Golf is a serious game among New Jersey's top leaders in business and politics. We talked to more than a dozen golfers to identify where the powerful play. As no one wanted to be banished from the green for gossiping, all information was provided on background. Golf handicaps, shown in red, were taken from the U.S. Golf Association's Golf Handicap and Information Network as of May 1.
What club has the most members in the circles of power?
"Historically, the list at Baltusrol is — that's it," said one source, who belongs to another club.
"CEOs galore there," said another about Baltusrol. "Everybody wants to play Baltusrol, because it has the big name."
Somerset Hills, meanwhile, was described as "one of the most sought-after memberships." It also is reportedly one of the least-played courses in New Jersey. "You can walk your dog and play in your boxers, and not encounter anyone on a summer day," one golfer said. "They like it that way, and they're not going to change."
Due Process, meanwhile, was called "a very small exclusive club" and reportedly only has about 65 members. "It's a secured facility. You can't get in the gates."
Based on quality of the course, Pine Valley, routinely rated among the best in the world, is the coveted membership in New Jersey, but "you have to give your firstborn to get through the maze," a source said.
One golfer said Pine Valley has "historically been run by dictators," and even the Garden State's most powerful can't just get into the Clementon club.
"You have to know a lot of people. And you can't be more trouble than you're worth," said a golfer who is not a member. "It's all who you know. It's nothing to do with your position at all. It's that you have some relationships there that are close. They wouldn't even necessarily like politicians."
Yet playing golf isn't the power prerequisite it once was. "It used to be if you ran a bank, you had to play close to scratch," said one business leader. "Today there are a lot of nonathletic guys running banks … that have bifocals on. It's a different era."
Then there are the unemployed who hit the links.
"The best golfers are the guys who get laid off in their mid-40s and they need something to do."
BEING A MEMBER OF OPC
Who needs a club when you can golf at a friend's? That seemed to be the approach of U.S. Rep. Albio Sires, especially when he was in the Assembly, according to four golfers. When asked where Sires golfs, one said, "OPC. Other people's clubs." Others described him as being on a tour of various clubs. "There's not a course that guy hasn't tried to be on," one golfer said good-naturedly.
The practice seems to be paying off. GHIN lists Sires' handicap at 10.7, and several sources named him one of the best golfers among New Jersey's powerful.
Sires' office did not respond to a request for comment. GHIN lists Sires at Forsgate Country Club.
THE PERK OF BEING GOVERNOR
When Dick Sambol owned Metedeconk National Golf Club, he gave honorary memberships to every former governor. Sambol was described as a big political guy. Donald DiFrancesco reportedly used the perk more than anyone else. Then Sambol sold the club to its members, and the perk was discontinued.
"They stopped that whatever year Jimmy (McGreevey) resigned," said a golfer familiar with the tradition. "The members decided they shouldn't be doing it anymore."
The source insisted the change wasn't made because of McGreevey's scandalous departure from office.
"Jimmy didn't play golf, anyway," the source said.
EVEN PRESIDENTS CAN'T GET IN
In fall 2001, Bill Clinton agreed to play a round of golf with Raymond Lesniak. The state senator contacted a friend at Baltusrol to see if he and the former president could play at the prestigious Springfield Township course.
The request was declined because it was a members-only day at the club.
"That's typical Baltusrol," said the source.
Lesniak confirmed the story, and said he beat Clinton when they played that day at the senator's club, Suburban.
HANDICAPPED BY TRUTH
They may be important, but even the most powerful in New Jersey seem prone to cheating once they lace up their golf spikes.
"Most everybody cheats, because they have big male egos and they want a low score," said one golfer about the propensity to lie about handicaps.
"There's more cheating on the golf course with handicaps than there is by politicians," said another golfer.
The fake handicaps have been called "Hollywood handicaps."
"These are children, these boys who play this game, and they act like children," said one source.
LAW HELPS FEMALE GOLFERS
Until 1997, women could not tee off until weekend afternoons at many private clubs in New Jersey. Sources credit golfer and MBI Gluck Shaw lobbyist Hazel Gluck with changing that.
"It was always assumed women had nothing to do during the week, and weekends were reserved for men," said one golfer.
The legislation, which was signed by then-Gov. Christie Whitman, forbids any private club or association from denying dues-paying members full access to its facilities or any of its privileges, including tee times for golf clubs.
The law passed unanimously in the Senate, though eight people in the Assembly voted against it, according to news reports.
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