Twisted Dune Golf Course

A twisted, yet fascinating course

Originally published May 20, 2001

By the time I walk off the 18th green of most every golf course I play, I know whether I like the course, and I like to think I have a sense of whether others golfers will, too.

I can't say that about Twisted Dune.

The new and unusual - and much-awaited - high-end daily-fee layout remains an enigma after one round there the other day.

You know you're in for something different at Twisted Dune as you approach Ocean Heights Avenue. You don't see fairways and greens or trees and people. You see dunes so big and tall and deliberate that they seem to be obscuring something ominous (like a secret military installation?). It certainly gets your attention.

The facility is still taking shape but it's easy to see that the owners are trying to do something special here. We'll be able to tell better in a year how successful they are.

By the time you reach the first tee, it becomes obvious that if nothing else, Twisted Dune is big. The course sprawls, it rolls, it stretches in every direction with dune-lined fairways so wide that even Ian Baker-Finch couldn't have missed them in the throes of his worst driving slump.

At a glance
Getting there: Twisted Dune is located at 2102 Ocean Heights Ave., Egg Harbor Township, N.J. From Philadelphia, take the Atlantic City Expressway to Exit 9. Turn right and follow Delilah Road to English Creek Road (Route 575). Turn left, and travel on English Creek for 3.8 miles to Ocean Heights Avenue. Turn left. The course is 0.9 miles ahead on the right. Phone: 609-653-8019.

Green fees: All days, $125 to ride; $85 to walk, with a caddie.

Carts: Walk anytime. Trained caddies available.

Spikes: Nonmetal. Rating: A striking new addition to the daily-fee scene at the Shore. Golfers will love it or hate it. Very different from other Shore courses. Solid test without being too tough for mid-handicappers. Must-try for any curious golfer in the area.

Twisted Dune never disappoints from there on out - or at least it never ceases to fascinate. I liked it. I swear I liked it a lot. I'm pretty sure I did.

I'm not nearly so ambivalent about the golf holes themselves. Them, I like. There is not a bad hole out there. Long, devilish par 4s that are unreachable in the wind. Great 1-shot par 3s. Deceptive risk/reward par 5s. And - my personal favorite - a healthy sampling of treacherous short par 4s.

You and your game will be tested. You'll never be bored.

And all the while I was playing Twisted Dune, I was trying to figure out what the place reminded me of.

Sand Barrens? Maybe a little, given all the sand.

Galloway National? Yeah, in places, it has the same kind of look and feel, which is a very good thing.

A couple of treeless, seaside courses I've played in Scotland? Hmmm, yeah, that too. Twisted Dune is some kind of amalgam of all that.

"I wanted to replicate a kind of Irish look," said Archie Struthers, the designer. "I tried to build a modern course that looks like it occurred rather than being built."

Struthers is quite a character, a former caddie and assistant pro at Pine Valley, who has gone on to become the managing partner of the company that owns Greate Bay and now, with Twisted Dune, a developer.

Until Twisted Dune, Struthers never had designed a course, and he didn't intend to design this one. Originally, with substantial financial backing, he hired Rees Jones, one of the top architects working today. Jones' company produced an initial routing plan. But Jones, who never visited the property, and Twisted Dunes soon parted company, and the resulting course is emphatically not a Jones design.

"We weren't on the same page," said Struthers, preferring not to discuss the matter further. "This is not a Rees Jones course."

Struthers stepped into the design breach. Lacking formal training, Struthers relied largely on his own instincts and some of the design philosophy tips he overheard during those seven years as a caddie at Pine Valley while toting the bags of some of the greats, among them Tom Fazio, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw.

On most every hole, Struthers began by designing the green complex - mid-size, with Pinehurst-style swales - then working backward up the fairway toward the tee. Like George Crump once did at Pine Valley, Struthers would hit shots into the green until he decided how the fairway and the hole ought to go. If he had doubts, he would ask some of his buddies - all strong players - what they thought.

"It's not rocket science," Struthers said.

He also moved a lot of dirt.

The result is a course with fairways lined by dunes. But the dunes aren't so much stacked as the fairways and green complexes are dug out. "Thirty and 40 feet deep, in some cases," Struthers said. At times, you feel like you're playing sunken holes carved out of canyons of dunes.

"We tried to build the best course we could, given our abilities and our money," Struthers said.

Twisted Dune is still so new, still so much in the birthing process, that it's hard to tell what it will be like in a year or two, once all the native grasses have grown in. But it is going to turn heads, and it's definitely going to be a course everyone will want to play to decide whether they love it or hate it.

"Hate it?" said Struthers, taken aback. "What's there to hate? I think it's going to look more intimidating to the average golfer than it plays."

He's probably right. Twisted Dune is more bark than bite. The tournament tees (7,336 yards) play to a rating of 74.7 and a slope of 132 - respectable but not overly difficult; and the regular "daily" tees play to 71.8/124 - manageable even for mid-handicappers.

One final point. Struthers and his partners are all golfing purists, and for that reason, they have established a greens fee schedule that literally invites golfers to walk. Talk a cart and you'll pay $125, but take a caddie and you'll pay just $85.

"It's not a penalty for riding; it's a bonus if you walk," Struthers said. "It promotes our caddie program, and it takes a little wear and tear off the golf course... . You appreciate the golf course better when you walk."