Atlantic City: Jersey jackpot

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – In the early 1850s, when he was courting investors for the rail line that would turn Atlantic City into a mega-resort, Dr. Jonathan Pitney rhapsodized about the virtues of Absecon Island – its pleasingly temperate seaside climate, its boating, fishing and other sporting activities – all just a short commute from Philadelphia and New York.

For Pitney, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Atlantic City,” it was an easy sale. The city charter was approved in March 1854, and four months later, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad began transporting vacationers to the new retreat.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Pitney would think of his creation as I looked across Lakes Bay at the skyline from the fourth tee of Atlantic City Country Club, ranked No. 1 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in New Jersey. Located in Northfield, a few miles from Pitney’s home, Atlantic City CC opened in 1897, lending it a history almost as rich as the city whose name it bears.

That history is quickly apparent to visitors. The clubhouse walls are filled with memorabilia of the six U.S. Golf Association championships that have been played there. The term “birdie” was coined there, and the been-there-forever wooden lockers bespeak a great Northeast club, though the staff’s manner is pure Southern hospitality. Well, South Jersey, at least. Director of golf Charles Fahy, who grew up just down the street, calls Atlantic City CC his “dream job,” and no wonder.

From the sanctuary of the course, it’s easy to overlook the city’s well-known problems, which become evident when you pass the convention center entering the town on the Atlantic City Expressway. Earlier this month, according to a prominent local columnist, some visiting gaming consultants were discussing “the need for a revitalized, new Atlantic City.”

Now there’s a novel idea. Atlantic City has been in a state of almost constant reinvention since Pitney’s heyday, most dramatically in 1976, when New Jersey voters approved casino gambling in the city.

But Atlantic City is peppered by a near-usurious state government and hopelessly dysfunctional municipal leadership; the former mayor went AWOL in September 2007 – a prelude to criminal prosecution, which is sort of a rite of passage at City Hall – and had three successors over the next nine months. Such systemic problems all but ensure the city’s potential as a resort area never will be fully realized.

And that’s a shame, because Sin City East has all of the assets Pitney saw 155 years ago, and more. One that he didn’t anticipate is an unusually deep collection of A-list public golf courses. Seven of the top 15 Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in the state are an easy drive from the boardwalk. And locals insist another half-dozen tracks are just as good, if not better.

• • •

To help investigate, I recruited my buddy Pete, the beneficiary of an oh-so-tolerant wife, to drive down from the New York suburbs and share a little local knowledge.

Several years ago, while attending a trade show in Atlantic City, Pete got in a cab to go to dinner and gave the driver a simple directive: Surprise me. The cabbie took him to a house at the end of Albion Street, a sand wedge from the boardwalk, and said, “Tell Louise I sent you.”

Chef Vola’s, founded in 1921, is located in the basement. You can bring your own bottle, but don’t bring your credit card; they accept only cash. There’s no sign on the door. The number is unlisted. The bathroom is in the kitchen. The tables are crammed together like a large Italian clan gathering for Thanksgiving dinner.

And good luck getting a reservation. Which you’ll need – they don’t take walk-ups.

Another local institution is Renault Winery, the nation’s second-oldest continuously operating winery. It survived Prohibition by selling tonics that included this enticing caveat: “Do not refrigerate this product . . . as it may turn to wine.”

“That was our best-selling product,” said Jon, my tour guide.

One of Renault’s best-selling new products is the Vineyards Golf Course (No. 12), part of a recent expansion that turned the winery into a full-fledged resort getaway. The course lives up to its name: You’ll spend much of the front nine playing around – or over, as on No. 7 – the vineyards.

A more common design theme – sand – is very much in evidence nearby. Twisted Dune Golf Club (No. 3) came out of the design shop of Eric Bergstol, who steadily has elevated the quality of golf in the region with a modest portfolio of courses.

With its enormous mounding, sand cart paths and long, largely cosmetic fescue, Twisted Dune is a manufactured links. But so what? It works. That’s especially true, to my mind, on the par 5s, which don’t slay players with their length or difficulty but are rich in strategic options. Golfers will, however, confront some beefy par 4s at Twisted Dune – which can be stretched to 7,400 yards – particularly the final two holes.

Length is not an issue at Sand Barrens Golf Club (No. 4). Its large greens, particularly a one-acre double green connecting No. 2 on the North Course with No. 4 on the West, are conversation starters, but the greens will be the least of your problems if you don’t avoid the large waste areas.

Talk there inevitably turned to gambling, and Doc, one of our playing partners who clearly knew his way around a casino, couldn’t hide his awe about a woman who last month set the world record for shooting dice at the Borgata, Atlantic City’s glitziest casino. She rolled 154 times over 4 hours, 18 minutes, smashing the old record by 72 minutes while winning an undisclosed sum. We marveled at her good fortune and strong bladder.

• • •

Seaview Resort has that cozy, lived-in feel of a beach house you’ve been coming to since you were a child. It feels like a tiny boutique hotel, belying the fact that it has 297 rooms. Its big bay windows and the occasional creak in its floor boards carry the dignity of a grander era. That’s underscored when you walk through the hotel lobby and see the walls filled with photos of many of golf’s one-name wonders – Snead, Hogan, Nelson and, more recently, Annika – who have graced Seaview.

Seaview’s Bay Course (No. 13 on the Golfweek’s Best state list) won’t beat you up with length, though muscular par 3s such as the 230-yard 11th can take a toll. Its smallish, typically circular greens immediately announce that players will be punished for loose iron shots. But for all its grandeur and history, Seaview remains an unassuming place. My playing partner, Stan Jennings, a construction contractor from Binghamton, N.Y., thought nothing of playing in jeans.

You probably shouldn’t wear your Levi’s to Atlantic City CC, but you’ll find a similar vibe there: gravitas that never rises to the level of pretention.

A decade ago, Tom Doak freshened the layout, which is defined by its imposing, flared bunkering. When a fierce thunderstorm rolled through midround, Pete and I retreated to the clubhouse, where we were told the best was yet to come. Given our delight with the front nine, that seemed improbable – until we played the back side after the storm. The layout builds to Nos. 14-17, which starts with a ticklish par 4 with forced carry over the salt marsh and includes two terrific par 3s. It’s probably as good of a four-hole stretch of public golf as can be found on the Atlantic Coast.

Like No. 4, those holes also benefit from a sweeping panorama of the city’s skyline. If he still were alive, I suspect Pitney would like the view.

Spotlight: Atlantic City

Atlantic City CC

609-236-4401; harrahs.com/golf

Blue Heron Pines

609-965-1800; blueheronpines.com

Cape May National

609-884-1563; cmngc.com

Harbor Pines

609-927-0006; harborpines.com

Links at Brigantine Beach

609-266-1388; brigantinegolf.com

Mays Landing

609-641-4411; mayslandinggolf.com

Pine Hill

856-435-3100; golfpinehill.com

Sand Barrens

609-465-3555; sandbarrensgolf.com

Seaview Resort

609-748-7680; seaviewgolf.com

Sea Oaks

609-296-2656; seaoakscc.com

Shore Gate

609-624-8337; shoregategolfclub.com

Twisted Dune

609-653-8019; twisteddune.com

Vineyards

609-965-2111; renaultwinery.com

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