From rubbish to regalia, McCullough's Emerald Links is an old country gem

By Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

McCullough's Emerald Golf LinksEGG HARBOR, N.J. -- Nobody looks at a landfill and sees a gold mine ... nobody except James "Sonny" McCullough.

In New Jersey's Egg Harbor Township -- a neighbor of Atlantic City and a couple of long par-5s from the Jersey Shore -- McCullough's 10-year crusade turned a garbage heap into a golfer's gem. Fittingly, it's called McCullough's Emerald Golf Links.

The 61-year-old Egg Harbor mayor -- a post he has held for 20 years -- has played golf for only four years and is a 12 handicap. He just has a way of turning nothing into something.

"We had this gigantic property that was a blight on our community, a total negative for those that lived around it," he says. "Can you imagine having a home where you can't barbecue outside or open window during a certain time of the year? My whole thought was let's build a golf course that's affordable for the average American family."

What they built was a premier Scottish links-style course with replica holes from the old-country greats like St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Prestwick, Gleneagles and Turnberry -- to name a few. It was executed so masterfully that Golf Magazine called it one of the top 35 public golf courses to open in the U.S. in 2002.

There are people who take lemons and make lemonade. And then there are those who make a lemon souffle. Course architect Stephen Kay belongs in the latter group. With a $9 million budget, Kay provided a challenging track with a sense of novelty that is affordable to play and maintain.

McCullough's Emerald Golf Links For out-of-towners, $75 on the weekend and $65 Monday through Thursday paves the way for a shot at clearing St. Andrews' Hell Bunker, negotiating a Biarritz multi-tiered putting surface, threading the needle on Royal Troon's postage stamp green, and muscling up or wimping out on the tee box of Alister MacKenzie's 159-yard wide fairway.

Ah, Alister MacKenzie.

MacKenzie was the original architect of Augusta National and Cypress Point. In 1914, he entered a magazine contest for designing a golf hole. Winning the contest, he said, launched his career. His entry in the contest was originally built on the Atlantic Ocean at Lido Golf Club on Long Island, but smaller than its original design.

On the advice of Brad Klein, senior editor of Superintendent News and head of Golfweek magazine's course-rating program, Kay built the hole to scale (a 422-yard par-4). But instead of the Atlantic Ocean, which guarded the middle and left side of the hole at Lido, he created a three-acre waste bunker in its place.

In either case, the golfer is asked to bust a big drive over the bunker/ocean, or play safe to the open fairway on the right. Of course, playing to the right leaves a more difficult second shot. It's a fun hole, one where par feels almost like a birdie.

The MacKenzie hole is just one of a dozen examples that challenge the golfer to make sound decisions off the tee box. Kay's main challenge was navigating around 150 methane gas extraction wells. He drew 30 different plans for McCullough's Emerald Golf Links before settling on the final design. Never in his career had he drawn more than six plans for a course.

From an architect's standpoint, the final plan was a masterpiece. Kay's design requires that even the golfer who only drives the ball 230 yards must manage the golf course.

"A lot of architects design for the top-notch golfer," Kay says, "but the 'B' and 'C' players also like that challenge. On some courses, they can't even reach the fairway bunkers. They only penalize the 'A' player."

The 11th and 15th holes are both par-4s under 320 yards from the second-to-last set of tees. But neither hole is a breather. Finding the right angle to attack the green with a full swing is paramount. Even the longer par-4s place a premium on position over distance.

Perhaps the best part of McCullough's is the fact that it feels foreign. Scottish heather, fescue and thick rough line many of the fairways. The wind whips and swirls, demanding knock-down shots and other creative maneuvers. Some holes have mounds in the fairway and pot bunkers guarding the greens.

No. 17 - McCullough's Emerald Golf Links Where it differs from traditional links-style courses is in the elevation changes on the par-4, 400-yard eighth hole and the par-4, 348-yard 18th hole. The departure is a welcome sight for Southern New Jersey golfers, who play mostly on flat golf courses.

The full-service pub, complete with happy-hour specials and a full lunch and dinner menu, is the perfect perch to watch the perils on the final hole.

"People love sitting in the pub and watching golfers hit their balls into the water on 18," McCullough says.

Golfers from Atlantic County and Egg Harbor get discounted rates, but that doesn't mean McCullough's is a local favorite with everyone.

Twisted Dune, a golf course three miles down the road, is also a replica links course. But it doesn't have the perks of McCullough's (such as no property taxes) because Twisted Dune is privately owned. Twisted Dune's principals feel they have been undercut by McCullough's because the course offers a similar experience to McCullough's -- but for $30 more.

"I didn't build it to upset other courses," McCullough says. "I was pushing for it before Twisted Dunes was built. Other people saw the market for golf and did it. I know it [McCullough's] has hurt them and I'm disappointed with that. I don't think the government should compete with private industry."

Nevertheless, it does compete. McCullough is quick to point out that there are six 18-hole courses in Egg Harbor, so there is obviously a demand for golf that his municipal track rightfully supplies. Most of the traffic comes from the Delaware Valley vacationers and the casino population.

Which means there are plenty of places to stay in and around Egg Harbor and plenty to do -- like gamble. If Alister MacKenzie doesn't swallow you whole, then Atlantic City might be your kind of town.

Off course

Places to stay

The Residence Inn by Marriott (609-927-6400) is a popular hotel in Egg Harbor, or log on to the Atlantic City Hotel's reservation Web site at www.atlanticcityhotelassn.com.

Where to eat

If the McCullough's bar and grill didn't fill you up, check out the bars and restaurants at Somers Point, including Charlies (609-927-3663), Anchorage (609-926-1794) and for blues bands, karioke and other live entertainment, Bubba Mac's (609-927-7575). Ventura's Greenhouse (609-822-0140) in Margate is a popular beachside restaurant with outdoor tables overlooking the ocean. Margate is also home to more upscale restaurants like Tomato's (609) 822-7535 and Steve & Cookie's (609-823-1163).

What to do

If gambling is not your cup of tea, "AC Weekly" and "At the Shore" are weekly publications available at restaurants, service stations, convenient stores and grocery stores. They will have information on concerts, shows, movies and other leisure activities.

Fast fact

McCullough's Emerald Golf Links is managed by Vienna, VA-based Billy Casper Golf (billycaspergolf.com), operator or owner of 45 courses nationwide, including 10 in the Mid-Atlantic and three in New Jersey.

Brendan McEvoy, Contributor

Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.


Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Conditioning Deplorable

    Dezman wrote on: Sep 15, 2010

    Sorry to say that after being lured to play this course from the good press, that the course is in deplorable condition (2/10). If the course, one day receives proper conditioning, the course layout would make it worth your while. Hopefully, one day the money will flow in to restore this course to a dignified status.

    Reply