Golden Golf

Don’t even think of putting away your clubs this month. New Jersey courses beckon in their autumn finery. Here’s a loop of nine prime layouts around the state you won’t want to miss.

Apple Mountain Golf and Country Club.
Photo by Lambrecht Photography/golfstock.net.

When the wind begins to nip and darkness descends early, most golfers pack it in. Those who still tee it up may be diehards, but they aren’t crazies. Indeed, fall golf in New Jersey has much to recommend it. The weather generally remains comfortable all of October and into November, especially in South Jersey. Long sleeves, a light sweater, and a windbreaker are often all you need. After months of trudging under oppressive sun and humidity, your hat and golf glove damp with sweat, the smell of brisk autumn air is especially invigorating.

Fall golf is relaxed. Nobody minds if you roll your ball over for a better lie in the fairway. With temperatures a bit lower and daylight at a premium, players are less likely to dawdle over putts and more likely to give them. With that nip in the air, slow play is usually not a problem. And with declining daylight often come declining prices.

Most courses do a good job of blowing leaves off fairways and greens. The foliage that remains on the trees gives even the most familiar layout a burnished makeover that’s like meeting an old friend who has acquired a flattering new wardrobe. We’ve picked nine courses, geographically distributed around the state, that each offer an autumn bounty for your inner leaf peeper.

Apple Mountain Golf & Country Club
369 Hazen-Oxford Road, Belvidere

908-453-3023, applemountaingolf.com
Par 70, yardage 6,614, slope 122

Apple Mountain has more in common with a country inn than a country club. Indeed, this is something of a mom-and-pop golf course. But have no fear: Apple Mountain is a well-maintained course that provides plenty of challenges for expert golfers.

Andrew Kiszonak, a former tavern owner from Union, built the course 37 years ago with grand plans for a multipurpose resort, including skiing and retirement homes. State curbs on development halted his progress, but the 18-hole layout he carved out of an old apple orchard is still plenty to be proud of. These days, he operates the course with his wife, Janet, who runs the office, and son, Drew, the golf director.
Apple Mountain has three things going for it: great views, great ambience, and great deals. The course takes you up and down a gentle mountainside. From the top, golfers look northwest across the Delaware Water Gap and west through the narrower Wind Gap. The views are particularly majestic from holes 5, 7, and 13, where the tee boxes all sit high on the mountain. Add autumnal colors and the panorama is extraordinary.

And, hey, the golf is fun, too. Although the course is relatively short, it requires a good amount of demanding uphill play and features several dramatic long holes. The 501-yard third hole calls for a blind downhill drive, and then there’s the 17th, a 575-yard dogleg left that can be played as a 632-yard par 6. Or play from the back tees and push it all the way to 642 yards.

Still, there’s something about Apple Mountain’s rural setting that invites even the longest hitters to turn down the testosterone and smell the roses. Or, more accurately, the apple trees that line the fairways along holes 12 through 16. Intermediate players will appreciate the wide fairways and the generally forgiving nature of the course.

Topping off the day’s enjoyment is the Top of the Green restaurant, with its pub-like interior, comfortable outdoor deck, and consistently good food. An ample lunch special adds only $8.50 to the greens fees, which are among the most reasonable in the state. The highest weekend 18-hole price is $39 from 6:30 to 10 am. From 10 am to noon the price is $34; the price slides all the way to $29 from noon to 2 pm, and is $25 after 2 pm. Carts are $10 per person.

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The Architects Golf Club
700 Strykers Road, Lopatcong
908-213-3080, thearchitectsclub.com
Par 71, yardage 6,863, slope 130

A course with brilliant fall foliage that nonetheless plays fairly open seems contradictory, yet the bucolic setting of Architects makes this possible. While small stands of trees add visual and sometimes strategic interest to many of the holes of this Warren County course near the Delaware River, overall it is tall fescue and other linksy grasses, not trees, that border the fairways and rough. Yet because the course as a whole is largely ringed by densely wooded hills, foliage forms the backdrop to many shots from tee to green.

The concept of Architects is unusual, and unusually interesting. Veteran New Jersey-based architect Stephen Kay, in collaboration with Ron Whitten, architecture editor of Golf Digest, designed the course so that each hole incorporates signature elements of a famous designer’s style. The fine panorama from the first tee should not distract you from noting the tribute to golf’s first course architect, Old Tom Morris—the pot bunkers, for example, or the low rock wall on either side of the fairway, a pre-existing feature that, as Morris often did, has been left alone. The only architect with two holes on the course is Donald Ross, the papa of Pinehurst. The shape of the ninth green (which hugs a pond) incorporates a Ross-like shallow trench; the 473-yard, par-4 15th hole requires an accurate uphill tee shot followed by an even more accurate long approach over two big Ross bunkers that are not as close to the green as they appear.
In addition to $55 greens fees for Warren County residents on Wednesday and $50 for seniors (60+) Monday through Friday and anytime on weekends after 1 pm, there will be some special fall rates. All greens fees include cart, range balls, and yardage book.

Architects has one of the better restaurants of any public golf club in the state. It’s called Thyme, and it is expanding the soup menu this fall and putting on what it calls an award-winning chili. Thyme also offers another way to keep warm: specialty martinis.

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Farmstead Golf & Country Club
88 Lawrence Road, Lafayette
973-383-1666, farmsteadgolf.com
Par 69, yardage 6,221, slope 123

As its name suggests, Farmstead is a rural layout on the site of an old dairy farm. In fact, members of the Lydecker family, which formerly farmed the land, are still involved in operating the course with the Phoebus family, which purchased the acreage in 1961. The old barn and silo have been converted into a clubhouse and restaurant, giving Farmstead a pleasant, rustic atmosphere. The grounds around the clubhouse are beautifully landscaped, and the nearby pond is always aswarm with geese and some of the brawniest swans you’ll ever see.

This is a fairly flat course, which makes it perfect for walking on a chilly fall day. The foliage show is fabulous, particularly as you gaze across any of the numerous water hazards. There are three nine-hole layouts to choose from, so Farmstead can be played in a variety of ways. The original Clubview nine features mostly long, straight fairways lined with mature trees; water is a factor on four holes. Lakeview can be more challenging, with four doglegs and six water holes, including the 9th, a par 3 that requires an accurate 125-yard tee shot over an elongated pond. Valleyview is shorter but hilly, with undulating greens.
Our favorite foliage hole is the 4th on Lakeview, a 503-yard par 5 that ends with a long stretch along a lake. The trees on the opposite shore provide a colorful backdrop as you work your way to the green. Farmstead also rewards nature-loving golfers with plenty of deer sightings.

Rates here are reasonable, topping out at $68 with cart on weekends, and $51 on weekdays ($58 on Friday). Rates drop daily after 2 pm; you can walk for as low as $26 on weekday afternoons. Specials are listed on the website.

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Howell Park Golf Course
405 Squankum-Yellowbrook Road
Farmingdale, 732-938-4771
Par 72, yardage 6,964, slope 126

Monmouth County golfers, forgive us our envy. For years, the rest of us have felt like kids with our noses pressed to the candy store window, drooling over your seven county-run courses, all reasonably priced and several as good as muni golf gets. But when the county instituted its automatic reservation system, without fanfare it created a non-resident reservation card that grants exactly the same seven-days-in-advance access to tee times that county residents get. You pay a bit more—not only for each round, but also for the card ($60 as opposed to $34 for the card, and $6 as opposed to $3 for each golfer’s reservation)—but man! It’s worth it.

While Hominy Hill in Colts Neck deserves its reputation as a stellar public track—it has hosted several USGA Championships—Howell Park in Farmingdale is a gem, and significantly cheaper. Once a dairy farm, Howell was the first course the county built, back in 1972. Architect Francis Duane took a fairly flat piece of land with great stands of oak and pine, bisected by a tributary of the Manasquan River, and laid out a course that’s never painfully narrow or punishing but always satisfying.

The course features plenty of deciduous trees to enchant autumn golfers. From the 5th fairway, the view uphill is framed by lots of big trees behind the green. The 8th, a par 3 over a creek; the 11th, a snaking par 5; and the 17th, another par 3 over a creek, also feature gorgeous trees behind the greens.

Big hitters won’t forget the 7th—a par 4 that measures 307 yards from the middle tees but much less if you go for the green over the willow tree at the corner. The 11th is a doozy of a par 5, an S-shaped double dogleg where, if you bomb your drive over the corner, it’s quite possible to reach the green in two and set up an eagle putt. The greens are massive and have far more mounding and character than you’ll find at most public courses.

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Mattawang Golf Club
295 Township Line Road, Belle Mead
908-281-0778, mattawang-golf.com
Par 72, yardage 6,805, slope 134

Mattawang means “travel a difficult path” in the language of the Native Americans who once lived there. Presumably they weren’t golfers, but they knew a challenging piece of land when they saw it. Set in the rolling farm country of Belle Mead, midway between Princeton and Somerville, Mattawang opens with two short, straight par-4 handshakes. But from there, things get tough.

“It’s tight, and though it was designed in the 1960s, the small greens make it feel like a throwback to the 1920s,” says Mahlon Dow, who’s been the pro since 1994, when its current owners took over the old Pike Brook Country Club and opened it to the public under its new name. Today, Mattawang is one of the best deals in New Jersey golf. Never more than $69, including cart, it’s often much cheaper, including a twilight weekday walking fee of just $15.

At 6,805 yards from the tips, Mattawang is not particularly long, but one-time designer Mike Myles sure knew how to use doglegs. Many are like the 533-yard, par-5 5th, which requires a perfectly placed drive to set up a second shot around the corner and over a narrow stream: This is needle threading with no margin for error. Numbers 5, 14, and 15 run adjacent to one another and all are pretty and wooded. Look back at the elevated tee of the 462-yard, par-4 14th from the fairway—nice high grass with golden color. The 15th is a narrow 502-yard par 5 that runs uphill through a narrow gap to an elevated green with trees on the right side.

The finishing holes are all superb. Jack Nicklaus still holds the course record of 66, which he shot at the club’s grand opening, in 1962. Sure, there are bears all over New Jersey, but where else can you stalk a Golden Bear?

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River Vale Country Club
660 Rivervale Road, River Vale
201-391-2300, rivervalecc.com
Par 72, yardage 6,470, slope 130

River Vale packs a great deal of beauty and interest into an unusually compact footprint of more than 100 acres. Though the layout is tightly woven—and thus good for walking—the lush treescape gives the golfer a feeling of privacy. You wouldn’t call this course hilly, but elevation changes add intrigue and challenge to virtually every hole. There are elevated tees—for example into the deep bowl of the 185-yard, par-3 4th, or into the gently turning valley of the 325-yard, par-4 11th—as well as elevated landing areas (some requiring pulse-quickening blind shots) and elevated greens.

Water comes into play most meaningfully in the streams that cross in front of the 9th and 18th greens. Greens are relatively small and contoured but are not so fast as to be unplayable. At 6,470 yards from the tips, River Vale is not a long course, but thanks to its distinctive traits, it doesn’t play short. If you make par on the 475-yard, par-4 15th or the 540-yard, par-5 18th, you can walk off the green proud.

The tight layout, small greens, elevation changes, and one-of-a-kind holes like the abrupt 90 degree dogleg 13th—all mark River Vale as a course of an earlier time. It was designed in 1931 by architect Orrin Smith and later significantly modified by the immortal Donald Ross. With this pedigree plus country club fine points like well-tended flower beds, ornamental grasses, and a diverse treescape (including several majestic weeping willows), the pleasures of River Vale don’t come cheap. Midsummer rates are maintained right through October 31, with peak weekend and holiday greens fees of $115 to mid-day. A twilight rate of $75 takes effect at 3 pm and a super twilight rate of $55 at 5 pm. Monday through Thursday rates run from $35 to $75.

More pleasure awaits after your round. A $5 spa fee gives you access to the locker rooms, and the men’s is equipped with a sauna and hot tub. The restaurant, in addition to a good selection of sandwiches, pastas, and other pub favorites, has a back-page surprise—a traditional (though sans sushi) Japanese menu. We tried shrimp tempura and roasted eel with its customary sweet and tangy sauce over rice, and both were excellent.

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Scotland Run Golf Club
2626 Fries Mill Road, Williamstown
856-863-3737, scotlandrun.com
Par 71, yardage 6,810, slope 131

There’s nothing particularly Scottish about the 18 holes architect Stephen Kay has wrested from an old asphalt quarry near Williamstown, some 15 miles south of Camden. Scotland Run is more wooded than linksy, but it is sensational, one of the best daily-fee courses in New Jersey, and fully deserving of ranking 15th nationally, as it did in a secret Readers’ Choice survey in Golf World. (The only other N.J. track in the top 50 was Ballyowen in Sussex County, which ranked 44th.)

The greens and fairways are beautifully manicured, but the land between them looks wild and scruffy, with looming cliffs of orangey-yellow clay and gargantuan waste bunkers everywhere. Water lurks on all but one hole of the very tough back nine, which commences with a downhill dogleg par 5 whose elevated green is protected by a rampart of vertical railroad ties.

For all that, Scotland Run feels scoreable. It’s 6,810 yards from the tips but wide enough to be a fair test. Best of all, Kay has designed many classic risk/reward holes, most memorably the par-4 16th, a “cape” hole demanding a tee shot over a humongous waste bunker: It’s more than two acres big, 15 feet deep, and contains, among other things, the rusty carcass of a single-engine plane, a warning to any golfer who dares fly too much of this Grand Canyon.

The 18th is as good a finishing hole as you’ll find anywhere: a 530-yard par 5, with a mirage of a landing area, a second shot that sweeps right, around the corner of a large pond, and then uphill to a two-tiered green. Scotland Run isn’t cheap (from May 1 to mid-October it’s $95 on weekdays and $105 on weekends), but in late fall (and early spring) that goes down to $78 all week. And fall may be the best time to play it, when all those big oaks have turned chestnut-brown, and you can repair to the cozy Highlander Pub, hunker down with a bowl of New England clam chowder, and warm your feet by the fire.

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Shore Gate Golf Club
35 School House Lane, Ocean View
609-624-8337, shoregategolfclub.com
Par 72, yardage 7,227, slope 136

At Shore Gate, one of the Garden State’s most challenging daily fee courses, you always have an audience—tall, stately galleries witnessing your every shot. Such are the trees that frame every hole on the course’s 245 forested acres. Though it’s in the Pinelands, Shore Gate features a host of deciduous trees, notably laurel, oak, and holly, that add fire to autumn rounds. They won’t burn you—but the course will.

How? Greens are extremely well guarded with broad, deep, serpentine bunkers, some partially hidden from view. The greens themselves are often multitiered and rolling—a challenge to putt. Large portions of the fairways look like a rippling rug, on which the ball may sit above or below your feet or on an uphill or downhill lie. Water comes into play on seven holes. There are several large waste areas and a total of 88 bunkers. Accuracy is essential, but several tee shots also require power to clear forced carries.

It’s no picnic, but if you’ve got game, Shore Gate is utterly engrossing and visually dramatic. And don’t be deterred by the mind-boggling length from the tips. There are five sets of tees, creating yardages from 5,284 to 7,227.

Compared to summer rates reaching $105, early October greens fees drop to $70 on weekdays, $95 weekends; as of October 19, fees drop again to $60 weekdays, and $75 or $85 weekends, depending on tee time. There is no restaurant, but the snack bar and halfway house offer a selection of soups, stews, and chowders in the fall. Another plus: the sandy soil of Pinelands courses like Shore Gate drains fast, and fall temperatures may be a few degrees warmer than in the north.

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Wild Turkey Golf Club
One Wild Turkey Way, Hardyston
973-827-5996, CrystalGolfResort.com
Par 71, yardage 6,555, slope 131

Wild Turkey is one of seven courses under the Crystal Springs Resort banner. Located in the Skylands region in the hilly northwest corner of the state, the resort is somewhat off the beaten path but well worth the trip—and not just for the golf.

Crystal Springs is intended for weekend getaways but also makes a great day trip. There are two hotels—the family-oriented Minerals Resort & Spa and the luxurious Grand Cascades Lodge—and an array of dining options, including Restaurant Latour, with its famed wine cellar. (Restaurant Latour is one of this magazine’s Top 25 Critics’ Choices for 2009.) There also are two world-class spas: Reflections (in the Grand Cascades) and Elements (in Minerals Resort).

All that might suggest the soft life, but the golf is anything but. Wild Turkey is particularly rugged and challenging. The course starts in a wide-open basin below the Grand Cascades Lodge, then climbs along a ridge and follows the contours of the land to a distant quarry lake.

The ridge-top holes are particularly rewarding to golfers seeking spectacular foliage scenes. Our favorite is the 10th, a par 3 that drops sharply downhill to a tight green 193 yards away. The view of the distant, wooded hills from the elevated tee box is breathtaking. The 497-yard, par-5 11th hole is another autumn stunner, offering an unbroken view of the ridge to your left as you progress down the fairway. (For long hitters playing the back tees, this hole measures 648 yards.)

Now about that quarry lake: The signature 7th hole is an intimidating par 3 that requires a tee shot of at least 160 yards across a gaping water hazard onto what seems like a dime-sized green. Swallow hard and swing easy. That said, intermediates will find plenty to enjoy at Wild Turkey. The fairways are generally wide and the greens gentle. And the downhill holes give you a nice ego boost.

The Crystal Springs courses have been providing attractive bargains this year—particularly midweek. That will likely continue this fall. Get on their e-mail list to stay on top of the latest offerings. The official Saturday and Sunday rate is $120 with cart. On weekdays, that drops to $90, and $60 after 2 pm. Rates are discounted by about 25 percent after November 2.

Click on the links below to read our Fall Day Trips stories:

Take A Hike: Aching feet and burning quads are a small price to pay for a trek on New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail.

Shudder And Quake: From fright fests to haunted hayrides, ghostly attraction abound in NJ.

Patriots Chilled: Tour the grounds where Washington’s (shivering) army slept.

Where The Wizard Worked: Editson’s West Orange lab reopens its doors after a five-year restoration.

Paterson Great Falls Historical Park

Rise To The Challenge: Tour New Jersey’s Historic Lighthouses.

Forging Ties: Batsto Village in Burlington County is a many-layerd Jersey pleasure.

Break Out Your Bonnets: From tea dances to murder myster dinners, Cape May’s Victorian Week will put you in a gingerbread frame of mind.

Happy Harvests: In October, the Garden State’s food and wine festivals invite you to put your month where your mouth is.

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