HAMBURG, N.J. -- It was the Ballyowen Course I was anticipating most. Many consider it the best golf course in New Jersey and with good reason: It's beautiful, challenging, very playable and certainly one of Roger Rulewich's best designs.
But it would be another Rulewich design that caught me by surprise. Arriving in the afternoon at Crystal Springs Resort about an hour or so from New York City, I began my stay there with a late-day round on the Wild Turkey Course. It was extraordinary. Wide fairways, incredible vistas and no two holes alike is what greeted me. It was the perfect warm-up for Ballyowen, and a great introduction to Crystal Springs.
Crystal Springs Resort: North Jersey golf mecca
There are four championship courses at Crystal Springs Resort, the focus of my recent golf trip to the northern New Jersey area. Besides Ballyowen and Wild Turkey, there is also the original Crystal Springs Course and Black Bear, which was acquired a few years ago and is located off site.
If I had more time, I would have loved to played Wild Turkey again, but playing it late in the day also made for spectacular lighting against the horizon of endless hills. That's right, in this part of New Jersey, there's plenty of movement in the land, which makes it perfect for building golf courses. Wild Turkey, in a way, is sort of a Ballyowen Lite. There's less tall fescue, the fairways seem wider and the course isn't quite as long. With five sets of tees, just about anyone can play it, and I didn't find a single hole I didn't like.
Much of the same could be said for Ballyowen, which has a links feel and look to it -- right down to the kilted starter -- as well as its own clubhouse, excellent bar and grill and terrific practice facilities. The key to playing this course well is driving the ball. Avoid the tall grass, play the right tees and you'll have reasonable shots into these greens for the most part.
One of the exceptions was the long, par-4 seventh, which has a tee located on the other side of the entrance road. This dogleg right plays over and around water to a well protected green. From the back tee, it's around 470 yards, which means a good drive will leave a long iron or hybrid into difficult green, where you have to carry most of the trouble or pick the perfect line (which I did and made par for one of the highlights of my day).
The other course at Crystal Springs that I played is the original Robert von Hagge-designed Crystal Springs Course, which opened in 1991. By far, this is the most difficult course at the resort with its tight fairways, sloping lies, out-of-bounds stakes through the doglegs and severe doglegs. It's a grind, to be sure, and you have be able to work your tee shots a little.
There are several memorable holes, including the par-3 11th, which features a drop of more than 75 feet to a huge hour-glass design with potentially 20 different pin placements. For a first timer, calculating club selection is no easy task for the nearly 200-yard-long hole.
Family friendly options at Crystal Springs
The family friendly options at Crystal Springs are numerous. There's FootGolf, a combination of soccer and golf if you will, as well as two short courses, alternative options to golf carts and a lighted, all-grass putting course that works its way around Grand Cascades Lodge.
Like other forward-thinking golf operations around the world, Crystal Springs now offers both GolfBoards and Golf Bikes. GolfBoards, which were inspired by world renown surfer Laird Hamilton, are powered by an environmentally friendly lithium-ion battery. This easy-to-ride vehicle allows players to "surf the turf" in a way that feels similar to snowboarding, surfing or skateboarding, except a lot easier. And the Golf Bike, which has two saddle bags for carrying clubs, is exactly what it sounds like -- a way to pedal power your way around the course, adding another element of exercise to the golf experience. Both also allow for speedier play than a golf cart shared by two and with their light footprint are turf friendly.
In addition to the two regulation-length courses, there are two more layouts at Crystal Springs. The newest is the family friendly Cascades Course. Measuring 3,627 yards, the course's design stresses playability and features junior tees to make it more enjoyable for those new to the game.
The other course is the Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed, executive, nine-hole layout known as Minerals, which also offers the FootGolf option. This mountainside layout measures just more than 2,305 yards, perfect for juniors or even advanced players who want to work on their game. The layout includes bentgrass fairways, two sets of cups per hole and starts at $15 per player.
A different kind of golf academy
Another highlight of my trip was a visit with Brian Rogish, who owns and operates the Golf Academy at Crystal Springs. Rogish -- who was the Tri-State PGA Teacher of the Year in 2014 -- takes a different approach than many golf instructors at resorts. Rogish knows he can't rebuild a golfer's swing in one or two sessions (which is typical for resort guests). Instead, he looks to build upon whatever the student has been working on, but he also has another innovative program that gives visiting golfers knowledge they take with them on the course or beyond.
One of the tools at Rogish's disposal is the comprehensive TrackMan launch monitor system. Many use it for clubfitting or simply relaying information about a student's swing, such as launch angle, face angle, carry, path, spin rate, club speed, ball speed and smash factor. But Rogish has found that by using a lesser known feature of the program called TrackMan Combine, he can form an accurate picture of what a golfer's strengths and weaknesses are.
The Combine, used by many tour players, is a standardized test in which golfers hit two sets of 30 shots, three each from varying distances, from short pitches to drives. The results are scored on a scale of 1-100, which enables Rogish to quickly assess a person's game.
In my case, I learned that the best parts of my game were driver and wedges between 70-80 yards, and I wasn't as accurate as I need to be from 150 to 170 yards. The results not only told me that I should be trying to find those 70-80 yardage shots whenever possible (especially on par 5s) but what I really needed to work on. In short, it's a game plan for improvement.
Fine dining, wine, accommodations and spa
In addition to the golf, Crystal Springs' accommodations, which include the Grand Cascades Lodge and Minerals Hotel. I stayed at the Grand Cascades Lodge, which offers large condos with luxurious furnishings, large bathrooms and complete kitchens, which means you can load up on groceries if you want or certainly take advantage of the dining opportunities at the resort.
The most premium dining experience, however, can be enjoyed at the elegant four-star Restaurant Latour, located on the top floor of the clubhouse, offering romantic sunset views of the mountainous countryside.
Executive Chef Anthony Bucco and Chef de Latour Martyna Krowicka craft two ever-changing menus: the five-course "Anthology" menu and the seven-course Chef Degustation "Chef's Tasting." Better yet, the menus interplay with the restaurant and resort's world-renowned Wine Cellar, perhaps the finest collection in the United States with more than 100,000 bottles. This is fine dining to the nth degree -- from the china to the polished service to the work-of-art cooking.
In addition to all the dining options, Crystal Springs also offers one of the coolest spas in the Northeast. The Reflections Spa at Grand Cascades Lodge, located next to the resort's biosphere, features an 8,000-quartz crystal ceiling, which not only illuminates the entrance but is believed to contain healing powers.
It's part of an overall decor that also includes calming water-and-fire-inspired art glass throughout the spa's interior and exterior. The spa offers an array of treatments, including massages and facials and one treatment that employs wine and grape seeds. There's also a complimentary foot soak after the above treatments, complete with pink champagne and specialty chocolates.
Berkshire Valley a worthwhile side trip
Berkshire Valley Golf Course is not too far from Crystal Springs Resort and it doesn't take a back seat to much in the area. And here's the best part: Located in Oak Ridge, N.J., this Billy Casper-operated facility is part of the Morris County Parks System. Yes, Berkshire Valley is a muni, and it's priced well between $22 and $72, depending on whether you're a veteran, resident or nonresident, and the time of day.
Laid out in the Highlands Region of northern New Jersey, the first five holes are cut out of the side of Green Pond Mountain. The views from several tees, including the first, are staggering. There's not a boring hole on the 6,800-yard, par-71 course, conditioning is excellent, it's generous off the tee (except for the first few holes), plenty challenging and very memorable. Behind Ballyowen, Berkshire Valley is at least the third best public course in the area.
Meanwhile, back in NYC: Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point
As part of this trip, I also made a quick jaunt into the Bronx to play another municipal, but this one was a little more expensive than Berkshire Valley. It was also very memorable, but green fees for outsiders are around $200. I'm talking about Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, a links-style layout by Jack Nicklaus that converted an eyesore of a landfill into a magnificent golf course set in front of the backdrop of the New York City skyline and two of its bridges.
An intriguing course to be sure, Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point is fairly challenging, too. Spray it off the tee, and you'll be looking for balls in the high fescue, and they're not easy to find, much less hit. Most groups, thank goodness, employ their own lateral hazard rule, otherwise they might be returning to the tee on several occasions.
What I loved about the course besides the views was that it was an easy walk. In fact, I really can't imagine taking a cart, which would detract from the links experience. And even though the clubhouse (a $10 million clubhouse is in the works for 2017) is temporary, it's still a pretty cool place to hang out. A back patio provides great views of the 18th hole and the Whitestone Bridge, the perfect place for a draft beer and a $15 Sloppy Joe plate.