Sand Barrens Golf Club

Designer found key to course underfoot

In the beginning, the plans were to call Sand Barrens Golf Club, the new upscale resort track just north of Cape May, Royal Oakes. It made sense, given the evergreen- and oak-lined fairways.

At a glance
Getting There: Sand Barrens Golf Club is located in Swainton, N.J., at 1765 Route 9 North. From the Atlantic City Expressway, take the Garden State Parkway south to Exit 13. Turn right go to the traffic light, at light make right onto Route 9. Follow Route 9 north for one-half mile. Sand Barrens is on the left. Phone: 609-465-3555.

Greens Fees: During the Fall season, Saturdays, $89; after 1 p.m., $74; after 3 p.m., $59. Sundays, $89; after 11 a.m., $74; after 1 p.m., $59. Weekdays, $69; after 11 a.m., $59; after 1 p.m. $49. During Summer and Winter months, greens fees change.

Carts: Walking is permitted anytime, but cart fees are included in greens fees. No pull carts allowed.

Spikes: Nonmetal spikes only.

Amenities: Moderately stocked pro shop, restaurant, banquet facilities, snack bar, driving range.

Rating: Unique, first-class resort course well worth a try.

Information accurate as of 8/26/2002

But that was before the backhoe experiment.

It was during the winter of '96, after work had begun on clearing trees for what would become fairways, that lead designer Dana Fry came for one of his frequent visits.

``We were standing on the eighth hole, and there was snow everywhere," Mike Gaffney, the project manager then and Sand Barrens' general manager when the course opened in May 1997, recallled. ``Dana said, `What kind of soil do you have under here?' I said, `Pure sand once you get down three or four feet.'

``Dana said, `Go back and get a backhoe, will you?' We dug a test hole, and when he saw all that sand, his eyes lit up.''

That's when Fry, who was simultaneously designing a desert course out West, looked at Gaffney and said, ``I've got some other ideas.''

Within days, Fry's plans for a leisurely loop through the tall pines and oaks of tiny Swainton got tossed into the trash.

Starting tomorrow, when Sand Barrens officially opens, 12 miles north of Cape May, you can decide for yourself whether Fry made the right decision. It's a unique, first-class resort track that's the closest thing you'll find to a desert course in this neck of the woods. And Fry managed to pull it off without creating a course that feels too gimmicky.

Virtually every hole features sand - long stretches that run alongside fairways like gutters on a bowling lane; ribbons that zigzag across the fairway, that strategically bloat to add treachery to a tee or approach shot, that wrap around greens like a deadly anaconda. On a couple of holes, Fry became especially fiendish, fashioning one bunker so deep that it has been dubbed ``Halfway to Hell'' and another with steps that is ``The Coffin.''

No matter the level of your game, no matter how accurate your shots, figure on spending part of your round honing your sand game. There's so much sand - 25 acres - that it isn't treated as a hazard. Rather, the sand at Sand Barrens is played as ``waste area,'' meaning golfers will be able to ground their clubs in the sand, even take divots on practice swings.

Rakes will be provided, but there will be no real effort to maintain the waste areas in the manner of a sand trap. If a shot comes to rest in a footprint or a rut, local rules allow golfers to lift the ball, smooth the lie with a foot or rake, and replace the ball - a ``smoothie'' is what Gaffney called it.

On several holes the only way to get from the green to the next tee is to walk directly through the sand. ``But that's the way Fry designed it,'' Gaffney said.

All this might seem intimidating, but don't be scared away. On a number of holes, the sand is as much psychological as it is strategic. It may run along the far side of a fairway, or directly in front of the tee, but it often will catch only the truly errant shot. In addition, if you choose correctly from the five sets of tees, you can generally avoid those jaw-dropping forced carries.

There is also the matter of the sand itself. It wasn't trucked in; it was unearthed from the course site. So, unlike the fluffy, fine-grained sand found in the bunkers on your course back home, the sand at the Sand Barrens is coarse and pebble-laden, reducing the number of buried lies and making approach shots much more manageable.

Fry, a young designer who is increasingly making a name for himself, has provided a healthy sampling of short and long holes, straightaways and doglegs, even a couple of par 3s over water. The greens, for the most part, are huge and undulating. On most holes, Fry has given higher handicappers a choice of rolling the ball onto the green.

As you wind your way around the course, no matter what else a hole features, you always come back to the sand. But on some holes, the sand is more predominant than others.

Take the eighth hole, a par 5, the No. 1 handicap hole. Standing on the tee, you half expect to see Lawrence of Arabia riding up on a camel. Sand runs up the right side of the fairway about halfway to the green, then meanders across the fairway, then continues up the left side the rest of the hole. On top of that, it's long - 562 yards. After a great 3-wood off the tee, and another from the fairway, I still had 100 yards in to the green.

My favorite holes include two of the shorter holes: the 285-yard, par-4 14th, which big hitters will be tempted to go for on their drive; and the 17th, a downhill, 179-yard par 3 over sand and water, into a sloped, tiered green roughly the size of Grandma's Christmas tree farm.

From the pro tees, Sand Barrens measures 6,902 yards, well beyond the 6,300-yard national average. As you move forward on the tees, you can choose to play the course from 6,615 yards, 6,304, 5,857 or even 4,817.

Sand Barrens hasn't yet been evaluated by the U.S. Golf Association for slope or course rating, but based on a round last week from the champion tees - normally the blue tees, but here they're yellow - my guess is it'll come in somewhere in the low- to mid-130s for slope. That's a serious test.

Will you like Sand Barrens? You'll either love it or vow never to come back until Castro turns capitalist.

Originally published May 18, 1997