19th hole – a vestigial remnant of the abandoned nine.
While there were plenty of signs of the course being neglected and possibly headed for closure – bare tee boxes, some burnt out greens, and areas of poor drainage – I want to focus on the positives and imagine the course in its heyday.
With fairways cut in a centerline mow pattern and lined mostly with beautiful evergreen trees, Beckett was a classic parkland course. A majority of holes played over level terrain, but there were a number that had some character.
The 8th was a short par 4 where your approach played over a valley of overgrowth. The 15th was a long par 3 that could be visually intimidating, with a large deciduous tree overhanging and possibly blocking potential tee shot trajectories. The landing area for your tee shot on the par-5 16th was blind, just over the top of a hill. Pepper in some dog-legs, some interestingly sloped greens, and there was decent variety for this 6,025-yard course.
It’s disheartening for me to think about any course shuttering for good, but the truth is this course was nowhere near halcyon days when I played it. Demand was almost certainly non-existent. I imagine some may even be muttering “good riddance” at the thought of its passing. I only wish I could have seen it in better times.
Though the 18-hole course at Beckett joins the already defunct nine, my journey continues. I look forward to seeing what the remaining public courses in Gloucester County have in store.
Howell Park Golf Course became the sixth track I’ve played in Monmouth County when a Twitter golf buddy (shout out to @njcroatian) invited me out for a round on Independence Day. Located just east of the Manasquan Reservoir, the course is wonderfully maintained and is part of the Monmouth County system, which at this point in my journey is arguably the best in the state in terms of access for quality.
A parkland-style course that is known for keeping its rough up a bit, Howell Park rewards smart play that consists mostly of keeping the ball in front of you. The greens are some of the largest in public golf in New Jersey, averaging 34 paces in depth and some wider than they are deep. If you give yourself shots at the green and you putt well, this should be a course where you can score.
The only complaint from an architectural standpoint is that Howell Park sits on a very level tract of land, so it lacks the views that come with elevation. However, its flat nature also means that it is a very walkable course. At $62 to walk on weekends for non-residents/non-cardholders, there is certainly cheaper public golf in the state. Regardless, I consider it a top-notch course and absolutely worth a round (or three).
How I played…
Hot and cold: Somehow, with penalty strokes on four different holes, I almost played down to my handicap.
Highlights: The singular highlight is easily the 18th. After watching my playing partner drain a 65-foot par save from the fringe, I followed up with a very lucky 54-footer for birdie. I think it rerouted twice on its way to the hole.
Lowlights: Penalty strokes; especially a ridiculous attempt on the 10th to “cut” one into the dog-leg that ended up OB on the driving range.
When a golf course uses the ‘CC’ abbreviation in its name, it’s clear that’s short for “Country Club”. When “GC” is used, there can be slight uncertainty as to whether it’s “Golf Course” or “Golf Club”. The 76th course on my journey seems to have a more complex issue with its name.
According to the website (knollgolfclub.com) the facility is named “Knoll Golf Club”, and there is an East Course and a West Course. That is of course, until you click on the East Course info link. Then, it’s “Knoll East Course”… but also “Knoll East Golf Club” approximately two words later. When you pull up to the clubhouse, the sign reads “Knoll Country Club East”. When you get your scorecard, it says “Knoll CC – East Course”. Others may call it “Knoll East Golf Course”, or simply “Knoll East”.
Now that we have that settled…
Knoll East – which is what I’m gonna go with for brevity’s sake – is the public half of the Knoll facility. Located in Parsippany – Troy Hills, the course is a shorter one, tipping out at just over 5,800 yards. What it lacks in distance though, it makes up for in personality.
The clubhouse is the highest point on the property, which makes for great elevated tee shots on both the 1st and 10th holes. That also means challenging approaches on the 9th as well as the 18th, where the back-to-front sloped green can end a round on a three-putt low note.
The 5th is a demanding par 5 that requires playing to a distance off the tee and then navigating a chute on the approach shot(s). There are a couple fun short par-4s in the 7th and 11th, and the 12th is a straight-forward par 3 that might instill some doubt with thoughts like “don’t be left OR right”.
Whatever you decide to call it, Knoll East is nice stop for public golf in Morris County.
How I played…
While there were some birds in a nest on the exterior wall of the pro shop, unfortunately, there were no birdies on the card. That didn’t stop a good time though.
Highlights: Played +3 on an eight-hole stretch from 7 to 14.
Lowlights: You know that three-putt low note on 18 I mentioned? I write from experience. Also, the 5th hole ate me alive.
My journey took me to Eagle Ridge Golf Club after one of my best friends invited me to a golf outing. Located in Lakewood, Ocean County, Eagle Ridge is a facility with three distinct nines, named (or at least supposed to be) for their differentiating topographic and architectural features: Ridge, Pines, and Links. Interestingly, while the holes are numbered from 1 to 27 – Ridge 1-9, Pines 10-18, then Links 19-27 – the nines are all handicapped as individual nines. As I mentioned about my time at Flanders Valley, to me, this is a defining characteristic of considering the course as separate nines, as opposed to an 18-hole course and a 9-hole course (or in the case of Flanders, four 9-hole courses as opposed to two 18-hole courses).
The Shamrock Shootout (still the best name for any sporting event on St. Patrick’s Day) was set to be a 2-man scramble with Stableford scoring on the Ridge and Pines nines. If that would hold true, I don’t think I could’ve counted them as complete on my quest. Scrambles are fun, but playing them is not the same as playing your own ball, where you get a sense of the challenge of a course and its setup. Thankfully, we would be playing with some golf buddies of my friend, who were more than amenable to having us all play our own ball and enjoying the round.
The scramble began at 9:00 am with a shotgun start, which meant our round started on the par-3 16th of the Pines nine. Playing a course out of order is always an appealing change in principle – like my time at Beaver Brook – but it definitely leaves you wondering what the experience would be like on the normal routing.
The Pines is named for the trees that line most of the nine, though there are areas that open up, such as the 18th fairway, and an attractive set of approaches for the 12th and 14th greens around a pond. There is a good mix of both tight and wide landing areas, and you will need accuracy to score well here.
The Ridge nine plays as something of a ridge-and-basin layout. The “ridge” would be the outskirts of the Pines along the long par-5 7th and the bottom of the “basin” would be the body of water along the green of the par-5 5th. However, the slope across holes is gradual, making it more of a “side-of-a-hill” layout.
In general, the Ridge plays far more open than the Pines and is therefore much more forgiving. I’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult for me not to enjoy or appreciate a layout when I’ve played well, and I played some of my best golf on the Ridge nine. I think of it as something of an ideal course. There is beauty in its elevation changes, there is character in its greens, and it’s almost impossible to be penalized by a good shot.
THERE’S AN ACTUAL 19TH HOLE! As I mentioned earlier, the Links nine are actually marked both on the card and the course as holes 19 through 27. I also alluded to the fact that, while Ridge and Pines are appropriate descriptions for those nines, I don’t think “Links” accurately describes its nine holes. There isn’t much on offer at the Links that you don’t see at the Ridge. The Links nine are spread out over a much larger plot of land, so you do have vast grown-out areas between some holes, but there isn’t anything that really offers a Links feel.
By far the most interesting hole on the Links is the 25th. A short par 4, the landing area for the tee shot is blind, requiring a stone at the end of a plateau as a target. The fairway is generous, so most tee shots will land safely, but the approach is 90 degrees left, almost entirely over water.
Eagle Ridge as a whole…
Apart from the two-out-of-three-ain’t-bad naming for its nine-hole courses, I rank Eagle Ridge highly among the public courses I’ve played so far. The course’s condition is more than worth the in-season rate of $86. Also, I’m not sure it applies all season, but I was able to get a great replay rate of $25 for playing the extra nine, which would be a great touch for a great course.
How I played…
Pines-Ridge wrap-around: Poorly on the pines, remarkably on the Ridge. The highlight would definitely be the lack of a three-putt hole
Links: Meh. Pressed for time, I was in a bit of a rush to get done and get home, but that’s no real excuse. I played mediocre golf.
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.