“As sites go, it isn’t too good.” That was designer Steve Smyers’s initial assessment of 190 unremarkable acres owned by Blue Heron Pines Golf Club in southern New Jersey 15 minutes from Atlantic City. The club already had a fine parkland-style spread (now called the West Course), a layout that paved the way for upscale daily-fee golf in the region shortly after it opened in 1993. More recently, Smyers was invited to produce a championship-caliber, links-style course on the dreariest land imaginable. The elevation change was barely four feet. The vegetation, mostly scrub and spindly trees, was lackluster. The heavy, clay-based soil was laced with rock. And yet the club’s owners were committed to producing an exceptional course. Smyers saw opportunity where others might have winced and moved on.
A fine golfer himself, Smyers has collaborated with Nick Faldo and Nick Price on various design projects and understands more than most the elements of strategic design. At Blue Heron Pines, he dug his ideas into the shapeless ground, creating in the process the finest something-from-nothing golf course in the Northeast.
A broad, horizontal layout stretching to 7,221 yards (par 71), the year-old course is closer to a genuine links than dozens of pretenders that boast a Scottish plaid logo and the services of a bagpiper. As on a British seaside links, playing surfaces on the East Course are firm and fast. The ball bounces and rolls when it hits the ground. The canted greens are very slick. Wind is usually a factor — the club is only 15 miles from the ocean. “Playing bump-and-run shots on uneven contours requires imagination and creativity, which is what I hope players will love about the East Course,” Smyers says.
The nation’s top public golfers (men and women) can judge for themselves in 2003, when the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship is held at the club.Smyers moved nearly 400,000 cubic yards of dirt to create interest and variety on the nearly blank canvas. The most prominent landform is a 30-foot-high hillside located between holes 3, 4, 6, and 7, their fairways carved into and around the long, high ridge.
Smyers also used a variety of grasses to create texture and delineation. These grasses — bluegrass, rye, native fescues — mark the layout’s low areas and interact with the trees and bunkers to define strategy. According to Smyers, “A proficient player can read the ground plan to figure out where to go. We’ve given the observant golfer plenty of clues.” Green fees range from $50 to $130. Golf shop: 609-965-1800.