Great Golf: NJ’s 10 Best Public Courses

The top places to play in New Jersey, according to our panel of experts.

Ballyowen, our #1 golf course and flagship of the Crystal Springs Resort, spreads across a treeless expanse whose rippling fairways, rugged mounds and deep swales bring Scottish linksland to mind and make each hole visually memorable and uniquely challenging.
Courtesy of Crystal Springs Resort.

We convened a panel of experts and asked them to identify the state’s 40 best daily fee and publicly owned courses. Here’s why these 10 topped the list.

1) Ballyowen
Town: Hamburg (Sussex)
Designer: Roger Rulewich, 1998
Distance: 7,094 yards, Par 72
Rating: 73.6
Slope: 131

Tucked alluringly like a sucker pin in northwest New Jersey’s Highlands region is a golfing Brigadoon. Literally and figuratively, Ballyowen is on a plateau. The links-style layout is not the longest course you can play in the Garden State, nor the most iconic. But it is surely the damnedest—and the most intoxicating.

The first thing you notice when you approach on Wheatcroft Road (blink and you might miss the turn) is that the 250-acre expanse is all but treeless—wide open. Do not be fooled. In summer, when the rough is up and the fescue could graze the outstretched hand of a Parkway toll taker, you’d best pack a mess o’ balls. There are 71 bunkers, often in the most diabolical spots. Dunes and mounds often have you shooting blind. Fairway hummocks produce uneven lies. Random elevation changes, particularly on approach shots, make the yardage on the card moot. The shallow green of the par-3 No. 6 pinches your options: Take enough club to make it over the water in front, but not so much you land in the gnarly gorse in back.

The main challenge is the sinuous design. Ballyowen’s longer holes, notes panel member Lisa Lifer, “mix bombs-away with target golf.” Looking from the tee of the par-5 10th, you face a long carry to the diagonally positioned fairway, which moves left and downhill. Long-hitting righties will be tempted to aim a left-curving draw over the bunkers to cut the corner and set up an easier second shot. Pull it off, you are rewarded. Come up short, you’re in purgatory.

Many players point to No. 7, a 473-yard, dogleg-right par-4 with water hugging the right side all the way to the hole, as Ballyowen’s most breathtaking. “It requires a good drive, which still leaves you with a mid-to-long approach, a special challenge when the flag is on the right,” says Lifer. Only one hole—the par-4 14th—can be vaguely labeled as “straightforward.” But as Lifer says, “even with a good drive, the approach is long and can be a blind shot. You have to have faith in your alignment and go for it.”

It doesn’t get easier when you pull out the putter. While not necessarily quick, the greens often are large, multitiered and filled with subtle swells and breaks. On the par-5 17th, if you land on the upper-left part of the surface and the pin is front right, you’ll need to negotiate a humpback. Putt just past the crest, and gravity may take the ball to the hole—or past it. So there’s a premium on placing the ball on the correct level. Lots of luck!

Perhaps the major challenge (besides maintaining a vigilantly enforced 4 1/2-hour pace of play) is to not get distracted by the surroundings. From the high 14th green, you spy a glorious panorama of flags whipping (yes, it gets windy with so few trees) on half a dozen holes. At sunset in the summer, a bagpiper skirls next to the handsome clubhouse, whose restaurant serves half a dozen beers on draft. Like the single-malt Scotches stocked there, Ballyowen may take more than one sip to fully appreciate. But we bet you’ll be back for another taste.

2) Neshanic Valley
Town: Neshanic Station (Somerset)
Designers: Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, 2004
Distance: 7,069 yards, Par 72
Rating: 73.8
Slope: 130

On whichever two of the three pastoral nines (Lake, Meadow, Ridge) you choose, you will face generous fairways, but also a dilemma: play away from the hazards (bunkers, water and environmentally sensitive areas) or challenge them to set up an easier ensuing shot? Panelist Tom Ierubino lauds the closing three holes (Nos. 7, 8 and 9) on the Lake Course. “They offer a nice mix with a short dogleg-left par-4, followed by a long par-3, and finishing with a par-5 that plays first downhill, then uphill,” he says. A dividend, says Ierubino, is that “the practice facilities give you the tools to work on your game like a pro.”

3) The Architects
Town: Phillipsburg (Warren)
Designer: Stephen Kay, 2001
Distance: 6,863 yards, Par 71
Rating: 72.5
Slope: 131

The conceit: Each hole is fashioned in the style of a classic designer (Banks, Ross, Tillinghast, et al). “The course flows together in a way that a golfer unaware of the concept might not even notice,” says panelist Harry Goett approvingly. Architects also breaks you in gently, with two medium-length par-5s: straightforward, 509-yard, pot-bunkered No. 1, in the manner of Old Tom Morris, and strategy-filled, 521-yard No. 3, patterned after Hugh Wilson. Goett favors yet another par-5, No. 13, on which a creek fronts the green—as it does at Alister MacKenzie’s 13th at Augusta National. Except you can’t play the Masters at these rates: a reasonable $99 on weekends.

4) Twisted Dune
Town: Egg Harbor Township (Atlantic)
Designer: Archie Struthres, 2001
Distance: 7,248 yards, Par 72
Rating: 74.9
Slope: 130

As its name suggests, this links-style layout gives you a taste of the exotic, capped by sheltering sands and variable breezes. “Shotmaking is necessary because of the bunkers, waste areas, elevations and fescue,” says panelist Brenda Canal. To say nothing of the forced carries to the dance floor, as at the 410-yard No. 14. Still, notes Canal, “the course is very fair, with wide fairways and large greens.” Other mitigating factors: “The amenities are nice and the staff is very friendly.”

5) Hominy Hill
Town: Colts Neck (Monmouth)
Designer: Robert Trent Jones, 1964
Distance: 7,049 yards, Par 72
Rating: 74.2
Slope: 131

Beautifully maintained for such a heavily played track, hallowed Hominy “is a bombardment of the golf senses,” declares panelist Tom Pranio. “Hardly any shot is straightforward, and even on the par-3s, the greens are large and tricky enough to give the average player fits and the better player cause for concentration. When you hit it in the rough, it sometimes takes Herculean feats of strength to extricate yourself.” Three of the course’s toughest holes are par-5s (in ascending order of difficulty, Nos. 17, 4 and 14), all of which get testier when the breeze comes from the south.

6) Atlantic City Country Club
Town: Northfield (Atlantic)
Designer: John Reid, 1897; Tom Doak, 1999
Distance: 6,577 yards, Par 70
Rating: 72.3
Slope: 133

“Just cool…Frank Sinatra cool,” is how panelist Sean Fitzsimmons describes this history-soaked course, host to three U.S. Women’s Opens and most recently redesigned by Tom Doak in 1999. The alleged birthplace of the term “birdie” can be stingy in yielding them; its relatively modest length relies on the staunch bunkering of many greens and the stiff winds to sharpen its claws. “The course opens with a long, demanding par-5,” says panelist Fred Behringer, “and closes with a notable par-4 leading to the clubhouse,” whose old-school interior is spartan wood. On the back nine, savor the spectacular views of Atlantic City across the bay.

7) Royce Brook (East)
Town: Hillsborough (Somerset)
Designer: Steve Smyers, 1998
Distance: 6,946 yards, Par 72
Rating: 73.6
Slope: 132

As well groomed as the members’-only West Course, the East Course (the public half of Royce Brook’s 36-hole complex) offers tree-lined as well as open-meadow holes—and a fascinating variety of problems to solve. Tom Ierubino points to Nos. 7, 8 and 9: a double-dogleg par-5, a picturesque par-3 whose tee shot must be hit through a wooded chute to a large green, and a dogleg-left on which the golfer must decide how much of the rough to carry to reach the fairway. The bunkers are many and large. However the course treats you, at the end you return happily to a superb clubhouse with excellent food.

8) Scotland Run
Town: Williamstown (Gloucester)
Designer: Stephen Kay, 1999
Distance: 6,810 yards, Par 71
Rating: 73.3
Slope: 134

The sand quarry on which Scotland Run was sculpted is much in evidence at what panelist Merrell Noden terms the “wildest and wooliest” layout of our Top 10. “The front isn’t so dramatic, but it’s a good warm-up for the back,” he says. Then, hang on. “The back nine has one mind-blowing hole after another,” Noden says, citing “raised greens fronted by walls of railroad ties, blind shots, and at No. 16, a risk-reward par-4 where you drive over the biggest trap I’ve ever seen. The last time I played it, there was literally a crashed small plane at the bottom of this bunker.” You’ll find solace in the club’s “good food,” Noden says.

9) Heron Glen
Town: Ringoes (Hunterdon)
Designer: Dan Schlegel, 2002
Distance: 7,065 yards, Par 72
Rating: 74.1
Slope: 137

A bit funky (five par-5s, five par-3s), this heavily played, bucolic course demands straight and precise shooting. Several fairways are studded with ravines to be negotiated—only to leave other potential pitfalls. The 503-yard 16th “requires a good drive, otherwise you’ll have to lay up to avoid going into the waste area,” says panelist Jamie Gacos. And that’s only the No. 6 handicap hole. However, Heron Glen demands only one forced carry to a green (the par-3 12th). “It’s a fair and interesting layout,” says Gacos, who also notes that, while there is no clubhouse, “they offer quality food.” Panelist Phyllis Peterson likes that “the pace of play is well regulated, and at most a round may be 4 1/2 hours, usually less.”

10) Wild Turkey
Town: Hardyston (Sussex)
Designer: Roger Rulewich, 2001
Distance: 7,202 yards, Par 72
Rating: 74.8
Slope: 131

Sister club at Crystal Springs Resort to Ballyowen and similarly picturesque, Wild Turkey has two looks: ridge and basin. The latter includes much of the back nine, which has a panoramic arena feel. The two most dramatic and dizzying holes are one-shotters: The par-3 10th is a 218-yarder that drops straight down. (Play it about 20 yards less than it says on the card, and factor in wind.) “On the tee you feel like a skydiver poised to jump into the void, hoping to land on this postage stamp below,” says panelist Eric Levin. Tough forced carries (as over water at the other signature par-3, the 7th) are offset by wide fairways and landing areas, making Wild Turkey a sweeping test you’ll enjoy taking.

Click here to read the full top 40 list.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Jersey Living, Outdoors, Sports articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required not shown
Required not shown