Mattawang GC

6,805 yards, 134 Slope from the Blues.
128 slope on the front, 140 on the back (revised: 130, 125 front, 135 back).

Course:   The ‘Wang is north of Princeton in Belle Mead, New Jersey and is part of my Central Jersey kick that I’ve been on recently.  It took me a little over an hour to get to the course, so it really wasn’t that bad of a drive.  Mattawang is public, but is not a muni or a semi private club.  I mention this because that makes this course a, “welcome” oddity in the world of NJ public courses.  The options are usually either a muni, which will generally overcharge non residents and are crowded; or a semi private, which are nice courses which you will more often than not pay for with higher green fees.  Although there may be other public golf clubs in NJ, there are few of these that are known as respectable tracks.

Enter the ‘Wang, which is a classic layout.  What is a classic layout you ask?  Well, in a real brief and general overview of the history of golf architecture in the U.S., guys like Tillinghast and Colt travelled across the pond to Scotland, Ireland, etc. to get a sense of how such historical courses were designed, then took that knowledge back here and started to develop some really great courses that are now among the world’s best.  Then we had a few world wars and golf was pushed into a corner some where until the 1950’s, when everyone wanted to get things back to normal, which included building more golf courses.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s, most courses followed a few general guidelines, which focused on penalizing errant approach shots, allowing more wiggle room for tee shots, minimal bunker placement (usually around the greens) and straightforward greens.  Things started to go a little downhill during the 1970’s, when course design was cookie cutter.  Everything was straight and boring, forgetting the creativity and incorporation of the natural landscape that the courses from the 50’s and 60’s included.  Those courses from the 1970’s forgot that even guys like Seth Raynor, a legendary designer in his own right, had a template of holes he would utilize on each course (i.e. Eden, Redan, Alps), so even though you saw the same hole designs on each of his courses, there was still so much diversity in how those holes were designed within that template (check out the courses at Yale and Camargo, both Raynor courses, to see what I’m talking about).  But things became very bland in the 1970’s and course design began to become a lost art.  Anyways, Pete Dye was one of the guys that brought things full circle, as he went over to Scotland, etc. to study those designs and began to create his own style of course design with the Links principles in mind.  That really started another era of appreciating unique course design and you started seeing a lot more land movement with bulldozers, artificial lakes and the island green.  There’s a lot of variations on that, which resulted in tricked out greens, and generally a lot of gimmicks.  It’s common nowadays for someone to label a hole or hazard gimmicky when maybe that hole just had their number.  That era kept going until recently, when the golf boom started dying down, courses started closing and a lot of these places realized how much it cost to maintain the artificial environment they created.  That really gave way to more of a minimalist approach to design, which was relying on the landscape in its natural form for most of the hazards and hole shapes.  Doak and Coore/Crenshaw are well known for this and have given way to some instant classics, such as Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes.

At any rate, Mattawang GC was part of the movement to create enjoyable courses in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Typical of that era, the courses are straightforward with no gimmicks, but emphasized being able to shape your shots to the left, right, low or high.  There are no bail out areas.  There is usually an ideal placement of your shot to set up a better next shot.  And again, the greens aren’t tricky, but do force you to judge distance and break most of the time.  I saw all of these aspects here.

The website actually does a really good job of describing itself and I found the description to hold true.  This is a challenging course in a natural setting with a premium placed on shot making skills.  Trees are in place to penalize errant shots, greens are small and protected by bunkers (they say “sand traps,” but come on; they are always bunkers and never sand traps).  “Golfers must hit both their tee and approach shots accurately or pay the price.”  They’re not kidding.  This course is tough.  In addition to the above, the rough is nasty and deep.  The holes are set at angles, meaning dog legs that aren’t curved, but rather turn at 45 degree angles.  And trees create these angles, which cut off your approach shot and force you to try the old low draw, high fade, you name it.  It’s also long, with one of the par 3’s measuring 230 yards, another 2 were 200 yards and some monster par 4’s, like the 462 yard Fourteenth.  Pin placements were tough as well, so even if you didn’t get that GIR to the tiny green after covering all the distance required, it was incredibly tough to scramble and get your chip shots close to the pin.  And you didn’t even have a chance of that if you were scrambling from that nasty rough I mentioned.  There are a few hills, but nothing severe.  There are a lot of raised greens, which also compound the difficulty of sticking the greens.  I don’t remember the last time I was trying to get back spin on the ball, the greens were that small where any release resulted in too much roll.

The challenge here is subtle.  There aren’t any 3 club winds, blind tee shots or multi tiered greens that you’ll be able to blame on your lost strokes.  Rather, you’ll slice your tee shot and realize it took you a few shots to get back in play to the green.  Or your approach will be off and land to the side of the green or in a bunker, causing you to go back and forth over the green until you finally get it close to the pin.  Or your tee shot was a little of to the right and now the trees block a straight approach shot, forcing you to hit a low fade to advance the ball, but you end up blasting it through the fairway.  So really, the course isn’t demanding any hero shots to score well, but it simply doesn’t tolerate mis-hits.  Because of this, you end up blaming yourself for a bad score as opposed to the course set up.  It reminded me of Jeffersonville in that respect.  I didn’t take all that many photos, partly because I was focusing on my game, partly because I couldn’t find much that would really depict the course accurately through the photos and partly because I was started struggling on the back 9.

A few words I kept coming back to when thinking about this course are, “classic,” “difficult” and “learn how to draw, fade and put backspin on the ball before coming back here.”  All of those shots were called upon during my 27 holes played here.  We played another 9 because we felt some of our new course knowledge would help.  It did to some extent.

Mattawang is a great play.  It’s almost unheard-of nowadays to come across a classic design course that is still challenging and in great condition.  It’s even rarer to come across a course like this that is still public with reasonable fees and personable service.  And it’s almost unbelievable for a course with all of this to not be packed to the brim with crowds.  Yet that’s what you get here and I’m glad I found this place.

The first hole is a par 4.  It’s not a dog leg, but the green is set at an 11:00 angle from the tee and there are bunkers on the left side of the fairway and around the green.  Trees line the fairway as well, but there is a decent landing area for tee shots.  The Second is also a par 4 slightly uphill, leading to a raised green surrounded by bunkers except for a narrow opening at the front of the green.  Another tree lined fairway and the nasty rough makes its first appearance.  The Third is a par 3, about 190 yards with a larger bunker fronting the right side.  Fade it in if you can.  The Fourth is another par 4 (the par 4’s thus far are right around the same length at 335 yards) that runs gradually down then up hill to a raised green with bunkers along the side.  The Fifth is the first par 5 at 533 yards.  It’s a dogleg right, tree lined and a biarritz around the landing area of your tee shot, so you have to nail your tee shot.  The green is kidney shaped around a few bunkers with trees looming close by.  It is a bear trying to scramble on this hole.

The Sixth is a 200 yard par 3.  Trees surround the tee area and even though the green is medium sized, that nasty rough is every where, so trying to hit it short for a nice approach will usually end up with a tough lie.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 500 yard par 5.  Water separates the fairway from the green that must be carried and again, trees are looming every where.  Go up the right side of the fairway for a better approach shot to the green.  The Eighth is a 440 yard par 4 that doglegs slightly left.  Your tee shot has to be struck well here, or you’ll be wasting a shot trying to get your ball back in play.  The green is surrounded on the sides by bunkers and is shallow.  The Ninth is a 395 yard par 4.  It doglegs slightly left and a little down hill.  It’s a good hole to get a stroke or two back.

So that’s the front 9.  Holes 3, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are the strong holes.  From toughest to easiest, I’d rank them 7, 6, 5, 8, 3, 4, 1, 9, 2.

The Tenth is a 415 yard par 4.  The fairway is quite narrow and there is a bunker left and right of the green.  The Eleventh is the shortest par 3 at 160 yards.  It’s almost tougher than the other par 3’s, as bunkers surround the green and you need your tee shot to fly in and stop on a dime.

The Eleventh.  The green is pretty shallow and falls off in the back.  You have to be precise.  

The Twelfth stretches out to a 550 yard par 5.  There are bunkers along the left side of the fairway and rough is every where.  The hole turns left and is uphill at the approach and trees line both sides of the fairway.  Honestly, this is where the course started kicking my butt.  The back 9 is 140 slope, so you must keep hitting long straight shots, then keep your short game sharp around these small greens.  The Thirteenth is a ridiculous 232 yard uphill par 3.  And no, there’s no bail out room or any where to lay up short.  Good luck with this hole.  The Fourteenth is a par 4 at 462 yards.  It reminded a lot of the Fifth and can be played the same way.  The Fifteenth goes the opposite direction of 14 and is a 500 yard par 5, which has a biarritz fairway, is narrow, and the travels uphill dogleg left.  It was a beast of a hole and the pinnacle of my meltdown for the round.  The Sixteenth is a 442 yard par 4.  You get a blind tee shot (listen for the bell so you know when to hit) to a rather accessible green.  16 and 17 are probably good holes to try and get those birdies.  Alas, the Seventeenth is a shorter par 4 with yet another biarritz at the end of a downhill tee shot where driver may be too much.  You then go way back uphill to the green, leaving you with a thoughtful approach shot.  The Eighteenth is probably as tricky as this course gets, as the tee area is set to the right of the hole, but goes from 11:00 over a biarritz, then switches to 2:00 to the green.  The angle theme is obvious here, as hitting straight shots appears to be a mistake as you’ll over cook the fairways.  Curving the ball is needed and it’s a great finishing hole.

The back 9 is the punisher.  There are a stretch of holes that can put you through the ringer if you’re not belting the ball.  The strong holes are 11, 12, 13, 15, and 18.  Difficulty wise, most of them were tough, but I’d rank them 12, 14, 13, 11, 10, 15, 18, 16, 17.

Generally, Mattawang is a stern test of your skills on a classic lay out.  A lot of courses could learn a thing or two from here.  Tree placement, pin placement, tee placement and rough placement can be utilized strategically to make even the easiest hole a real challenge.  There is nothing here that is visually intimidating, but rather the course wears you down if you start struggling.  It gives you a chance on each hole to redeem yourself though, which is fair.  Compare that to some where like Bethpage Black, one of the best courses in the world, which is also very long with even less room for mis hits and intimidates and bullies from the first hole.  Mattawang gives you a chance to get it going while Bethpage tries to make sure you never do.  So in that respect, the challenge here is fair, as playing well struck shots will translate to a good score.

Other than the design, I liked everything else about this course.  There was a very laid back friendly atmosphere here.  I didn’t see any rangers and there was no need for them.  There were a lot of cars in the lot, but I had no idea where most of the people were.  The course was never backed up and the bigger clubhouse area was nary a soul most of the time.  We asked for something to eat and were brought cheeseburgers on the practice green, being told to pay when we had a chance.  I loved the range, which had a forced carry over water.  I don’t even care how long the drive is; the classic layout, atmosphere and service gives you a experience you can’t find at most public courses any more.  AND the green fees are extremely reasonable.

Hypothetically, I’d put this around 8 or 9 on the overall rankings and 5 -7 on difficulty in rankings mania.  With all of these NJ courses, it’s time to do a separate NJ rankings pretty soon.  Of the courses I’ve played in that area, this goes almost right beside Eagle Ridge.  I’ll be back soon.

Gripes:  They don’t sell beer, but you can bring your own.  So also read no cart girl.  Although we got the royal treatment with food, I’m still a little unsure what the food situation is.  NJ courses charge way too much for a cart, maybe to get you to walk.  Here is no exception but even with the cart fee rates are reasonable.

Bar/grill:  No bar, unless tailgating at your car counts.  The burger was pretty good, so it gets my thumbs up.

Clubhouse:  Very well stocked with good sales and a nice lounge area.  Looks like they just got a 50 inch plasma so hopefully that’s up when I return.

Nearby:  There’s a few options.  We went to a place called Petrock’s, which was a nice bar/grill for a few drinks and dinner.

Getting there: 95N, then 206N through Princeton.

Update, August 2012:  We went back for another run at this course.  Place was still in great condition and the classic parkland layout was still as interesting this time around.  One of the things I noticed is that the tee shot becomes critical to scoring well.  I can only think of two holes where my tee shot was bad and I was able to salvage par.  We also played from the Whites and the course was much easier than both of us remembered.  Of course, the first time we played here, it was extremely hot and we went through more than a few beers, so that probably figured into the equation.

The main thing I noticed this time was the difference in slope ratings between what is on the website and what is on the scorecard at the course.  The website lists a 134 Slope from the Blues, with a 128 slope on the front and 140 on the back.  The scorecard though, lists a 130 Slope, with 125 on the front and 135 on the back.  135 is still nothing to scoff at, but I imagine the rating changed recently.  For me, playing a second time helped by knowing lines to take off the tee and realizing that when in doubt, hit it short of the green and settle for a chip to the flag stick.

The rough seemed a little tamer this time around.  That could have been from the Summer or because I was able to stay in the fairway a little more this time, but I didn’t mind it being easier to get out of off fairway if you need to.

Overall, I like this course a little better now that it seems to be playing easier.  We’ll probably hike back to the Blues next time we’re here, but I still regard this course as a nice classic for a great value that remains interesting after multiple plays.

A couple photos:

The approach at the Second.  One of the smaller greens on the course.

The approach at the Seventh.  You must carry a pond to the green, which is located at the line in front of the green.

Also, we went back to Petrock’s and was infinitely worse this time.  The people in there were scary, the food was terrible and the service was blah.  Can’t recommend it at this point.
As for the course, I’ll come back soon.

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE

April 2015

I can’t believe that my last update on this course was August 2012.  I have played here a few times since then and I suppose I assumed I had already completed a full hole by hole review.  I will be doing that after the next time I go.

The Wang is now part of the Golfnow circuit and offers very low green fees for peak times.  So my friend and I jumped on one of the deals during the weekend only to find out we were two of about 1000 other guys.  It was the first time I saw the course crowded, as they apparently stacked the tee sheets as much as possible.  It was a 5 hour round, shots were flying all over the place as the course was choked with foursomes and they ran out of carts at one point.  If it’s too good to be true, it probably is, so trying to find a cheap round at a decent course for a bargain comes with another price and here that price is a 5+ hour round.  Of course, it’s still early in the season and was one of the first real nice days of the year, so I will factor all of that in and may return a little later during the summer.

As for the course, it’s still a difficult play and conditions have held up for the most part.  Winter took its toll with the greens, but things are getting restored and should be better very shortly.  I realized that the course demands well struck tee shots in order to score well while recovery shots are very difficult.  Yet the greens are straightforward, which provides some reprieve from all of the challenging shotmaking.  It’s definitely a course I enjoy playing, but will try to get here during off peak times for now on.

A full review will be coming soon.  

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