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Crystal Springs Golf Resort spearheads the growth of the game in northern New Jersey

Jason Scott DeeganBy Jason Scott Deegan,
Senior Staff Writer
Crystal Springs Golf Resort - Cascades G.C. - hole 9
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The nine-hole Cascades Course, which opened in 2009, is the newest one at Crystal Springs Golf Resort. (Courtesy of Crystal Springs )

HAMBURG, N.J. -- Crystal Springs Golf Resort continues to lead the industry in launching innovative programs to spur the growth and health of the game.

Not every resort has the flexibility of Crystal Springs -- home to 108 holes on seven golf courses, a David Leadbetter Academy and a free, 18-hole, all-grass putting course spread across three resort properties in northern New Jersey.

But at least the resort, located just 50 minutes from Manhattan, is making the effort to try new things in a sport that tends to stand pat, relying more on its history and traditions than innovation.

"We've been creative to make the game fun for more people," said Vice President of Golf Operations Art Walton.

Walton's staff has initiated speed golf and family golf and themed golf, all in the name of generating interest and trying to stand out from the competition.

"The industry needs to move toward diversifying how it attracts people to the game," Walton said. "It's all good and will help the game."

Fast-track golf at Crystal Springs

The "Fast Track" program at the resort guarantees golfers finish rounds in less than four hours. On weekends throughout the summer season, Crystal Springs offers designated Fast Track tee times at its Wild Turkey Golf Club, Cascades nine and Black Bear Golf Club prior to 7:30 a.m. The Fast Track rules require players to take no more than seven strokes per hole, no more than three putts, lost ball searches must be 60 seconds or less and a "no honor" system allows for ready golf.

Anthony Fioretti, a two-handicap from Sparta, has participated in the program in the past. "It encourages everybody to move along pretty good," Fioretti said. "When you are used to fast golf, the long rounds drain you. ... Everybody should play fast."

Family golf

Families are most welcome at Crystal Springs Golf Resort's nine-hole Minerals Golf Course, where four-person carts allow golfers with young children to ride together.

There are also two holes cut on each green, including a bigger eight-inch cup for juniors and beginners. Carmine Capone, of Parsippany, brought his sons, Andrew, 16, and Nicholas, 12, to play on a recent summer day. He said it's convenient because Andrew can't rent a cart at other facilities (he doesn't have a license), and his younger son isn't welcome on most courses.

"When I told (Nicholas) about the big holes, he was excited," Capone said. "In New Jersey, there are not a lot of kid-friendly courses. Even at the muni, you have to be 12 and over."

Minerals will launch a SNAG golf program in 2013. SNAG, which stands for Starting New at Golf, combines modified equipment and specialized teaching methods, such as color-coded teaching aids and oversized equipment, to teach all elements of the swing without all the confusing technical talk. It has grown steadily in popularity since 2001.

For those children who might not be ready for a real on-course experience, start them on the all-grass putting course in front of the Grand Cascades Lodge. The greens are tricky, and its setting is lovely, landscaped with flowers and streams. Those looking for a more serious introduction to the game can learn at the David Leadbetter Academy.

The experimental course

When Roger Rulewich's Cascades course opened in 2009, it added an extra nine holes next to the lodge that allowed for even more flexibility. The 3,627-yard nine is also a family-friendly place, featuring two holes cut on each green and well-placed junior tees.

Crystal Springs has used this overflow nine -- the 18-hole Crystal Springs Country Club and the Wild Turkey course operate out of the same location -- to try new things. It has hosted "rookie golf" days, where beginners play without expectations of pace of play.

"Pace of play has always been kind of perceived as a negative among newcomers," Walton says. "They are fearful of rangers or others scolding them if they don't play quickly. We portrayed it as beginner-friendly. They don't want to be intimidated."

This year, the course started a pay-per-hole policy that Walton said still needs more time and promotion to be successful. It's all about veering away from traditional methods to see what sticks.

"It would dispel the notion that you have to commit to nine holes or 18 holes," Walton said. "If you want to play more or less, we'll accommodate that flexibility."

Golf with themes

It's not unusual to see a links-themed course like the Ballyowen Golf Club, considered the second-best course in the state by Golfweek.

Staff members wearing kilts greet golfers as they pull up to the parking lot and the first tee. I've seen similar staff outfits featuring knickers and/or kilts at the Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa in Asheville, N.C.; Royal Links Golf Club in Las Vegas and the Pine Lakes Country Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But I've never seen a theme like the old-school vibe promoted at the resort's 27-hole Great Gorge Golf Club in nearby McAfee. Great Gorge sits next to the infamous Great Gorge Playboy Club that rocked and rolled during the 1970s. The hotel, mostly closed, has seen its better days, but the course has embraced its heritage with a retro-themed clubhouse, decorated with psychedelic wallpaper, shag carpet, a disco ball and pinball machine. Staff wear loud plaid pants that make John Daly's Loudmouth gear look timid. The cart girl looks like a go-go dancer wearing knee-high boots.

The course's fairways can be thin at times, but the routing by George Fazio and greens remain in excellent shape. During my visit, I saw plenty of wildlife -- a bear, deer, fox and a muskrat (sorry, the Playboy bunnies are long gone). The grand, elevated tee shots on the first and fifth holes of the Railside nine and the first tee of the Lakeside nine make the round. Concrete pillars from an old railroad line -- they look like a mini-Stonehenge -- sit next to the third green on the Railside nine. The Quarryside nine is arguably the toughest, playing through rock outcroppings.

Walton said 1970s-themed golf outings -- complete with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer -- are so popular that outing bookings are up 74 percent from last year. More than half of those outings sold are the Vintage 1970s package. "Is it gimmicky? You can call it that, but we are just trying to have some fun," Walton said.

Isn't that what this game should be about?

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Crystal Springs Golf Resort - putting courseCrystal Springs Golf Resort - Minerals course - hole 1

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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