The golf course at Great Gorge in Vernon, once the showpiece of the Playboy Club resort, is alive and well after a two-year closure that threatened to rewrite the mountain course’s history – and future.

The rebirth of the beautiful, wooded, pastoral facility is thanks to a 2016 purchase by HSK-MC, owners of Mountain Creek Resort, which includes an all-encompassing 500-acre sports resort in Vernon, formerly known as Vernon Valley, including the 177-room Appalachian Hotel, Mountain Creek Ski Resort, a water park, snow tubing park, bike park, zip-line tours and a tree escape.

The Koffman family, owners of HSKMC, purchased Mountain Creek in June, 2015. The latest piece, Great Gorge, was added a year later. The Koffmans plan to invest $1 million into the water park alone for new rides in 2018.

“We’re super-excited to add Great Gorge and golf, a whole new market we didn’t have before. Kids can go to the water park while parents golf,” said Jason Bays, Mountain Creek’s chief operating officer and General Manager.

“The condition of the golf course will surprise you. It’s in pristine condition. The views are amazing. The feedback we’ve gotten back from the golfers about the conditioning is unbelievable.

“The golf course is a perfect complement to what we have here at Mountain Creek. We offer stay & play: golf, dining, accommodations and other outdoor activities. You can have as much fun as you want by yourself or with your family,” Bays said. “We want to get the word out.”

Slowly, but surely, golfers are coming back, mostly from northern New Jersey.

On Labor Day, 195 golfers descended on Great Gorge and 295 people enjoyed the new TreEscape, an aerial adventure course located on the property of Great Gorge on the ridge above Quarry Hole No. 5.

“There is not another golf course that can offer you a discount to a water park,” said Great Gorge general manager and director of golf Brad Sparta, who has lived in the area his entire life.

The Fazio Touch

Sparta, and long-time golf-course superintendent Dave Brubuker, who was brought back to the course by the new owners and considers the course “his baby,” were more than thrilled when the Koffmans decided to bring Great Gorge back to life for future generations of golfers.

Great Gorge is a 27-hole George Fazio designed venue that opened in 1970, built as an amenity for the Great Gorge Playboy Club that was built by Hugh Hefner. The hotel, which has been closed for the past several years, still stands but is not owned by the Koffman family.

While George Fazio did the design work on the course, it was his young nephew Tom Fazio, soon to be acclaimed in his own right, who did much of the hands-on work. The most iconic element of the course,

visually and historically, is the original pillars from an old railroad trestle on the third hole of the Rail Nine, that Tom decided to leave in place on the left side of the green.

“It was his first significant design decision,” said Sparta, with a rise of historical perspective in his voice. “The center lines had the green positioned directly between the old trestle and the modern-day rail line. So Tom calls his uncle, who was off-site, and asks ‘What should I do with the trestle?’ Much to the young Fazio’s surprise, Uncle George replied: ‘You figure it out!’ And the rest, as they say, is history.”

In New Jersey, Tom Fazio went on to design such other esteemed courses as Galloway National, Trump National in Bedminster, and The Ridge at Back Brook in Ringoes.

“If you have never played Great Gorge you definitely need to put it on your list. Such a beautiful, unique course unlike any other I have ever played. The course was in great condition, pace of play was excellent, staff very friendly and welcoming, and a great value. Perfect fall weather and an overall perfect day! Anytime I am in this area this is my go-to course,” said Ken A. Richards on Golfadvisor.com.

Prior to the course’s recent renaissance, Sparta and Brubaker’s main concern was that Great Gorge would be purchased by a home developer.

“It made me sick to the stomach that it might never open again. It’s something you don’t hear about, a course closing, then reopening again,” said Sparta, who worked as a laborer on the course from 1989-96. “I couldn’t wait to get back out there and work on the course. The sky is the limit here, especially if the Playboy hotel gets refurbished. The course was neglected for 10 years under previous ownership. So many who have returned are quick to say it’s better now than ever before.”

“There is vast potential here that’s never been realized, but the Koffman family sees it,” Sparta said. “For the most part, this golf course won’t change from a design standpoint. “

Brubaker, 63, has been around a lot of golf courses, but none captures his imagination like Great Gorge.

“It has tremendous views of mountains and valleys. There is no housing anywhere in sight which is appealing, especially to people coming out of the city. We were blessed to have a winter we could work through. It’s hard to believe what the place looks like now to what it was six months ago,” Brubaker said.

Great Gorge was never totally abandoned, but the mowing of the fairways, tees and greens was done to ensure that the turf did not become reclaimed by the surrounding woods. Upcoming work includes improving cart paths, continued bunker restoration, tee leveling and a new state-of-the-art irrigation system, all of which will have Great Gorge ready for state and regional championship consideration.

While closed, the course was maintained at twice the average growing height for golf. It took Sparta, and Brubaker and their team nearly two months in the fall of 2016 to get it back down to golf-playing height. Weeds in some bunkers reached head high and half of the putting surfaces had died. Overgrowth was everywhere.

Rather than traditional aeration, Sparta and company dragged plugs across greens to spread seed into the soil. When the course re-opened in early May, about 15 bunkers were still being reconstructed throughout the acreage. Off the course, renovations were done inside the pro shop and clubhouse, and a new bar opened, featuring a wide variety of hearty menu items and cold refreshments for guests of all age ranges.

For those interested in “Stay & Play,” one-and-two bedroom “condo style” rooms are available at the ultra-modern Appalachian Hotel, including oversize kitchens and sitting areas, perfect for families and golf groups. The hotel has a light fare restaurant (Jake & Ottos), and the Red Tail Lodge has a fine-dining restaurant.

A Flashy Presence

Like its historic past, the present-day course is every bit as flashy as it once was. A large quarry once existed on the golf course, and much of what was blasted from the rock is still in evidence on the Quarry Nine (3,200 yards, par 34). Rail Nine (3,475 yards, par 36) honors the railroad that came through, delivering coal to the east coast.

The third nine, is called “Lake (3,400 yards, par 36),” and offers some beautiful scenery of its own, including “Lake No. 2,” which many players agree is arguably the facility’s toughest hole. It’s a long, dogleg left par-four with trouble on both sides of the fairway that plays to an elevated, shallow green. Water comes into play on the first six holes of the nine on Lake.

Great Gorge is open to resort guests and daily fee play. Rates are comparable to neighboring courses and preferred rates are available for NJSGA members who identify themselves when contacting the pro shop to make tee times. Semi-private memberships are also available for 2018.

“I think we have a very unique property here that allows us to have three different nines, all offering beautiful scenery and vistas,” Sparta said.

Article by Mike Moretti, appeared in NJSGA GOLF Magazine, Fall/Winter 2017

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