A Few Days Not Enough at New Jersey's Golf Mecca

By: John Torsiello

After driving our golf cart up a steep incline at the Crystal Springs Golf Club in Vernon, N.J., my buddy Mark and I hopped out of the cart and onto the 11th tee.

Ballyowen Course at Crystal Springs Resort

"Where's the hole," Mark asked me with a tinge of incredulity in his voice. "Well, just look down about 80 feet and across a quarry filled with deep green water and you'll see it," I told him, pointing out the flag nestled on a maniacal green that wraps around the lake and a rock wall. "Wow," is all Mark could say.

The "wow" factor is what you will get at Crystal Springs Resort, especially if you're an avid golfer. While the par-3 12th, which can play anywhere from 150 to 190 yards depending on how nasty the greenskeeper is feeling on a particular day, is one of the best and most dramatic short holes you will find anywhere. And it's only one of 117 holes of golf at this resort.

Crystal Springs, located in what is known as the Sussex Skylands area of northwest New Jersey, just south of the border with New York State and fairly close to the rolling farmlands of eastern Pennsylvania, has its golf spread among five courses.

The resort's Ballyowen and Wild Turkey golf courses are super routings created by master architect Roger Rulewich. The above-referenced Crystal Springs course is regarded as one of the sternest tests in the region. The nine-hole Cascades, also designed by Rulewich, formally opened for play in the spring of 2009 and turned Crystal Springs Golf Club into a 27-hole facility. You can choose from three different options when playing an 18-hole round by using any of the nine-hole layouts - Cascades, Classic and the Villages.

There are 27 holes at the Great Gorge Golf Club, a former Playboy Club (from what I hear - wish I was around at the time!), and Black Bear Golf Club a few miles away from the resort's main property has another 18.Wild Turkey is also on The Lodge's property. In addition to the above layouts there is the nine-hole Minerals Family Golf Center, where adults and youngsters can enjoy the game together without feeling intimidated.

Obviously, this is a place where you can easily immerse yourself in golf. We got to sample only three of the tracks - Ballyowen, Crystal Springs (18 of 27 holes) and Wild Turkey - during a too-short three-day stay. Though often considered the best layouts at the resort, the remainder of the golf is at least good and there's so much else to do here you may want to just kick back for another day or two and enjoy some of the other amenities. More on those later. Let's talk golf.

The first day at the resort we jumped onto the Ballyowen golf course. Rulewich is known for designing courses that are both fair and penal at the same time. The fairways at Ballyowen, as at Wild Turkey, are rather generous and the greens undulating, though not tricked up.

Crystal Course at Crystal Springs

The biggest hazard you'll run into (usually) at Ballyowen is unseen - the wind. This is a treeless course that sits on a bit of a hill with nowhere to hide when the breeze kicks up, as it did during the second nine of our round. The wind can make a two-club difference on some of the approach shots. Better pick the right club because three of the par-3s play across water. And when the fescue grows tall during the summer, you will have trouble getting safely out of the rough.

Finish your round in the late afternoon and you'll be serenaded home by a bagpiper, who gives the course a tangible sense of being in Scotland or Ireland rather than Northern Jersey. Don't fret mate. Even though it's the good old U.S. of A. you'll still be able to quaff a pint from the specialty brewery in the very nice clubhouse after your round.

The second day we tackled Crystal Springs, designed by the under-appreciated Robert von Hagge. The layout is a beautiful beast, especially if you play it from the tips (around 6,900 yards). We played it a step down and it was all we could handle. I hit the ball well and was 4-over par through the first 11 holes, including a nice 3 on that 12th hole. The unrelenting difficulty of the track finally caught up to me, however, and I limped in over the final seven holes. The fairways here are narrow and there's trouble all around: you name it, water, quarries, woods, wetlands and plenty of bunkers.

Not satisfied with only 18 holes on Monday we decided to give the resort's real-grass 18-hole putting course a whirl. The greens were as good as you'll find on some daily-fee courses and it's an enjoyable way to unwind after a round, warm up for 18, or practice your flat stick. The fact that my buddy Mark beat me both times we played the putting courses didn't lessen my appreciation of this little gem, located right outside the entrance to the Grand Cascades Lodge.

Since I mentioned it, let me tell you about the Lodge, a stone-and-wood structure that's perched atop a hill and affords wide views of the area. It has 200 well-appointed living accommodations and is only a few steps away from 45 holes of golf (the Crystal Springs and Wild Turkey courses). We stayed in a corner suite with two bedrooms, fireplaces - including one on a patio deck overlooking the practice area and the valleys beyond, a kitchen and comfortable dining/living area, a Jacuzzi and four televisions. It's a perfect place to crash land for some R&R after a busy day. By the way, the practice area has dozens of hitting bays, a short-game area and is home to the David Glenz Golf Academy. Glenz was the PGA National Teacher of the Year in 1998 and his staff of PGA pros is available for lessons and clinics, which they were giving on the days we visited.

Crystal Springs Resort

At night, we checked out the laidback Crystal Tavern, an upscale pub in the Grand Cascades Lodge that features views of the practice range and mountains beyond. I heard the roast duck or sirloin tip are out of this world, although being true blue-collar golfers we wolfed a delicious burger with all the toppings and downed a few cervezas. If you're into upscale, the Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs received the Wine Spectator's Grand Award and the New York Times rated it as "excellent."

One of the coolest (literally and figuratively) places at the Lodge to dine is the Wine Cellar. You walk down a winding staircase and into the sprawling space where 54,000 bottles and more than 3,640 labels lie protected against the elements. The resort's owners are so proud of the Cellar they give tours on a regular basis. No less an authority on the fruit of the vine than Wine Spectator gave The Cellar its stamp of approval. The area was 40 years in the making and includes the best vintages of the chateaus of Bordeaux, France. The resort hosts dinners in a small area in The Cellar. Listen, I don't know one Beaujolais from another but I've heard the dinners are not to be missed if you're into wine.

Biosphere at Crystal Springs Resort

To complete a busy day we strolled into the very funky "Biosphere" before hitting the pillows to rest up for our round at Wild Turkey. This is one of the most unique features at the resort. The indoor complex has an underground aquarium, vortex pools, caves and tropical foliage, as well as a 140-foot water slide. The glass enclosure allows for year-round tanning. We thought it a nice place to hang out with our special others and pretended we were in the Caribbean. Outside, there's another swimming area, an oversized marble chessboard, ping pong and other table games, a chef's garden area that can host outdoor events, and ample space for merely lounging about and enjoying the view of the hillsides and practice tee.

The resort also features the newly-opened Reflections Spa at the Grand Cascades Lodge. The interior of the spa contains such unique features as 6,500 quartz crystals in its ceiling, water features in each corridor, art glass throughout the interior and exterior, and a heated salt bath and flowing-river foot soak.

The Elements Spa at Minerals Resort, located only a few miles away from the Grand Cascades, offers massages, facials and body therapies. The Minerals Resort also has seven indoor and outdoor heated pools and a sports club. Accommodations are available.

Up early and at em' on Tuesday, we tuned up with another round on the putting course (another loss) as the day dawned clear and bright. The Wild Turkey track is one of my all-time favorites. Rulewich, known for his wise use of existing terrain, outdid himself on this effort. The tee shot on the first hole is from a severely elevated tee to a massive fairway below and it's an exhilarating way to start the day.

Wild Turkey has maybe the second most impressive hole at the resort (I'm a big fan of real good par-3s). The seventh plays close to 200 yards from the tips and the drive must clear another yawning quarry lake. The hole is very similar to the 11th at Crystal Springs Golf Club, although this one plays straight across the quarry and not from an elevated tee. It's still awesome because the lake sits about 60 feet below.

Wild Turkey (the Cascades nine was designed to emulate this layout to some degree) features holes laid out along a ridge line and those in a sunken - or basin - area. The "basin holes" of Wild Turkey, hole Nos. 3 and 12 through 17, are reminiscent of the classic American links style of Ballyowen. The fairways here are ample and never take driver out of the equation. There are enough bunkers in the fairway landing areas and around the greens to grab your attention.

Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to check out the other courses but I had played them during another visit. Great Gorge has 27 holes and was designed by George Fazio. Crystal Springs assumed management of Great Gorge Country Club and upgraded the conditions.

The three nines - Quarryside, Lakeside and Railside - are very different from one another and each offers a stern test. Railside favors shot-making ability over muscle. Its par-3 third hole features artifacts from the area's railroad era, including a Stonehenge-like formation located in a bunker to the left of the green.

Black Bear, a very playable 6,673-yard layout, was co-designed by Jack Kurlander and Glenz and offers a diverse set of holes. Some 65 bunkers are scattered about the track and water comes into play on three holes.

Like I said, the Minerals nine is an executive-length layout but has some interesting holes nonetheless.

If you're into golf, be sure to check out Crystal Springs Resort. It's one of the few places in the Northeast where you can drop your bags in your room and be a few minutes from 45 holes of championship golf, a great practice facility, a putting course and a plethora of other fun stuff to do. Heck, you don't even have to go outside to get to the clubhouse for Crystal Springs and Wild Turkey. A covered walkway will take you from the Lodge to the starting point in comfort and style.

Like us, you might not ever want to leave the property.

For additional information or a tee time, call 973/827-5996 or visit www.crystalgolfresort.com.

John Torsiello is an editor/writer living in Connecticut. He has written extensively about all aspects of the golf industry for a number of national and regional publications. He is a regular contributor to Golf Course Industry, Lawn and Landscape, Golfing, and Fairway Living magazines as well as various online publications. He has strong, ongoing relationships with industry professionals and has worked closely with course owners, architects, developers, course superintendents and general managers around the country. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including first place from the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association for a piece that appeared in Golf Course Industry magazine.