In cinema, “The Natural” was a baseball movie starring Robert Redford. In golf, it’s Cape May National Golf Club.
The Erma facility was nicknamed “The Natural” by sports writers because of its connection with nature — a bird sanctuary, seven lakes, singing birds and waterfowl can make players forget they are on a golf course. So might the contingent of bird watchers.
That’s exactly what Bob Mullock wanted. The course founder and co-designer purchased the property, which had been earmarked for a housing development, and decided to make a different use of it. There are no homes on this course, which opened in 1991.
“The combination of being a golf destination and bird sanctuary is something we’re happy to have accomplished,” Mullock says. “We have bird watchers who come out here on their own, even the professional birders, and we have also enjoyed a lot of repeat business on the golf course.”
Cape May opened at the start of the high-end, daily-fee era along the South Jersey coast. Courses offered the ‘Country Club’ experience for one day at a cost of between $100 and $125. The overall boom boosted golf in the area and promoted tourism, but Mullock contrasted one aspect of it.
“Our philosophy was to provide high quality but stay away from the high prices,” Mullock says. “I never agreed with the high-end daily fee idea. It comes from the theory that if you didn’t have too many rounds and you can charge higher prices for it, you get a lower cost of maintenance. I thought that was a theory proposed by the suits that ran the golf course. I felt it was over-thought. We charge a reasonable price, but provide a really good layout.”
The layout packs enough risk-reward scenarios to tempt advanced players into being aggressive. How they handle those situations may determine their overall success. Most will prosper simply by taking three shots to reach par-5’s instead of flirting with water and woods to try getting there in two. The course is long at 6,900 yards from the back tees, but more reasonable from the mid tees of 6,600 and 6,100 yards.
Water exists on more than half of the holes and plays prominently into several others. One of them is Cape May’s strong finishing hole of 446 yards from the back tees and 427 from the next forward set. The water runs down the left side of the hole. The green has a tremendous amount of roll. It takes two long and accurate shots to reach the putting surface.
“People have a love-hate relationship with it,” Mullock laughs. “It’s a great closing hole, but it’s difficult.”
An interesting challenge lurks at hole 10, a par-5 listed at 500 yards from the back. It is best played conservatively — hit a nice drive, take a six or seven iron to within 100 yards of the green and try to stick an approach shot into birdie range.
Aggressive players may flirt with reaching the green in two for a potential eagle. Yet if they overswing, they can find woods on the left or water on the right. The dream of an eagle dissolves into the nightmare of a double bogey. The choice on the second shot is the intrigue of the whole process.
Nine is another example of playing the course as it lies. It’s a short par-4 and players can hit a tee shot as close as possible to the green and risk going out-of-bounds, or hit short and take a safe high iron into the green on the second shot.
Three is a scenic convergence of bird watching and birdie hopes. It’s a par-3 that slowly glides uphill. Take one more club than normal to play it.