3,020 yards, 135 slope from the Gold tees
In Jersey City, New Jersey, below the Pulaski Skyway bridge is the Skyway Golf Course, opening in 2015 and designed by Roy Case and Jeff Grossman. Prior to its existence, this nine hole course was a toxic landfill wasteland, but in an effort to provide county residents with an option for golf in the wake of rising demand, county officials figured out how to clean up the area and build the course at the same time. The course is set next to the banks of the Hackensack River, an almost treeless site where the terrain rolls and there are all kinds of hillocks and hollows set throughout. The course has a links feel and certainly plays that way. Its setting is definitely unique, but I found an unusual serenity in all of it; the views of the river, whispering fescue, towering bridges and abandoned industrial sites alike. The Manhattan skyline is also in the background. Probably about 20 minutes away from downtown NYC, the course provides a great public golfing option in an area with private courses like Liberty National and Bayonne Golf Club. In fact, it’s the only public course in Hudson County.
The course is my kind of course. Firm and fast, challenging and strategic, wind can be influential. All of this goes hand in hand; if the wind is up, the course invites the ground game and realizing this, the ground game is a complex one. Carries are strategic options in most places, except a few like the tee shot at the Eighth (which is a forced carry tee shot). There are blind shots, greens below the fairway, above the fairway and next to it. Really, the course accomplishes what any truly great nine holer must; provide a comprehensive and engaging test of golf that can hold its interest over a barrage of rounds played. The holes will be played twice by those wanting a full round, so the character and integrity of each hole becomes a lot more vital to its overall success. In other words, there is no room for any weak links.
Skyway accomplishes this a number of ways. Width allows a number of angles and lines into the greens, the firm and fast ground game allows a completely different option than the aerial, the wind itself can make each round starkly contrast from the next, length of shots and strategic decisions abound – which means each hole can be played a variety of ways, and it’s outright challenging. As mentioned above, firm and fast means knowing the ground contours and how the ball will react as it rolls. More generally, there is nice balance here; its width is balanced against shots requiring precision; its longer tee shots are balanced against the deftness needed around the greens; and the play of its blind shots benefited from course knowledge balances against the shots out in front of you that lead to temptation, where temperance may be the wiser path, again learned through experience and time.
In all, Skyway is a win for so many different reasons. Revitalizing land that was long forgotten and deemed unusable in an area ignored for decades; providing not just a golf course for the public, but a very good golf course at reasonable rates in a densely populated area with few public options; and embracing its industrial and urban surroundings instead of trying to eschew them, the course and its execution are a great example of the positive impact golf can have on a community. Especially when it’s incorporated into it.
I played Skyway in late March of this year, that time of year where everyone pretends its’s much warmer than it actually is. Staying in Manhattan the night before, I was able to get to the course from the Upper West side in 20 minutes on a Saturday morning. The wind was howling, which I thought might empty the course but no, there were countless others just as crazy as my friend and I willing to take on the course despite the wind bringing the temperature down another 10 degrees, at least. I walked, hoping the exercise would help deal with the amount of food and drinks from the night before. And because it just felt like a course best enjoyed on foot. So on such a windy, cold, yet sunny and clear Saturday, we spent the day taking in this urban links scape.
The First is a 316 yard par 4 (from the Golds). The hole gently bends left amongst mounds on both sides. As the hole starts turning, it starts downhill as well, easing to the green. The terrain starts pulling to the right as you get closer to the green, which is below the fairway, while the back side rears up. The skyline nods with approval as you try to gauge the terrain movement against the wind shear for the birdie putt.
The Second is a 175 yard par 3. The first of three par 3’s, this is the longest of them. The wind was against us on this hole, making it much longer than the stated yardage. In fact, the bunt driver emerged after its slumber since Bandon. And I couldn’t have been happier. The green is uphill from the tee, with bunkers on the right and run off areas on the left. Short is a good miss but with the deep green, there is a lot of room to mess things up with the putter. With the bridge and plant in the background, it’s quite a contrast you won’t see many other places.
The Third is a 497 yard par 5. The number one handicapped hole and the course is making a statement early on. A mild double dog leg where the tee shot is similar to the First, with mounds on each side and proceeding downhill. The green comes into view as you get down the fairway a little – sweeping, rippling and narrowing down the left side before tributarizing around a front center bunker to the green. Yes, I just made up a word. Just like a tributary to a river, a fairway branching off in different directions to unify into a larger area for now on will be tributarizing. The temptation to go for the green is very real. The wind to your back (at least it was for us) and the green right in front of you with places to miss if you don’t make it (including said fairway tributaries) make going for it on the second shot appealing. Just as appealing would be knocking it down the fairway, even 100 yards, to set up a much more manageable approach. There is water on the right side and the fairway juts uphill before the green, so consider the distance issues that go along with that. The green is wide and shallow, yet another factor to consider in going for it. I laid up the first loop around, then went for it the second, ending up pin high in the bunker to the left. I fared better laying up. A terrific par 5 that gives you strategy, temptation, the Manhattan skyline and tributaries.
The Fourth is a 120 yard par 3. A reprieve is offered here, or so it seems. While the shortest hole on the course, a strong wind can make this more complicated. On the day I was there, a left to right wind made it tough to gauge the proper distance here. The green is wide, but slopes from left to right as well. There are plenty of places to miss, all of which come with their own special recovery requirements. Indeed, figuring out where you’re ok missing is part of the fun here. I’ll take the right side short grass collection area any day.
The Fifth is a 436 yard par 4. Thus far, the holes have switchbacked from each other, except for the Fourth, which simply bridged from one side of the course to one click over. You never take notice though, because of the mounds and elevation differences, the holes seem more isolated from one another. The Third, Fifth and Sixth also take a page from Pacific Dunes and have spots where the fairways meet. Those who know the course well can use those areas to their advantage and widen up the landing zones. The Fifth enjoys these areas on both sides of it as it bends a little to the right and climbs uphill. The wind was into us, making the hole tougher but inviting shots kept under the wind. The green was one of my favorite on the course; running towards the front, then changing directions from a ridge line running through the center. A great par 4.
The Sixth is a 509 yard par 5. Moving along the perimeter of the course, the juxtaposition of Duncan Avenue and truck repair shops to the rolling fairway leading gently down the green is an interesting one. The wind to your back, you can take advantage of the opening in the mounds to the right for the tee shot. The second shot is likely blind because the green dives downhill. The green is fairly small, meant to deter those from going for it in two shots, yet the fairway short of the green helps run balls on to it. The undulations of the fairway just short of the green can be effectively used to maneuver the ball to the pin, yet also will repel overly aggressive balls towards the water on the back side. It’s a great par 5.
Of course, I may be biased here a little, since this was the site of my very first eagle. After a drive to the right side of the fairway, a 5 wood to 5 feet and a made putt, it was done. Two things here. For one, the wind was to my back. Also, I thought it was a par 4. If I knew the putt was for an eagle, I’m sure I would have missed it, per my usual choke job when in that situation in the past. At any rate, it has come to pass. Even when I told the bartender about it at a local bar afterwards, my friend was right there to qualify it, “the wind was to his back though.” Thanks, friendo.
The Seventh is a 347 yard par 4. A dog leg right, the tee shot is blind because of a diagonal ridge running across the fairway, where the fairway dips down on the other side. After that ridge, the fairway really rumbles to the green, with water on the left side in play off the tee and the fairway tightening and curling to the green. Bunkers are short and long yet there is lots of room at the entry point of the green to run the ball up. This is a rare par 4 playing with a side wind, pushing from right to left, towards the water. Lots of options off the tee and with the heavy undulations of the fairway, it may be best to lay up to the ridge, then hit over all of it to the green.
The Eighth is a 469 yard par 5. The wind can make this the toughest tee shot of the day, as it was for us. Hitting against a strong headwind and a forced carry over water to the fairway. Once on the fairway, it moves to the right quickly and downhill, hiding the water awaiting those who don’t get the ball in the air. The second shot is tricky. Deciding where to place it while dealing with the turn, forced carry and bunkers on the left side can get complicated. The width here over the mounds seems infinite; the wind took hold of my friend’s first two shots and he was about half a mile to the right of the fairway. He looked like a dot when he hit his third, miraculously ending up just short of the green. Just short of the fairway moves uphill to the green, which also moves from back to front. The green almost screams for you to punch it in the gullet. With the river in full view off to the left and tons of metal in the air, carrying other tons of metal hurtling in one direction or another; all while dealing with a terrifically linksish hole, all seems to fit perfectly together.
The Ninth is a 151 yard par 3. With the crescendo of the Eighth, the Ninth ends the round on a calmer note, leveling the playing field for those matches still going. The Pulaski Skyway looks on as you negotiate the wind and bunkers that line the left side. The green, smaller in the back and undulating wildly at the front, moving right to left and back to front, is of sufficient size. While the right size seems the ideal landing spot, the wind moving left to right complicates matters. In many ways, the hole is more a respite. A time to glide on the stillness of the water after the thrill of the rapids. Take in the unusual yet spectacular surroundings and wind things down.
Generally, we need more Skyways in the world. Once a landfill, now an impressive nine holes that hits so many of the right notes to keep the more experienced and skilled players coming back while also being the right type of place for beginners and those who are looking to sharpen their skills. It’s also fun golf for a lot of the reasons I enjoy; using the ground just as much as the air, factoring in the wind and varied greens without an over reliance on bunkers. Playing every inch of a links course, it fits into its place on the riverside perfectly. While any golf course would have likely been well received because, well, it’s better than a toxic landfill, the efficient low maintenance design is a great example that the amount of money spent does not equate to quality of design. As nine holes, there is more pressure to ensure each hole is of substance, yet is appealing for so many who are short on time, as well as small on land. Ranking them for me would be 5, 3, 6, 8, 2, 1, 4, 7, 9.
The course is within the industrial ongoings on one side, and a city park on the other, where a parade was taking place as I nailed that eagle putt. Even though it was cold as hell, it was a blast. In fact, my friend, who reminded me on multiple occasions during the front nine that he was only braving the elements since I came up from Philly, was the one who let it ride, saying after the Ninth, “let’s go around again.” Quite honestly, it was one of my favorite public courses I’ve played in a while. I will go back more than a few times.
Any time you’re driving on the highway or even some city street, look around at those forgotten areas, fraught with trash and whatever else, just sitting there. Honestly, I do it all the time, while driving, on the train, on a run (twice a year). The benefits of courses set within the community, urban or otherwise, are finally gaining traction in the U.S. (despite being the norm in the UK for hundreds of years). Efficient construction and low maintenance can result in great golf. Skyway is living proof. So when you’re looking around and see those areas, start asking yourself, “would the Redan go there or would it be a better place for the drop shot?”
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The pro shop is well stocked and the clubhouse has some flat screens as well as indoor and outdoor seating. My breakfast sandwich was good and it seemed they had a decent beer/booze selection. While basic, they did all the little things right – free tees, ball markers and divot tools, good food and a large clean men’s locker.
Practice area: A chipping/putting green and hitting mats.
Nearby: Another section I haven’t done in a while, but New Park Tavern was a great bar we went to afterwards. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but a memorable corned beef, a solid beer selection, fireplace and plenty of room made it a terrific 19th hole.