Number 53 (Crystal Springs Resort – Cascades)

If I haven’t mentioned it already, I love New Jersey. For better or for worse, it’s my home state, and I’m absolutely in love with it. Part of what I love about NJ is the diversity of geography and settings, allowing for a variety of activities year-round. The shore isn’t the Caribbean or Fiji, but there’s a shore. The mountains aren’t Utah or Switzerland, but there are mountains. Likewise, the golf isn’t Hawaii, Ireland, or Scotland, but there is golf, and plenty of it.

I know. It’s a ringing endorsement. But again, it may not be yours to love, and while I’d love for you to feel what I feel about it, it’s irrelevant. I love it all the same.

Over the last three years, I’ve become obsessed with golf to the point that I now play year round. For those of you that don’t know, New Jersey has four distinct seasons, and most people would rather be skiing or staying indoors in the winter than playing golf. In fact, on some winter days, I’ve played golf in what is essentially ski gear; winter cap, facemask, plenty of layers, and a jacket that’s (somewhat) impenetrable to wind.

Which got me thinking…

What if I played golf AND went skiing in the same day? I could do it. Here, in my home state, I could play golf and ski in the same day. I’m not exactly a “you-must-try-everything-there-is-to-be-tried” kind of person, but skiing and golfing in the same day just sounded amazing to me.

After taking to the internet to plan my magical adventure, I purchased my lift ticket and booked my tee time, and I was set… or so I thought. It turned out what I thought was a confirmation of my tee time was actually a notice that the tee time could NOT be booked. Either way, I took the weekday off, so I was headed for Vernon, NJ.

Planning to ski before playing golf, my first stop was Mountain Creek. Figuring that I would ski a bit and play nine holes before heading home to pick up my kids, I got to the mountain just after 10:00 am. As it turned out, the mountain didn’t open until noon, so I was headed over to Number 53 on my journey.

Just six miles down the road from Mountain Creek, Cascades Golf Club is a nine-hole layout at the stunning Crystal Springs Resort. For the most part, New Jersey is mostly suburbia, a few cities, and a ton of farmland. But the resort at Crystal Springs is an idyllic mountain getaway, something you’d more likely expect to see in a Bond film, but not in New Jersey.

Set at the back of the resort hotel, the Cascades course plays at over 3,600 yards from the back tees, all the way down to 1,538 yards from the most forward tees. I opted to play from the 3,022-yd white tees. Thankfully, even without a reservation, they were able to get me out. This was more than likely due to the fact that the high temperature for the day was 37 degrees, and there was literally NO ONE else on the golf course at 11:00 am.

After teeing off OB on the downhill first, there wasn’t a more fitting way to start my December round than with a snowman. After six horrible strokes, I finally managed to get on the green and two-putt for eight on the par 4 first. That really set the tone for the round, following with triple-bogey on the 2nd hole, and managing to card bogey on the 3rd. After finally putting a ball on the green in regulation at the 111-yd par 3 4th (AKA: the easiest hole on the course) I actually managed to card par.

After bogeying the 5th, I really took a moment to look around. I had the course absolutely to myself. I was playing some awful golf, but the peaceful solitude of winter golf is something I’ve fallen in love with. In that moment, I imagined how different a course it would be in the summer. With group after group of players, it would likely take 2.5 hours to get through nine holes. But, the course would also look tremendously different. The browns of winter grass would definitely be a picturesque green. Any fescue areas would be grown out instead of mown down. The howling winds accompanying my winter round would be replaced by gentle mountain breezes and perhaps even the sounds of local avian life. Either way, at the time, I wouldn’t have traded the freezing round to myself for any of those things.

Continuing on, I managed to finish the round in a relatively mediocre fashion: bogey, bogey, par (2nd easiest hole), bogey, for a nine-hole score of +12. An hour and a half later, my winter round of solitude had come to an end, and I was off to Mountain Creek (now that it was actually open for the day).

As I stated earlier, New Jersey skiing isn’t the powder skiing you’d find out west. But just as it was with golf, given that it was 1:00 pm on a weekday, South Peak at Mountain Creek was relatively empty, and I got to enjoy some quiet skiing. No lines for the lifts meant I was able to get in a series of back-to-back runs before heading home. As kids made it out of school and onto the mountain, I decided to call my adventure complete.

Highlights of my winter round of golf at Cascades included making par on the two easiest holes (did I mention that?) and trying to find a yardage marker for my second shot on the par-5 9th, only to find that it was covered by a layer of ice. Most importantly, public course Number 53 was successfully played, and I went skiing in the same day.

I love New Jersey.

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Number 53 (Crystal Springs Resort – Cascades)

Number 40 (Black Bear)

Another course on the expensive side, but well worth it, is Black Bear in Franklin (Sussex County). What my 39th course (River Vale CC) might have previewed in elevation changes and blind shots, Black Bear offers in spades. Set essentially into the side of the mountain, Black Bear is as challenging as it is attractive.

I spent most of the summers of my teen years in Sussex County, so I vaguely remember when the course was built. I was not yet playing golf at the time, but I remember thinking that it was one of the few courses I had even seen (or given notice to) and it had magically just appeared on a familiar route, seemingly out of nowhere. Route 23 was long stretches of nothingness for parts, and small bastions of civilization at others. When anything was being developed, it was easy to notice. The course is tucked away but when it was finished, the sign at the road announced its existence and you could just about see it in the background.

My round at Black Bear started the way no other round in my life had. Bogey on 3 and birdie on 6 meant I was even through six holes. I bogeyed the 7th but parred 8 and 9 to make the turn at +1. I hit 6 fairways and 6 GIR. To put that in perspective, to date for the year, I am averaging 5.17 FIR and 5.56 GIR per round. I didn’t know what I was doing right, and I desperately wanted it to continue coming home.

Alas, I let it get inside my head.

I started the back nine bogey-bogey, and then it unraveled (relatively, of course). I hit the 12th green in regulation from a difficult lie, but I was 36 feet out. I then proceeded to 4-putt. A birdie opportunity turned into double bogey. Something of a running theme for me, my lag putt left much to be desired, as well as another 9 feet before I could hole out. I got careless with a 2-footer coming back, and that is the story of my 4-putt.

I made it through the closing 6 holes in +6, with one highlight and one lowlight. I took triple bogey on 17 after putting my approach into the woods behind the green. That’s the lowlight. My highlight, however, was driving the green on 15. I not only drove the green; I hit what must have been the top of the pin. I initially thought it hit the flag and dropped straight down. However, after taking the carts up to the green, I noticed the ball actually ended up about 3 feet over the green on an awkward downslope. Luckily, I chipped to one foot and carded my second birdie of the round.

And so it was a tale of two nines. After going out in +1, I came back in at +10 to tie my best first-time-on-a-new-course score of +11, set a month earlier at River Vale CC. In a two-round fight, I got the best of the bear at first, but then The Bear got the best of me.

Number 40 (Black Bear)