Courses, Destinations & Lifestyles

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Private Club Spotlight

“The Landing areas made no sense (for instance, the land on No. 1 banked right and Ronald made it a dogleg left). The rhythm of the course was stupid. The front 9 was a good length, just over 3,500 yards and a par of 36, but about the 10th hole, (Ronald) Ross must’ve looked up from his twenty-third mulled wine, realized how little land he had left and said, ‘Uh-oh.’”

– “Missing Links” author Rick Reilly on his fictional Ponkaquogue Municipal Golf Links like a tawdry bow tie festooned on an Armani suit, sometimes something just doesn’t fit. That’s the way many golf courses have been created across time. The lay of the land often dictates that a course architect has to sacrifice one hole for the good of the rest when crafting his puzzle. It’s ironic, but sometimes this pimple on otherwise flawless features actually grows to legendary proportions. It’s a hole that when viewed from the tee inevitably induces the remark, “This next hole may be the worst on the planet.”

Every player knows it. Every player curses it. Every player pulls a club and begins to play it. Why? Because it’s there.

With hundreds of courses, the Middle Atlantic has no shortage of these design warts. Perhaps the most iconic one is the second hole at Stoneleigh in Virginia. This is not to say that overall Stoneleigh is a bad course, it just painfully reveals very early on in the round that something had to be done with one 100-plus-foot incline cutting through the property. The result? A narrow fairway pinched in by deep rough, an approach leading up to a rock wall then over the top to a totally blind pin position on a multi-tiered green. Looking back down to the tee, you wonder why all the fuss. But from the bottom, well, it usually creates a “what the hell do I do here?” kind of moment.

Consequently, we gathered together a panel of “experts” of various skill levels and shapes and sizes and asked them to select some of their most suspect offerings. It’s not that any of these are necessarily hard, though most are. It’s not even that they are necessarily quirky. It’s just that for some reason unbeknownst to the everyday player, they just don’t go with the flow of that particular design. In other words, they stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s easy to pick on lower-tier courses, so we highlight only the purported “upscale daily-fee” and private courses.

The par-5 closer at Old Hickory is often considered to be the toughest hole in Northern Virginia, but what makes this Woodbridge finale unique is that it plays across great length from the back tees and requires a drive over a ravine with a natural waste area bordering the left side and unkempt rough and trees on the right. Second shots must be hit into a narrow landing area that slopes severely left toward a hazard. Balls hit to the right that don’t find the 20-yard wide fairway are most likely lost in high growth, woods, or wetlands. If you’re not a single-digit handicapper, your rounds ends badly here.

A hole with a just-as-difficult, just-as-demanding, just-as-confusing layup is the par-5 fourth at Heritage Hunt in Gainesville, Virginia. After a tee shot avoids OB and woods, the player faces a large tree to the left within a penalty area and a a small landing area across a diagonal hazard, all within a visually deceiving double dogleg.

The second hole at Augustine in Stafford, Virginia, is visually impressive but once you tee it up, the intimidation factor kicks in. The tee box is elevated more than 50 feet and the dogleg left around water allows you to bite off as much of the lake as you can. The reward is a mid-iron approach into a difficult green complex with hardpan to the right, but the risk is going into the drink and having to drop 250 yards out hitting back over the lake. The “safe” play is usually on the large hill that fronts the fairway, but that only guarantees an awful lie and difficult stance. The hole is expensive and almost impossible to maintain, cripples pace of play, and is unplayable for most golfers.

Any hole with layup leaving 200+ on a par 4. One of the best examples is Hidden Creek No. 6 in Reston, Virginia, that forces you to hit something less than driver off the tee. You basically hit two 200+ shots across a narrow corridor with a creek in the middle. The hole is designed to hit a draw off the tee and into the green, but to hold the carpet you need more of a cut. Chances of hitting this green in regulation are 1 in 10; zero for the double-digit handicapper.

Mountain Branch No. 17 near Joppa, Maryland, leaves you shaking your head. From the back tee only modest hitters can take driver on a 459-yard, par 4. Others risk driving through the fairway into a cross hazard. From the white tee the hole becomes a head-scratching short-iron tee shot then a longer iron into the green. Even a good tee ball leaves you with a slightly downhill lie to an uphill green. The best guess is the designers just needed to shoe-horn the hole into a spot not made for a golf hole.

Any hole with a bell and any hole with a blind shot to a multi-tiered green (see Stoneleigh) is suspect. P.B. Dye Club manages to accomplish both on the same hole, the par-5 third. For first-time players, it’s a good bet they hate the course upon ascension to the green. After two well played shots, the reward is a tiered, 35-yard long green with severe slopes. What you think is a good shot, most likely is not.

Speaking of P.B. Dye, you may want to call it a day after the fifth hole. P.B.’s design philosophy at this Maryland facility was to never give players the same-old, same-old, so others may build a 485-yard par-4 downhill with the prevailing breeze, but not here, where the roly-poly green severely tumbles away from the fairway, forcing the player to perfect the 200-yard bump-and-run.

Any hole with two fairways. Unless one of them provides an exponentially easier path to the green, the average player just aims in the middle hoping to hit one of them. Augustine’s No. 1 tee shot and Potomac Shores No. 8 layup are just hit-and-hope guesses for Joe Public.

A massive rock outcropping at the peak of the Whiskey Creek property in Maryland was a great location for a tee box, other than the fact that you have to play your ball across a short, left-sweeping fairway that descends a hillside making club selection a real challenge for the par-4 fifth. The 100 feet of elevation change from tee to green forces a decision. You can hit a long iron for placement, shape a fairway wood around the dogleg or hit a driver that will bring bunkers that guard the left and right sides of the fairway into play. From there, the approach shot is into one of the toughest greens on the course.

With an unnecessarily difficult approach of 180-200 yards, the dogleg-right par -4 12th at Worthington Manor is unforgettable. The approach shot is made so ridiculously difficult by the fact that the tee shot is a blind layup to the edge of a cavernous ravine. That leaves a long iron or even hybrid shot over the ravine, and that’s hard enough. The fact that two bunkers guard the front of the green means you need to hit that iron or hybrid high and land it softly.

No. 11 on an otherwise outstanding Four Streams layout near Poolesville, Maryland, is another hole that the lay of the land has diminished. It’s a long par 4 that plays over the crest of a hill. Only prime-cut tee shots, usually less than a driver, end up in the the fairway that leaves a slanted, downhill lie to an uphill green. From the rough, just clearing the cross hazard is progress. No one said golf was supposed to be easy, but building in crazy shots like this makes the game much less fun.

Inniscrone in Avondale, Pennsylvania, was an early design by a then-local architect, who later gained international renown – Gil Hanse. It was meant to be a very difficult, private club. It only succeeded on one of those goals, as it is now a muni. The 380-yard 10th is cursed by almost every golfer who plays it. The most common score is X. Less than driver off the tee presents a shot from a severely downhill lie, over a large stretch of junk, to a circular green that does not accept shots well. The best thing that can be said about this hole is that it boosts the sale of golf balls in the pro shop.

Architect Bobby Weed did a wonderful job of designing an interesting, fun-filled, picturesque course at Glen Mills in Pennsylvania – with one exception. The first time golfers play the 11th hole, they can’t help but wonder if the architect accidentally designed 17 holes then had to wedge one in to complete the layout. The hole is squeezed in between a rock wall on the right and a creek that runs along the left side. There is no room to hit the tee shot – or the second shot. Despite a length of only 350 yards from the tips, it is the No. 1 handicap hole. That is not testimony to its well-designed challenge, rather the unfairness of the hole.

There are those who would say it is heresy to pick on one of the Philadelphia area’s most revered private and historic clubs – Huntingdon Valley. The original Bill Toomey and William Flynn layout comes with an extremely high, albeit somewhat inflated, ranking. The original 18 dates back to 1928. A third nine holes was supposed to accompany it but the plans fell victim to the Great Depression. The nine-hole tract lay fallow for 70 years. Finally, the third nine was completed in 1998.

There was a lot of anticipation about this addition – until people started playing it. To say that the third nine greatly lags behind the original 18 would be an understatement. And the disappointment starts from the first hole. It requires a long, accurate tee shot to get the proper angle for an uphill shot through a mine field of bunkers. The hole is about 400 yards from the member tees but plays longer and often conjures thoughts of turning back to the clubhouse and ordering a martini or three.
The par-4 ninth at Mattaponi Springs in Lutherville, Virginia, is a disaster. The smart tee shot is to leave nearly 200 yards to a green fronted by an unplayable penalty area. An aggressive tee shot clears the hill and run 50-60 yards right into the rough or worse, leaving a just-as-difficult approach over the hazard.

The 210-yard par 3 at the National Golf Club (Tantallon) in Maryland is impossible for all but the lowest handicappers. The canted, narrow green would be – should be – difficult at 150 yards.
Surely at this point you’re thinking “What about this hole,” or that hole, or probably a hundred more. But let’s close with Bristow Manor in Virginia. Both par-5s on the front (Nos. four and six) feature aborted fairways off the tee into gnarly rough with long, difficult layups waiting. The reward for surviving them is the par-4 seventh with the toughest tee shot in the Middle Atlantic between OB and water, then a green 200 yards away, followed by a 200-yard par 3. If playing just nine here wasn’t enough, navigating the ridiculous dogleg par-5 16th with a long layup that must carry a hazard and the par-4 18th tee shot that is as mystifying as it is dificult, then you have once again reaffirmed that you are, indeed, a masochist. [END]