Royce Brook

6,946 yards, 132 Slope from the Blues

Course:  Located in Hillsborough, NJ, Royce Brook is a semi private golf club with two courses, the West and East.  The West is for members only while the East is open to the public.  It’s ranked number 12 on New Jersey’s best public courses as well.  Since RB resides in the midpoint area where me and my buddy from North NJ can meet, we were excited to give the course a go on what turned out to be a gorgeous fall day.

The course was designed by Steve Smyers, whose work also includes the NLE Blue Heron Pines East, Bella Collina in FL and a redesign of the well known Isleworth CC, also in FL.  The course opened in 1998 during the golf boom.  On Smyers’ web site, RB East is characterized as being designed in the style of Donald Ross, while the West course is likened to the bunker designs of Alistair MacKenzie.  Alrighty then.

Grill at the turn

For a while, I was a little concerned that I enjoyed every course I played to some extent because I liked playing golf so much, tainting my reviews with glowing report after glowing report.  Then I realized it’s just been a while I’ve been some where I just didn’t click with.  I will say from the get go that I’m not a big fan of this place and I’ll do my best to explain why.

Initially, semi private clubs more often than not don’t work.  The members are usually miffed that they have to share the facilities with the public and the public oftentimes don’t feel all that welcome.  The club usually charges an unusually high green fee to raise revenue while keeping crowds to a minimum, but it’s easy for the public to feel that they’re being charged a premium for the privilege of coming on the grounds and being allowed to play golf at “thee hallowed grounds.”  For that reason, the semis I can think of in the area have either turned private or become private but allowing public play in a few creative ways, with a few clubs actually succeeding on striking a balance between being welcoming to the public while keeping the membership happy.

Royce Brook does an average job at striking this balance.  The staff are actually very friendly and welcoming, but then you can’t help but notice practice greens and enormous balconies with large signs exclaiming, “Members Only.”  I found it more comical than anything else.  The members seemed ok, so I don’t have much to say about them.  The point is that semi private clubs, at least in this area, are very difficult to pull off well.  What matters to me the most out of this whole semi private discussion, however, was the green fee, which was $109 to play the East course.  For that type of money, my expectations are pretty high.  I’ve gone into this before, but there are few courses in the area over $100 and they are atop my rankings, as well as many others.  All of them have incredible designs while virtually all of them boast top class practice and restaurant facilities.  I had heard good things about RB, was interested in playing some where I had not yet visited and was playing a couple good friends, so was fine with the higher amount.  Unfortunately, the course was confusing, contrived at times and bland at others.  The higher green fee was completely unjustified and makes this one of the worst values in the area.

The course switches between an open links type style to a more tree lined parkland style some times from hole to hole.  There are a good number of dog legs, many severely canted fairways feeding into pretty tall rough and liberally placed bunkers, most often deep.  The greens are very fast, usually slope hard from being on a hill side and include a lot of contours.  I’m fine with all of these features, in some combination or presented in particular ways, but here, it all seemed thrown together and gimmicky.  When it didn’t seem that way, it seemed boring and generic, like Smyers made some refresher holes from all of the tougher holes and didn’t put much thought into them.

Let’s go through the holes:

The First is a 482 yard par 4 (from the Blues).  The tee shot is slightly elevated to a generous fairway, but there’s a good amount of rough hidden on the right side.  The green is tucked into the back left side of the fairway, behind some severe bunkers, but there is an opening from the fairway to the green on the right side.  It’s actually a nice opening hole.

The First
Approach shot territory

The Second is a 425 yard par 4.  And this is where the head scratching starts.  The tee area is set almost to the fairway of the First, with the fairway all the way to the left.  Ok, fair enough, aim left or draw it into the fairway.  But the fairway is angled right, so most shots will run off the fairway, making a power fade the only shot you can get away with.  It’s tough to see any of this, so our group tried to carry the trees to get to the fairway, but the rough, not fairway, actually widens.  At any rate, the second shot and green complex were good enough, long but narrow.

The Second

The Third is a 171 yard par 3.  The green is generous, but anything too far to wither side will end up in a bunker or fescue grass.  It’s a good scoring hole, but nothing all that intriguing about it.

The Third

The Fourth is a 568 yard par 5.  The hole is an S shape, with the tee shot facing a row of bunkers and forcing you to aim right off the tee.  The green is tucked in a little right, with a deep bunker protecting the right of the green.  It was a fine enough hole, but forced you to play target golf without providing too many options on how to play the hole.

The Fourth

Further down the fairway before the first S turn

The Fifth is a shorter par 4 at 335 yards.  The tee shot is elevated and again, the fairway is set to one side with trouble straight off the tee.  The fairway then bottle necks to the green, with a steep run off to the right of the green.  Anything landing too close to the side of the green will definitely run off.  I actually didn’t mind this hole, as you had a lot of options on how to play it and it demanded both tee and approach shots to be accurate while the hazards didn’t penalize, rather simply made recovery shots more difficult.

The Fifth

Further down the fairway, in approach shot territory

The Sixth is a par 4 at 371 yards.  The fairway is mostly straight off the tee area, which is narrow and has the rough intruding on the right in areas.  The fairway also cants toward the center, and then towards the sides closer to the green.  The green is elevated, with one of the steeper run offs I’ve seen at the front of the green.  You can’t tell how deep the green is, but it’s rather generous, so most approach shots at or just past the pin will be fine.

The Sixth

Approach shot territory

The Seventh is a 495 yard par 5.  It’s yet another psuedo double dog leg/S shaped fairway.  It’s similar to the Fourth because the turns are all surrounded by rough or bunkers, then trees are placed near the green to make it tough to carry the turns to get on the green in two shots.  In fact, some of the trees are adjacent to to bunkers just short of the green, which didn’t make too much sense to me.  You can’t carry the bunker because of the imposing tree.

I will say that the greens were in great shape and rolled true.  Putting was tough, but true.

The Seventh

The Eighth is a 195 yard par 3.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the hole.  There’s a large bunkers to the left of the green while the green itself runs at an angle away from the tee area.  It’s pretty similar to the Third.

The Ninth is a 446 yard par 4.  It’s has a Cape feature to it, as you’re able to take off as much as you can off the dog leg with your tee shot to make for an easier approach shot, which is one of the toughest at the course.  The green is fronted by pretty big bunkers and your approach will most likely have to be in the air.  It’s a nice hole.

The Ninth

The par 3’s were nothing special while the par 5’s were repetitive and baffling while the Second was poor.  I actually liked the First, Fifth, Sixth and Ninth.  They were interesting par 4’s that provide enough variety and accessibility for all skill levels.  Not much of the natural landscape is used a;; that creatively, as most of the course is formed from bunkers and rough.

The Tenth is a 420 yard par 4.  The tee shot is quite generous to a wider fairway that is set out in front of you.  The green is also fairly large with a wide opening, set slightly downhill from the fairway.  Really, the only trouble is along the left side of the hole, with woods lining that entire side and a bunker sitting along that side as well.  One of the easier holes on the course.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 375 yard par 4.  It’s a hard dog leg left.  The fairway ascends to the dog leg an once it turns, crests downhill to the green, which terraces on the hill.  The hole is tree lined, but it’s not impossible to try and carry the trees from the tee.  The turn is only 200 yards out, but you need to get to the turn to have any look at the green.  As such, you need to hit it a little over 200 yards or par will be tough.  Another lost opportunity as far as I’m concerned.  The trees on the inside of the dog leg should be taken out, to give you an option of distances off the tee to dictate the difficulty of your approach shot.  As it stands now, you can’t even try and draw it around the dog leg because it’s too tight.

The Eleventh

The Eleventh green

The Twelfth is a 492 yard par 5.  It’s uphill to yet another wide fairway, then turns left, more uphill, to the green on top of the hill.  There are good size bunkers going up to the green, which are mostly oddly placed.  A good scoring hole.

The Twelfth

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 380 yard par 4.  The hole dog legs left and downhill to a green that sits in a knoll and slopes severely from front to back.  Another wide fairway, but the approach shot can be on the tough side.  I liked the view of the water off to the right of the fairway.  It shouldn’t come into play unless you really miss one.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 468 yard par 4.  The hole pretty much goes straight and downhill to the green.  Hitting it too far to either side will likely cost you a stroke or two.  Eh.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 209 yard par 3.  The hole goes uphill as well, so it plays longer than it looks.  Too far left is OB, but there is room on the right.  I didn’t get a photo of this one, unfortunately.

The Sixteenth is a 429 yard par 4.  The hole goes across a wetland area, then uphill, then downhill to the green, while turning slightly to the left.  The fairway is rather wide and approaching from the left side is ideal.

The Sixteenth

Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is the last par 3 at 153 yards.  The green is uphill, with a large bunker set directly in front of the green.  The bunker is carved in the hill that the green is set upon, so any shot out of it will be daunting.  The green is rather long, which you can’t see from the tee, so there’s plenty of room.  The green slopes from back to front as well, so hitting at or just past the pin is fine  It was my favorite par 3 on the course.  And of course, I forgot a photo.  Terrible of me.

The Eighteenth is a 532 yard par 5.  The hole dog legs slightly to the left, with a last fit of bunkers littering the fairway just after the tee shot landing area.  The bunkers must be carried.  The green has a run off to the right, but it’s mild enough that shots out of it are easy to get close to the pin.

The Eighteenth

Second shot territory.  The sea of bunkers awaits on the other side of the ridge.

The back nine seemed to provide a few more opportunities to score.  There were some decent holes, which include the Tenth, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth.  Creativity was lacking mostly and some holes ran the risk of being bland.  The Eighteenth was the only head scratcher for me, as it seemed entirely contrived.

Generally, I wanted to like this course, a lot.  Yet I waited, and waited, and waited to start enjoying the course, and it never happened.  The front nine was baffling for the most part and just when I started having hope with the Fifth and Sixth, the Seventh killed it for me.  The back nine was tamer, but started going more in the direction of repetitive.  It also seemed like there was an attempt to make the course challenging, but things never solidified on a theme for challenge, so it kind of strayed in a lot of places, especially with the bunkers.  The course would benefit from taking out a lot of trees, especially on the Second and Eleventh.  Many of the bunkers would also do better as grass bunkers to add interest and would turn penal shots into more challenging ones.  These things are subjective though, and the course just didn’t fit my eye.

On the other hand, RB is in a bucolic setting, service was great and the greens rolled true.  There’s a lot of good here and if the green fees weren’t so high, it’d be worth checking out again.  But as it stands now, the green fee is excessive and it’s just not a good value.

Gripes:  Should be clear by now, but I’ll reiterate:  not a great design and excessive green fees.  The grill at the turn was also odd.  There was a guy manning the grill, but he made you put your order in with a cashier 10 feet away.  You then had to go back and tell the grill guy what you ordered, except no one ever tells you to do that, so theoretically you could wait all day for your food.

Bar/Grill:  Pretty nice set up.  Looks like a cool balcony overlooking the course, but members only.  Food was ok.

Clubhouse:  Well stocked and good deals.

Practice area:  Grass range, putting green and chipping green.  Free range balls with your green fee, so that works.

Getting there:  95N to 206 North.  About an hour from Philadelphia.  You pass Mattawang on the way there.  I should have stopped in.

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE
June 2017

It has been a few years since I played here, but returned to play with a friend who lives in the area.  The course is the same; a few fun holes, yet more than a few that just didn’t make sense to me.  The course suffers from ill placed bunkers and trees, along with a couple tricked up greens.

What made the design quirks a lot more tolerable this time around included lower green fees (I didn’t play a weekend morning this time) and I felt more of a sense that the public was welcome, as opposed to last time when it seemed like the public was seen as a necessary evil.  Perhaps it was me and my perception that changed, who knows, but I enjoyed my round here more this time around.

Mainly, I had a hard time seeing variety of play and strategy from hole to hole.  Yes the holes vary, but there’s typically only one way to play each hole.  The design tries and you see different hole shapes and green complexes, but not a whole lot of thought is required for each shot.  Still though, there’s enough to hold interest and I genuinely enjoyed some of the holes.  Conditions were above average as well.

After playing here recently, RB moves up a little for me.  The staff was nice and you generally get an experience above what you see at most munis, with a nicely maintained course that’s fun in spots.  It’s a little too far from the Philly area to travel to with everything considered, but if I’m looking for some where to play in the area during the week, it would be in the discussion.

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