RiverWinds Golf Club

6,843 yards, 132 slope from the Blues

Course:  RiverWinds is in West Deptford Township, NJ, about 15-20 minutes from Center City Philadelphia, situated on the Delaware River pretty much right across from the Philadelphia airport.  The course opened for 2002 and was designed by Ed Shearon, who also designed Raven’s Claw and Vineyard at Renault.  RiverWinds plays similar to a links course in many respects; it’s set on water, susceptible to wind, plays firm and fast, where the contours of the land can be used for shot selection, trees are scarcely used and the greens are large, providing an emphasis on the flat stick.  

When I first heard about RiverWinds about ten years ago, I was off the charts excited to find out that a mid-priced links style course was so close to downtown.  I immediately booked a round, but the conditions left a lot to be desired.  Sand was missing in bunkers, fairways were encroached with weeds; the course was in serious need of attention.  This was confusing, as the course was fairly new, so I wasn’t sure if it needed more time to develop.  But as time went on, things did not improve yet the green fees went up.  While I enjoyed the design and saw the potential, I eventually gave up on expecting the course to meet its potential, as I heard stories of it experiencing financial issues, as the developmental concept behind the course and area wasn’t taking off as expected.

At some point, Ron Jaworski bought the course and I started hearing rumblings that it was playing well.  I finally had a chance to get back in November 2014 and really liked what I saw, but wanted to get back out when the weather was warmer and things were greener.  The stars finally aligned and I had a chance to take a good look at the course recently and am delighted how much things have improved.  The course could finally be played according to its design and as I expected, provides a fairly unique layout in the area that reminded me of parts of Wyncote with a little Lederach.  The terrain is fairly flat, but there are mounds and twisting fairways that shape the holes and affect how they play.  The green complexes are quite large, having various short grass areas and sideboards allowing all types of recovery shots and there are a few forced carries and pitched greens.  Because of its proximity to the river, lack of trees and flat landscape, the course is substantially affected by the wind.  If the wind is up, it becomes infinitely more challenging.  Like add at least a stroke to each hole difficult.  There might be protests and cries of fair play here, but this is yet another way in which RiverWinds is similar to many links courses, where it plays fairly easy in calm conditions and becomes a monster otherwise.  Such is golf.  It’s a game reliant upon and intertwined with the surrounding natural elements, no matter what they are.  While the slope doesn’t change based on the existing playing conditions (some are proposing it should), playing the course as you find it is one of the basic tenets of the game.  At any rate, bunkering is also creatively done here, but not overly done. The end result is a high value links style course that emphasizes ball striking and putting, but challenges the long game in parts.

Jaworski is certainly showing a nice acumen for spotting courses with potential and improvement for the public, then executing that plan.  The courses I have played in his stable have all shown improvement in many respects and as far as I’m concerned, have contributed to the overall reputation of the Philadelphia area’s public golf course scene as being one of the best in the nation.  Green fees are always within reason, conditions are always nice and any work to the design of the course is typically subtle yet effective.  Kudos to Jaws.

RiverWinds is certainly the biggest example of a Jaws-improved course I have played.  I had the fortune/misfortune of playing here recently in 20-25 mph wind gusts, but had the course to myself and had a blast, even when my driver was being pushed offline 20 yards.  But one of the biggest joys of the round was thinking back to those 10 years ago and remembering imagining how cool the course would be if it was in good shape, then realizing that it finally happened.

The First is a 532 yard par 5.  From an elevated tee, the fairway is generous and dog legs right on the second shot, heading a tad downhill to the green.  Bunkers are mostly along the right side and approach shots from the left side provide a clearer view of the green.  It’s a nice starting hole and as a par 5, gives you a good chance to get your swing in order.

The First

Moving down the fairway

The Second is a 165 yard par 3.  The green is a good size, but the bunkers are some what camouflaged from the tee area and will take out most shots left short.  Any wild shot is at least left with a chance of recovery, but must contend with rough and what is most certainly an awkward lie from the surrounding mounds.

The Second

The Third is a 416 yard par 4.  Another wide fairway that makes you swing to the left from the tee while the fairway begins to ripple a little on the approach shots to a green that runs from front to back.  Mounds define both sides of the hole, again providing sufficient challenge to recover from any shot straying too far to either side.

The Third

The photos doesn’t do it justice, but the false front leading to green makes for some interesting shots to the pin

The Fourth is a 477 yard par 5.  The course starts to get down to business with this double dog leg and the outstanding variety in routing at this point.  A ridge in the fairway makes the tee shot semi-blind, which then turns left before turning yet again back to the green, which is generally on the left side of the hole.  To enjoy the benefit of getting roll from the fairway, shaping shots to run with the shape of the fairway is ideal, as most straight shots will run off the fairway into the rough.  The green is wide but shallow and bunkers leading up to it are smartly placed.

The Fourth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 446 yard par 4.  While the fairway is quite large, tee shots hugging the left side will help shorten the approach shot, which is a forced carry at about a 10:00 angle over an expansive waste bunker area that you end up taking the cart over to the green.  There is water off to the left as well that will take care of pulled shots, like mine.  I found it to be one of the more interesting approach shots of the round.

The Fifth

Approach shot territory 

The Sixth is a 381 yard par 4.  Bunkers are on the either side of the dog leg as it turns left to the green.  A large mound off to the left makes shots on that side shorter, but blind to the green.  The green itself is surrounded by bunkers and most shots will be coming into it slightly from right to left.  I actually like the mound there, as it gives the hole a lot of character.

The Sixth 

The Seventh is a 208 yard par 3.  The tee is elevated, which shortens the distance some what, while most of the trouble is off to the sides.  This is a good example of a hole that is generally a nice scoring opportunity for all but the most egregious shots when the weather is calm, but turns into a beast when the wind is up, as the bunkers come more into play and the green gets much further away. What I really liked was the green, which runs from right to left and has lots of subtleties to make you second guess even the most straightforward putts.

The Seventh

A look at the rippled green

The Eighth is a 432 yard par 4.  The fairway tightens up a little, but the hole is straightaway to the green and is a fair reprieve before reaching one of the tougher holes on the course at the Ninth.

The Eighth

Approach shot territory

The Ninth is a 425 yard par 4.  The Ninth ends the front nine with a bang, as water dominates the tee shot, leaving the fairway on the extreme right, curling back towards the left.  Figuring out how much to cut off the water off the tee is vital, as the approach shot is to one of the higher greens om the course, which will likely require a longer club to reach.  Very long hitters may be able to carry the water altogether to set up a shorter approach, but most will have to start off to the right.  The hole is unique, challenging and provides play unseen before this point in the round.  I think it presents itself at just the right time during the round.

The Ninth

A look at the hole from the green

Approach shot territory

The front nine starts off well with great routing before some interesting and challenging holes come in, which is then set up with a little refresher before facing the memorable Ninth.  My ranking of them is 9, 5, 4, 3, 6, 7, 1, 2, 8.

The back nine starts with the 515 yard par 5 Tenth.  Another double dog leg that first turns left before going right, with the fairway then ending as the green is on the other side of a creek.  The green is wide and shallow and is perpendicular to the fairway at an angle of 8:00 to 2:00.  While the hole provides plenty of opportunity for recovery shots, the challenge is subtle in making sure that your first two shots are sufficient to set up an ideal approach shot.  The green also protects itself from most attempts at making it on in two, as its lack of depth and bunkers on the far side almost make that too risky.  It’s one of my favorite holes on the course.

The Tenth

Second shot territory

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 403 yard par 4.  A creek bisects the fairway and takes driver out of play for most players, unless you’re really long and want to attempt to carry it.  Getting near the creek still leaves you with a manageable approach, which is to a very large green with bunkers off to the sides and leading up to it on the right.  Right away, the start of the back nine does not allow for the same warm up as the front and the course proceeds to challenge you at all the right points in the round.

The Eleventh

Approach shot territory

The Twelfth is a 367 yard par 4.  Turning around and advancing in the direction in which we came from on the Eleventh, the tee shot is to a fairway that climbs uphill and turns left.  Trees are actually in play on the hole, off to the right.  The approach shot is over a ridge to a green that site above the fairway.  And it’s the first place I got a good taste of the wind, which whips over the ridge and made the approach shot a little more complicated, but the hole allows for it as the green is very generous.

The Twelfth

Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 623 yard par 5.  Just as wind taketh away, it giveth here as a nice tailwind shortened this hole quite a bit.  If the wind is blowing against you, this will turn into a very tough and long hole.  The hole is generally straight, with mounds and bunkers scattered along the sides until you reach the large green, which move from left to right.  Again, the wind and distance are the big factors here.

The Thirteenth

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

The Fourteenth is a 381 yard par 4.  As we turn around and start playing along the Delaware River, a wall of wind was there to meet me, not going away until after the round and making me realize why this place is called RiverWinds.  The tree line along the right side does what it can to hinder the wind coming off the river and mounds along the left help shape the hole.  The green is on the smaller side, while bunkers are in the right places to collect poorly struck tee and approach shots.

The Fourteenth

Approach shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 162 yard par 3.  I think I played it like it was 200.  A short grass area comes into play rather quickly, leading up to the deep yet narrowish green, with bunkers along the right side of the hole.  Again, I liked the apparent thought of anticipating the wind, then providing ways in which to fight it through the design of the hole.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 365 yard par 4.  With the wind in full force, it should have been a par 7.  The fairway introduced a bit more challenge by narrowing, climbing to a ridge before descending just short of the green, with the green pitching above the hole.  Larger bunkers encroach on the hole on either side, on the left to start off and later on the right.  The green also falls off the far side.

Even though I started seeing some groups driving in to the clubhouse, apparently finished with dealing with the wind, the views of the river and Philadelphia sky line were terrific and it was at this point I promised to learn some kind of stinger shot to stay below the wind.

The Sixteenth

A view of the Delaware River, off to the right

Another view, this one of the Philadelphia sky line

Approach shot territory

Almost up to the green

The Seventeenth is a 154 yard par 3.  The Seventeenth is another hole that distinguishes itself, as the peninsula greenest out into the river and presents itself as a drop shot par 3.  The wind obviously complicates things here, but not as much as I thought.  It’s a fun par 3 and yes, you could sit here all day and hit balls to it (although you shouldn’t and the course knows how fun it is, posting a sign asking you to keep it to your one shot).

The Seventeenth

The river beyond the green

The green, in a nice moment

The Eighteenth is a 391 yard par 4.  The elevated tee shot to the fairway is accepting of a lot of shots, but the holes does fall off the right side and is strewn with bunkers, which collect most approach shots off line in that direction.  Going up the left side is ideal.  I think the sand in the bunkers is different than the other holes, but I preferred it.  The green is at the high point of the hole, so you’re left contending with the wind one last time, but I’d go up the left side every time to stay away from the bunkers off the right.

The Eighteenth

Approach shot territory

The back nine is more interesting to me than the front and asserts itself early on with challenging holes until the wind comes into play, which is also well designed to accommodate.  I’d rank them 10, 17, 18, 11, 12, 13, 16, 14, 15.

In general, RiverWinds is a distinct course for the area that offers several characteristics of a links course that make it fun and challenging in parts.  The challenge factor varies depending on weather conditions and the course does a good job designing for the weather while remaining interesting even during calm conditions.  Ball striking, distance control and the short game are at a premium for scoring well and other than the par 3’s on the back nine, feel the routing was done well.  The course has vastly improved from how it was in years past, which I’m very glad and relieved to see.  I also see this as a great match play course, as there are several shots which could make or break the match and most holes provides a nice opportunity for recovery.  And of course, the weather, and how each player responds to it, is a wild card that would spice up any match.

I expect to play here fairly often, as I enjoy the links-ish layout and its proximity to the city is terrific.  And standing on the Seventeenth green after my par putt, watching some of the boats move along the Delaware River with Philadelphia in the background in relative silence was tranquil in its own right, reason enough for me to return soon.

Gripes:  There really isn’t a practice area.  I don’t know if they have a cart girl, I did not see one, which is needed since you don’t see the clubhouse at any point during the round.

Bar/Grill:  There’s a bar area upstairs where you can see the tennis courts, but I have no idea how often it is open.

Practice area:  There’s a putting green, but it’s near the First, which is about quarter of a mile from the clubhouse.  Otherwise, there is no range.

Nearby:  There are lots of places to go nearby and in South New Jersey in general.  Also, downtown Philadelphia is about 20 minutes away.