The spring billboard in Somers Point was a literal sign of the times. It coaxed golfers to leave crowded public courses and become members of Greate Bay Country Club for as little as $55 per month.
Yes, that Greate Bay, a private club steeped in rich history for nearly 100 years. The Somers Point facility has joined the ranks of exclusive properties opening their arms to the public, via modestly-priced memberships.
The course was designed in the 1920s by two-time British Open champion Willie Park Jr. and later renovated by Tom Fazio, a three-time recipient of Golf Digest's "Best Modern Day Golf Architect" award. Fazio even renovated Augusta, famed home of the Masters. Greate Bay also hosted the LPGA circuit from 1988 to 1997.
Greate Bay remains an elite establishment, marked by a committed ownership group drawn from other industries. Owners include former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce, 24-year gaming industry veteran Gary Massey and real-estate developer and miniature golf impresario Mark Benevento. They have funneled several million dollars worth of improvements into the course over the past seven years, including, most recently, reseeded greens.
Membership here produces reduced greens fees and a discount at the 50,000 square foot Greate Bay Racquet & Fitness Center up the street.
"We feel this is a low cost of membership and a fantastic deal for the customer," says Joel Inman, general manager of Greate Bay. "There is so much to love about this course, and we're going to give you a four-hour round. The members (versed in the idea of quick play) see to that."
Greate Bay satisfies the golfer's appetite. It is long (6,315 yards from the middle, 6,705 from the back) but manageable. Hazards are not overly prevalent and golfers initially feel they can score well.
Appearances are deceiving, however. The winds often exceed 20 mph and affect club selection and placement. The greens roll true but are small and well-guarded, while the par 3's are among the most taxing challenges on the course.
Bucky Kenneff, the director of golf, favors the 160-yard par 3 13th. The tee shot is struck from an elevated tee to a green about 20 yards below the tee box. The small green is guarded by bunkers on either side and the tee-shot view of the green, coupled with wind direction, makes club selection interesting.
Eighteen is an excellent finishing hole - so excellent that it ranked as one of the hardest finales on the entire LPGA tour when the event was staged here. The average stroke total on the par-4 hole was 4.76 for the pros.
It is 402 yards and requires a tee shot placed left, but strong right-to-left winds often bring the out-of-bounds risk into play. The approach shot must travel downhill, on a left-to-right slope, and then up, to a large green guarded by traps. Birdies are so rare that LPGA pros felt they could not rally to win the tournament if trailing entering this hole.
Greate Bay Country Club
Where: Mays Landing Road, Somers Point
Greens Fees: Membership required for play, starts at $55 per month.
Amenities: Clubhouse, banquet room, driving range, putting green, locker room.