To hell with the number 7. Lucky? I’m not sure how 7 became any luckier than any other number, but for my money that’s all just a pile of pants, as a Scottish caddie once said to me, then explained to my quizzical expression: “A load of crap.”
I shot 77 three straight days in Atlantic City, and you would think that might entitle me to a little good fortune in the casinos. But no. I left town having contributed to the P&L at Harrah’s, Trump, Bally’s and Caesars, and no amount of $2 Nassau wins was going to make up for it. Maybe it’s that the casinos are stacked against you and the golf course allows you to control your own destiny. If my destiny was full of lucky 7s on the course, in the casino it was closer to 666.
My lack of luck – or, more likely, skill – at craps, blackjack and roulette is a little easier to take having been introduced to the city’s golf scene, which far surpassed my expectations. I hadn’t been to Atlantic City since 1976, when my parents switched up the annual beach vacation for a change of pace, or because they wanted to see where Bert Parks sang There She Is each year. Either way, it was before gambling came to town, but long after golf arrived.
At that point in my life I had little concept of golf. Now three decades on I know Atlantic City has reinvented itself a few times, most recently to attract golfers.
With growing gambling competition from gaming licenses being issued by states throughout the Northeast, and mega-casinos having been built on land owned by Native American tribes, AC is no longer the only gambling game in town, so to speak. So a foursome of golfers filling room nights at the huge casino hotels on Atlantic Avenue is now welcome, even if they do spend the daylight hours trying to win two-down press bets rather than the pass line bets.
Atlantic City clearly has the golf infrastructure to be a destination for minivans full of foursomes from up and down the East Coast, or from anywhere being just an hour from Philadelphia International Airport. And United begins flying directly to Atlantic City from Chicago and Houston starting this spring. The question is with all the other fine golf-and-beach destinations, who thinks about Atlantic City?
Well, you should. I thought about going for years, but didn’t pull the trigger until last fall. Now I’m kicking myself for waiting so long and wondering when I’m going to go back. The town is more than just mega-casinos and a boardwalk. The variety of golf here is remarkable, with modern gems like Twisted Dune, Harbor Pines and Shore Gate getting much of the publicity. But it is the town’s classic gems that drew me, so my first experience with 21st century Atlantic City included golf that has been around since the early 20th century. The best golf in town dates back even further – to the 1890s.
Atlantic City Country Club: You get a sense of the deep history of Atlantic City Country Club before you even enter the historic clubhouse. Outside the front door is a restored bell and the brass plate informs you that during the early days of the club this bell was chimed to signal that the last trolley back to the city would be leaving shortly and if you missed it you would have to fend for yourself for the evening. Of course, in those days ACCC was no farther physically from Atlantic City than it is today, but it was far more lonely. Now, the trolley long retired, the suburbs have engulfed the club and getting back to Atlantic Avenue is no big deal any time of day.
The hard part now is forcing yourself to leave ACCC. The clubhouse is among the most historic still standing in America, and while it has been remodeled and modernize many times over the last century, it history creeks with every step. The rich wood walls of the locker room would have more than their share of stories to tell, having seen the likes of some of the world’s greatest golfers and biggest celebrities come through over the years.
Now the greatest thing about ACCC is that it is open to everyone, and you can share a drink at the locker room bar alongside members and high rollers from the big casino hotels just across Lakes Bay from the course.
Those hotels, which make up the Atlantic City skyline, are visible from the back nine, where the course runs right up to, and occasionally into, the marshlands of the intracoastal waters that separate the mainland from the barrier island that holds Atlantic City.
A recent renovation by Tom Doak brought the course up to modern agronomic standards but did nothing to harm the integrity of the classic layout, which unlike many clubs that have been around for more than a century, has remained on the same site since Day One.
Stockton Seaview Resort: One hundred years ago this year, Philadelphia businessman Clarence H. Geist bought a bayside farm near Atlantic City and began developing what is today the Stockton Seaview Resort. Hugh Wilson began work on the golf course that year, and a year later Donald Ross came up from North Carolina to put the finishing touches on it.
The course, still much the same layout as when it opened in 1915, is yet another of the great classic courses of New Jersey, a lengthy list at that. Unlike many of the state’s other classics, the Bay Course, wedged between U.S. Highway 9 and Reed’s Bay, hasn’t had room to expand to a modern championship length, though a few new tee boxes will debut this spring. It held the 1942 PGA Championship, site of Sam Snead’s first major victory, and accommodates the LPGA Tour each year quite nicely. For the average resort guest, the layout is more than enough when you combined the modest length (6,300 yards) with dangerous bunkering and classically sloping greens.
From its compactness emerge several difficult holes, including the long par-4 second that plays tight to the marshlands of the bay, and three par 3s of 190 yards or more. When you get to the fourth one, the mere 115-yard 17th, you might think you’re in for a breather until you stand on the tee and realize you basically have two options – hit the green or be devoured by one of five huge bunkers. About the only other possibility would be to shank one across Highway 9.
Like ACCC, the Bay Course offers stunning views of the Atlantic City skyline, and if you brought 100 friends to play both courses, they would be evenly divided over which they likes best.
Greate Bay Country Club: In 1923, Somers Point, a peninsula that juts out into Great Egg Harbor Bay southeast of Atlantic City, was the perfect spot for a golf course. Somewhat isolated, near only the small town of Somers Point but convenient to the Jersey Shore, Scotsman and early golf great Willie Park Jr. laid down a gem and wealthy Philadelphians who summered in the area flocked to it. That was before the Garden State Parkway and when U.S. Highway 9 ended before it got to the course. Now, the layout doesn’t have quite the classical feeling of ACCC and Seaview, thanks largely to a modern clubhouse and the fact that the pesky suburbs kept expanding, forcing the course to be rerouted several times, including once when Highway 9 was extended right through the course.
In most holes you can still feel its 1923 heritage. The tight corridors put an emphasis on accuracy off the tee, but it’s the greenside bunkering that really makes you think, asking you to cunningly shape shots around them to get to the green. The small greens aren’t always receptive to flying shots over the bunkers to tucked pins.
Although Greate Bay is largely a private club, some access is permitted via Atlantic City golf packages.
Links at Brigantine Beach: Atlantic City golf legend holds that top American pros of the 1930s practiced at the Links at Brigantine before setting sail for the UK to play in the Open Championship. The course was built in 1927 and was about as close to a links course as American golf could get. Walking distance from the Atlantic, sea breezes on the nearly treeless terrain helped the pros perfect the needed bump-and-run plays.
Designed by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, the course (the closest to Atlantic City) was part of a grand development plan for Brigantine Island. But two years after its beginning, the stock market crashed and the ensuing Depression took its toll. Built for more than $1 million, the club sold less than 10 years later for $7,500 and $35,000 in back taxes. It wasn’t until after World War II that the course and development of Brigantine Island roared back to life. The course has been through several owners and redevelopment projects since then, but it is back to its original glory, although modern pros have found different venues to practice for the Open Championship.
DON’T MISS IN ATLANTIC CITY
White House Subs: In 1946 Anthony Basile and his uncle Fritz Sacco opened the shop on Arctic Avenue. Today their children still run the tiny shop. The walls are covered in pictures of famous people saying nice things about the place, and famous or not it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like the huge subs. White House Sub Shop
Angelo’s Fairmont Tavern: The city and its restaurant scene have changed many times in the last 80 years, but in all that time Angelo’s has remained steadfastly at the corner of Fairmont and North Mississippi avenues for three generations under the Mancuso family, which provides authentic Italian cuisine for a very fair price. Angelo’s Fairmont Tavern
Dock’s Oyster House: Through two world wars, the Great Depression, the many declines and rebirths of Atlantic City, this is the granddaddy of Atlantic City institutions. Dock’s opened in 1897 and has been the town’s leading seafood restaurant ever since. Winner of Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, Dock’s is within walking distance of the famous boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue casinos. Dock’s Oyster House
Tony’s Baltimore Grill: Picking the best pizza in any town is next to impossible, but in Atlantic City this might be your best bet. Tony’s has been around since 1927 and is reputed to be home to the original thin-crust pizza.
Caesar’s Atlantic City: The Roman Empire came to Atlantic City in the very early days of legalized gambling (it was the second legal U.S. casino outside of Nevada) and has been an AC landmark since. You enter the two-level casino from the boardwalk or Atlantic Avenue and while that is certainly the centerpiece of the resort, don’t miss the luxury the rest of the hotel offers – fine dining at Morton’s The Steakhouse or Atlantic Grill, the Qua Baths & Spa, the Pier Shops at Caesars, Dusk Nightclub. And there’s always world-class entertainment. Caesar’s Atlantic City
Atlantic City Boardwalk: The world-famous boardwalk is the backbone of the resort area no matter what time of year you go. Lined by massive casinos, small shops, restaurants and, of course, the beach, the boardwalk connects to several piers. The Garden Pier is at the art and cultural center of the city. The Pier Shops at Caesars offer upscale shopping. Steel Pier is an amusement park setting. Atlantic City Boardwalk
Atlantic City Convention Center: It seems there is always a show of some sort going on at the venerable AC institution, famous as the site of the annual Miss America pageant. Whether it’s the Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival (April), the Philadelphia National Candy Gourmet & Gift Show (September) or the Pennsylvania Dry Cleaning & Laundry Expo 2014 (seriously, it’s in October if you want to go), there is always something happening there. Atlantic City Convention Center