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.
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.
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.
Rounding out a short winter day of golf after taking in the 27 holes at Bel-Aire Golf Course, I decided to see if I could walk on somewhere and finish another 18. Lucky for me, this area of Monmouth County abounds with courses, and Spring Meadow was able to get me out right away.
Less than two miles from Bel-Aire, Spring Meadow Golf Course is a short 18-hole layout, playing just over 6,200 yards from the back tees. Having walked and carried at Bel-Aire in new (uncomfortable) golf shoes, my heels and Achilles tendons were shredded. Lucky for me, one of the guys I got paired up with let me offer him cash to split the cart fee he paid to ride along with him.
Noteworthy features of Spring Meadow include:
The routing. Holes 1 through 4 take you in a counter-clockwise circle back to the clubhouse. After teeing off at the 5th, the furthest point from home are the 10th through 14th holes before making your way back. Reminiscent of places like Beaver Brook where you don’t make the turn at the clubhouse.
Good greens. Even in the winter, they rolled really well. My playing partners for the day assured me that they were definitely faster in the summer months, which would be saying something.
The 15th. A short par 4 from elevated tees, this is just a fun hole with a classic “do I go for it” tee shot dilemma. I imagine that what happens on the first fourteen holes “drives” this decision for most people (see what I did there?).
While I had an odd, hot-cold putting round – an average 34 putts that included four 3-putts – I hit way more greens than I normally do, allowing me to shoot +10 (+6, +4) from the 5,769 yard white tees. It was great to shoot below my handicap, but much like at the Executive course at Bel-Aire, that is definitely to be expected when the slope/rating is 67.7/117. That +10 amounts to a 13.8 adjusted differential, but that is still great for me at this point.
Forty-five holes done, and with the sun starting to say its goodbyes for the day at just after 4:00 pm, another great day of winter golf was in the books. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Spring Meadow, and would love to see it in other seasons.
Just coming off a miserable three-putt finish on the 9th of the Par 3 course, I immediately went into the pro shop to pay for a round on the Executive course. Much like the Par 3, the Bel-Aire Executive layout plays very short overall, at only 3,201 yards from the “back” tees. Like most executive courses, the lion’s share of holes is par 3, with six par-4 holes that bring par for the course to 60.
I’ve never started a round as well as I have on the Executive Course. A group had just walked off the first tee, and I was playing solo. They waved to acknowledge that I could play through once I finished the first. I quickly got up to the 1st tee box, hit a ¾ knockdown shot – to stay out of the wind – to a foot from the hole and tapped in for birdie.
The group let me tee up on the 2nd ahead of them, and I proceeded to hit the essentially the same shot, this time to four feet. I felt great about the shot, and unlike MANY times where I’ve missed a putt from that distance, I made it (even with the small audience behind me watching).
Two under through two. I felt absolutely invincible.
Of course, as it often goes in golf, my invincibility was fleeting, and apart from another (more straightforward) birdie on 10, I couldn’t produce any other bits of magic. I would play both nines in +4 each, but to give you a sense of how easy the course plays, my +8 for the round against the 55.9/84 rating/slope translates to a 16.3 adjusted differential.
Unlike the Par 3 course, the Executive seems much flatter overall, with the exception of an interesting routing choice that puts the 17th tee on top of the hill in the middle of the Par 3 course (a bit further back and higher than the 7th hole on the Par 3). Most holes are right in front of you, but the 9th is a slight dog-leg right and the 15th actually has a corner you have to negotiate.
The best hole in my opinion is the driveable par-4 7th, which has the most water you’ll contend with at Bel-Aire. It’s a clever setup because it’s bunkered in front, and for the average player that isn’t trying to drive the green, there are a couple fairway bunkers both left and right that could swallow timid, misplaced tee shots.
As an average golfer, it’s difficult for me not to enjoy a course in retrospect when I’ve played it well. Most of the start of my golfing “career” was playing pitch-n-putt, par-3, and executive courses, so they’ll also always have a special place in my heart. However, I can objectively say that the Executive Course at Bel-Aire is definitely a wonderful place for beginners to ease their way into eventually playing regulation-length golf.