By Rick Drennan
In Hold ‘Em poker, there’s a term called “all-in.”
It’s defined as a player gambling that the hand he or she is holding is good enough to grab the pot – and eventually help win the game.
It’s a bold, chancy, and sometimes suicidal strategy.
The folks connected to the Atlantic City, New Jersey golf business are also all-in when it comes to promoting themselves to players right across North America.
And there’s good evidence to suggest that their risk is minimal.
After all, the Garden State sports about 300 courses, and 19 of the best are part of the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association (GACGA).
“Atlantic City has become a terrific family destination,” says Grace Hanlon, New Jersey’s executive director of travel and tourism. She added rather quickly that golf is a big part of that family. A part that might someday help this famous gaming city in America morph into another Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach. And why not? Atlantic City is, like them, located right on the Atlantic Ocean. Its soil base is sandy and promotes links-style course design. Some of the world’s best architects – Donald Ross, Willie Park Jr., William Flynn, Tom Doak, Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry, to name just a few – have worked their mastery here, and the portfolio of championship layouts continues to grow and diversify.
No wonder Hanlon and others within the tourism branch eagerly welcomed a travelling troupe of North American golf media to see and play some of the best courses Atlantic City (AC) has to offer.
Luckily I was one of them.
Admittedly, Atlantic City has not been on the GPS for most Canadian golfers over the years. Heck, it’s never been at the top of the list for many of America’s travelling golfers, either.
But it should be, and thanks to Hanlon and company, it now is.
The city’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) is focused on, and helping to fund, a new marketing strategy and it is working in conjunction with the GACGA to drive a new marketing message home: “Do Anything. Do Everything. Do AC.”
AC is being promoted as “the premiere golf destination on the East Coast.”
Here are five good reasons why.
• Temperate weather: Many AC courses are open year round.
• Stay and play packages: Almost all the hotels have golf packages that are both affordable and fun.
• History: The Atlantic City Country Club, founded in 1897, is one of the oldest and most famous tracts in the country, and others like the Seaview Resort have a rich backstory as well.
• Challenge: The 19 courses in the AC rota run the gamut from sublime to ultra challenging, but each one offers something that’s most important to both low to high handicappers: playability.
• Easy access: All roads and train lines literally lead to Atlantic City, and most airlines fly directly to it, or nearby Philadelphia, which offers smooth connectors to the city.
State legislation has turned Atlantic City into a Tourism District, and an area Master Plan (approved in 2011) wants to “diversify” the offerings in non-gaming areas. AC has been dealt a harsh hand over the past few years. Nearby states have introduced gaming tables, slot parlors, even limited sports betting and racetrack casinos. This “Mid-Atlantic arms race,” as one clever journalist calls it, has left AC vulnerable, and open to change. Golf heads up a list of non-gaming attractions.
Both physically and strategically, AC is at the crossroads.
That’s why AC representatives are eager to throw out the welcome mat to North American golfers. Representatives of the CRDA, joined Liz Jaworski, (president of Ron Jaworski Golf, a consortium of four area courses), Hanlon, Thomas Sullivan, general Manager of McCulloughs Golf Club and head of the GACGA, Stephen Kay, course architect at McCulloughs and Heron Pines (two of the courses visited by the media), and others in the golf, restaurant, hotel and casino business. Their message was the same: Atlantic City’s golf potential is untapped; help us change course.
Sullivan arranged the rotation of play for the golf media. We warmed up to AC with our first stop at McCullough’s Emerald Links and as the name might suggest a Scottish links style course. Be hungry and make sure that you stop into the Library Pub & Grill for the best steak sandwich ever!
We rolled over to the bucolic Shore Gate Golf Club, with its fantastic, pine-lined fairways. The gem in the crown, however, is the Atlantic City Country Club, founded in 1897. The ACCC clubhouse and locker room could have been plucked from a storybook. If its walls could talk, they’d tell of tale of some of the great players marching down its historic fairways, including the legendary Bobby Jones. Doak has modernized the course, but it’s never lost its well-aged charm. It’s best known to the golf world as the place where the term “birdie” was first coined.
We also played the 36-hole Stockton Seaview Resort (home of the 1942 PGA Championship and the annual LPGA ShopRite Classic). It’s where Sam Snead scored his first major championship, and the sweeping vistas and coastal marshlands made it one of the most pleasant golf experiences I have had in years. This is golf as it should be played, on sand-based soil, over sun-splashed fairways, to roly-poly greens, perfectly manicured.
Then there’s Twisted Dunes, a 7200-yard (from the tips) beauty that has more sand along its edges than anything you’d find in Scotland. This visual masterpiece is one tough hombre, and players have to be at the top of their game before taking a step to the first tee. Oh yes, bring a few extra sand wedges.
Blue Heron Pines is part of the four-course Ron Jaworski Golf grouping.
Jaworski is, of course, the former NFL quarterback and TV commentator who loves both the game and south Jersey, and he has made a significant investment here. His wife Liz oversees a growing group of courses, all highlighted by their excellent conditioning.
Half of the media troupe stayed in downtown Atlantic City, while the other half (including me) took up residence at the beautiful Borgata, a bay-side casino-hotel which boasts some of the best and largest gaming tables just outside the main boardwalk of Atlantic City. During our visit an eclectic mix of performers (Jerry Lewis to country star Alan Jackson) played to large crowds. AC is still dominated by Trump Entertainment, Tropicana and Caesars Entertainment, which owns Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s and the Showboat.
Gaming, of course, is still a dynamite draw in Atlantic City. But there’s just so much else to do, including golf. That’s behind the re-branding of AC.
Whether it’s a bracing walk on its historic Boardwalk, fine dining at one of the hundreds of restaurants, attending the annual Miss America Pageant, or simply sitting on the sandy shoreline and dipping your toes into the warm Atlantic, this has become a one-size-fits-all city. FYI the halibut at Oyster Creek and the sunset are two of the best sights and tastes in the world. You guess which is which.
It’s why one of Jersey’s native sons, Frank Sinatra, a noted golfer, would go all-in when it came to singing its praises.
Others, like me, have now joined the chorus.
Atlantic City is definitely in tune!
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