There was a time when finding a top-notch daily-fee golf course at the Jersey Shore was about as likely as stumbling across a decent Chinese restaurant in rural Mississippi.
Things have changed. Blue Heron Pines, Harbor Pines, Cape May National and Sand Barrens -- all relative newcomers -- have helped improve the Shore's public golf landscape. Now comes still another quality, upscale public course "downashore," albeit a little farther north, near Toms River: Pine Barrens Golf Club.
Open since March 1998, Pine Barrens is on the pricey side -- $60 weekdays, $95 on weekends -- but, frankly, that puts it in the mid-price range in the growing market of "private club for a day" facilities.
How about the course itself? Think Sand Barrens, the three-year-old upscale layout near Cape May, only slightly milder and more forgiving.
Pine Barrens features the same vast expanses of natural sandy waste areas on many holes, the same towering pine trees bordering fairways, and the same generous landing areas and sizable greens. Pine Barrens, though, doesn't seem quite as intimidating for the mid- and high-handicapper as Sand Barrens.
"It is similar and does have the same look, except it's a little more peaceful because it's off the beaten path," Rudy Virga, Pine Barrens' head pro and general manager, said last week.
Just as at Sand Barrens, more than a few holes at Pine Barrens can be visually foreboding from the tee -- the kind of waste areas first perfected at Pine Valley often run alongside the fairway from tee to green. Truth is, more than not, they cause trouble for only the truly sprayed shot.
At Pine Barrens, developer and designer Eric Bergstol has also made sure that only players venturing back to the championship tees face long carries over trouble. In most cases, fairways are plenty wide before funneling down as they wend their way closer to the green. Rare is the green that doesn't afford the weaker player or high-handicapper the chance to run the ball up onto the putting surface.
Even if you find your way into one of Pine Barrens' waste areas, recovery doesn't require a yeoman's work. As at Sand Barrens, local rules allow you to ground your club, remove loose pebbles, and even take a practice hack or two. Sand around the greens, where rakes are provided, will be treated as traditional sand hazards.
All in all, with five sets of tees, Pine Barrens can provide as little or as much of a challenge as you want to bite off.
"We're not all tour players," Virga said. "This course is designed to accept shots by average players."
From the black tees, the course measures a whopping 7,125 yards and plays to a 74.2 rating and a 131 slope. With that kind of length, we're talking plenty of doglegs, a couple of unreachable par 5s, long irons into several par 4s, and one super 226-yard par 3 over sand, sand, sand.
That said, even most mid-level players should be able to take on Pine Barrens from the proper set of forward tees. From the middle tees, it plays 6,340 yards to a 70.6 rating and 124 slope. That should be manageable. From the forward tees, the course can play as short as 5,225 yards.
Several holes stand out. No. 7 is only 302 yards from the championship tees, but it's a bogey waiting to happen. A nasty ditch slashes diagonally across the fairway, forcing a layup with a mid-iron to long-iron. If the pin is tucked close to the front, more than a few suckers will dump it in the ditch trying to make birdie.
There are no bad par 3s at Pine Barrens, but the 14th -- the beast over the desert -- is the strongest and most visually striking. From the black tees, it's 226 yards -- much of that over waste area -- into a large green that is choked on the right by sand and bordered on the left by a slope.
The four closing holes are perhaps the most consistent stretch of holes on the course, especially the dogleg par-5 15th (518 yards), with trouble all up the right side, and the sweeping dogleg par-5 18th. Even with a big tee shot at the 18th, you're looking at 300 yards to get home. Pine Barrens is still a work in progress. An impressive-looking clubhouse is under construction, but it won't be completed until mid to late summer. For now, there are virtually no clublike amenities; the pro shop operates out of a trailer.
In addition, the course will need a year or two of maturing before reaching its full potential. For now, there remain patches where turf has been recently laid down.
If you're eager to try a new, quality, challenging track, however, none of this should discourage you from heading to Pine Barrens.
Originally published in 1998.