"New Jersey is not known to outsiders as a golf destination," said Chris Mulvihill, President of Tee Time King, which offers free online access to tee times, course maps and membership opportunities in the New Jersey region. "But to people in New York City and to people in New Jersey, there's a great variety ranging from a bunch of great courses down near Atlantic City to more diverse terrain up in Sussex County and in west New Jersey."
More than 270 courses - many of them open to the public - dot the Jersey landscape. From hilly courses in the northern part of the state to more open, Scottish-style courses near the ocean, golf in New Jersey is a sport of plenty.
"Depending on what you're looking for, I think the state can provide it," said Rich Kennedy, Director of Handicapping and Membership Services for the New Jersey State Golf Association (NJSGA). "You have links golf courses, you have mountain golf courses, you have classic-styled golf courses going back to the early part of the 20th century."
But the older, classic courses are just a small part of New Jersey's big role in the history of golf.
The Garden State's influence on golf has lasted more than 100 years. The term "birdie" was coined in 1895 at the Atlantic City Country Club. The year before, the Morris County Golf Club was the first golf course in the country to be organized solely by women, and in 1921 the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club (now Scotch Hills Country Club) was the first African-American-owned country club in America.
Far Hills in Somerset County is home to the United States Golf Association Golf House, containing the largest collection of vintage golf memorabilia, books and fine art in the world. Though the Golf House, located on Liberty Corner Road, will be undergoing major renovations beginning in April, swift visitors can catch a glimpse of the club used on the moon by Alan Shepard on his Apollo 14 mission or a copy of the 1457 Scottish Acts of Parliament in which the first known written reference to golf appears. Visit www.usga.org or call (908) 234-2300 by March 31 for more information.
But for those who miss the deadline for the Golf House, the classic courses remain the best way to experience a little bit of history in your golf game.
"Northeast New Jersey is a hotbed for these types of courses," Kennedy said. "It kind of takes you back a little bit."
Front and back
Kennedy noted that the diverse geography of New Jersey makes golfing in each part of the state a unique experience.
"If you want to get out into the northwest part of New Jersey, there's the Crystal Springs Golf and Spa Resort courses," he said, referring to the huge estate in Vernon in Sussex County that features some of the state's finest courses, including Ballyowen.
"It's probably the best public golf course in the state," Kennedy said of the 250-acre Ballyowen, a links-style course with panoramic views of the Appalachian Mountains and unpredictable wind patterns. "It's extremely difficult, but also extremely beautiful."
Also of special note in North Jersey is The Architects Golf Club in Lopatcong. This par-71 course was built in the styles of the great course designers of the past 150 years, including perhaps the greatest such designer, Robert Trent Jones, who once called New Jersey home.
A cluster of notable courses such as Hominy Hill, Bellaire, and Charleston Springs can be found near the ocean in Monmouth County.
"The Monmouth County Parks System offers courses for golfers at every level of play," said Laura Kirkpatrick, Public Information Officer for the parks system. "We have a nice mix for beginners as well as for those that play on a regular basis."
Though the courses offer a discount for county residents and prime tee time registration is competitive, Kirkpatrick said, "Anyone can golf here."
A little further south, golfers of any level can also find plenty of award-winning courses near Atlantic City. "Surrounding there, you have over the past six years just a boom of championship golf courses," Kennedy noted.
The closest course to the Boardwalk and casinos of Atlantic City is The Links at Brigantine Beach. With its bay views, marshes, berms and moundings, the Scottish links-style course on the barrier island of Brigantine has been named to more than a few "Best Of" lists.
The 27-hole Sand Barrens Golf Club in Swainton sports large, rolling greens, tree-lined fairways, and - true to its name - vast bunkers. Also of note are Sand Barrens' golf carts, which are equipped with a state-of-the-art GPS tracking system to provide golfers with a course layout, shot measurements and play advice.
If the sand traps at Sand Barrens aren't enough for you, try Twisted Dune in Egg Harbor Township. The links-style course features more than 100 bunkers, as well as deep ravines, lofty grass-covered sand hills and twisting landscapes.
For the environmental-minded duffer, Harbor Pines Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township is the place to go. With 520 acres of pine forest, the course is certified by Audubon International as a cooperative sanctuary.
Reclaiming the land
Several new projects underway around the state are also doing their part to help the Jersey environment. In places such as Jersey City, Bayonne and the Meadowlands, former landfill sites are being transformed into lush golf courses in "brownfields-to-greenfields" programs.
"That's something that is the next stage of new golf course development in New Jersey," Kennedy said. Companies such as EnCap Golf Holdings in North Jersey are working with environmental committees to "cap off" formerly unusable land and build beautiful golf courses on top. The concept has been in practice for more than 40 years, and as many as 70 such courses can be found around the country.
EnCap is reclaiming land for two public courses and a resort village in the Meadowlands, and in Bayonne, construction of a 6,900-yard, par-70 course is expected to be completed in the coming months.
But don't expect to just walk on to the Empire Golf USA course in Bayonne or Liberty National in Jersey City. A six-figure initiation fee will be required before you can set foot there, making the private course a likely destination for high-income Wall Street workers from across the river.
"I'm sure that plenty of businesses and their executives are going to be entertained on those golf courses," Kennedy said. "From a business point of view, a corporate point of view, it's probably going to be fantastic." Mulvihill noted that private courses do a lot of business from corporate golf trips. "Big companies have golf outings at least once a year," he noted.
Through his work on Tee Time King, Mulvihill has his finger on the pulse of the New Jersey golf scene. He said that even though the most well-known clubs in New Jersey such as Baltusrol in Springfield are exclusive, visitors to the state have plenty of new public courses from which to choose.
"There are a lot of private clubs, but in recent years, the public golfers have had a lot of options open to them that they previously didn't," Mulvihill said.
Kennedy agreed, noting, "For the regular businessman on a trip, there are a lot of options for golf in New Jersey."
When you can't hit the links
But the options aren't restricted to course play. There's no shortage of practice and off-season facilities in New Jersey, either.
"The state has a lot of great practice centers," Mulvihill noted. "For New Jersey, that's really a part of golf, because the season is not year-round."
Mulvihill said that June is the peak month for many courses in New Jersey, later for those in the more temperate areas near the shore, but even in bad weather golfers can find an indoor facility to practice.
"Wherever there are golf courses, you almost always find a driving range," Kennedy said. "For the most part, wherever you go, you're going to be able to hit golf balls."
Kennedy also noted that even golf enthusiasts without their clubs can find an event in New Jersey, such as the many championship tournaments the NJSGA hosts, including amateur championships. "We're always looking to draw more spectators to our championship events," he said. For more information on NJSGA events, visit www.njsga.org or call (973) 338-8334.
Later this year, the 87th PGA Championship will be held at Baltusrol from August 8 to 14.
Whether you're playing a round yourself or learning by watching a pro, New Jersey offers an almost endless variety. "When you come to New Jersey, it runs the spectrum of golf courses," Kennedy said. "You will definitely find a golf course that suits your tastes."