Reading The Green – The Woodcrest Country Club

American Road Trip


woodcrest country club golf course

Reading The Green – The Woodcrest Country Club

woodcrest country club golf course

When the Woodcrest Country Club became open to the public, I spoke with Jamie Berman, the marketing director for First Montgomery Group, who had purchased the course. The article was published in the December 2013 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the magazine article PDF here.

 

woodcrest country club golf course

The 18th hole of the beautiful Woodcrest Country Club golf course.

Reading the Green

After 84 years as a private club, Woodcrest Country Club is available to the public…and building for the future.

As she shows this observer around the Woodcrest Country Club, Jamie Berman is clearly on top of the ongoing progress.

“We’re looking to make some modifications,” she says, admiring the view of the 18th hole from the shaded patio. “There’s a deck closer to the pro shop, and we’re looking to extend that around to the patio. There’s a versatile outdoor area attached to the club, and a tented patio area for summertime events. We’d like to add a small secondary event area to the ballroom.

“Just looking to make the club more event-friendly and less ‘country club staunchy’,” she says with a smile.

Berman is the marketing director for First Montgomery Group, the real estate outfit that purchased Woodcrest in May for $10.1 million. Shortly after the acquisition, the announcement was made that the private 84-year-old golf course would be made available to the public, with semi-private memberships available.

It’s been an unqualified hit so far: “People have been calling like crazy. We’ve had 35-40 messages come through in just the last few days. We brought on an additional team member just to be a membership director. It’s managed by ownership now, so if we make modifications to the club, we won’t be charging the members.

“The marketplace for golf now is very different than it used to be,” she explains. “The private country club model isn’t as relevant in this economic climate.”

As Berman points out, Woodcrest is being made over for more family-friendly and affordable outings, both on the inside and outside of the clubhouse. There’s still work to be done—like acquiring a proper liquor license—but thus far they have received great reviews from folks that have held events there.

And the golf course itself is no slouch. In the reviews on golf websites, Woodcrest is nearly always rated as “challenging”. That might be an understatement.

 

woodcrest golf course

Lots of profanity-inducing hills and sand traps here.

The course was designed by William Flynn, which, if you’re an avid golfer, is pretty much all you need to know. If you’re not familiar with the name, Flynn, who lived in the Depression era, was considered one of the greatest golf course architects of his day. Of the 80 courses he designed, five are listed in the Golf Digest list of the 50 best ever.

Flynn’s strength was in designing courses to fit the land they were on, which Woodcrest does, in a location that is hilly for South Jersey. Several holes on the course appear ready to punish a less than ideal tee shot with a rolling hill or a sizable bunker. A recent Courier-Post supplement about the course describes the difficulties of each hole—the tee shot must avoid a stand of white pines on Hole 8, an annoying pine tree just to get within 200 yards on Hole 14, or a sunken fairway and trees on Hole 16. If you’ve given up profanity for Lent, you might want to skip a round at Woodcrest until Easter.

“Flynn had a mantra that every hole should develop its own problem,” says Bill Torlucci, the Woodcrest golf director. “He really gave players something to deal with on every hole. The green design, the size of the greens, it’s a lot of elevation for South Jersey. Tree-lined fairways, well-bunkered, fast greens, combine all that and it makes for a very challenging course. If you shoot par or better here, you’ve played a really good round of golf.

“I’ve been able to do it a few times, not as much as I’d like to.”

Berman adds, “This course has been private for almost a century, so some people were finding it really difficult, because it has intricacies that private clubs have that public ones don’t necessarily. We don’t want to disrupt the challenges, but we want people to come back!” she laughs.

“But everyone thinks it’s beautiful. They’re always amazed at the beauty. We have slopes that are more defined, split greens; the bunkers are so well done they look like they’ve always been there. We were lucky; Performance Golf Management maintained the course impeccably through the bankruptcy proceedings. We were able to open it right back up in June.”

 

woodcrest country club open to public

With the helpfully informative “Open To The Public” added.

Even with the enthusiasm of the new owners, First Montgomery’s acquisition of the course hasn’t been without controversy.

In October, news stories hit about the possibility of a housing development being built on the land, which included low-income housing mandated by the Cherry Hill government. It being election time, local politicians made sure they were quoted heroically taking on the big, bad real estate developer. To read the quotes, one would have thought First Montgomery’s only purpose in buying the land was to demolish a beloved, historic golf course and build a new Pottersville.

Berman, who admits to some frustration at the news reports, offers her opinion on the media firestorm. “It doesn’t look like we’re closing the club, does it?” she asks.

“I know it’s election time and there’s a lot of emotion surrounding this golf course, and I know there’s an issue in Cherry Hill with keeping open space. When they were initially looking at this land, it was always the intention to keep it an 18-hole golf course. There are two extra holes, so there is an opportunity to develop a piece of it and still maintain the golf course the way it is. I think when people hear housing and development, it has a lot of charge to it.

“I’m not gonna step over the fact that we are real estate developers; our main business has been the multi-family housing industry. I’m sure it’s an easy connection to make. But we are diversified, and like to look at purchasing aspects to enhance what we can do in a community. The owners are people with a 30-year untarnished reputation. There’s such an appreciation for these men, they’re good people and they give back a lot.”

 

jamie berman first montgomery group

Jamie Berman, in the newly revamped country club.

So if Berman is to be believed—and she certainly comes off more believable than any grandstanding politician you’ve ever met—this classic, William Flynn course will remain intact. And golfers no longer need to befriend a member to play a round on one of the most picturesque and challenging golf courses in South Jersey.

In addition to making a superb golf outing available to everyone, First Montgomery’s focus is to make Woodcrest more family-friendly. Perhaps even with outdoor fire pits, for events any time of year, Berman muses. Politics aside, both Berman and Torlucci think the future looks bright for this old relic of a country club.

“I’m pleased with the hard work that the startup team put in. We’re booking weddings for 2015 already,” Berman says. “I’m just so proud that we’ve hit the ground running, and we haven’t skipped a beat regardless of what’s going on in the media. We’ve stayed the course, so to speak,” she says with a grin.

Torlucci adds, “There was a mystique about being able to play here. It was pretty restricted, now it’s semi-private. It’s really rewarding for me to be here and see so many people come through that door and that they enjoy it.

“It’s a special facility, it really is.”

And today a golfer doesn’t need friends in high places to see for himself.

 

 

mart pretzel bakery cinnaminson nj

The Best Soft Pretzels: The Mart Pretzel Bakery, Cinnaminson NJ

mart pretzel bakery cinnaminson nj

I have tried many soft pretzels, and none compare to the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson NJ, a former staple of the long-departed Pennsauken Mart. I interviewed the founder’s son for a JerseyMan blog post, but it’s now published here…

 

mart pretzel bakery cinnaminson nj

These are soft pretzels as God intended.

Soft Pretzel Excellence

If you’re as old as I am and you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Pennsauken, you remember the Pennsauken Mart. And the soft pretzels.

It wasn’t a bad place to get inexpensive clothes, stereo equipment, gifts that you’d never want for yourself, etc. The prices could be pretty nice and I did a lot of Christmas shopping there. Oh, and there was that head shop, too…but I don’t remember much about that…

It wasn’t exactly a pleasant or unique place. It was dingy, overly crowded, and you had to root through a lot of stuff to find anything decent. It was kind of like what an eBay store might look like, if such a thing exists.

The place had one monster thing going for it, though. Soft pretzels.

 

cass pretzel bakery

The new post-Mart sign.

Whenever I visited the Mart, I had two things in mind…finding something cheap and having a soft pretzel. And definitely not in that order. The pretzels were always worth the trip, the crowds and the depressing atmosphere.

There was always a line for them. While you waited you’d look at the pricing board or the newspaper stories proclaiming their greatness, decided how many you were going to get, and whether you’d deal with the salt or not.

Or you could just watch the pretzels being made…dough rolling out of the machine, experienced fingers flipping the dough into pretzel shape in mere nanoseconds, lightly browned pretzels coming out of the oven.

Once you bought your pretzels (no one ever just got one), there were two choices of mustard, one so super-hot it could sear the back of your brain. (That one was always my choice.) For some reason they never had napkins. Many times I wiped mustard off my face with the wax paper the pretzel came in.

 

pennsauken mart soft pretzels

“Okay, we got the sign, you can bulldoze the Mart now.”

One day, inexplicably, the soft pretzel shop closed. It seemed temporary…there was writing on the glass window that said “Closed due to illness”. But when the pretzel shop didn’t return for several months (I don’t remember the exact length of time, but I know I made many disappointing trips), soon there weren’t enough compelling reasons to visit the Mart anymore.

And not much later, the Pennsauken Mart, that staple of my youth, would be gone.

In the years since I have always believed that it was the closing of the pretzel bakery that caused the Mart’s demise. It was a brutally easy connection to make for anyone who was familiar with the place. It turns out I wasn’t quite right about that.

In a visit to the Mart Pretzel Bakery, I learned the whole story from Shaughn, the son of the owner. The Mart’s fate was already sealed before his father’s illness…it had been bought out through eminent domain. The illness was actually Shaughn’s father having a heart attack; a malady Shaughn believed resulted at least partly from the possibility of his longtime, popular business being shut down.

Indeed, it was a bummer for everyone—until the Mart Pretzel Bakery re-opened in a strip mall in Cinnaminson, and longtime patrons breathed a sigh of relief. No one misses the Mart too much now. (Well, I don’t, anyway. I can’t speak for fans of the head shop.)

 

mart pretzel bakery prices

Check out that deal on the Baker’s Dozen!

Not much has changed…except for a better selection of pretzels, including pretzel dogs, those “everything” pretzels that seem healthy, and the truly off the hook cinnamon sugar pretzels. You can still get a spicy or a very hot mustard. The hot mustard isn’t as blazing as the old one was, but that’s probably not a bad thing. And okay, they’re a tad more expensive. It’s not 1990 anymore after all.

The old sign with the pricing is still there, as is the sign that hung up outside the store in the Mart, which is a nostalgic thing for former Mart patrons. But the lines aren’t long anymore…the Mart Pretzel Bakery is built to handle the demand.

Mart pretzels are still always worth the trip, even if I’m no longer looking for a pair of pants that I can afford. And if you think I’m just waxing nostalgic, check out the Yelp reviews.

 

The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry – Curley’s of Wildwood

In the midst of the pandemic, I took a trip to Wildwood to check on the health of Curley’s Fries for the Summer 2020 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. You can read this article on their website, or click here to see the PDF of the magazine itself.

 

The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry

As the nation and the state wake up again, Curley’s Fries continues to serve its iconic, crinkle cut fries, from its two locations on the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s a sorely needed sign of Jersey Shore life beginning again.

 

curleys fries wildwood nj

Fried potato perfection.

It takes considerable strength of will, even for hardened Jersey folks, to find positives in a harsh weather day at the shore.

May 22 of this year, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, was one such day. The thick clouds effectively obscured any potential hint of sunshine. The rain, at times both spitting and heavy, became debilitating when mixed in with the stiff ocean breeze.

Despite the lack of seasonal cooperation, a hardy few were determined to get some steps on the Wildwood boards, most likely for the first time in 2020. It’s a need we natives have, especially this year, if only to have some normalcy again in what has been a monumentally difficult spring.

With an ongoing pandemic to go alongside miserable weather, there were precious few shops open on the boards, and little to help visitors feel like summer again.

Mercifully, there was one saving grace in it all…a ubiquitous French fry stand.

In this trying atmosphere, Curley’s Fries…on the otherwise uninhabited Morey’s Surfside Pier…opened its windows, as their employees showed up to serve their iconic fried potatoes to walk-up patrons for takeout. Or “takeaway”, as they called it, as if to suggest that things aren’t fully normal yet.

While the number of Wildwood visitors this day was very small, many of them…arguably most of them…still made their way to the long established fry counter.

Inside the window, save for the employees wearing masks, nothing was different. One person took orders. Another dropped baskets of chopped potatoes into a fryer and then dumped the finished ones into a tray. Another generously salted them and then scooped piles of fries into buckets for hungry patrons. Unremarkable and repetitive skills all, probably, but it’s an admirable bit of teamwork.

Most gratefully, even as Morey’s has temporarily laid off 80% of their staff, there has been zero decline in the quality of the fries.

They’re still piping hot when served, enough that some will tolerate the seared mouth flesh rather than spend an agonizing few minutes waiting to indulge. The fries have just enough of a crispy crunch on the outside and almost mashed potato level softness on the inside. They’re thick and crinkle-cut, with the skin still attached as required by unwritten boardwalk rules.

All with just enough sea salt for distinctive flavor, and available with multiple rotating dipping sauces, from Horseradish Cream to Old Bay Mayo among others. Along with the old constants of cheese sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, and ketchup.

And anytime some annoying health nut gives you grief about your love for deep fried potato perfection, you can inform them that Curley’s fries are vegan and gluten-free. That’ll shut ‘em up.

 

best fries wildwood nj

Making the Wildwood boardwalk famous for 46 years.

If you’re waiting with a friend at Curley’s for a bucket or the larger “barrel” of fries, you can have them hold your place in line and go read the story behind the most iconic fry stand on the Jersey Shore. It’s featured on a sign on the side of the building, but here’s a summed up version:

Yes, there was a Curley, so nicknamed for his curly hair. His full name was Joe “Curley” Marchiano, and he was both an army veteran and a linebacker at Miami University. Curley grew up spending his summers in Coney Island, where his father worked at the Surf Avenue Nathan’s. Indeed, Curley’s fries are similar to Nathan’s in size and structure.

After some years as a concessions manager in other resort towns, in 1978 Marchiano joined up with fried chicken vendor Dick Marchant at Morey’s Surfside Pier. Curley’s part of the deal was fried dough, lemonade shake-ups, and his own brand of French fries. (Incidentally, Curley’s lemonade is no slouch either.)

Almost immediately, it became clear that patrons came for the fries, and the stand was soon renamed for Curley, in a rare recognition of genius.

As the board telling the story notes, there isn’t any real secret to the greatness of Curley’s fries…it reveals right there that Curley used potato cutters from Germany, and cooked them in peanut oil. Maybe the potato cutters are really difficult to find or something, but there’s no more to it than that.

Marchiano passed in 2000; twenty years later, his recipe of fried potato greatness lives on…even on a windy and wet day on the Wildwood boards, in the midst of a pandemic and a crippled economy.

Sometimes success is simple. Get a German potato cutter, find a peanut oil supplier, and fry and sell sliced spuds at the beach.

 

wildwood boardwalk fries

Yeah, and seafood or something.

How much of a foodie staple is Curley’s? All you need to know is the reaction to a gag the Morey’s folks pulled a year ago. Most people well know that on April 1, they should have their antenna up for pranks. But Curley’s fans were taking no chances.

On March 31, 2019, Morey’s released a press statement announcing the retirement of Curley’s two locations, to be replaced by vegan stands called “Greenery’s”. Greenery’s would be offering kale chips, roasted chickpeas, and other healthy greens that no one actually likes. In an age where every institution from baseball to politics seems to care only about targeting “millennials”, it was actually a well-crafted April Fool’s joke.

The reaction was swift and severe. NJ.com, which had listed Curley’s fries among their “64 Most Iconic Jersey Foods” just two weeks earlier, reported that the accompanying Facebook post had 4,000 comments the next day:

“I go to the boardwalk just to eat Kale chips!! Said no one ever….”

“Kale chips? Who the F$&k wants kale chips? The one thing U looked forward to is now gone! New Jersey becoming the East Coast California!”

“I legit cried. Stupidest decision ever. This place is a Wildwood trademark…. Huge mistake.”

Even Curley’s subsequent “April Fools!” reveal on Facebook provoked an agitated response:

“Glad to hear that it was all a joke BUT…that was not nice to do, especially the day before April Fool’s day!”

“Threatening to take away my Curley’s Fries is no laughing matter!!”

“Not funny at all.”

You can still find the original “Greenery’s” press release on Morey’s website, (www.moreyspiers.com). Its politically correct tone is priceless. Here’s this writer’s favorite pull quote: “For the last fifty years Morey’s Piers has been growing and re-inventing itself to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace.”

Most businesses take themselves too seriously. Thankfully Morey’s isn’t one of them. But yes, that was a tense moment. Forsaking Curley’s Fries for kale chips probably would have caused a justifiable outrage.

 

curleys fries north wildwood nj

Stayin’ alive.

Much has been said and written about heroes on the front lines in recent months. First responders, doctors and nurses in hospitals, nursing home attendants…even supermarket employees, who had suddenly found themselves in a high risk occupation.

All of the accolades and appreciation, and accompanying hazard pay, is well-deserved. Yet when a flu virus not only causes double the death count as a typical flu season, but also devastates an economy, sometimes what we need more than anything else is to see something normal again.

As ruffled as South Jersey became at a mere joke suggesting Curley’s fries would be replaced in 2019, in 2020 we’re grateful for anything we love sticking around. When there isn’t even any baseball, things can seem especially bleak. Suddenly, the availability of world class French fries at the beach is appreciably more meaningful.

The celebrated Jersey Shore fixture that is Curley’s is still alive. The two-story fry-shaped signs still standing on the boardwalk, an iconic food stand remaining open on the most miserable of May days, is one anchor of hope that on the other side of all of this, our favorite institutions will still be here.

Curley’s 1, Covid 0.

Martinsville Speedway: No Place To Hide

Martinsville Speedway features some of the best racing on the NASCAR circuit, because there’s no place to hide. I contributed this piece for the Spring 2014 issue of the excellent Stadium Journey magazine. Click here to see the XPS file of the article, as it appeared in the magazine.

 

Stock car racing was built on lack of space for cars to race.

Possibly more so than in any other sport, NASCAR fans lament the good old days. The sport has changed enormously, especially in the last 20 years, and not for the better in many fans’ opinions. The “Chase” playoff remains unpopular (and with good reason…it’s the most idiotic way of determining a champion in sports), and the cars have become so spec that it’s hard to tell whether driver skill is a factor in success anymore.

Perhaps most of all, the excitement of racing cars with fenders has suffered from the sport holding events at larger, faster tracks…where drivers can spread out, run three- or four-wide, and build up a big lead on the rest of the field…and truly ride around in circles, as non-racing fans frequently complain.

In 1994 there were just six such speedway races (not counting restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega, which are a different animal) on the Cup schedule; on the 2014 schedule there will be 14.

In the longtime NASCAR fan’s mind, that is taking the sport in a seriously wrong direction. It’s even worse than the concrete donut artificial turf baseball stadiums…at least the game on the field wasn’t made dramatically different by them.

So if you want to see what those grizzled racing fan geezers are talking about when they speak of how great a sport NASCAR once was, take a trip down to southwestern Virginia and witness a stock car race at Martinsville.

 

Martinsville Speedway is older than NASCAR itself. A visionary named H. Clay Earles built the racetrack in 1947…and must have immediately sensed he was onto something, because the 750-capacity racetrack attracted 6,000 fans to its first event.

In 1949 NASCAR held its first event there, a race that was won by Red Byron, and Martinsville is now the only racetrack left from NASCAR’s original schedule that stills hosts events.

As smaller, classic tracks in North Wilkesboro and Rockingham have given way to large cookie-cutter speedways in Chicago and Vegas, more and more NASCAR fans speak highly of the remaining tracks that stretch less than a mile. The half mile Bristol Motor Speedway, where NASCAR holds two races each year, is the heart of racing simply because of the venue itself, always bringing fans a decent race often complete with post-race fights among drivers.

Martinsville Speedway is not as revered as Bristol, but it too always features events that are stock car racing at its best.

 

Ridgeway, Virginia, population 775, is the actual home of the track. It’s not easy to get to. It’s in a rural locale close to the Tennessee border with Roanoke as its nearest metropolis. Roads leading into town aren’t built to handle the tens of thousands of cars that will be arriving on race day. In my first trip, I spent the night before in Roanoke some 50 miles away. My companion and I left at 6:00 in the morning for a noon race; we were finding our seats during driver introductions.

You’ll probably park on grass, and you’ll pay a nice chunk of change for the privilege. This town subsists on events at its racetrack.

Once you endure all of the hardships getting to the venue and finding your seats (hopefully after buying one or more of the legendary hot dogs) the sheer tininess of Martinsville Speedway grabs you, especially if you’ve attended events at Charlotte or Atlanta. Before the race there is literally no place to put the racecars…they are parked right there on the track.

On television Martinsville looks like two long straightaways with very sharp and low-banked turns…hence the “paper clip” appellation that is often applied by commentators. Given the speed that cars run…close to 100 MPH on the straightaways…a TV viewer might suspect that the straightaways must be close to a half mile long. In fact the entire speedway is just .526 of a mile…the shortest track on NASCAR’s Cup schedule. The straightaways are just 800 feet.

The track is so small that when a race starts, the drivers at the tail end of the field are already half a lap down. And it isn’t long before the leader will start putting cars a lap down, and the track turns into a conveyor belt of cars.

 

There is no place to hide. Drivers push and shove, slide and spin. Crashes take out four or five cars as a dozen drivers behind them stand on their brakes for lack of a route to pass through. As the race progresses, many of the cars take pretty good beatings…and many will be missing fenders and bumpers by the end of the event.

No other track tests a driver’s mettle and skill. Racing around a banked speedway at 180 MPH may present its own challenges, but a racer better bring everything he’s got to Martinsville Speedway. This place requires taking a racecar from 35 to 105 and then back again 1,000 times, and doing it inches away from other racecars throughout. All the while keeping one’s cool in check and periodically navigating a treacherously tiny pit road. Drivers must save their energy, save their temper, and save their brakes, too, because they better have something left at the end.

Wherever you attend a NASCAR event, the excitement will sweep you up. There is no sound in spectator sports like the firing up of stock car engines. There aren’t many thrills in spectator sports like two racecar drivers battling for a win. You can see that almost anywhere…Kansas, Dover, Charlotte.

But if you want to truly experience the meat and guts and heart of stock car racing as nature intended, if you want to see great on track battles taking place all day; if you want to see pushing and shoving and blood on the floor, you have to see a NASCAR race at Martinsville.

 

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Photo credit: raniel diaz on Best Running / CC BY
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Photo credit: wjarrettc on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: wjarrettc on Best Running / CC BY