6,552 yards, 134 Slope from the Blues

Growing up in Southern California and having those beaches at my disposal, I always shudder a bit when my family wants to go to the “Shore.” For us, this means out towards Atlantic City, then south to Ocean City and beyond. My wife grew up in it so she basks in the nostalgia of the boardwalk and everything else. Me, I just see traffic, crowds, cheap t-shirt stores and the furthest thing from relaxation. This all changed when we started going up towards Spring Lake. The beaches are nicer, less crowded and it’s generally more peaceful. At least that’s been my experience.

So this season when my family decided to venture out for one of the first times since the Spring lockdown, we’re a few blocks from the beach when I notice a golf course off to the side. My radar started pinging as I saw well contoured greens mixing with fescue blowing in the wind, fairways crooking in different directions and gentle hills mixed in throughout. This wasn’t a pitch and putt; this was a nicely structured classic course I had some how never heard of despite my thousands of hours poring over all things golf.

This was Spring Lake Golf Club.

My intrigue in the club escalated quickly as I started reading more about it, literally 15 minutes later in my beach chair. Designed by George Thomas in 1910 and then A.W. Tillinghast in 1918, it is close yet so far from the ocean. There are days when the waves crash ferociously with their thunderous roars, likely a strong wind heaving the salty mist and sounds over and through the course. Then there are those still days, when quietness pervades and the inland quality of the course shines through, the ocean seemingly eons away. While water on the course flows to and fro the North Branch Wreck Pond Brook before the Atlantic, it too seems distant in connection with the wild blue just a few blocks away. The course is open for the most part. This exposes it to the wind, making all that fescue become a much closer acquaintance. Yet while the fairways and greens are flexible to accommodate such conditions, their subtlety in movement and angles keeps it strategic even in calmer weather. Fun dominates play. The width, contours and occasional challenge make for a sprightly round, the sprawling greens an entirely different universe of strategy altogether while finding the areas of fairway to engage the ground game advantageously was delightful. In short, it’s something you would expect from Thomas and Tilly. A mellow subtlety that would give me similar notes when I played Wissahickon at Philadelphia Cricket a few weeks later. Tilly worked on this course at the same time as his work at Pine Valley. A historically significant, well designed and well maintained course relatively close by I wasn’t aware of. No matter how long I do this, it never ceases to amaze me there are still surprises out there, waiting, sometimes literally right next to my car.

A couple months after the beach chair education, I found an opportunity to play the course. It was a relaxed summer afternoon, a fickle wind occasionally with us. The final putts rattled as the sun was setting, the hushed and humming chatter of the patio as soothing as the visuals around us. Summer at its finest.

The First is a 414 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Over the North Branch Wreck Pond Brook we go to a wide landing area, heading straight for a corner of the property. Going up the right side avoids the bunkers on the left as well as the faster movement of the green, but an approach from that side almost means a left to right approach is necessary to deal with the green movement. Ideally, a tee shot to the left gives you a better line to the green. The cardinal rule of flirting with the danger out there usually reaps rewards applies here. Just avoid that left fairway bunker at all costs. A nice opener gets us settled in nicely.

The First
Approach shot territory
Shorter approach
Looking back

The Second is a 384 yard par 4. Now at the corner of Warren and Route 71, I realize this is the intersection I was stopped at after seeing this side of the course as we drove along Warren. Strangely, it was at this tee we were bombarded by a bird who was decidedly unhappy with our presence. Dodging its attacks, we hit tee shots in the general direction of the fairway and left promptly. Another wide fairway that leads down to the edge of the brook. It must be carried to the other side, which climbs uphill and into the green, bunkers on either side towards the rear. Like most of the holes here, the width allows freedom of options, yet for those looking to score, negotiating the brook and movement of the green is paramount.

The Second
Right side of the fairway before the brook, the green beyond
Approach shot territory
Right side of the green

The Third is a 544 yard par 5. Still along the perimeter of the property, the bunker encroachment to the fairway on each side and the small knolls give this hole its definition. Cruising forth, the fairway abruptly ends at a depression, with the green on a mound on the other side of it. So the approach is a carry to the green, one of the few on the course, which is great placement for a par 5, where one will need to weigh the pros and cons of trying for the green on the second shot. Restraint likely prevails in laying up as the smarter choice, but perhaps pondering how acceptable certain misses off the green are goes into the decision making.

The Third
Moving up the fairway
The green
Looking back

The Fourth is a 350 yard par 4. Turning the corner, we still reside at the perimeter. The fairway is on a pleasant hillside tilting right to left. A wide landing area for the part, it does narrow as you get closer to the green. The green structure is a cool one, with sunken bunkers on all sides and above the fairway, figuring out or experimenting with approach shots here is all part of the fun of this place.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory

The Fifth is a 322 yard par 4. The tee shot is blocked by a hillside on the right, doing a good job of not showing all the room on the left. A tale of taking the high road or low road; the right side off the tee gets you closer to the green but a worse angle and line in while the lower left gives you the angle but takes the distance. The green is tucked to the right of the fairway a narrower entry point crowded by bunkers at the front. I spent a lot of time in the fescue on this hole for some reason, probably the result of a terrible approach. That’s part of the subtlety. The fescue is in places that come into play and collect those misses, exponentiating strokes in a hurry. But those paying attention to placement and where their misses might go fare much better.

The Fifth
End of the fairway, looking back

The Sixth is a 220 yard par 3. A long par 3 where a sneaky sunken bunker complex short left brings a little trepidation off the tee and is one of those places on the course better to avoid altogether. The green is large, a fitting landing area for the longer shot and simply landing on it is no guarantee of par as the work of getting across the green is still at hand.

The Sixth
From the right side

The Seventh is a 345 yard par 4. A dog leg right with fescue and trees on each side. It’s a sweeping turn, a bunker on the inside right and then a larger complex on the left which it shares with the Third. The fairway then nods into the green, with bunkers below on either side and off to the right a much steeper fall off. A tougher approach than it looks.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory
From the right
The green
From the right

The Eighth is a 145 yard par 3. A severe barranca lurks within the interior of the course and we now confront it head on. It must be carried to get to the green while those who go in it face a daunting recovery. Bunkers surround the green in the hillside while the green saddles that hill, so those shots to the front risk falling off on that and vice versa off the rear. Tightening its challenge yet offering plenty of recourse for those poorly hit shots.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 498 yard par 5. The most trees on the course are off to the right here, I suspect there’s a drop off associated with the barranca we saw at the prior hole which pulls everything to the right off the tee. Straight out and opposite those trees are bunkers galore that it shares with the Second. The fairway eventually ends into rough before an apron that leads to the extraordinarily deep green whose raised rear shelf invites an array of shots into it. It was my favorite green and this is a great hole to point out the strong geometrical presentation here. The tees and greens are mainly rectangular and on occasion the fairways have a straight cut edge to them. In conjunction with the more random nature of the bunkers and fescue, it makes for a very good looking course and is one of the main things that caught my attention from the road as we were driving by.

The Ninth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The green

The front nine features strong hole after strong hole, without pretense, more forced carries than you would think yet incorporated into play naturally, while the ground game considerations are frequent and exciting. My ranking of them would be 9, 5, 4, 6, 3, 1, 7, 2, 8.

The back nine starts with the 165 yard par 3 Tenth. A great example of a forced carry hidden within the landscape and natural as can be. Instead, the attention off the tee is drawn to the green. The bunkers below and their shaped walls around it give the hole a sporting look. A bit of a blind tee shot, the bunkers are lurking and anything far off the mark will likely need to carry the bunkers to reach the green. A great par 3.

The Tenth
From the right

The Eleventh is a 389 yard par 4. The back nine starts at the heart of the course and proceeds diagonally to its perimeter, in the exact opposite direction as the First. The Eleventh continues in that direction, another easy carry off the tee to a wide fairway with a fairway bunker on either side. Leading right into the green, the bunkers are below as well, with most of the green flanked by a bunker. Lots of room to play with short of the green, so keep that in mind.

The Eleventh
The green

The Twelfth is a 538 yard par 5. Turning back at an angle, the interior of the course awaits. Straight out, trees, fescue and little rough about its sides, the sky before us in its glory. While hitting the fairway from the tee shouldn’t be too much of an issue, it’s vital to address the green. The longer among us may want to make a go of it to the green, where they’ll have to carry water that’s directly before the green. There is room to miss a bit at the rear, however. For others, setting up a preferable approach to manage the forced carry over water is a smart play. Mind the movement towards the water at the front and short of the green.

The Twelfth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 479 yard par 5. Back to back par 5’s, as the designers took advantage of the length within the interior, having most of the other holes loop around them. Another forced carry off the tee you hardly notice is there, although the bunkers off the tee and raised fairway have the same effect of suggesting you get your tee shot high, true and far. Trees come into play a bit more in this area of the course. Bunkers pinch the fairway closer to the green while a large bunkers rests on either side of the green. Accuracy and finesse are more useful than blunt length, while planning each shot carefully is best to manage the trees, bunkers and even contours of the green.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Fourteenth is a 325 yard par 4. Again shooting to a corner of the property, trees become more prominent here in defining the right side while the left side features bunkers, fescue and ridges. The fairway narrows and corkscrews a bit to the green while bunkers below are in that area between the fairway and green. The green widens as it moves to the rear while the bunkers at its front make it look smaller than it is from the fairway. A well designed hole where finding the ideal lines and approach spots take a good amount of play.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory
From the left side

The Fifteenth is a 420 yard par 4. Now the trees don’t beat around the bush and assert themselves on both sides off the tee. A center line bunker is the defining feature here. Plenty of room to the left of it for those who want to stretch out off the tee, or staying short of it that then gives you a forced carry approach to the green. The green is set off to the right, which gives even more room off to the left for acceptable misses. It’s a great hole, again emphasizing the importance of angles into the green.

The Fifteenth
Longer approach shot territory
Shorter approach shot territory
Looking back
From the left

The Sixteenth is a 192 yard par 3. A long par 3 but lots of room leading up to the immense green. The semi circle of fescue mounds circling the green creates an amphi theatre look and decidedly signals to the golfer, do not go long. The deep green is more beguiling than it looks, once again showing that there’s much more going on beyond the simple and clean presentation.

The Sixteenth
From short left

The Seventeenth is a 404 yard par 4. The North Branch Wreck Pond Brook is strongest here, as is the carry needed from the tee. Yet the fairway beyond is wide and inviting. The fairway dog legs left, a larger bunker complex on most of the left side. Favoring more towards the tree line on the right to right center is a good line to avoid the left bunker. The fairway narrows before widening and spilling on to the green, so those opting to remain short for an advantageous pitch, or those recovering from a wayward tee shot, will need to play those shots accordingly. The green is another large one, with subtle movement.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory
Short approach shot territory
The green

The Eighteenth is a 418 yard par 4. Neatly, the hole leads back to the clubhouse, parallel to the First, which is on our right. A sea of fescue amidst a gathering of trees, the expanse of the course beyond. Off to the left, there seems to be a short game practice area on some interesting terrain, but had to pay attention to the task at hand. A slender long bunker off to the left can’t be seen from the the very well but should be noted since heading that way to clear the trees to the right is necessary for a clear approach to the green. And yes, the North Branch Wreck Pond Brook makes its last appearance, making you carry it to get to the green. The green is a marvelous one, pushed up and tilting away from the treacherous green side bunkers on the left. Those bunkers should be avoided. With how deeply set they are in to the hillside and with the green moving away from it, the recovery will definitely be daunting. The movement of the green is more pronounced yet challenging just the same.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory
The green
The left side and a look at the green side bunker to be avoided at all costs
A closer look at them

The back nine is a little more eclectic and swings more in its character, with very good par 3’s and 4’s and the back to back par 5’s in the middle a solid foundation coming at the right time. There were no weak holes. I’d rank them 15, 14, 10, 16, 18, 13, 12, 11, 17.

Generally, Spring Lake became an instant personal favorite. Achieving the difficult line of unending interest for all yet sharpening the more you try to score while remaining strategically pleasing no matter what. The routing shows just how much diversity you can get out of a rectangular piece of property all while navigating the natural confines of hills, water and trees. While the ground game is exciting and available most of the round, there are forced carries at times that vary play and add an extra component of strategy, recovery and pressure. The visuals were terrific. Classy, simple, effective. These seeped into play with subtlety. The mounds on the left of a green may loosely suggest the right side instead, as opposed to the way bold, daring and loud features would outright intimidate and threaten. What really was impressive was that the course can transform as necessary for countless styles of play and conditions. When width is used well, this is the highly sought after attained result. The longer hitter sees the challenge start at the green, then the angles in, all of which comes back to the tee, where they realize a wild lashing just won’t do. The newcomer sees it with some of the forced carries off the tee many of us may not realize are there, then in figuring out how best to reach the green, which they can do a number of different ways. Then conditions will dictate an entire different course, where some of these seemingly harmless forced carries become more of a concern and those greens, some immense in size, seem to suddenly make a lot more sense. It’s an elasticity you see at well done courses, which is able to remain intriguing for us all.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A low profile structure that wraps around a corner of the property and opens up views of the course. The pro shop is at one end of it. Loved the insignia and apparel within.

Practice area: Driving range, putting green and I believe a short game area off to the left of the Eighteenth.