6,781 yards, 137 slope from the Blues
Jackson, New Jersey houses Pine Barrens, designed by Eric Bergstol and opening in 1999. Jackson is within that area of Central New Jersey I seem to have explored a lot last year. The sandy soil is ideal for golf and comprises the same type enjoyed by its Pine brethren, Pine Valley. Early on when I started getting a little more serious into the game, I played here. For all those years since, elaborate bunker complexes and configurations of evergreen outlining a lot of below ground features remained with me, demanding I get back post haste. The years ticked on and it never happened for one reason or another. Finally, the opportunity to return materialized and I found myself back at the First tee. Certainly older, perhaps wiser and having seen a lot more golf courses since then, I was interested to learn how the passage of time and experience would affect my thoughts and impression of the place.
Eric Bergstol is probably most well known for his design at Bayonne Golf Club. Held in high regard for its Irish links mold, its naturalistic feel is remarkable considering it was built on a landfill. Pine Barrens is almost the converse; its natural sandy soil and quarries were all that was needed to provide its rich shaping and impressive bunker complexes. The Tenth and Fourteenth were quarried out for the greens, which drained naturally and were simply pushed up. Native coverings remained throughout. The grand bunker schemes and smartly shaped greens weave and cross with environmentally protected wetlands, all of which structures play, where you’re called upon to negotiate the wetlands with multiple paths to the greens or over the vast sandscapes, some times boring deep as canyons, other times stretching beyond the horizon. The interplay of sand, grass and native plants instills a peppery character here that calls upon all sorts of shots, high and low, leaving you no choice but to keep your wits about you, particularly when rolling about on those greens. There are some very solid holes, among others that are a bit needing of more variety. But in general, the course is a great play in the pines and very much worth playing even in the under rated golf rich area in which it resides.
Looking back, this round and the one at Burning Tree were just about the bottom of my swing issue journey. Yet here, it was a real rollercoaster. Some tee shots I felt completely lost while other holes birdie putts abounded. Yet I persisted and knew things were close. Just had to keep swinging and put one foot in front of another, despite it all.
The First is a 365 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The first fairway is between a long bunker complex to the right of the tee and another bunker complex further out to the left. The one on the right isn’t really in play but seems to set the tone for the golfer as what’s in store for the round ahead; sand and native greens interspersing nicely shaped fairways and greens, which are framed by the pines. Staying away from the left bunker complex off to the right is a safe play, yet puts you further from the green on the approach. This fairway eventually ends at rough with the green set a bit off to the left. A generous front apron leads to the green, which is wide and guarded by a lone bunker at the front right. A well balanced opener.
The Second is a 383 yard par 4. Weren’t we just here? A bunker complex immediately to the right of the tee then a second bunker complex further out to the left, the similarities with the First were striking. The difference is that here, the green is set to the right and there’s more incentive to flirt with the left bunkers to ensure a clear approach to the green. The green has not one but two bunkers pitching in its defense, yet another difference with the opener. Yet the first two holes blend into one, more extended, opening sequence.
The Third is a 183 yard par 3. The first one shotter is surrounded by sand, then pines beyond. The sand must be carried to the green, with a deep and narrow area before the green, which only widens at the rear. A testy shot demanding a good amount of precision, the round gets a bit more salty after the milder first two holes.
The Fourth is a 427 yard par 4. Bunker complex off the right of the tee, another bunker complex further out to the left. The one on the left is close to the green, but this configuration certainly gives the starting holes a redundant feel. Here, the fairway narrows a good bit, which is one way it differs from the other par 4’s before it. The green has some run off areas, mainly towards the right. Unlike the others, getting close to the left bunker from the tee really doesn’t make too much of a difference than if you opt to favor the right. In fact, you risk being blocked out by the tree line on the left.
The Fifth is a 174 yard par 3. While we have been following the perimeter of the property, we now delve into the interior. The green sits pretty much perpendicular to the tee, with the left side guarded by a tree and a bunker. Of course the pin was over there during my round. Getting it around the tree or going for the right side of the green are the options, unless you get it over the tree altogether. It’s a crafty par 3 and the dynamics of it certainly depend on pin position.
The Sixth is a 546 yard par 5. A new and refreshing look, the trees give way a bit for a wider tee shot where the tree line on the right hugs close and the left is clear except for the sand running along most of that side. After the tee shot landing area, the fairway restricts until widening before the green and a couple gentle turns. The wider areas signal where each shot should head, but the golfer is certainly not constrained by it. The sand on the left gets a little more severe and deep closer to the green. The green leans around the single bunker at the front right. The course starts to wake up.
The Seventh is a 293 yard par 4. While some may be able to reach the green from the tee, they must realize that the shot will need to carry the majority of the distance to the hole and that trees surround the green, making it unforgiving to uncontrolled length. For the rest of us, the first fairway is before us, unfettered and as wide and inviting as can be. Yet looking beyond, it’s the approach where things get more spicy and with that in mind, the tee shot needs to be used for the golfer’s ideal approach. Just like sand running alongside the left side of the prior hole, it does that here too but then crosses over the fairway completely, separating the first portion from the green. The sand must be carried to the green, which is deep and some what narrow, so do with that as you will. It’s a well arranged shorter par 4.
The Eighth is a 415 yard par 4. Sand and native greens are on the left side off the tee with the fairway beyond as the tree line on the right encroaches. The fairway is angled to the right a but more than it dog legs or turns, with the green straightaway. A lone bunker set front and center before the green, is all that is needed to give the golfer fits in deciding how to handle his approach while the movement of the green almost swirls, which didn’t make my scorecard happy but I found delightful.
The Ninth is a 534 yard par 5. The fairway is a constant left turn. Starting with the tee shot, getting to the right side to clear the trees on the left is paramount, then deciding whether to get to the second fairway or lay up is the second shot decision. The fairways are separated by rough, so you could always ignore the delineation of fairways altogether and hit to whatever distance is in your comfort zone. Or maybe you prefer shots out of rough. Also bear in mind the turn of the hole and how that factors in to your shots. There are steeper than usual areas off green as well.
The front nine starts with a few par 4’s that could distinguish themselves a bit more than they do, but it turns into a more gentle opening before the middle and closing holes ramp up the interest. The par 3’s and 5’s are all engaging as well. My ranking of them would be 8, 7, 3, 6, 9, 4, 5, 1, 2.
The back nine starts with the 424 yard par 4 Tenth. A dog leg right that turns from the get go, so your tee shot will need to be either short to land it in the middle of the fairway, or have it bend to the right to have it chase out. The trees on the right jut out a bit to guard against taking too much off the hole without carrying it altogether. The sand starts on the left side before crossing over the fairway and moving along the right. Another larger bunker picks up on the right side close to the green as well. There’s also water on the left side, some what hidden by the native plants. The green is pushed up with a nice and wide entry point. Those who had a nice tee shot can decide on bounding the ball up or landing it. A nice cool start to the back.
The Eleventh is a 362 yard par 4. This hole is a hike and a half from the Tenth, which certainly impacts its walkability. It s a slight dog leg left with the sand running along the left side and, has five smaller bunkers surrounding the green, a little different than the larger sweeping complexes we’ve encountered thus far. Clearing the trees on the left off the tee is important for a direct approach, where all those bunkers must be dealt with.
The Twelfth is a 169 yard par 3. What I’ll call a bunker pool is between the tee and the green. The green is nicely shaped, starting at the left before widening and falling to the right, then narrowing a bit at the rear. The interior contours and movement are a lot of fun to deal with and ending up in the right area of the green off the tee pays off immensely.
The Thirteenth is a 378 yard par 4. The hole is straightaway even though it may appear to be otherwise based on the tee positioning off to the right. Sand runs along the left at the middle of the fairway while, like the Eleventh, there are smaller individual bunkers placed closer to the green. The fairway runs right into the green as well, the round game very much in play.
The Fourteenth is a 208 yard par 3. This is one of the holes I remember from my last time here all those years ago. A longer par 3, the green is below the tee with an elaborate sandy native area off to the right, sitting below the green. A hillside moving left to right is on the left of the green, with a small bunker on that side guarding against shorter shots. The rest of the hillside on that side can be used a bit as a side board, but shots also tend to stick up there. A fantastic par 3 that closes out a very nice collection of par 3’s.
The Fifteenth is a 501 yard par 5. A long, narrow, slithering par 5 that dog legs right and seems like an infusion of grass, sand and trees – all fighting to dominate the scale of play as you bushwhack your way to the green. Sand surrounded the tee area and the rearward tees need to carry it as well as pockets of nativery. The fairway bulges a bit after the teeing grounds as a safe landing haven before tightening and dropping between sand on both sides, with trees in and over the sand. Another widening before an apron heads uphill to the green, sand still surrounding. It’s a pathway that needs to be plotted, carefully. The wilderness lurks and is at close at hand.
The Sixteenth is a 391 yard par 4. There’s much more of a clearing here. All the room you could want to the right while a deep bunker burrows well below the fairway on the left. The green is placed off to the left of the fairway, the terrain generally moving from right to left. While the fairway bottle necks before the green, the green itself is nice and open, yet the left side falls off severely. It’s a great green site and with the right side continuing to be much wider than necessary, allows for a lot of different angles and spots to attack the green.
The Seventeenth is a 456 yard par 4. The bunker pit on the left side from the prior hole remains with us here, at least off the tee. The fairway then bends and narrows to the green while canting left to right. Greenside bunkers include a high left and lower right, below the green. To the left of the green, in the pines, is a large bunker. It’s nearby the rear tee of the Sixteenth but is not adjacent to it like we’ve seen. Really, I have no idea why it exists, other than it’s a hidden bunker, in the woods. Perhaps it’s used for practice, perhaps it’s to surprise those who absolutely botch their approach shot and are expecting a punch out of the trees, perhaps it’s how natural the sand is here, who knows. Curious.
The Eighteenth is a 572 yard par 5. The drive we saw from the Tenth to Eleventh comes into play again getting to the tee here. The tees are lined around a pond off to the left, so the further back you go, the more direct – and longer – your carry is. The fairway is separated by our friend, the sand, so the forced carry tee shot is followed by a forced carry second shot over said sand. The second fairway turns left after the sand and narrows into the green, while the sand follows you along the left side. The clearing in the pines makes way for the green, fairly mellow in hindsight, a fitting fading to the round as the closing putts eventually find their way into the ground. The round has ended, let us go in peace.
The back nine is more eclectic than the front, a higher tempo that only starts to calm at the closing approach. The par 3’s are the stars, really standing out and impressing. I’d rank them 12, 14, 16, 10, 11, 18, 17, 15, 13.
Generally, Pine Barrens takes advantage of the spectacular grounds upon which it is set and let’s the land do the talking for the most part. The vistas of the vast bunkerscapes are memorable and impress, impacting play to varying degrees throughout the round. The greens walk a nice line of being adventurous and subtle at the same time, never over doing it. It would be some what easy to overdo the shaping or over bunker with this soil but the restraint in allowing the pines and grass influence a lot of the holes is notable. One thing that stood out to me this time was the absence of mounding, or really any raised features. Some of the greens are raised by being pushed up but otherwise the features are mostly below ground. This creates pleasing views of the playing corridors. In all, the golfer is called upon for a good amount of ball striking and decision making, while they will almost certainly find themselves with a few sand shots. A nicely laid out course with even tones that never interrupts from the still of the pines.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: A log cabin themed clubhouse is level and sits unimposing within the trees. Areas to linger outside and in, as well as a nice sized pro shop equipped with what you need or want.
Practice area: All the necessities, and possibly a secret hidden practice bunker off the Seventeenth green.