When it comes to great golf and plenty of it, northern New Jersey’s Crystal Springs Resort is really tough to beat.
The destination features six golf courses on 4,000 acres in the Kittatinny Mountains. As remote as that description makes Crystal Springs sound, it’s actually very accessible and only about a 90-minute drive from Manhattan or Newark.
The resort boasts tracks fashioned by some of the game’s top golf architects: Robert von Hagge, Robert Trent Jones, and Roger Rulewich, as well as two distinct lodging options and one of the East Coast’s most extensive wine cellars, which you really have to see to believe.
Crystal Springs built its reputation as a golf destination on the quality of two great courses: the Rulewich-designed Ballyowen and the tough-as-nails, eponymous von Hagge track. Over the past two decades, the resort has utilized some addition by subtraction, selling off the 27-hole Great Gorge course, and securing its place among the Northeast’s finest places to stay and play golf while expanding its amenities and golf options.
Two nine-hole courses, designed by Robert Trent Jones. Jr. and Rulewich, an 18-hole putting course and many kid-friendly options have made the Crystal Spring Resort one of the go-to places for families to enjoy the game together.
There’s a little bit of everything here; as the golf goes, Crystal Springs Resort has all the bases covered. During a recent trip to the resort we came away impressed with the variety and overall challenge.
Ballyowen (top) and Crystal Springs GC (above)
Ballyowen is the bomb while Crystal Springs GC is the beast
Rulewich (the Trent Jones, Sr. associate who helped the Master design all the courses along the RTJ Golf Trail in Alabama) created a little bit of links-style golf to northern New Jersey at Ballyowen.
The big-shouldered course opened in 1998. It’s situated on 250 acres that wind across and up and down a huge, virtually treeless plateau overlooking the Wallkill River, with its carefully groomed fairways surrounded by honey-colored tall grasses dancing in the breeze.
Playing as a par-72, Ballyowen stretches 7,094 yards from the back set of five tees. Water enters play on five holes and 71 bunkers keep the golfers’ attention. It is imperative to stop occasionally during your round to savor the panoramas that unfold here. Enjoy the contrasting white-sand bunkers and the tall grassy mounds and verdant fairways.
Ballyowen has received critical acclaim since opening when it was rated the No. 1 Public Golf Course in New Jersey by Golfweek magazine. It continues to be ranked among the best courses in the Garden State.
While the lion’s share of Crystal Springs’ golf accolades go to Ballyowen, it might not even be the best course of the six at the facility. The nod here for that honor goes to Crystal Springs GC, as relentless a resort course as golfers are likely to encounter.
Built in 1991 and featuring plenty of elevation changes as well as several water hazards (including the Crystal Springs from which the resort and the course are named) and 58 bunkers of virtually every size and configuration. The par-72 venue measures 6,808 yards from the tips and it carries the highest rating and slope of any of the resort’s layouts.
One of the hallmarks of a von Hagge course is the use of sculpted mounds to frame fairways and greens and provide definition. Those mounds work to keep shots in play but also create uneven lies in fairways, forcing the golfer to think on virtually every shot.
Crystal Springs GC is a shot-makers track, and golfers who can control their ball can make some good things happen. It’s also tight, with housing beyond the out-of-bounds markers.
Golfers have their hands full on the 180-yard, downhill par-3 11th, which drops 90 feet from tee to green. The putting surface is segmented into halves; to the middle and right are trees and a rock outcropping – it’s one of the craziest all-or-nothing one-shotters around.
Crystal Springs was ranked as one of the top new courses in America by Golf Digest when it opened and has since been recognized as the “most challenging course in New Jersey;” it says so right on the scorecard. Year after year, it’s on Golf Digest‘s top-10 list for public golf courses in the Garden State.
Black Bear deserves respect
Perhaps the most underrated course at Crystal Springs Resort is Black Bear, which may seem easy if one only takes a look at the scorecard. At only 6,673 yards it’s often relegated to second-tier status here because it does not have the designer pedigree of the neighboring courses.
Black Bear was fashioned by Jack Kurlander and David Glenz, the 1998 PGA National Teacher of the Year, and opened in 1996. The course has a nice variety of tough and not-so-tough holes, an aspect that pushes it to the forefront among locals looking for good golf at prices cheaper than the resort’s other venues.
While the course may not have the “wow factor” of its two above-listed siblings, Black Bear boasts an inviting diversity of terrain and scenery and demands well-executed golf shots. Created to challenge golfers of all levels, it fits that bill.
As for the rest . . .
We didn’t get to sample the other 18-hole course at Crystal Springs Resort (the Rulewich-designed Wild Turkey) or the two nine-hole, family-oriented tracks (the Cascades, built by Rulewich, and Minerals GC, the Jones-designed executive course), but we heard a lot of good things about them from golfers.
Oh, and about that wine cellar. Oenophiles will appreciate the immense underground bunker that houses more than 7,000 labels and more than 100,000 bottles. Half-hour tours provide a fascinating look at the collection of resort owner Gene Mulvihill, who began gathering fine wines more than 60 years ago. One highlight: more than 100 vintages of Chateau Latour dating back to 1863.