Forget Florida; southern New Jersey is a goldmine of great golf…all year long.
Most of us assume that golf in New Jersey becomes as dormant as the grass in winter. So, we either shelve our clubs or tote them down to Florida, turning a theory into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, a good number of courses close, but most near the New Jersey shore remain open, not to mention the heated driving ranges and indoor golf simulators located all over the state. With outerwear as effective as ever and greens fees at their lowest of the year, there is really no excuse not to zip up, get out, and let fly.
The New Jersey and Pennsylvania state golf associations set the dates for their “official” golf seasons, usually April through October. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play before or after that time. It doesn’t mean golf courses have to close. All it means is that golf scores posted outside of these dates are not valid for handicap purposes. That’s it.
In fact, when the official season ends, some groups are just getting started. Take, for example, the John Caliendo Winter Shore Golf League, which has been conducting a full schedule of tournaments from November to April in New Jersey for the last 40 years. The league is comprised of 140 members (75-80 percent amateurs, 20-25 percent pros) who compete in stroke-play tournaments around the New Jersey shore. Though that number drops significantly with the temperature, don’t start limbering up just yet. New members usually can’t join until the third week of the New Year, and even then it’s on a space-available basis.
One reason the Winter Shore Golf League has been able to stay active for so long is that it concentrates its matches in one of the most advantageous parts of the state for avoiding snowfall, the southern coast. Despite New Jersey’s small size, there can be dramatic differences in weather patterns from the inland areas to the coast and it mainly has to do with the water.
According to Frank Lombardo, president of Weatherworks, Inc, a firm that specializes in New Jersey weather data and forecasting, “the ocean has the greatest influence on snowfall in New Jersey. Coastal areas tend to get the least snow and it melts quicker because the ocean doesn’t freeze in the winter; it’s generally in the mid 30s or higher. When the wind blows off the ocean, it transports that warmer air across the land.”
The staff at Sea Oaks Golf Club in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., can certainly testify to the warming effects of the ocean. Because of its proximity to ocean, the course remains open 12 months a year as long as there isn’t an accumulation of snow or ice.
“If you look on map where Little Egg Harbor is, you’ll see that it’s one of the eastern-most points in the state,” says Jeff Bonnicky, head golf professional. “We’re so close to the ocean that our weather remains pretty mild and that’s great for golf. When most courses get snow, we’re generally open. You can go just a half hour north and be under a blanket of snow.”
Another feature that makes Sea Oaks a great winter golf spots is the positioning of its golf course. While the parking lot and clubhouse sit atop a hill and are susceptible to the wind, the course is nestled several feet below and is insulated by fairway-flanking pine trees. Starting October 1st, greens fees drop to $55/$65 (weekday/weekend) with a cart. In December, they fall further to $40/$50 until March 1.
Another feature of the New Jersey shore region that makes it advantageous for winter golf is its sandy soil base. Bob Herman, head professional at Mays Landing Golf & Country Club in Mays Landing, N.J., considers this as important as the favorable weather conditions.
“If you get snow or moisture on top of a clay base, it’s going to be there for a while,” says Herman. “With sand, it’s going to go filter down. The soil is the key.”
Mays Landing is another area course that remains open all winter long. “The only day we’re closed is on Christmas day or if there is snow on the ground,” says Herman. In addition to discounted rates, Mays Landing puts on special events during the fall and winter season, starting with its annual Birdie Bowl on October 30th. Open to the public, the event fields three-man teams (with a combined handicap of 15) for a scramble tournament in the morning followed by a clubhouse viewing of a Philadelphia Eagles game. This year the birds take on the Denver Broncos.
Nearby, The Links at Brigantine Beach is considered ol’ reliable when it comes to off-season play. This links-style course, located on a barrier island, is a favorite among New Englanders, New Yorkers and North Jerseans who don’t want to take chances if they’re traveling so far to play. If there is the occasional snowfall here, any accumulation is usually gone in a few days.
“In the past, if it snows on a Monday, by Wednesday or Thursday we’ll have nine holes open,” says Steve Brady, general manager. “For other courses on the mainland, it can take a while for that snow to melt.”
According to Brady, Brigantine can even have a weather advantage over similar, geographically advantageous courses in the area. “For one day last winter, I think we were the only course open in the state,” he says. “I think it was a Friday and the other courses south of us didn’t open until Saturday. I think we had 200 players that day. We had a five-day stretch in February where we did 1,000 rounds. Normally, for that time of year, we’re lucky to do 200.”
In addition to being one of the most reliable sources for winter golf, Brigantine’s $39, play-all-day rate also attracts the die-hards. That rate begins on November 1st and is based on availability, but it includes the greens fee and a GPS-equipped cart. The easiest way to know whether the course is open is to sign up for email notifications at brigantinegolf.com. In addition to getting up-to-the-minute status reports, new “members” get a buy-one-get-one-free coupon.
A little farther down the Garden State Parkway, Avalon Golf Club is another good bet and a favorite of snowbirds coming down from the North. Unlike other courses, it even stays open sometimes when there’s snow on the ground. “We don’t allow play when there’s ice and frost, but the snow is not damaging,” says head professional Ted Wenner. “Our snows down here are usually windswept, so it tends to accumulate around the greens rather than on top of them.” Avalon is also blessed with tree-lined fairways, rare for a seashore course, that help distinguish the lines of play despite the snow blurring them.
As one of the most popular courses in Cape May County, it can be tough to score a prime tee time at Avalon in the height of the summer. While not quite as hard in winter, when there’s snow up north, “the phone rings off the hook,” says Wenner. Undoubtedly, it’s because there’s a weekday winter special for $35 that includes greens fee, cart and lunch. On weekends, it’s $39 for greens fee and cart.
Toward the southern end of the Parkway lies Cape May National, which, if measured latitudinally, is actually south of the Mason Dixon Line and experiences weather more like Washington, D.C. than Philadelphia. More importantly, it’s surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Delaware Bay on the other, which create a pocket of warm air that insulates the course from snowstorms.
“Lots of times we won’t even get the snow,” says Bob Mullock, president and co-designer. “Storms that come up the coast take the path of least resistance so, they’ll slip right up the bay, bypass us, and make landfall 10-20 miles north.”
In October, Cape May’s rates drop to $55/$65 to ride and $40 to walk (weekdays only) In November through February, they dip to $40/$35 and you can walk seven days a week for a mere $25.
“When people feel like they’re shut out and they can’t play because it’s wintertime, they should give us a call because, odds are, we’re open,” says head professional John Petronis. At the very least, there will be someone to answer the phone because the course never closes.
Even if you don’t want to commit to a full round of golf, there are places where you can work on your game or just keep loose until spring hits. Many driving ranges have semi-enclosed and/or heated stalls that can keep you comfortable down to 30 degrees. And, if being outside in winter is just too much for you to handle, several retail stores and dedicated indoor golf centers around the state have simulators into which you can hit full iron, fairway wood and driver shots — either in practice mode or by playing a simulated round at a courses such as Banff Springs or Pebble Beach. So, when you get the golf itch this winter, call up your friends instead of your travel agent and play right here in the great Garden State. A Really Cool Membership
Harbor Pines Golf Club in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., is offering Individual Winter Memberships for $495. In addition to offering unlimited golf from November through February 2006, these memberships include: 60-day advanced tee time reservations, unlimited number of accompanied guests for a reduced member-guest fee; “sending” privileges for four unaccompanied guests per day at a reduced member-guest fee, driving range balls included with each round, and a 10 percent discount on select pro shop merchandise. For membership information, call 609-927-0006 or visit harborpines.com. Winter Rules: The Cold Facts
Let’s get something straight right off the bat. There is really no such thing as “winter rules.” Not any that are recognized, endorsed or enforced by the United States Golf Association, anyway. The USGA recommends that its standard rules be observed uniformly, no matter what the weather or conditions. However, Rule 25 does make a provision for “abnormal ground conditions”—defined as “casual water” or “ground under repair”—interfering with your ball, stance or swing. And, The Rules of Golf state that, “snow and ice are casual water or loose impediments at the option of the player.”
The loose impediment part is easy: it can be removed without penalty. As for casual water and/or ground under repair, the ball can be lifted and dropped within one club length of the nearest point of relief, but not nearer the hole.
The winter rules with which most of us are familiar are actually a free-form mixture of local rules set up by golf course operators and/or their rules committees over the years—there is no established code. Therefore, it is meaningless for a course to simply post a sign stating, “Winter Rules in Effect Today.”
In most cases, these local rules say something to this effect: “If embedded or muddied or resting on a extremely soggy area, your ball may be lifted, cleaned and placed within (some specified distance) of the spot it originally lay, not nearer the hole or on the green.” Again, the rules need to be clearly and explicitly defined on a course-by-course basis. If the golf course you’re playing doesn’t have such rules posted, you can always agree upon some for yourself or among your group.