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Crystal Springs Golf Club in Hamburg, New Jersey: Only the strong survive

By Tom Robinson, Contributor

HAMBURG, N.J. -- Golfers ready to take on Crystal Springs Golf Club can expect to have to hit many different shots. Among the tests are: controlling the distance of an iron shot sent soaring off a cliff 80 feet above the green, carrying a ball 135 yards over water and landing it softly, and consistently hitting some of the tightest fairways in resort golf.

Crystal Springs Golf Resort - Crystal Springs G.C. - 11th
The 11th hole at Crystal Springs Golf Club is arguably the most scenic at the Crystal Springs Golf Resort.
Crystal Springs Golf Resort - Crystal Springs G.C. - 11thCrystal Springs Golf Resort - putting course

Just miles away from the highest elevation point in New Jersey, the Sussex County course is part of the 63-hole combination that is affiliated with Crystal Springs Golf & Spa Resort. Only the most punishing public golf courses in New Jersey -- or any other state for that matter -- can claim to offer a challenge like that found at this mountain resort course. And, we have not even gotten into discussing the greens. We could fill half the review just describing the extreme twists, turns, and elevation changes on the putting surfaces.

Crystal Springs opened in 1991 and, in 1992, was recognized by Golf Digest Magazine as one of the Top 25 New Golf Courses in America. The course was named as the state's "Best Public Course" by Jersey Golfer Magazine in 1996.

From the tee at 10, which plays 160 or 186 yards depending on whether the pin is in the right front or left back of a split green, golfers look down from a cliff on the site of the former Windsor Quarry. When the limestone quarrying activity ceased in 1929, the site filled with water forming the many natural springs that are now seen on the property. The clear waters at the 10th were the inspiration for the name of the course, the surrounding residential community, and the Resort.

Looking down at the 10th green and the deep spring that guards the left and front of it, golfers are warned by signs to stay away from the cliff's edge. Posted elsewhere on the course are signs warning of snakes and protected wetland areas. The bottom line: there are a lot of places on this golf course that you do not want to be. And, the place you want to be on each hole is sometimes tough to find.

An August trip to Crystal Springs found the course playing at its toughest. Gnarly, ankle-high rough, complicated by the wet summer, framed the runway-like fairways, only making things tougher. But, trim the rough, add map, compass or whatever else might help, and this is still a tough golf course.

Even at 5,888 yards from the white tees, Robert von Hagge's design earns every bit of its intimidating slope rating of 126. The course plays as long as 6,816 yards from the gold tees, which have a course rating of 74.1 and a slope of 137. The blue tees yardage is 6,395 and the red is 5,091 yards.

Beginning with 7 and ending with 14, the layout features an eight-hole stretch that includes just one par-4. The seventh is a dogleg right par-5 with the possibility of a blind second shot over a tough hill on the corner.

Water extends from the right to the front edge of the green on 8, requiring all carry to the green from 130 yards (153 from the back). The water even extends around the rounded green, making it a longer carry to either side of the green than there is to the middle.

Crystal Springs Golf Club's back nine

Crystal Springs Golf Club's back nine starts by alternating par-3s with long par-5s for the first five holes. At 11, the par-5 starts with a tee shot over wetlands and ends with a shot up at an elevated green. After 13, the longest hole (524 white, 564 blue), the stretch concludes with 14, called "The Oasis." Sand stretches from tee to green on the 105-yard hole.

Throughout the round, tight fairways turn many tee shots into tough decisions. At 5 and 9, most players will want to contain their tee shots at about 200 yards to avoid trouble.

The shorter tee shot does not cause much trouble with reaching 5, but at 9, known as "The Elbow," the second half of the dogleg left is steeply uphill. The ninth plays as the third handicap hole. The tee shot of more than 200 yards runs through the fairway unless it is a draw around the corner of the dogleg. That leaves quite a bit uphill on the 347-yard hole (413 from the blue, but with a chance to hit a longer tee shot).

Two other par-4s also rank among the top four handicap holes on the course. At 2, the number-one handicap hole, there is out-of-bounds all the way down the left side on the 383-yard hole. Mounds and a bank sloping back toward the fairway on the right can keep a wayward shot in play, but likely with an awkward lie.

The 356-yard, 15th is the fourth handicap hole. The slight dogleg left has a green that is well-protected by water at the front right. Large trees left of the fairway near the landing area of the tee shot influence players toward the right side, making the water more of a factor. von Hagge left his mark around the course, sculpting mounds around the fairways and greens. The challenge is trying to hit the targets framed by those mounds.

Crystal Springs Golf Club has something for everyone

One of Crystal Springs Golf Club's strong suits is variety. And the variety extends beyond the layout to the greens.

The practice green near the first tee gives a warning of what is ahead. It appropriately has two tiers and provides the opportunity to practice the touchy putt from the top tier to a hole location on the bottom. A first-time player at Crystal Springs would be advised to try a couple of those putts before heading out for a round.

The many severe slopes and different levels on the greens allow for very difficult pin positions which can further toughen an already difficult layout.

The par-4 sixth (366 yards from the white and 419 from the gold) has a separate tier on the back of a narrow green. The 10th seems more like two connected greens rather than one large putting surface. The difference on the par-3 hole is noted on the scorecard by a 26-yard distance change depending on where the pin is placed.

At 13, the majority of the green is on a plateau with dips down to a lower level, allowing some tough spots, especially near the back left of the course's longest hole. The dogleg right 16th features a narrow green that is more than 50 yards deep.

At 17, the huge three-tiered green will make golfers wonder if they would be better off missing the putting surface entirely rather than hitting the green and landing on the wrong tier. The slopes between tiers are so extreme that it is even more difficult to get a putt to stop than on a typical two-tiered green.

There can be many different shots hit from or over any number of obstacles at Crystal Springs. The goal will remain the same, keeping the ball at minimum on the same level as the cup, and ideally below the hole.

Assisting in the challenge are six sets of regular pin placements that are noted on the scorecards.

Tom Robinson, Contributor

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