RiverWinds Golf Club

New course rises on an unseemly site

Originally published November 3, 2002

In a perfect world, when a golf course architect finally got his first big shot, the piece of land would be choice, the time plentiful, the pockets deep.

Ed Shearon, on the other hand, got a mere 18 months to build 18 holes, in the middle of a bone-dry drought, on a slab of no-man's land that was literally dredgings from the bottom of the Delaware River dating to World War II.

Given all that, the resulting course, RiverWinds Golf Club, is nothing less than a refreshing and promising mid-priced links layout on the banks of the Delaware in South Jersey. Open only a month, it's raw but already good, and it's probably going to get much better with age.

"I think this is something special," Shearon said, surveying the course one day last week. "I'm proud of what we've done."

While I might quibble with a shot here or there, Shearon, who owns a landscape and golf course construction company in Plymouth Meeting, has taken a big step toward making a name for himself as a designer.

At a glance
Getting there: RiverWinds is on RiverWinds Drive in West Deptford, Gloucester County. From Philadelphia, take Interstate 295 south to Exit 21. Turn right at the bottom of the exit, then turn left at the next traffic light. Follow that road through the next light; the road becomes RiverWinds Drive. Follow for one-half mile.

The phone number is 856-848-1033. The Web site is www.riverwindsgolfandtennis.com.

Green fees: Weekdays, weekends and holidays, $49 with cart; after 2 p.m., $31 with cart. Lower winter rates will take effect in several weeks. In the spring, rates are likely to go to $55 on weekdays and $70 on weekends and holidays.

Rating: RiverWinds is loaded with potential. Definitely worth a try for most daily-fee players. A fair test and challenge for every level of player.

He did it under difficult circumstances. The site for RiverWinds , in West Deptford, Gloucester County, across from the Philadelphia airport, was a forsaken, good-for-nothing patch of "brownfield" - the place where the river bottom dredgings were stacked during World War II as the Delaware was deepened so that war ships could reach the Naval Shipyard.

Never mind the soil and drainage nightmares from years of neglect, Shearon and his staff (among them is Pete Fazio, shaper extraordinaire and cousin of Tom Fazio) bulldozed and massaged the flat expanse until they had created a hilly, linksy course with a fairly natural feel and a surprisingly good view of the city skyline.

RiverWinds can play as long as 7,086 yards to a hefty rating/slope of 73/132. But if you play there before winter sets in, trust me, you might want to bite off one of the shorter tees.

Shearon, who had renovated or tweaked about 20 courses before his chance at RiverWinds, did his best to adhere to the basics of design.

"I tried to use the classic formula," he said, referring to a mix of short and long par 4s, left and right doglegs, reachable and unreachable par 5s, and a sampling of short, mid-length, and long par 3s.

"What I try to do is build it so it gets bigger and better as it goes along," Shearon said. "The front nine is much more benign, softer, with a more natural look."

No argument here. The back nine is more dramatic, more demanding, more interesting - plus, it comes with a view.

Among other things, RiverWinds is selling proximity. Four of the holes on the back nine - the 14th through the 17th - hug the shoreline of the river, providing a unique and pleasing view of the Philadelphia skyline, along with occasional looks at the shipyard and oil tankers slowly making their way up the river. Overhead, there is a constant stream of jetliners on their final approach to the airport, but they are just far enough away not to distract.

Two holes at RiverWinds stand out: the 9th, a dogleg par 4 that requires a well-placed tee shot over a lake, then a testy and lengthy second shot over wasteland; and the 17th, a 150-yard par 3 from an elevated tee onto an island green that juts out into a cove.

Any traces of what the property once was are long gone. Shearon put much faith and trust in Fazio to create natural-looking mounding and bowl-shaped greens. A fan of golf in Scotland, Shearon noticed the almost constant winds coming off the river and decided that he had to offer golfers the option to play the bump-and-run game at RiverWinds.

The course - developed privately by Arret and Emory Dobson, the young brothers who own White Oaks Country Club in South Jersey - is part of a much larger joint public and private venture in West Deptford that will include an indoor tennis facility, hockey rinks, outdoor sports fields, a hotel, a conference center, shops, and a marina.

Most of the project, including the clubhouse at RiverWinds, is still in development, but because of the need to start generating revenue, the golf course, which probably should have been given until next spring to grow in, is very much open for business. Early word-of-mouth reviews must be favorable, too, because even on a cool Monday morning last week, RiverWinds was doing a brisk business.

Any downside to RiverWinds? Not so far, except that it is still very much a work in progress. The fescue and wild grasses have not fully grown in, and Shearon might still tweak a hole here and there. With much of the development still to come, who knows where things might go wrong. But for now, RiverWinds is off to a good start.