6,589 yards, 130 slope from the Gray Tees

Eagle Oaks is in Farmingdale, New Jersey, which is the golf rich area of Central Jersey near the coast. Formerly known as Shore Oaks Golf Club, the course was designed by Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus, opening in 1989. I mention this area because Eagle Oaks is yet another course around here I had never heard of before last season yet came away impressed after playing it. The club enjoys a bit of anonymity and with a membership that includes professional athletes, celebrities and politicians, they are probably ok with it. As you pass through the gates, the grandiose Colonial style clubhouse comes into view, along with the immaculate landscaping and facilities that comprise the club. It doesn’t take long to appreciate the sensory overload of first rate amenities and I wouldn’t be surprised if a member decides to forgo a round every now and then to simply enjoy the setting. The well groomed driving range awaited and as we hit the perfect condition golf balls to the perfect condition range fairway, that sense of bliss came flooding in.

I call it the pre-round build up. It’s certainly part of the experience and something golfers oftentimes remember and will talk about. There’s a lot of variations of it. There’s the spartan surprise; essentially underwhelming facilities and a fantastic course. There’s the largest house on the block; that’s when the clubhouse/practice facilities/pool, etc. are grossly disproportionate to the crappy golf course that is usually seen as an obligatory appendage to the whole operation, this usually happens at wedding crazed venues. There’s the lipstick on a pig, which is more about conditioning than anything else and self explanatory. I could go on, but alas, it’s worth mentioning one more; the “nailed it.” That’s when the pre-round experience fits in nicely with the tenor of the course and adds to its character appropriately.

All of this comes down to the same question – what about the course?

So as I literally could have walked right back into that clubhouse after hitting balls, sunk right into one of those leather couches and watched whatever tournament was on that week, Bloody Mary in hand, and been as happy as a clam, I started to wonder. Let’s see the course.

The course was a collaboration between Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus, the only such course of its kind. While I’ve played plenty of Nicklaus designed courses, I had yet to play anything by Johnny. Unlike the hoards out there that bemoan Johnny as an announcer, I always liked him. He’s analytical, would do a ton of research beforehand and was able to provide insightful succinct commentary. He was straight forward and his directness was refreshing amongst the avalanche of fluff that we get with most mainstream golf content. Beyond all that, he was a brilliant golfer and his articles and other writings are really good. I also knew Johnny has an artistic side to him and was interested to see how that came out on the course. In all, he’s a pretty interesting guy who’s been through a lot. I’d put him up there as one of the underrated golf figures of our time.

This was evident back in 2013, at the U.S. Open at Merion. All of the past U.S. Open Champions gathered out near the First tee for about an hour before a photo opp and then retired into the clubhouse for dinner. Johnny was one of the guys everyone wanted to talk to, while other guys like Rory were away from the group completely, on his cell phone (it was a different time for him than what we see today). In particular, Jack and Arnie were relentless in bringing him in discussions and generally having him talk. Who knows what they were talking about, perhaps it was that course they designed together, a little over an hour away.

The U.S. Open Champions at Merion, including Johnny and Jack
Johnny and Arnie, arm in arm

While a certain degree of “championship” caliber is usually expected of Nicklaus courses, I was interested to see how the influence of Johnny would meld with that. The course is an expression of each of their distinct personalities, interwoven together in a cohesive theme. Strategy and freedom of shotmaking meets challenge and execution under pressure. All among a very balanced set of greens, almost where the both of them seemed to become unified. Set upon mostly flat wooded terrain in the Jersey wetlands, gentle mounding and slopes conspire with the natural hillocks, framed with fescue and water interlocking into play a comfortable amount. The back tees stretch things to 7,225 yards and it has hosted U.S. Open qualifiers, the New Jersey PGA Championship, The New Jersey State Amateur Championship, New Jersey State Mid-Am Championship, New Jersey Tournament of Champions and the New Jersey Four Ball Championship. There’s an ease that sets over you as the holes go on. While the challenge is there and certainly can confound even the most skilled among us, there’s a comprehensiveness of skill here so you know it’s a matter of time you’ll get to something right in your wheelhouse. And with enough flexibility in the design for a variety of plays, figuring out how to get around in the manner you see fit is likewise comforting. Of course, what might be most comforting of all is knowing that whatever happens out there, that couch, big screen and Bloody Mary will be waiting no matter what.

While I had promising rounds around this time, I had moved from desperation and anger to a more focused grinding search as far as my swing went. Those promising rounds were glimpses, previews, of what lay ahead. Things became clearer in terms of what I needed to change and it was a matter of getting there. No longer terrified about hitting the ball, I could improvise my way through a round and became much better at simply accepting bad shots, whether it was one or a series of them. This was the learning stage. My old swing was now way out of the rear view mirror and a new harbor awaited. When we would see land again was anybody’s guess.

The First is a 391 yard par 4 (from the Grays). Heading straight out from the clubhouse, a wide fairway tightens as it advances to the green while mounding are on either side, tall fescue on the right. Beyond is the green, wide and perpendicular to the fairway. The tee shot is about position, which is largely dictated by pin position, which can fluctuate a good deal based on the green width. In addition to position, finding fairway is rather important, as things get complicated quickly off fairway. With a well done opening tee shot, there’s a lot more latitude with the approach, with a single bunker guarding the green front right. Gentle sloping run offs define a lot of these greens, which are deceptive in how inviting they are to hedge against, many of which leave you with tricky shots to the pin. Here, the run off is behind the green, which gets a little uphill, so any shot from there will need to handle the back to front movement of the green. It’s a good opener; a testy tee shot with an approach and green with several ways to manage.

The First
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory

The Second is a 366 yard par 4. The wide open First moves across the road to the woods and the dance between width and woods begins. A forced carry over water off the tee with the woods on each side while the hole dog legs left. A trio of green side bunkers are on the left, which come into play for those coming in from the right side, while the right side of the green provides some bail out area for those who might be going for the green from compromised positions. A little more execution oriented than the prior hole, it’s multi-faceted in that way.

The Second
Approach shot territory

The Third is a 542 yard par 5. And just like that, the trees part and width returns. The tree line on the right remains but a lot more room on the left off the tee, which is another forced carry but only inasmuch as topped shots are gone; the carry here and the prior hole are not of significant length. There is a fairway bunker left center to complicate the tee shot. There fairway starts fluctuating in width as you advance to the green, but with few bunkers and no water hazards, the hole is essentially your oyster; so long as you don’t hit it way too far sideways. The green is one of those large and fun affairs, gentle sloping about it, run off room mostly around the front right and a couple green side bunkers off to the left. It’s an important hole, for how it defines the rhythm and contrasts of the round from hole to hole. The course refuses to fall into one theme or another, instead doing its best to vary play.

The Third
Moving up the fairway
Approach shot territory
From the front right

The Fourth is a 362 yard par 4. A strong dog leg right with a forced carry risk/reward tee shot. The decision is how much to carry off the tee for a shorter approach, yet bear in mind that approach shots from the left are a better angle into the green while those on the right side will be more subject to the water that sits in front of the green to the right. And don’t forget the water on the left. My approach shot was decent but strayed left a tough and after a couple bounces and rolls, disappeared. Moving up to the spot, I realized it went in the water. I suggested that the water hazard be filled in with concrete immediately. But this is a green that demands attention on the approach. With water pinching it at the front, getting it past the pin could be a good idea but then you’re facing some quick movement back to front.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Fifth is a 178 yard par 3. The first par 3 is a forced carry over water. Jack must have loved this hole since it sets up so nicely for a fade. The green moves towards the water and there’s a generous apron short of the green that is tough to see from the tee because of the fescue. But that’s the bail out if you need it. Or you could aim for the mounds off to the right but boy that is a tricky recovery to the pin considering the movement and water.

The Fifth

The Sixth is a 395 yard par 4. We move away from the water and are land locked here, the tee shot a forced carry over auburn fescue framed by evergreen. A slight crook to the left in the fairway follows the terrain before the green, which is placed to the right. The green is deep and keeps rising as it moves back and to the right, with bunkers placed at the front to guard most of the green except for the entry point. Off to the left and short of the green is a large sod-faced bunker. It shouldn’t come into play all that often but on those days the pin position is in that direction, those that end up in it could be in for some trouble. I liked it. I liked its placement, how it distinguished itself and the effect it has on the hole.

The Sixth
Approach shot territory
Sod faced bunker. These really made an impression on me.

The Seventh is a 440 yard par 4. A slight dog leg left, there’s a lot of room on the right off the tee and the fairway bunker on the left all seem to signal favor the right side, but staying left sets up a better approach into the green, as a couple well placed trees are on the right side just off the green. Of course, if you are on that right side, a nice left to right flight is a good way to end up on the green, just saying. Some plotting here is definitely necessary and as the green has all kinds of perilous run off contours and is a forced carry from the fairway, a deft short game can really save the day here.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory

The Eighth is a 180 yard par 3. A bit similar to the par 3 Fifth, it’s a forced carry over water where, yes, the fade works well here. But in all fairness a nice draw can work out well here too. Lots of room short of the green. The green is almost perpendicular to the tee but the short grass area before it, there’s a lot of ways to attack this hole.

The Eighth
Looking back

The Ninth is a 530 yard par 5. Dog legging left after the tee shot, fescue mounds are to the left while trees are set off to the right. The mounds on the left are significant, as are the undulations of the fairway throughout. The green, on the left side, is below the fairway and hidden by mounding, so using the second shot to set up an ideal approach is a very good idea, with more vision of the green from the right. Knowing the mounds that could possibly be used as side boards and knowing the movement of the green are all valuable here but it’s a great green to end things on the front.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory
From the center

The front nine moves between wide open hole, to those framed by the evergreen, to those maneuvering around water, keeping things fresh from one hole to the next. I would rank them 9, 4, 3, 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 5.

The back nine starts with the 380 yard par 4 Tenth. Like the First, things start out nice and wide open. The fairway dog legs right early on, with a single fairway bunker at the inside of the turn causing more havoc than you’d think with its near mounding, which raising the contours on that side and blocks view of what lays beyond. The green is seen wider than the first with really fun collection areas and a few bunkers scattered at center and short of the green. It was a green I really enjoyed and allows for thousands of different plays into it.

The Tenth
Moving down the fairway
The green

The Eleventh is a 165 yard par 3. A forced carry over water, almost the exact converse of the front nine par 3’s in terms of water placement. Like the front nine par 3’s, there’s a lot of room short leading to the green but the drop off on the back side is a lot more prominent, making those chips from the bail out area very precarious. With the wind coming in frequently, there’s no getting around the degree of difficulty with this tee shot. Time to execute.

The Eleventh

The Twelfth is a 399 yard par 4. The water isn’t done with us yet as it pervades along the right side of this hole and the tee shot needs to carry it. Deciding how much of the water to take on is important, as the tree line comes into play so those who get overly conservative will miss the water but end up in the trees. A well hit tee shot sets up a fairly straightforward approach, where a lone tree complicates things just a bit. There’s also a sliver of a trench bunker off to the left. Most shots should be able to avoid it but of course I found a way to find it and make a mess of a hole from there. The green is big, with a collection area off the front right. Here, it’s all about that tee shot.

The Twelfth
Approach shot territory

The Thirteenth is a 373 yard par 4. This is quite the hole. Multiple paths to the green; the fairway to the right ends abruptly at a sea of bunkers but leaves a short approach shot to carry them into the green. The left fairway gets closer to the green but narrows at the bunker sea, only to curl around it and widen again. Those confident with their tee shot will go for this wide area off to the left, which leaves you with the best line into the green on the approach and avoids the bunkers. The visuals here are subdued, so it’s tough to know all this unless you know the hole well. In fact, I was so disoriented trying to find my second shot, I thought it was lost at sea until someone finally saw it just off the green. It’s a cool hole that I feel I’m more prepared to take on now.

The Thirteenth
A little further up
Approach shot territory
Looking back
The green
Such a good looking clubhouse

The Fourteenth is a 399 yard par 4. Straight out, bunkers run along either side of the fairway as it slowly descends to the green. Width actually increases the closer you get to the green, which is pretty wide in its own right. Another sod-faced bunker awaits short left of the green, not as deep and severe as the one at the Sixth. It’s really another example of a versatile and fun green that makes approach shots more thought provoking.

The Fourteenth
Approach shot territory (from the left)
Another sod faced bunker, looking at me

The Fifteenth is a 396 yard par 4. Straight with the trees more involved, the fairway leads downhill to a creek that must be carried on the approach to the green. The hillside at the green, everything moves right to left, towards the water. There’s also a large apron short of the green to help with the approach as well, so take advantage.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory
The creek before the green

The Sixteenth is a 190 yard par 3. The last par 3 is the only one that’s not a forced carry over water. A center bunker in front of the green gets the golfer in fits to really blast it to the green but in bear in mind the tee is above the green and take note of the wind. All the room you could want is off to the left for those who want to rely on their short game. Yet another green that makes the hole.

The Sixteenth
Looking back

The Seventeenth is a 525 yard par 5. A forced carry over marshy wetlands to an hourglass-ish fairway where favoring the left side off the tee is ideal for the approach. Water on the left, however, makes most approach shots a forced carry to the deep, narrow and craggy shaped green. As a par 5, the second shot is vital in setting up the approach while others may lick their chops in going for it in two. A hole in which has the potential to sway a lot of matches coming down to the wire.

The Seventeenth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Eighteenth is a 378 yard par 4. A dog leg left with trees spaced out a bit more than we’ve seen frame the hole. It reminded me a bit of the Ninth at Harbour Town, just with the trees, the left turn to the green and the green/fairway configuration. Like the Ninth at HT, favor the right side off the tee to clear the trees and have a clear look at the green. Out of no where, I hit my approach a little low on the face, but it flew true, hitting near the pin and running up a bit, a nice way to finish things off. The green moves a good deal back to front, with the run off areas more towards the rear, while the decadent clubhouse is close at hand, ready for your return.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory

The back nine takes up the opposite side of the property, yet has a similar balance between width, woods and water. I’d rank them 13, 10, 14, 18, 16, 12, 15, 17, 11.

Generally, Eagle Oaks strikes a nice balance of fun and challenge while moving within a few different types of natural landscapes. The different settings varies play as well, all of which harkens back to the different iconic personalities of Nicklaus and Miller. The course also excels at accessibility, holding its own as an interesting layout for the more skilled among us, yet being just as fun and interesting for everyone else, with its well placed aprons and collection areas around the greens, and the greens themselves. The greens were a fantastic set, a mix of well thought out contours and intelligent speed. I was pleased by the course and it lived up to its billing from that pre-round experience. A solid design that moves beyond relying on superb conditioning to an enjoyable level of complexity, mainly with its varied settings and prudent green configurations. While I always ask myself, what about the course, the answer here is I’m glad I moved beyond the clubhouse to see how what would happen when Nicklaus and Miller would walk the same grounds with each other, put their heads together and gave us a course that embodies their vision of golf.

Clubhouse/Pro shop: An insignia that reminded of Garden City, well stocked and certainly worth checking out.

Practice area: Already talked about this a little bit above but comprehensive and worth spending a little more time than usual getting warmed up.