When the sun rises, long westward shadows are cast by the casinos that stand impossibly tall along the Atlantic City boardwalk. A great many visitors never leave the clang and zing of the casino floors, allotting their time to games of chance. Other guests make their pilgrimage to this barrier island to stroll along the boardwalk or lay on the Atlantic sands. No doubt the confections sold along the elevated planks and the rhythmic crash of the waves have a positive effect on travellers.
For us, the call is to golf, plain but not so simple. There is but one golf course on the reef known as Atlantic City, meaning that the remainder lie over the marshes, to the north, west and south. Two useful sites, PlayAC Golf and Atlantic City Golf, list 24 golf courses in the greater AC area. Stretching from Eagle Ridge (Lakewood) in the north to Cape May National (Cape May) to the south, to Green Tree in the west, there is variety of the kind you find in a chef’s spice rack. Golden age courses from Donald Ross, Willie Park and William Flynn pair with modern sculptures from Dana Fry, Stephen Kay and Archie Struthers. Time forbids us from cataloguing the entire two dozen courses, so we’ll have a glance at a handful of them, to whet any appetite. Without delay, to the linksland!
Atlantic City Country Club
Across the marsh grasses from the strand, sits a grand course from another era. Private for so many years, the ACCC has hosted six USGA championships, crowning victors of the rank of Walter Travis and Babe Zaharias. The course was built in 1901 by John Reid and Willie Park, jr., then saw a renovation in 1925 at the hands of William Flynn and Howard Toomey. In the late 1990s, Bruce Hepner and Tom Doak of Renaissance Golf restored the majority of holes to their initial edge, but chose to reroute two of the closing holes and build a brand-new 17th, to offer a greater, more balance finishing challenge.
If you’ve never teed off from a putting green, you’ll have your chance on the first at AC. A feature unique to courses from another era, this unification of green and tee suggested a oneness of the golfing grounds. Since you’ll have driver in your hands, don’t worry about taking a divot. Just head directly over from the practice green to the tee blocks and swing away. AC greets you with a classic half-par opener, so pretend it’s a par five and ease into the round. The next few holes are briefer in length, including what will become your favorite, short-pitch par three, the fourth. There you have your first glimpse of the marshes and the Atlantic City skyline, before turning back inland. At Atlantic City, with the exception of the risk-reward 16th and the unforgettable home hole, the memorable plays are the par-three holes. From the deceptively-understated 8th to the volcanic number 12, from the reversed-by-Doak 15th to the brand-new 17th, you’re guaranteed to hit five different clubs and have a quintet of diverse experiences.
In 2003, the Borgata Casino opened its rooms to guests. Much of the fill needed to support the foundation came from a horse farm in Egg Harbor Township. Golf course development was a sure thing in the late 90s and early 00s in the mid-Atlantic region, so Archie Struthers hopped on the opportunity to develop a large-scale ode to the region’s most famous club, Pine Valley. After considering other designers, Struthers the developer became Struthers the golf course architect and laid down plans for an unforgettable, roller-coaster ride. “At the end of the day , we built a big , sprawling golf course that is all manufactured, with the intent of making the contours look natural. I'm pretty happy with how the golf course looks and plays…there's lots of good shots there, and it flows nicely.”
When considering the amount of fill to be removed, and how far down the property would be lowered, Struthers began to think of the great quarry courses of the USA, like Black Diamond Ranch in Florida and Merion in Pennsylvania. What more could an artist desire than a blank, three-dimensional canvas? Eschewing the smaller, traditional bunkers of the northeast, Struthers installed the massive sand runs found in natural dunesland. These blow-out bunkers gather your attention from a distance and force you to play away from them or draw you in like a Siren’s call. The fairways at Twisted Dune are wide, however, so any misses are your own fault. Once on the greens, you might still need your range finder for a measurement. Beginning with the par-five ninth, these putting surfaces border on the immeasurable. They have depth, they have width, they have undulation and subtlety. If you keep your wits from blocks to flag stick, though, you’ll return an honest score and retain a sincere memory of golfing time well spent.
The Links at Brigantine Beach They say that the pride of St. Andrews is its connection of town to golf. The 18th green returns travellers to the auld towne and restores a sense of location. Although this is true, I cannot imagine any golf course more connected to a neighbourhood than Brigantine. As I played over the 6500 yards of fairway, I recognized that not a single stretch of grass was not bordered on each side by residences. In the course’s early days, parcels of land were segmented off for future development, but it was not until the 1980s when house after house sprang up and separated one fairway corridor from its neighbours. Having more of a Florida development feel than an open links land, Brigantine serves its population well and offers enjoyable golf and foot golf at inexpensive rates.
The golf course itself winds its way over flat topography, over creeks and ponds, across a principally-treeless property. The layout was devised in the 1920s by the esteemed partnership of Wayne Stiles and John van Kleek and holds the claim to closest course to the Atlantic City boardwalk. A glance at a historic aerial photo from the early 1920s reveals the challenges faced by the architects. The entirety of Brigantine was little more than a sand bulkhead, laced with creeks and streams. The golf course was expertly laid out to offer the greatest amount of fairway, with green sites placed in available nooks. The result is an extremely playable golf course, exposed to the Atlantic winds, reminiscent of the conditions of golf in the old country.
Swainton sits miles south of Atlantic City, but the drive along the parkway is a beautiful one (save for the occasional industrial areas) and the gold at the end of the rainbow is the Sand Barrens golf club. Dana Fry, formerly of the Hurdzan/Fry architectural team, came to this property in the mid 1990s and decided that this property would be his opus. He walked the terrain ceaselessly, no matter the weather, making mental notes as he went. Originally slated to be a parkland-style course, Fry uncovered indigenous sand beneath the layer of soil and developed a hybrid farm-links course instead. The Sand Barrens course avails itself of tree-covered dunes of moderate size, speckled with large and small ponds. Having 27 holes allows for variety in daily play, ensuring that no visitors nor regulars tire of the layout.
Rather than log the thousands of trees on the property, the owners of Sand Barrens allowed Dana Fry to create a target-oriented golf course. Many fairways lack the width found on other area layouts. This isn’t bad, as long as you opt for the proper set of tees. Driver isn’t mandatory on all driving holes, and one feels as if Fry is along for the ride, daring you to hit the big club but hoping you’ll play smart and dial it back to a hybrid or fairway metal.
Sand Barrens isn’t short off the tee and it isn’t short on the funk, either. The 4th hole of the South nine throws a tribute to the dual greens at Pine Valley’s 9th hole. At Sand Barrens, the hole plays from 329 (forward tees) to 429 (tips) yards, and the option of left versus right green adds no distance. Both approach shots must carry the massive waste pit that fronts the putting surfaces. With the split greens, though, Fry hardly showed his hand. The West course’s 4th hole and the North course’s 2nd meet at a conjoined green, reminiscent of the double greens of the Old Course at St. Andrews. Although a third fairway does not join the other two, it’s realistic to imagine that this mammoth putting surface is the size of a triple green. If it weren’t so far from the clubhouse, it would be easy to envision 19th hole bets being settled with 300-feet long, quadruple-break, putting contests.
McCullough’s Emerald Golf Links
For a time, the replica course made inroads into the postmodern world of golf course architecture. Some owners felt that the finest golf holes had already been created, so why not do something different by assembling tribute holes in one place, on one course? Royal Links in Las Vegas, Golden Ocala in Florida and Tour 18 in Houston are examples of this type of course. The Emerald Golf Links in Egg Harbor Township tips its cap to the great courses of Scotland and Ireland. Guided by the experienced hand of architect Stephen Kay, Emerald assembles a not-your-usual-suspects list of holes for homage. Gleneagles Resort in Scotland is the beneficiary of three facsimiles, while relatively-unknown gems like Southport & Ainsdale, Nairn, Royal Portrush and Waterville receive their due.
In 1914, Alistair MacKenzie was not yet the architect who would develop Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne and Augusta National. He was a physician with notions of grandeur, but it took a Country Life magazine contest for him to gain confidence in his ideas. MacKenzie’s design for a multi-faceted par four hole took the first prize. The hole was built at the Lido Golf Club on Long Island, but the Lido was severely redesigned and the hole lost. Enter Stephen Kay who, at the behest of golf writer Brad Klein, built this hole as the 7th at Emerald Golf Links. A massive sand bunker replaces the ocean, but all other elements are faithfully replicated.
Atlantic City as a family destination requires some planning, but is certainly manageable. After all, the street plan for the city inspired the board game Monopoly. Stroll around and you’ll encounter all your favourite avenues. As a buddy trip, it is nearly ideal, given the variety of vices (we’re talking pizza, golf and the ocean, buddy!) at the beck and call. One thing is a give: drive time. Your foursome will spend anywhere from 25 to 90 minutes in transit from hotel to golf course. Fortunately, for 36-hole days, it’s easy to pair courses in direct proximity to one another. If you head to the casino, you’ll have your choice of slots, roulette and card games. It’s the same way with the golf; variety spices up life along the New Jersey shore.