Sea Oaks continues to benefit players with something it gained and something it relinquished.
What it gained a few years ago was a hotel right on its Little Egg Harbor facility: The Inn at Sea Oaks. The hotel enables innovative concepts like stay-and-play packages for golfers. Rounds of play can be booked exclusively at Sea Oaks or in combination with some other nearby courses.
That's a unique game-changer for this property in a competitive shore resort environment. Wake up and roll out to the first tee? Enticing.
What it lost is the five-hour rounds, according to Jeff Bonicky, director of golf operations. Sea Oaks cleared much of the thickness from its wooded areas, enabling golfers to find balls more easily and thus not slow up play.
This course debuted more than a decade ago, at the tail end of the area's golf revolution. The high-end, daily-fee craze that produced exquisite courses with greens fees exceeding $100 was changing. The South Jersey shore area had become slightly overbuilt for golf. As the recession hit and those greens fees met resistance, the clubs have adjusted. They scaled back prices, adding steep afternoon discounts and providing players some strong value. Finding this kind of course with a discount is a good deal.
Sea Oaks is sprawling and challenging, yet fair. Tee boxes approach 7,000 yards for the longest hitters and rest at 6,330 from the mid tees most people use. Architect Raymond Hearn integrated the textures and ecology of the indigenous pine forest and wind blown sand formations into the design.
"It's a good, fair layout with enough undulation to give you fits," Bonicky says. "There are no forced carries off the tees, the fairways are wide and generous and with five sets of tee boxes, we can accommodate all levels of players. And while we are player-friendly off the tees, there is enough undulation in the fairways and on the green to give you fits. We have many players tell us they can't wait to come back here and be on this or that green again, to face a tricky putt."
Sea Oaks opens with a moderate length par-5, narrow par-4s on the second and third, a par-3 that goes uphill on the fourth and bunkers down the fairway of the fifth, its No. 1 handicap hole. That brings up one of Bonicky's favorite holes, the sixth.
"I love it for the simple reason that you are done playing the first five holes," Bonicky laughs. "There is something for everybody at the start. The first few holes may look easy, but you can find trouble if you are not accurate and the low-handicap player is going to think "Jeez, I left a few shots out there,' if he doesn't get a birdie somewhere in there. When you get to the sixth hole, you at least think its going to be an easy stretch."
Six is a dogleg left, 375 yards, featuring one of the widest fairways on the course. Players can "grip it and rip it" and then play their second shot into a large green. The score here really will be determined on the green. The surface is a flat-level green for the front third, pie-shaped left and right and with small tiers that will make the putt tricky.
Several straightforward holes follow, in which a player should be able to stay out of trouble.
Sixteen is the club's showcase hole, a par-5 measuring 495 yards from the whites. It contains the only blind tee shot on the course. The ideal tee shot must clear a hill, carom off the sloped terrain and roll down the fairway, which slopes right to left. A tee shot placed down the middle may kick into a waste area on the left.
The hole has a double dogleg, first right and then left. Many players will choose to hit a safe second shot to set up an approach to the green, but long hitters can flirt with water that surrounds the green while trying to reach the green in two.