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|The first hole on the Lakeside nine at Great Gorge Country Club is a stunning opener. (Kevin Dunleavy/TravelGolf)|
MCAFEE, N.J. -- Searching for another lost ball on the ninth hole of the Lakeside Course at Great Gorge Country Club, the unmistakable wail of John Fogerty became more audible.
It was an appropriate anthem for perhaps the toughest of the 27 holes at rugged Great Gorge. It also was a reminder of the retro theme of the 43-year-old mountain course in northern New Jersey, formerly the Great Gorge Playboy Club.
Seventies music blaring from the veranda is just one of the diversions that make a round at Great Gorge fun. One step into the glass-walled clubhouse feels like you've been transported in time to the set of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." There's a shag rug. The wallpaper is psychedelic brown. The furniture is "Mad Men" mod. The bar has iconic Playboy Magazine covers under glass.
For those of a certain age, Great Gorge is a campy celebration of a different era, when sophisticates drank from highball glasses and wore Nehru jackets and shift dresses. In the clubhouse, one can almost imagine Playboy-founder Hugh Hefner turning the corner in a velvet smoking jacket, a bunny on each arm, a pipe between his lips.
Four decades ago, the Great Gorge Playboy Club was one of the more ambitious ideas of Hefner, his attempt to create a mountain resort -- skiing in the winter and golf in the summer -- which appealed to a generation of hipsters who found the nearby Poconos unfashionable.
The centerpiece of the resort was a swanky, eight-story hotel, which opened in 1978 but a decade later was sold to the Seasons chain. To the chagrin of locals, the brown monstrosity remains standing today, a depressing example of the dreadful architecture of the era.
To golfers, however, it's another of the funky charms of Great Gorge, where the carts are electric orange, the clubhouse has pinball machines, staffers wear tight Loudmouth pants and skirts, and yardage markers at the driving range include Playboy bunny logos.
As for the course, Great Gorge has a trio of meticulously conditioned nines, each with its own character. The Lakeside Course is beautiful, traditional and straightforward. The Quarryside Course, cut through rock, is twisting, jagged and demanding. The Railside Course is scenic, pastoral and forgiving.
Great Gorge is the oldest of seven courses under the Crystal Springs Resort umbrella, joining in 2004, and the only one with more than 18 holes. All of the courses are within a five-mile radius in Sussex County. While windswept Ballyowen Golf Club is widely acclaimed the best public course in the state, there's little doubt which of Crystal Springs' offerings is the most unique.
"We definitely provide something different," Great Gorge Director of Golf Dan Hintzen said. "Yes, it's about the fun. But it's also about the course. There are so many memorable holes. And each of the nines has a different flavor. You can spend a great day playing all 27. And you're not going to mistake this course for any of the others you might play up here."
The picture-postcard, drop-shot first hole of Lakeside is an appropriate introduction: inspiring awe from the tee -- the distant fairway below framed by mountains, trees and a lake -- but playing to a gentle 530 yards as a reachable par 5.
After five relatively flat holes in the valley, Lakeside begins its climb back to the clubhouse at no. 7, a 378-yard stunner, tree-lined and straight uphill. No. 8 is a fascinating par 3, a solitary green carved into a grassy hillside. No. 9 is a 422-yard par 4, daunting on the tee shot and the approach.
Quarryside begins and finishes in the shadow of the old Playboy Club, with no easy holes in between. On the scorecard, the par-35 nine looks manageable at 3,362 yards. It's anything but.
Consider the trio of par 3s. No. 1 measures 175 yards, but the green appears postage-stamp small. No. 3 is 230 yards and plays through a chute, over a pond and into the prevailing wind. No. 6 is 180 yards of carry over water. If that's not enough, there's a 443-yard par 4 that requires players to hit a fade off the tee, then a hybrid, long iron or wood through a small opening between two rocky hillsides. No. 9 -- playing 422 yards straight uphill toward the Playboy penthouse -- almost seems like a bunny.
The highlight of Railside is no. 3, a par 3 with Stonehenge-like pillars, artifacts from the railroad era. The hole serves as Great Gorge in microcosm -- old, unusual and unforgettable.
It is a decidedly retro experience, but golfers of all ages will appreciate Great Gorge.
Players of all handicaps will enjoy it as well, provided they use the appropriate tees. While 6,710 yards from the tips (Lake/Quarry) might not sound daunting, it is long considering this combo is a par 70, and use of a driver is ill-advised on many of the par-4 holes.
Great Gorge is a quality George Fazio design, though anything but a stuffy daily-fee course. Playing all 27 holes, with a lunch break on the veranda, is a full day of memorable golf and unique diversions.
July 26, 2013
Kevin Dunleavy is a longtime resident of northern Virginia, a graduate of George Mason University, an award-winning reporter covering golf, colleges, and other sports for the Washington Examiner, and a single-digit handicap still seeking his elusive first hole-in-one.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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