Category Archives: Course Reviews

Surf Club – Course Review

Looking down #1 tee at Surf Club
Looking down #1 tee at Surf Club

We played Surf Club in North Myrtle Beach, SC on Saturday, June 14, 2014.  This George Cobb design was built in 1960 and is nestled neatly into a neighborhood one block from the ocean.  Surf is a very old style private club with good conditioning and traditional parkland style routing and if you like doglegs, you are going to love this golf course.  Only about four of the longer holes do not have some kind of bend and an absolute premium is placed on solid ball striking off the tee.  Surf’s Bentgrass greens have a reputation for being among the fastest on the beach but we played them about three weeks after their aeration.  They were almost full recovered and were rolling at medium speed.  On a previous visit, I recall the course playing firm and fast with the the greens running lightening quick.

I’m not an arborist, but the type of trees that frame most of the holes are unlike most you’ll see on Myrtle Beach courses and certainly not the tall Carolina pines you are accustomed to.  Normally, you can play out of the trees but not at Surf.  Trying to hit low recoveries almost always caught bark and was usually the natural predecessor to a double-bogey on the scorecard.  You’re best advice is to drive it straight or punch out sideways.

We played from the back tees and there are three holes that play like a beast.  The par-4, 7th at 442 yards bends to the right and if it’s playing into the wind, is virtually like a short par-5.  You turn right around on the par-4, 8th which plays 430 yards and you hope the wind is favoring your direction.

Par-3, 18th at Surf Club
Par-3, 18th at Surf Club

Finally, the par-3, 18th is one of the finest finishing holes in Myrtle Beach.  At 217 yards, you are faced with a forced carry over water, and we played it straight into a two club wind coming in off the ocean.  Thank goodness for the front flag position, as my fully struck 3WD barely covered the 200 yards needed from tee to pin.

Value (3.75 out of 5.0)

Surf was an upscale addition to our golf package but to our very pleasant surprise, the afternoon replay rate was only $27.  This is a very affordable, high quality golf experience.  Driving range privileges are included and the free tees in the pro shop were one of those nice little touches.

The Range at Surf Club
The Range at Surf Club

Facilities (3.0 out of 5.0)

The clubhouse and grill were on the smallish side and the pro shop displays were nicely detailed, but a little limited in scope.  The grill served very basic golf course food and had walk up service only.  We dined on hot dogs, wings, and chips after our morning round.

The 15-station driving range had good turf to hit off and high quality balls, and the practice green was medium sized and adequate for a warm-up.  I did not observe a separate chipping/pitching green and was unsure if short game work was permitted.

Pro Shop at Surf Club
Pro Shop at Surf Club

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

I’m not sure who the amiable professional on duty was but he made you feel very welcome and at home.  He was very accommodating when we inquired about working us into the afternoon tee sheet for a replay and went out of his way to ensure that we had everything we needed to enjoy ourselves.  The rating goes even higher except for the staff at the bag drop were nowhere to be found when we arrived at the course around 7:30 a.m.  It was clear that we were one of the first groups at the course, but we didn’t expect to haul our bags in from the parking lot.  Anyway, they found our equipment and had us loaded in time for play.

Surf Club was a good value and a fun day.  We played the blue tees at 6,842 yards (par-72) I shot rounds of 87 and 81.  It was difficult but I loved it and will be back for more on future golf trips.  Don’t miss this one.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

Clubhouse at Surf Club
Clubhouse at Surf Club

Lion’s Paw – Panther’s Run Course Reviews

Clubhouse at Lion's Paw and Panther's Run
Clubhouse at Lion’s Paw and Panther’s Run

My travel group played Lion’s Paw on Monday, June 8, 2014 and Panther’s Run the day after on a recent trip to Myrtle Beach.  These are two of the four Big Cat courses at Ocean Ridge Plantation in Ocean Isle Beach, NC.  We’ll review them together because they are sister courses and play out of the same clubhouse.  Tiger’s Eye is the top play of the Big Cats group and is run from a separate clubhouse across the street, but as we learned, the golf operations are distinctly different.

On Monday, we arrived at Lion’s Paw as they were preparing for a ladies tournament on the front nine.  Our two foursomes were scheduled to go off #10 and we were thankful for that.  The bag drop and staging area is rather small and was extremely congested and chaotic.  Play for both courses is launched from the same constricted space.

Staging area on Monday
Staging area on Monday

Due to an airline luggage snafu, four guys in our group were playing with rental clubs, which the golf staff had hastily assembled.  They charged $40 per set for the rentals which were a mediocre mishmash of late year model irons and metal woods.  Nobody in our group was impressed with the offerings and the guys renting actually played several shots using clubs from the rest of our bags which was a little disruptive for everyone.  Given the short notice, I was thankful that the staff could even assemble the sets to allow us to play together.

#3 Tee at Lion's Paw
#3 Tee at Lion’s Paw

Both courses share a medium size driving range with Tiger’s Eye , and the range is located at the far side of the parking lot across the road.  Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to ride your cart to the range from Lion’s/Panthers, but you are from Tiger’s.  Also, the shop charged $3.00 for balls from Lion’s/Panthers, but Tiger’s extended complimentary range privileges.  We thought this was strange given the courses were under the same management company.  There is a small pitching green with one flag and a practice bunker next to the range and two putting greens next to the Lion’s / Panther’s clubhouse.  I felt it would have been beneficial to have a chipping green that allowed your shots to run out, but clearly there was no space for one.  There was good turf to hit off at the range but the quality of the balls was suspect.

Lion’s Paw:

On the course, we found Lion’s Paw to be in good condition, with the Bermuda greens rolling medium fast and smooth.  A couple of the tee boxes were crowned  which was a bit odd but didn’t affect playability.  The course is fairly open off the tee and weaves its way through a residential area with several nice homes nearby, but you don’t have a lot of privacy.

Mike on #3 tee at Lion's Paw
Mike on #3 tee at Lion’s Paw

A couple of the par-3 holes were memorable for the contouring, water carries, and bordering with oyster shells, but you weren’t struck by anything overtly beautiful or difficult.  Lion’s Paw is just a solid, well maintained nondescript golf course.  The biggest appeal for the enthusiast is the ample opportunities for afternoon replay.  With the four Big Cats in close proximity, we chose Tiger’s Eye for the afternoon and at $45, found it a tremendous value and a tremendous golfing experience.  The replay rate at Lion’s and Panther’s is $35 and we actually were given the $35 rate to replay Tiger’s later in the week after they had started fairway aeration.  For the record, at Lion’s Paw, I had a 7-over par 79 from the white tees which were playing 6,457 yards.

#9 green at Lion’s Paw

Panther’s Run:

Tuesday we played Panther’s Run and had a decidedly different experience.  There was no tournament, the course was fairly empty, and everything seemed more organized and less rushed.  Everyone in our group was now playing with their own equipment and the day was more enjoyable.  IMG_0857Panther’s Run is more of a traditional parkland style course that meanders through tall trees with the holes being better framed than Lion’s Paw.  I preferred this layout, although the greens were putting a bit slower, a few tee boxes were a little chewed up, and the fairways were starting to brown out.  Again, nothing affected playability as overall conditioning was pretty good.  Of note are the back to front sloping greens.  Several of the pins were cut in the back along ridges that dropped down at the rear of the greens.  Long two putts were difficult because if you charged these back flags the drop offs would roll out significantly.  I took 36 putts and thee-jacked three times.  Playing for the middle of the greens with back flags was the way to go.  I shot a 9-over 81 from the blue tees which were playing at 6,706 yards.

Jim contemplates the approach on #18 at Panther’s Run

A couple of nitpicking notes:  When we played the par-3 11th, one of the rangers was sitting in a cart just behind the tee box talking on a cellphone and seemed completely unaware of his surroundings or that people were playing golf nearby.  It would have been considerate if he could have held down the chatter.  Also one of our group was perturbed by an experience in the pro shop while in line making a purchase.  The person behind the counter was interrupted by a club member with an inquiry about another matter and immediately discontinued their service on the transaction at hand to cater to the member’s request.  Otherwise, we had a fairly positive golfing experience at Panther’s Run.

If you are traveling to the Myrtle Beach area and want to play the Big Cats, Tiger’s Eye is your course if you only have time for one round.  Lion’s and Panther’s are enjoyable plays as well.

Prospect Bay Country Club – Course Review

Summary

IMG_0665

We played Prospect Bay Country Club in Graysonville, MD on Sunday, November 3, 2013.  When you look at the scorecard, the course doesn’t appear to be that challenging, at least from the white tees which measure 6,196 yards and play to a course rating of 69.5/125.  We played with temperatures in the low 50s and a sustained 1-2 club wind which made it feel colder, and the little track played difficult.  I’m going to file away one key thought from my first round:  you must position your tee shots to the correct length for comfortable approaches.  Prospect continually tempts you with seven par-4s between 290 and 370 yards.  My driver was out and wailing all day but after leaving myself with odd yardages on flip wedges that I haven’t practiced, I failed to get any close and was left with the distinct impression that this course could be had from your favorite distance.  Mine is 100 yards, but it’s difficult sitting on the tee of a 290 yard par four knowing you should lay up with a four iron.  After botching approaches in the 40-70 yard range, the strategy became clear.

Par-4 8th at Prospect Bay
Par-4 8th at Prospect Bay

The front nine is out in the open and exposed to whatever winds are blowing in off Prospect Bay but the back is extremely tight off the tee and the holes are well protected.  Despite the sqeeze on the inward half, I preferred it as the shots fit my eye well and I enjoyed the challenge without being buffeted by the gusty winds.

Keep these two tips in mind and you’ll be fine.  Unless you practice partial wedge shots and are comfortable from all distances, layup to your preferred yardage on the little par fours.  On the par five 4th, keep your approach below the hole.  If the pin is cut in front, do not leave your ball on the upper part of the mammoth hump in the green – you will three putt.

The beautiful 10th hole at Prospect Bay
The beautiful 10th hole at Prospect Bay

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

Prospect Bay doesn’t publish their greens fees because of the semi-private nature of the facility however I found information on the 2012 fees on Golf Digest and based on these figures ($55 weekeday / $65 weekend) that include a cart and complimentary range balls, this is a pretty good value.

Facilities (2.5 out of 5.0)

Prospect had a nice clubhouse and restaurant that was a medium cart drive away from the pro shop, but I wouldn’t say it was convenient.  The pro shop is not much more than a small double wide trailer with a few retail items for sale.  The driving range was all grass and was in good shape but only had room for about a dozen players.  There was a medium sized putting green and a small chipping area at the end of the range.

Out on the course, we found a mixed bag.  Playing conditions through the green were excellent, with the bentgrass greens running very smooth and fast, and the fairways in very good shape.  Unfortunately, the cart paths were in need of major repairs.  Seems like they hadn’t been worked on for quite some time and were fraught with crumbling concrete and holes galore.

Customer Experience (3.0 out of 5.0)

When we arrived at the course, we were met at our car by an attendant who loaded our clubs on a cart and then left it there for us.  Not the usual drop at the curb service, but effective just the same.  There was no food available in the pro shop and we drove our cart to the clubhouse only to find it just opened for business at 11:00 a.m.  So we shoveled down some decent tasting pre made sandwiches and were on our way.  I imagine the full service grill would have been open on a nicer weather day and earlier in the golf season.  Our round was paced only by our struggles with the wind, and we navigated a mostly empty golf course in 4 1/2 hours.

I’d like to come back and play Prospect Bay armed with my local knowledge, and in some calmer conditions.  For the record, I played the white tees at 6,196 yards and shot a 10-over par 82.

Overall Rating (3.0 out of 5.0)

The range at Prospect Bay
The range at Prospect Bay

Baywood Greens – Course Review

Summary

Clubhouse at Baywood Greens
Clubhouse at Baywood Greens

We played Baywood Greens in Long Neck, DE on Saturday, November 2, 2013.  What strikes you about this course is the aesthetics and attention to detail with regard to the landscaping.  Baywood is known for its floral arrangements and during the growing season, they purport to have over 200,000 of the most beautiful flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees adorning the course.  With everything dormant in early November, you could see where the pots and boxes were, but could only imagine playing in a floral paradise.  Around the clubhouse and pro shop, the various appointments and touches were very nice and exuded class.  What I found a little awkward were several gazebos positioned at various points on the golf course.  In these structures were couches and big comfy chairs and I was left to wonder if a group is supposed to pause in route between holes and rest in one of these structures.  Wouldn’t that slow play down?

The course is a distinctly different play from front nine to back.  The outward half has more of a parkland feel with tighter tee shots framed by tall trees and on the back, lots of water comes into play.  I found the back more scenic with many of the shots fitting my eye nicely.  I was able to relax and strike the ball well off the tee and the course is not long so a good ball striking day can lead to ample short iron approaches and opportunities to score.

Conditions were very good but not perfect.  The bentgrass greens were running smooth and medium-fast but a couple of the tee boxes were a bit chewed up with divots (see the photo of me on the 18th tee) and probably could stand to be rotated more frequently.  Otherwise the course was a delight to play and I only suspect heavy play throughout the summer and fall took it’s toll on the tee boxes.

18th tee at Baywood Greens
18th tee at Baywood Greens

Playing Tips (from the white tees):

  • We were fortunate enough to be paired with a very friendly club professional (Tony) and he had lots of good information on where to position your tee shots which was great.  Without that local knowledge, us first timers would have had a tough day. Thanks Tony!
  • It took me nine holes to figure out that pin-hunting was ill advised and some of these greens have a lot of slope.  I started aiming for the fat parts of the greens and kept it below the hole on the back nine which helped take pressure off my putting.
  • #1 is a short par 4 but you don’t want any part of the fairway bunkers framing the hole.  Take a 3WD off the tee and you’ll avoid the trouble and have a short to medium iron in.
  • The par-5 5th hole is very tight in the landing area for a driver.  I didn’t know this until I watched Tony tee off with a 3WD or utility club.  It’s a three shot par-5 so just get it in play.
  • The par-4  fourteenth hole has an island fairway that plays straight out and a chicken fairway that veers right and offers a much longer shot in.  Again, I took 3WD and nailed it deep into the island and left myself with a 110 yard shot in.  Driver could carry through the landing area so leave it in the bag.
  • #16 is a risk-reward short par 5 that plays 452 yards from the white tees.  If you bust your tee shot and want to go for it, you better make it on the fly because water sneaks in from the left and protects the green almost all the way across the fairway.  If you’re going to lay up, lay it back on the face of the hill at about 100-125 yards out.  You cannot see the water on the second shot.
  • On the par-4 18th, aim farther left then you think.  The left bunker or the cart bridge in the distance is an excellent target.  Otherwise, water creeps up fast on the right!

Value (3.0 out of 5.0)

High season prime time greens fees will set you back $129 if you want to golf on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.  It drops to $109 in mid summer and only eases up after October 27th when the weekend rate drops to $59.  If you want to play in the summer, best to take advantage of the after 1:00 p.m. rate of $79.  Your greens fee includes complimentary range balls, use of the practice facilities, and GPS on carts.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

Baywood Greens has a large pro shop and an extraordinary sized clubhouse/restaurant where parties and weddings are a regular occurrence.  The white pillared driving range was a beautiful building that had many indoor – outdoor stalls.  We were hitting from mats but there were ample stations to hit from grass, when the tee was open.  There were two putting greens of adequate size and a smallish pitching green with adjacent practice bunker.  While we warmed up, I observed that only two players could comfortably use the pitching green without getting in each other’s way.

On the course, #1 and 2 were playing cart path only, which precipitated a slower than desired start and I wasn’t sure why these holes were roped off.  Elsewhere, there were very few areas to enter the fairways off the cart paths which felt a little awkward but wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.  The “no cart” signs extended way back from most greens, so if you were within 75-125 yards, you needed to grab a stack of clubs and head out on foot.

Finally, we observed that nine holes were being constructed across the street.  The goal is to make Baywood a 27 hole facility, but apparently the construction has been going way longer than expected, and while the appearance of readiness from the road looks close, there is no imminent date to open these extra holes.

The range at Baywood Greens
The range at Baywood Greens

 

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

When we arrived at Baywood Greens, there was a small traffic jam at the bag drop and the attendant didn’t proactively take action to move things along but we eventually dropped after a five minute wait.  When we completed play, the gentleman taking in carts was friendly and cleaned our clubs promptly.  As I mentioned earlier, we played with Tony the pro and he was very hospitable and made our afternoon enjoyable.

The process of teeing off is a little different at Baywood Greens, with the starter coming to get you at the driving range, and you following him in his cart to the first tee.  I suppose that controls traffic and keeps groups from backing up at the tee.  Golf carts are equipped with coolers and fresh ice, which was nice.  The GPS measures your position to the center of the green, but not the flag stick.  The GPS did have helpful playing hints on every hole, but I needed my laser rangefinder to get exact distance to the flags.

I would like to come back and play this course in the spring or summer and fully enjoy the landscaping in all it’s glory.  It was an enjoyable day and having Tony as a playing partner made it extra special.  For the record, we played from the white tees that measured 6,088 yards and I shot a 6-over par 78.

Overall Rating (3.75 out of 5.0)

View of the 12th green at Baywood Greens from the 13th tee.
View of the 12th green at Baywood Greens from the 13th tee.

Grand National – Course Reviews

Summary

Early morning at Grand National
Early morning at Grand National

Grand National is the 54-hole facility on the RTJ Trail in Opelika, AL and is next door to the Auburn Marriott Opilika Hotel and Conference Center.  This was our final stop on the October 2013 trip and we played the two 18 hole courses and associated par-3 track over October 10th and 11th.  We did not stay at the Conference Center and opted for the Hampton Inn on South College Street in Auburn and were very pleasantly surprised.  The accommodations were quite comfortable and they ran a social from Mon-Thr where they served good food, beer and soft drinks.  All were complimentary.  On Friday’s before home football games (Auburn Tigers) they did a complimentary tailgate party.  We thought this was a great value and a great way to save a few bucks.  The hotel was only a 20 minute drive from the golf course.

First on the playlist was the Links course.  The name is misleading because the course doesn’t play anything like a traditional seaside links.  They fancy the name because of the mounding around a lot of the greens, but this plays more like a parkland course as you wind your way through tall pine trees that beautifully frame many of the holes.  In fact, standing on the second tee, I remarked that this course reminded me very much of Parkland at The Legends in Myrtle Beach.

Approach to the par-5 3rd hole at Links.  Note the sucker pin.
Approach to the par-5 3rd hole at Links. Note the sucker pin.

What strikes you about this course is the huge undulations in the Bentgrass greens and the significant bunkering protecting the approaches.  A traditional links course would permit bounce and run approaches but not here.  You need to bring everything in high and strike it pure.  The greens were smooth and rolling medium speed which was plenty difficult considering the slopes we had to navigate.  A considerable number of holes had pins cut on the edges making it very tough to get close and score.  I played my best all around golf on the trip at this course and shot a five-over 77 with 32 putts and thankfully only two three-jacks.  After play, I couldn’t help thinking that if they had the greens rolling faster, the course might be unplayable from a difficulty standpoint.  However, the conditions on Links were impeccable.   We played the orange tees that measured 6,574 yards and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge.  In retrospect, we probably didn’t help ourselves by warming up on the putting green near the range which was Bermuda, was cut tight, and was rolling very fast.  Oh well, que sera sera.

Clubhouse at Grand National
Clubhouse at Grand National

What’s interesting about the clubhouse at Grand National is that it’s exactly the same layout and structure as Oxmoor Valley’s.  From the pro shop, to the kitchen, to the grill, to the rest rooms; an exact duplicate.  I also noticed that the golf carts were identical at all the sites.  Then I finally connected the dots:  all these RTJ Trail courses were built at the same time with the same architect and sub contractors, since the state of Alabama had sponsored the project.  The only significant difference between the clubhouses was the better food at Grand National.

After lunch we headed out on the Short course, and wow!  This track of 18 legitimate 100-200 yard 3-par holes was drop dead gorgeous.  Much of the routing took us down by the lakes and in the mid to late afternoon with nobody around to push or hold you up, this was some of the most serene and enjoyable golf I have ever played.

Lining up a putt on the Short course
Lining up a putt on the Short course

The greens were Bermuda and were running medium fast, but you didn’t have the undulations of Links or the elevation changes of the Short course at Oxmoor Valley.  We played the orange tees at 2,802 yards at a par of 54.  If you come to Grand National, you must play this one.

Beautiful par-3 along the water on the Short Course
Beautiful par-3 along the water on the Short Course
#9 Short course.  Playing 250 yards from the tips.
#9 Short course. Playing 250 yards from the tips.

On Friday, we played the Lake course.  I noted the need for precision off the tee, and it seemed like every tee shot had a complex set of fairway bunkers you had to avoid.  I ended up only hitting driver on two of the first five par-4s, and all the thinking left me mentally taxed.  There are many doglegs as well and even though the course rating is lower than Links, I found this play more difficult.  The course is all Bermuda and the greens aren’t nearly as sloped as Links, which should make them putt easier, but I found reading putts more of a challenge.  Perhaps it was the last day of our trip and we’d been shifting from Bent to Bermuda on almost every round, but I couldn’t get a good read on many putts.

My swing was on early and I managed a one-over 37 on the front with a couple of birdies, but alas, all good things come to an end.  I fell apart on the back nine, with the round punctuated by a quadruple bogey 7 on the signature hole (par 3 #15).  After splashing two 3-irons on the approach to the island green, I limped in with a 10-over 46 on the back and a total of 83 for the day.  We played the orange tees at 6,488 yards.

#15 Lake course
#15 Lake course

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

Booking fees for Link and Lakes were $79.20 which included cart and range balls.  We used coupons given to us from Tony at Oxmoor Valley to play for free on the Short course and only paid $12 for a cart fee.  I can’t remember playing better caliber golf for such a great price.  Coupons aside, Grand National is a very good value for your golfing dollar.

Facilities (4.25 out of 5.0)

The range at Grand National is huge and has plenty of great grass hitting stations that were rotated daily.  Next to the range was a good size putting green and a short game green with bunkers.  Up by the clubhouse was another large putting green so there was plenty of room to warm-up and practice.  The range was a considerable drive away from the clubhouse via cart, but if you wanted to just come and practice, the range had it’s own parking lot and balls were for sale for those not on a golf package.  All practice areas were well conditioned and the quality of practice balls was good.  One interesting note:  the bunkers on the driving range were actually concrete painted white.  You didn’t know that until you hit into one and bounced your shot about 50 feet in the air.

Customer Experience (4.25 out of 5.0)

Great customer service appears to be the norm across all the RTJ sites we visited, and Grand National was no exception.  On day one, our bag drop attendant didn’t just unload our clubs, he gave us the history of the place and provided directions to all the important stops and stations (very helpful).  Your clubs were loaded and ready to go when you walked out of the pro shop, and you didn’t have to seek out instruction, the cart guys were there to proactively ask you where you were playing and point you in the right direction.

Kayla in the golf shop was super nice when she checked us in on day one and was helpful as we purchased some souvenirs.  The professional (forgot his name) who checked us in for our Thursday afternoon round on the Short course told me we were going to “love it.”  I like that when folks show passion for their everyday jobs and for tasks that may be a little mundane but can make a difference to a first time customer.  He was right and the nice little touch sticks out in my mind.  And finally, the food was pretty darn good in the grill, and we ordered lunch after both rounds.  Overall our experience at Grand National was a great one.  Don’t miss it on your trip to RTJ!

Overall Rating (4.25 out of 5.0)

Short course at Grand National
Short course at Grand National

Oxmoor Valley – Course Reviews

Summary

Clubhouse at Oxmoor Valley
Clubhouse at Oxmoor Valley

The starter at Oxmoor Valley described the experience of playing the Ridge course and then the Valley course as going from hell to heaven.  I understood the context of the comment after playing the two primary 18 hole tracks back to back.  With an excellent 18 hole par-3 short course added in, this 54-hole facility in Birmingham, AL on the RTJ Trail provided a fascinating and enjoyable golf experience.  We played all three courses over two days on October 8th and 9th and it was a wild ride.

Par 5, #3 at the Ridge
Par 5, #3 at the Ridge

First up was Ridge with it’s tight tree-lined fairways, huge changes in elevation, and quirky pinball bounces.  You definitely need a Sherpa with local knowledge to negotiate your way around this mountain.  And playing directly after Ross Bridge, with it’s wide open expanses, we pushed the level of our comfort zones.  Some of the locals said the best way to play Ridge was to try and land your ball as close to the 150 yard poles because that’s the only flat place on the course.  I could see their point, but if you’re trying to get to a scoring yardage in close that becomes a problem.

3rd green at the Ridge cut into a mountain of shale
3rd green at the Ridge cut into a mountain of shale

Ridge has Bentgrass greens and Bermuda through the fairway and rough.  I actually putted these greens quite well after coming from the Bent surfaces at Ross Bridge, but found that moving to the Bermuda greens on the short course and Valley a difficult adjustment.

On the day we played Ridge there were two issues.  First, we found out that on all RTJ Trail courses, the driving ranges are closed for maintenance on Tuesday mornings.  The pro shop staff offered to let us play a few holes on the short course as a warm-up, which we did, but unbeknownst to us was the difficulty and precision required to play the short course, and we ended up losing two balls each on the first two holes just warming up.  Secondly, the tees and fairways on Ridge had not been cut.  It appeared that a mower had been driven on each of the tee boxes, but no grass was taken, which seemed very peculiar and we pointed that out to the pro shop staff.  The long fairways were actually a blessing in disguise, as some of our off-line tee shots did not roll out into the penal Bermuda rough.  The main takeaway; you need to fully warm up your swing before playing Ridge.  I shot a seven-over par 79 from the Orange tees that were playing at 6,527 yards and was quite happy with that score.

In the afternoon, we played the Short course.  This is a collection of 18 legitimate par-3 holes that were pretty darn tough.  Many of these played considerably downhill.  Club selection was difficult and the Bermuda greens had some severe undulations.  They were in good condition, but were hard to negotiate after playing on Bent for a couple of rounds.  Four three-putt greens and an 12-over par 66 later, I finally figured out I needed to “pop” the ball with the putter like Brandt Snedeker to get a decent roll.  Nevertheless, the Short course was a very fun and challenging play.  We played the orange tees which measured 2,971 yards.

Short course downhill par 3 playing 200 yards
Short course downhill par 3 playing 200 yards

Next up was the Valley course on Wednesday, October, 9 and we found it also challenging, but much more open off the tee and more aesthetically pleasing with its gently rolling fairways and meticulously landscaped touches.  Valley’s Bermuda greens were cut tighter than the short course and were in excellent condition, yet weren’t rolling as fast as they looked.

Jim on the par 4 15th tee at Valley
Jim on the par 4 15th tee at Valley

We were paired up with Charlie, a local, who gave us great course management tips and some interesting history of the Valley and Ridge courses.  There is something to be said for local knowledge and more open sight lines; it relaxes you.  However, there were strategically placed fairway bunkers on most holes in the 240-260 yard range off the tee.  Hit them and you were in trouble, but well placed drives were rewarded with good looks at the greens.  Valley was clearly the preferred play of all the locals and I could see why.  I managed an 11-over 83 from the orange tees that were playing at 6,588 yards.  This course felt easier than Ridge but I struggled again on the Bermuda greens.

Value (3.75 out of 5.0)

Booking fees for Ridge and Valley were $79.20 which included a cart.  I actually saw some fool going out to walk on the Ridge, so it was permitted but I would advise against it.  I hope they found the guy.  We played the short course on a replay special rate for $22 which included a sleeve of Nike balls.  This was a great value considering I can play my 9-hole executive course at home for $20 and the quality of golf doesn’t compare.  Range balls had to be purchased separately but we found an ample supply left at the hitting stations for a free warm-up on Wednesday.

Facilities (3.25 out of 5.0)

The range at Oxmoor Valley
The range at Oxmoor Valley

The range had about 25 hitting stations which were on good conditioned mats.  Normally they hit from several tiers of grass but the range had been overseeded and mats were in order during the first two weeks of October.  There was a large putting green near the clubhouse where chipping wasn’t allowed and a smaller green for short game practice near the range.  The facility also hosts a separate range and short game area reserved for a golf school that wasn’t available for general use.

Customer Experience (4.25 out of 5.0)

The operation shines at Oxmoor Valley with exceptional customer service.  Our bag drop greeters were right there when we pulled up and very courteous and helpful with directions to the range, first tee, and general instructions on protocol.  Special shout out to Tony who was working carts on Tuesday and recharged ours for the afternoon round on the Short course.  Tony also hit us up with coupons for a free round at any RTJ course, which we greatly appreciated and took and used at Grand National later in the week.  The pro shop staff moved my Wednesday tee time from 7:50 a.m. to 9:50 a.m. upon my request, despite the time not being available when I booked a month in advance.  Bottom line, this was some of the most friendly service we’ve experienced in our travels.  Only complaint is that the clubhouse food selection was very limited and the turkey and cheddar sandwich I lunched on was quite ordinary.  Charlie, our Wednesday playing companion, also reiterated that the food was not that great.

Overall experience at Oxmoor Valley was very good.  Valley is a must play and I’d love to come back and tackle that Ridge course again now that I have an idea of where to hit it.

Overall Rating (3.75 out of 5.0)

Tee shot on par 5 #12 at Valley
Tee shot on par 5 #12 at Valley

Ross Bridge – Course Review

Summary

Ross Bridge

Playing Ross Bridge as your opening course on a trip to Alabama’s RTJ Trail feels like trying to learn to drive in a Cadillac Escalade.  This outstanding championship venue is located in Hoover, AL, and is the third longest course in the world (measuring 8,191 yards from the back tees and covering over 300 acres.) It is the on-site companion to the Renaissance Birmingham Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa.

What immediately strikes you is the enormous size of everything and the exquisite conditioning and attention to detail in all areas of the operation.  From the pristine all grass driving range with its pyramid stacks of new golf balls, to it’s gigantic putting surfaces, to the miles of open fairways, to the long traverses from green to tee, this golf course was a delight to play.

The Driving Range at Ross Bridge
The Driving Range at Ross Bridge
The Putting Green
The Putting Green

Playing notes:

  • Even though you will be riding, prepare to do some walking.  The course is so large that there are ample stretches where you are on foot from cart to green and back.
  • Warm up your driver and forget about losing any balls or laying up on any holes, as this is a bomber’s paradise.
  • The course’s main defenses are the huge greens and deep green-side bunkers, a lot of which are protecting the front of the surfaces.  If you are in a green-side bunker, you will have a long tough sand shot, so good ball striking off the tee and a solid iron game are at a premium.
  • To get off to a good start on the first hole which is a long par-5, your line should be to carry the right side of the fairway bunker, but guard against going left on your second shot layup, as water sneaks in close to the fairway.
  • The par-3 4th hole has a false front.  Take plenty of club and play to the back-middle of the green.
  • #7 is a par-5 dog leg right.  You are tempted to cut the corner but don’t as everything bounces right.  There’s plenty of room left center; take it.
  • This course is long.  Check your ego at the door and play the appropriate set of tees; you’ll have more fun.  There are five to choose from (Black – 8,191; Purple – 7,446; Orange – 6,783; White – 6,200; Teal – 5,312).
Halfway House
Halfway House

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

We booked our play at the RTJ Trail as a package and most of the venues on the site were known for good value and came in at $79.20 which included a cart.  Ross Bridge is considered a resort and commands a premium level $151.80 greens fee.  If you were to play here five times, your golf vacation could become costly, and even at the stated price, I questioned the value when I booked the tee time until I played the track.  It is worth every penny.  Having played comparable courses in the $100 – $200 range, such as Bulle Rock and the redesigned Pinehurst #2, I can clearly say that Ross Bridge provided the best value.

On the tee at the par-4 eighth hole.
On the tee at the par-4 eighth hole.

Facilities (4.5 out of 5.0)

The clubhouse and pro shop are attached to the beautiful 248-room Renaissance resort.  There is a grill and a fine dining restaurant to choose from, but we did not eat here so no comment on the food.  The pro shop was of good size and well stocked.  The practice facilities include the tremendous all grass driving rang, a short game area to chip, pitch, and hit bunker shots, and an extra large putting green located between the staging area and first tee.  The course was empty on the Monday that we played and I felt like a kid in a candy store with all these wonderful amenities at my disposal.  Tees, fairways, and rough are all Bermuda grass and the greens are Bent and were rolling medium fast and very smooth.  Of the hundreds of courses I’ve played, Ross Bridge’s practice facilities rank third, behind only Pinehurst and Congressional.

Approach to the par-4 ninth hole
Approach to the par-4 ninth hole

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time was easy and I did this by calling RTJ a couple months in advance.  They will book golf and / or lodging for you at the Marriott-Renaissance resorts or just golf, which I elected to do.  We stayed at the Hampton Inn on Lakeshore Drive for three nights and found the accommodations very comfortable and about a 15 minute drive to the course.

Upon arrival, the bag drop attendant was right there to meet and greet and got us loaded promptly.  When we finished up, he cleaned our clubs and gave us directions to the Oxmoor Valley clubhouse, where we were to play the next day.  The pro shop staff was professional and welcoming and the starter actually provided playing tips for the first hole, which was much appreciated, and mentioned where to park our cart at the second green to avoid an inordinately long walk to the third tee.  We played as a twosome and were not rushed and did not push anyone all the way around.  It was a truly enjoyable golf experience.  On your next trip to RTJ, don’t miss this one.

We played here on Monday, October 7, 2013 and I shot a six-over par 78 from the Orange tees which measured 6,783 yards.

Overall Rating (4.25 out of 5.0)

#14 green in the foreground.  #15 fairway behind the lake.
#14 green in the foreground. #15 fairway behind the lake.

Roll Tide! War Eagle! RTJ ‘Bama Trip Booked.

At the risk of sounding like the two-faced ferry operator in The Outlaw Josey Wales, I need to practice these two catchphrases for my upcoming trip to the RTJ Golf Trail in Alabama.RTJ  We are visiting during the second week in October and our travels will take us from Birmingham (Tide country) to Auburn/Opelika (Tigers) and cover seven days and five rounds.  I’ve done some preliminary research and believe that the courses we’ve selected are among the finest on the trail.  The line-up:

  1. Ross Bridge, Hoover
  2. Oxmoor Valley – Ridge course, Birmingham
  3. Oxmoor Valley – Valley course, Birmingham
  4. Grand National – Links course, Opelika
  5. Grand National – Lakes course, Opelika

The 800 mile trek from DC to Birmingham is a haul and we’ve decided to fly instead of drive.  Our thoughts were to stay/play at as many courses in the same areas and minimize the travel between sites.  The RTJ Trail has partnered with some Renaissance and Marriott resorts on site and will book a stay-play package for you, or they offer you the option of doing your own hotel reservations, as we have done.  Full course reviews are coming for each site, as well as an evaluation of our travel and booking strategy.  Right now I’m looking for any travel insights, course playing tips, or advice on good barbeque joints along the trail; please send!

Have you ever tried to peak your game for a golf trip?  My advice is not to try too hard because you end up traveling with too many mechanical swing thoughts, and even though the airlines don’t charge for them, they are more costly than most baggage fees.  As this trip gets closer, I’m thinking of trying to just play as much as I can and not worry too much about practice.  Usually, I play better the day after I practice, but yesterday’s outlier round gave me great hope on the “play only” strategy.  I hadn’t touched a club in over a week and went out cold for a game in the wind and rain at Rattlewood.  I hit about 20 balls, rolled a dozen 3-foot putts and teed it up.  Four hours later, I returned soaking wet, but had hit 14 greens and shot even par for my best round of the year.  Strange game.  I have noticed a marked improvement in my ball striking and have hit double-digit GIR in six of my last eight rounds.  I may be onto a fundamental “ah ha” discovery but it’s too early to tell.  The trip will provide a great opportunity to test my theory and I’ll fill you in upon my return.

True Blue – Course Review

Summary

On the tee at True Blue
On the tee at True Blue

We played True Blue in Pawleys Island, SC on Saturday, June 1, 2013.  Every time I visit this Mike Strantz design I enjoy it more and more and our 36 hole adventure lived up to the advanced billing.  We found the course in impeccable condition from tee to green, as it has always been.  True Blue is known for it’s huge expansive fairways and natural waste bunkers that do double duty as cart paths.  I always seem to drive the ball well here and believe it’s because the wide fairways tend to relax me, and the holes have abundant targets that fit my eye quite well.  We were playing the blue tees at 6,812 yards and the course played long and tough with a moderate wind blowing and showed most of its teeth on the par five holes.  #1 is a monster at 600 yards and was playing into the wind.  I’m not used to hitting driver, 3WD, 3WD on most par fives but did in round #1.  The greens were rolling smooth and medium fast and were a delight to putt on after playing on some slower surfaces earlier in the week.

Playing notes:

  • #2 is a short par-4 at 342 yards and you must play your drive as far left as possible.  The approach to the green is guarded by a canopy of trees that seemed to catch most of the approaches we hit from all but the proper angle.
  • #4 is a horseshoe par-5 that hooks around a large lake.  You may be tempted to get as close to the water on your tee shot and go for the full 200+ yard carry, but don’t.  I tried and rinsed two in my morning round.  The conservative play over land will give you a good shot at par.
  • #8 is a medium length par-4 at 363 yards.  Hit 3WD over the bunker on the right side of this blind tee shot for a good look at the green with a short iron or wedge.
  • #17 is a very long par-4 and at 426 yards was playing into a stiff wind.  Both times I crushed a driver and needed a full three-iron over water to get home and barely made it.  If your drive is a little bit off, play it like a short par-5.
  • #18 is a dogleg left and requires a tee shot over water, and depending on where they put the flag, the second shot as well.  The best play here is to aim just right of the green and short as the approach is a good area to chip from and takes the water and a big number out of play.
Clubhouse view from the 18th tee at True Blue
View of the clubhouse and 18th green from the tee at True Blue

Value (3.75 out of 5.0)

True Blue was the premium play on our golf package. Morning times are $94 and afternoon $74 in this time slot.  The replay cost of $60 was well worth the price.  Range balls were complimentary.  The grill provided a large menu of food options with good sized portions at reasonable prices.  For $15 I had a Cajun Chicken Club, coleslaw, iced tea, and tip.

Facilities (4.50 out of 5.0)

The course has some of the best facilities starting with the conditioning and routing which were top notch.  Everyone in my group loved the layout because it’s simply one of the best in Myrtle Beach.  The driving range is all grass and was in excellent condition, as was the short game practice area and putting green, and they are adjacent to the cart staging area which made set up and go very easy.  The pro shop is of ample size and the grill is a nice area to enjoy food and drink after play.  The clubhouse has an excellent outside deck suitable for watching golfers plunk their approaches into the pond guarding #18.  The only peculiarity we noticed was that our starter told us to treat all bunkers (even those green-side and with rakes) as waste areas.  Normally, if it has a rake, you treat it as a hazard.  As a result, there were some unraked footprints in the green-side bunkers but it was pretty inconsequential.

Customer Experience (3.75 out of 5.0)

The bag drop attendants were very organized, punctual, and friendly.  It’s always great to have your first interaction be a positive one.  The staff in the pro shop indicated it would not be a problem to replay, but didn’t allow us to reserve a time until after we finished our morning round.  The thought was that they wanted to reserve the high priced tee times for full paying customers.  It worried us a bit because their sister course (Caledonia) was closed for a tournament and the thought of not having a time on a Saturday afternoon was a possibility.  Nevertheless, they got us out after lunch and we were not rushed, as there were no groups before or after us.  We asked to play as a fivesome but were told to go off as as a twosome and threesome.  We joined up and played the round as five and broke apart as we played holes that neared the clubhouse.  I’m sure this behavior was frowned upon, but we would have ceased if we were holding anyone up.

On this day we played from the blue tees for both rounds and I carded an 81 on both tries.  True Blue is an awesome play and is in my top five, if not right at the top of all courses at Myrtle Beach.  Don’t miss it on your next trip.

Overall Rating (4.0 out of 5.0)

#3 green - True Blue
#3 green – True Blue

Rivers Edge – Course Review

Summary

On the 9th tee at Rivers Edge
On the 9th tee at Rivers Edge

We visited this Arnold Palmer design in Shallotte, NC on Thursday, May 27 and played 36 holes on a very challenging layout.  From the back tees, this course is rated at 74.7/149 and thankfully we played them one set up.  At 6,440 yards, Rivers Edge is not that long, but the firm fairways and windy conditions put solid ball striking at a premium and tested every ounce of our patience.  Several of the holes are very scenic and run along the Shallotte River and when the tide is out, the site of thousands of golf balls donated in the mud flats gave even the best players in our group cause for hesitation.

Conditions were somewhat of a mixed bag, with several of the bentgrass greens infiltrated with spotty brown patches, which were either dormant grass (unlikely) or some type of disease.  They were rolling fairly slow but were dry and bouncing hard, especially on the down wind shots.  The tee boxes were a little scratchy in spots and the fairways hard and dry.  The series of exposed holes by the river were reminiscent of conditions at a British Open.

Playing notes:

  • #9 is a 90 degree dogleg left par-5 that played into the wind on the first two shots and as you made the dogleg, were forced to contend with a strong right to left wind and a fairway and green that sloped hard right to left.  Trying to keep the ball on the putting surface was almost comical.  I made bogey in both rounds and felt I had conquered the world.  Favor the right side of the fairway off the tee because a drive left of center will catch the hard turf and roll down into the marsh.
  • #10 is a 330 yard par-4 that has more landing room than it looks like from the tee.  I laid up with a 3-iron but could have easily hit 3WD and gained a shorter approach.
  • #16 is a 386 yard par-4 that you must favor the left side on your tee shot or risk a hard bounce right and a lost ball in the river.  Take your tee shot over the middle of the left fairway bunker for the best line in.
  • #17 is a par-5 with an awkward approach because of the positioning of a tree right in front of the green.  Only a left pin placement is actually accessible and seemed a bit unfair to us.
  • #18 is a 360 yard par-4 where you have to decide how much marsh to carry on the tee shot.  I found a well struck 3WD at the gazebo in the distance is a good line and left about a 100 yard shot in.  My playing partner buried a driver in a bunker about 60 yards from the green (video below).  Your choice.

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

Greens fees are $100 to play at this time which seemed a bit high for the summer.  Of course, ours was included in our package but we found the replay rate of $25 low in comparison to other courses of this caliber, and a very pleasant surprise.  Range balls were complimentary.  We ate lunch in the clubhouse and the entries were delicious and very reasonably priced.  Treat yourself to the blackened fish sandwich if you are inclined.  It was excellent.

Facilities (3.0 out of 5.0)

The clubhouse and grill were good sized with a medium to small pro shop.  The driving range was in very good condition and you hit from all grass stations.  The putting green was medium sized but you weren’t allowed to chip and I couldn’t find an alternate chipping / pitching area.  The practice area was clearly meant for resort players who want a quick bucket to warm up before their game and not for protracted practice.  My rating here would go higher with top notch course conditions because the layout of some of these holes is outstanding.

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

The bag drop off / cart attendant was very friendly and provided an excellent first face.  He had your clubs loaded, your range balls in hand, and directions to wherever you wanted to go.  The pro in the shop was very friendly and accommodating and I believe discounted us $10 off the normal replay rate, which was much appreciated.  They got us off when we wanted to play in the afternoon without issue.  The servers in the grill area were very friendly and brought our food and drinks promptly.

On this day, we played the black tees at 6,440 yards and I carded an 84 and an 83.  Rivers Edge is a great layout and we had a lot of fun.  I’d like to replay it when conditions are at their peak.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

15th green looking back at the tee - Rivers Edge
15th green looking back at the tee – Rivers Edge

Kings North – Course Review

Summary

#12 green at Kings North
#12 green at Kings North

On May 27, 2013, I got my first look at Kings North at Myrtle Beach National Golf Club and I loved what I saw.  Kings North is one of three Arnold Palmer designs at MBN and is the high end play.  SouthCreek and The West Course are the other two and we opted for a replay on Kings after our scheduled 18 because we enjoyed it so much.  Kings was built in 1973 and fully refurbished in 1996.

We found Kings in excellent condition from tee to green with the Crenshaw bentgrass surfaces rolling medium-slow but very smooth.  When you play Kings, several holes stick out in your mind which is an indicator of an excellent playing experience.  #6 is their signature hole known as The Gambler and is a par-5 with an island fairway left off the tee.  When this hole is playing into the wind, don’t gamble on the island route because you need to hit it deep enough into the island to get a shorter iron to go for it in two.  The green, which sits on a peninsula, is a water carry from either the island rout or the conventional fairway on the right and the gamble on the tee shot is just not worth it.

On the tee at The Gambler
On the tee at The Gambler

The par three 12th hole (pictured earlier) is a drop dead beautiful island green that plays to 129 yards from the gold tees and is somewhat reminiscent of #17 at TPC at Sawgrass with regard to the length and size of landing area.  If the pin is cut middle right and you are left, the downhill putt breaks much harder to the left than it looks and is fast.

#5 pictured below is a lovely short par-4 with a massive bunker fronting the green that you do not want to be in.  It’s 220 yards to clear the left fairway bunker which is the best play off the tee and will leave you with a wedge shot in.  Long is safer on this hole.

Front bunker protecting #5
Front bunker protecting #5

What’s great about this course is that #1 and #10 are benign par-5 holes that allow the golfer to get off to a good start and that’s appreciated on this tough but beautiful track.

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

Our greens fees were included in the golf package but normally run $72 in the morning and $50 after 12:00 noon.  We opted for that $50 afternoon rate and were told that was the replay rate.  You can book an afternoon time for $50 so there really is no replay rate.  In any case, we elected to replay Kings North in-lieu of the $30 replay at either of the sister courses, as Kings was just too good to pass up another play on.  Range balls were $4.00 for a small basket and the balls were of good quality.

Facilities (3.75 out of 5.0)

The clubhouse and pro shop were large and well appointed.  There were two medium-large practice putting greens adjacent to the clubhouse but chipping was discouraged there.  The driving range had about 20-25 all grass hitting stations that were in good condition.  The bag drop-off and cart staging area was right out front and were easy to access from the parking lot, clubhouse, and driving range.

Customer Experience (3.25 out of 5.0)

We were one of the first groups to arrive at the course but were running a little short on time for a warm-up.  The guys at the bag drop were a bit slow to load our bags on carts for the short trip to the driving range, but the delay was only for a few minutes.  Still, you expected a little snappier service from a club of this caliber.  The proshop staff were businesslike but not overly friendly.  We were visited regularly on the course by the food and beverage cart which was appreciated.

On this day, I shot an 84 and an 86 from the gold tees which measured 6,481 yards (71.4/130).  Overall, this was a very delightful experience and I would highly recommend Kings North.

Overall Rating (3.75 out of 5.0)

Heritage Shores – Course Review

Summary

Clubhouse at Heritage Shores

I played Heritage Shores on Sunday, November 4, 2012.  The course is part of a new +55 residential community in Bridgeville, DE and is conveniently located on Rt 13, one mile south of the intersection of Rt 404 (main thoroughfare to the Delaware beaches.)  This Arthur Hills design presents a classic open style links play with significant green-side mounding and very little protection from the wind.  The day I visited it was windy and while the layout isn’t particularly difficult, the wind made scoring a challenge.  Most of the par four and five holes are fairly open but are bordered by a considerable amount of water, usually running parallel or diagonal to the tee shot.  The view from the tees fit my eye well and I didn’t find it too difficult to avoid the hazards but you get the feeling on several holes of a repeat look.

The front nine is the more pleasurable of the two as the course winds its way out into open areas and you feel more secluded.  The back is crammed into “house world” with the new single-family homes all looking the same.  I don’t mind playing courses tightly woven into housing communities, such as Oyster Bay in Sunset Beach, NC, where the properties are very different and present some variety, but that’s not the case at Heritage Shores.

Conditions were good through the green with the putting surfaces rolling medium fast and holding iron shots reasonably well, despite the heavy wind.  The bunkers were in terrible shape, with nearly every one loaded with casual water and leaves.  In all fairness, Hurricane Sandy had deposited about 10 inches of rain a few days earlier but the rest of the course had drained well so I was unsure if the greens crew had ignored the bunkers or these were just poorly designed.  I only had the bunkers at Queenstown Harbor, which I had played two days earlier, to compare to and they were in pristine condition.

18th green at Heritage Shores

Value (2.5 out of 5.0)

Greens fees were $59 which included a cart.  I believe the in-season rates are the same which would make it a better play in the summer, but I wouldn’t go any higher to visit a course of this caliber.  A small bag of range balls was $6 and they should really be included in the greens fee to improve value.

Facilities (2.5 out of 5.0)

Heritage shores has a giant clubhouse that serves the entire community with two restaurants and houses the cart barn along with other non-golf related offices.  The smallish pro shop is combined in an adjacent building with a fitness and aquatic center.  A small snack bar sits next to the golf shop entrance but was closed when I played.  A small number of soft drinks were available for sale in the pro shop but I was surprised not to find the snack bar open for weekend play.

The driving range is a short cart ride across the street and boasts about 15 hitting stations.  We were hitting from mats and there appeared to be an ample grass area that was not open.  One thing missing was some type of bag rack or device to hold clubs and towels next to the hitting stations.  There was nothing, as you can see in the picture below, which required you to lay your clubs on the ground.

There were two very small putting greens adjacent to the golf shop entrance and I saw a sign indicating the short game practice area was closed.  I never observed the area and will reserve comment.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

I booked a tee time over the phone and my impression of the golf shop staff was courteous and professional.  The starter drove out to the range to notify me when it was my turn to play which I appreciated.

The GPS units on the golf carts were touch screen, but only showed distance to the center of the greens, not the flag stick.  You had to drag the flagstick icon to a particular part of the screen where you thought the flag was and the GPS would recalculate the yardage.  I found this kludge and was glad I brought my Bushnell rangefinder to snap accurate yardages to the pins.  I could also do without the constant stream of adds on the GPS which required you to touch the screen to “return to golf”.

Overall I viewed Heritage Shores as a decent retirement community golf course but not a facility dedicated to the serious player.  For the record, I played the green tees at 6,477 yards and carded a 12-over par 84.

GPS unit

Overall Rating (2.75 out of 5.0)

Driving Range at Heritage Shores

Queenstown Harbor (River) – Course Review

Summary

Queenstown Harbor Clubhouse

On Friday, November 2nd, I made my way down to Queenstown Harbor to play the River course just a few days removed from Hurricane Sandy.  Queenstown is a 36-hole facility with The River being the more upscale play, and The Lakes, also a nice course, but not presenting as scenic an experience or as challenging.  The River has a lot of water and combines tree-lined protected holes with some open and exposed holes that are subjected to the winds off the nearby Chester River and Chesapeake Bay.  On this day, the hurricane was just exiting the area and the wind was sustained at 15-20 mph with higher gusts, and the temperature was in the high 40s.  Playing conditions were  super difficult from the blue tees at 6,568 yards.  I was amazed at the exquisite course conditioning considering nearly a foot of rain had fallen only days before.  The course drained extremely well and the bunkers were in immaculate shape (all groomed and not a sign of any pooling.)  Fairways, tees and greens were smooth and filled in nicely.  We were playing cart path only but the course was dry for all practical purposes.  A tip of the cap goes to the greens crew for the amazing job.

#16 green, The River Course at Queenstown Harbor

Playing tips:

  • All par-fives are three shot holes and placement is the key off the tee.  Don’t hesitate to take a three wood and keep it in play.
  • Most of the par-fours are medium length and play under 400 yards, however there are several sharp doglegs that tempt you to play over water to get a shorter look.  Don’t succumb to the temptation as the risk is not worth the reward.  The iron play in from the safe areas on #4 and #12 are easy enough to play to without risking a rinse.
  • #18 is a par-five and when the pin is cut front and left, be careful of the hidden water hazard that creeps up close to the green.  You can’t see it from the fairway.

Value (3.0 out of 5.0)

I played on the off-season rate of $75.  In season is in the $90-$100 range which is not inexpensive for this play, even though the price includes your cart and unlimited range balls.  The Lakes can be played for $49 off-season and the greens fee is commensurate with the relative caliber of the layout.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

Queenstown has a modest size clubhouse that houses a well stocked and attractive pro shop, along with a good sized snack bar.  Behind the building is a pavilion used for outings which is a nice setting and can host upwards of 200 people.  Earlier this year I played a very well attended charity event here that was organized nicely.

The range at Queenstown

There is a 25 station driving range that is outfitted with mats that are designed to hold a wooden tee.  Unfortunately they don’t do the job and just teeing a ball up to hit driver was an issue, which was about the only source of frustration I had during the day.  There is a very large beautiful practice putting green adjacent to the first green and a smaller one by the driving range.  Next to the primary green is a medium sized pitching green that includes a bunker and a closely mown area, and presents a variety of lies to practice from.  Overall, the practice facilities are spacious and ample enough to support two courses.

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

The staff at Queenstown from the professional manning the shop, to the snack bar attendant to the starter/bag drop guy were all very friendly and accommodating.  Reserving a tee time was easily done through their website which is intuitive and easy to use.  On this date, they had any time I wanted and the starter gave me the option to play as a single or pair up with a choice of twosomes.  Playing Queenstown in the offseason or in season during the charity outing was a delight.  Visitors to Maryland’s eastern shore should not miss this one.

Overall Rating (3.75 out of 5.0)

View of the first hole from the practice putting green.

Tidewater – Course Review

Summary

Clubhouse at Tidewater

On Thursday, June 21, 2012, our travel group played Tidewater on a scheduled afternoon starting time.  Located in North Myrtle Beach, SC, we found Tidewater to be a rather ordinary course with a dozen almost unforgettable holes mixed in with six that are absolutely breathtaking and run along the Intracoastal Waterway, and at the end of the day, form a distinct and lasting impression.  This course is highly touted, and admittedly, when I recall my experience, I think of those great holes and the natural beauty of the area.  At the conclusion of your round you feel as if you’ve played two separate courses.

On the first tee at Tidewater

We found the course in excellent condition from tee to green with the putting surfaces running smooth and medium-fast.  Unfortunately, they had just began their summer aeration and were working incrementally.  There were four holes (two front and back) punched and top-dressed, but even the putts on these four rolled reasonably true, which was a bit of a consolation.

Playing Tips:

  • The par-3, 12this one of the most difficult and beautiful holes I’ve played in Myrtle Beach.  Be precise with your club selection.  With a stiff wind blowing in off the ocean and across the Intracoastal Waterway, three of the four players in our group actually hit this green and managed two-putt pars, which was the highlight of our day.

    Tee shot on the par-3 twelfth hole at Tidewater
  • There are two great par-5s (#8 and #16) that run along the waterway that are difficult to manage for the first time player.  I figured most course architects don’t leave trouble at 100 yards from the green on a par-5 and this strategy worked well on these holes.  However, the fairway bunker on #8 runs out at about 110 yards from the green so take enough club to clear it on your second.
  • #9 is a medium length par-3 that played into the wind and about two clubs longer than you’d think.  With marsh left and no bail-out right, the place to miss is short and in the closely mown approach.  Beware of a big right to left slope on this green.
  • #10 is a medium length dog leg right par-4 with ample room on the left side of the fairway.  Use it.  I drove it behind a bush in the right rough and had enough room to clear it and go for the green, but I wrestled with a forced carry over water and took too much club, ending up in the hazard behind the green.  You need a clear shot to this green so favor the left.
  • #18, when playing into the wind is a brutally tough par-4.  I hit driver-3WD pin high and left which presented a very tough pitch that I could not get close because the green sloped away from me.  Bogey is not a bad score here so don’t be a hero.

    On the tee at the par-3 third hole at Tidewater

Value (3.0 out of 5.0)

The course is considered a premium play and we did not entertain a replay, hence the afternoon starting time.  Greens fees are $94 in the height of the summer and $144 in the high season.  Despite the lofty amount, everyone traveling to Myrtle Beach should play Tidewater at least once.  The natural beauty of the featured holes somewhat justifies the cost.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

The drive into Tidewater feels exclusive and there is fairly tight security at the entrance gate.  Once inside, Tidewater has a nice large clubhouse with a pro-shop and full service grill.  The driving  range is all-grass and of modest size (about 15 hitting stations).  Adjacent is the practice putting green where they appear to allow chipping (we did), but they did not appear to have a designated short game area for pitching and bunker practice.  The highlight here is the course itself and the stunning memorable holes.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

The customer experience was a mixed bag.  The pro-shop staff were friendly and we felt unrushed because nobody was scheduled around us during our afternoon time.  They charge $5.00 for range balls which is unnecessary for a premium facility like Tidewater where everything should be included.  Golf carts were equipped with GPS but there was no cooler with ice, and the only drinking water on the course was at the restroom water fountains.  The driving range staff was professional and after mishandling (accidentally dropping) one of our golf bags, gave us some free range balls as an apology.  There is significant distance from green to subsequent teeing area on a lot of holes and directions on the cart paths were clearly marked, but we found it odd that there were no signs at the individual tee boxes denoting which hole you were playing.

For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,771 yards and carded an eight-over par 80.  If you come to Myrtle Beach, make sure you make it out at least once to Tidewater and enjoy half a dozen of the best holes at the beach.

Updated from a round played Monday, June 8, 2015:  The course has rebuilt their greens.  They are Bermuda, running fast, and very hard.  It was difficult to put a ball mark in and hold because the root structure hasn’t fully taken hold, but they look good.  The customer service has improved as well and the range balls are now complimentary.  Apparently the bad reputation Tidewater got from the problem with their greens over the last couple of years has spurred needed improvements.  I was impressed.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

Another look from #12 tee.

Tiger’s Eye – Course Review

Summary

18th green at Tiger’s Eye

My travel group played Tiger’s Eye on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 as an afternoon replay from a morning round at the premium course (Leopard’s Chase) at Ocean Ridge Plantation.  Located in Ocean Isle Beach, NC, if you are playing the Big Cats, make Tiger’s Eye your first and foremost destination.  It’s the number one course at Ocean Ridge and is in my top five in the Myrtle Beach area.  I played the course three times in 2009 and our return trip this year did not disappoint.  The course is a fabulous layout that combines large natural waste areas with some well placed bunkering and forced carries over water, and interjects a mix of very drivable wide open landing areas with careful meandrous routing among the tall pines.  No two holes are alike and you’ll be struck by the natural beauty of the landscaping and the unique challenge of some of the greatest holes in Myrtle Beach.  The bentgrass greens were rolling a little slow as the course was trying to keep them from getting stressed in the hot weather, but otherwise, our playing experience was perfect.

Clubhouse and 9th green at Tiger’s Eye

Playing tips:

  • #1 is a short and seemingly benign dog leg right par-4.  Do not miss your tee shot right because the woods and fairway bunkers can turn this into a struggle.  There is plenty of room left in the fairway.
  • The par-3 second hole plays uphill and long so take one to 1 ½ extra clubs; it’s all carry.
  • #4 is a beautiful par-4 with a split fairway.  You’ll need about 220 yards to carry the water if you choose the left (shorter) fairway.  Otherwise, play to the right but avoid the approach from the large waste bunker in the middle; it makes the hole needlessly difficult.
  • The par-5 seventh has room beyond the right fairway bunker on the tee shot, so pound the driver and get as much distance as you can.  Good scoring opportunity here.
  • The par-4 ninth has a forced approach over water.  Avoid the right side on the tee shot because if you hit the fairway bunker, clearing the hazard on the second is difficult.
  • On the back-nine, #15 is one of the best par-5s in Myrtle Beach.  Your second shot here is the key and must be placed on dry land.  When playing into the wind, this hole can be as brutal as it is beautiful.

    #15 Tiger’s Eye
    Photo by Mike DeOrio
  • On the par-3 17th, take the middle of the green which is a great play for any pin position.
  • The green on the par-5 18th is very undulating.  Two precision shots are required to give you the best chance to get it close.  If you don’t a three putt is very likely.

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

We played in the afternoon on a $45 replay rate which was an excellent value considering the quality of course.  The regular summer greens fee is $72 is also an excellent value.  High season rates go over $100 but for summer golf, you cannot beat Tiger’s Eye.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

Tiger’s Eye boasts a huge and fully stocked clubhouse, pro-shop, and full service grill.  There is a practice putting green adjacent to the cart staging area which is ample enough for warm-up but they do not allow chipping.  There is a separate pitching area and driving range that is shared with Lion’s Paw and Panther’s Run that is accessible by cart.  The clubhouse is dedicated to Tiger’s Eye, as Lion’s and Panther’s share a separate facility.  We ate lunch on the clubhouse veranda overlooking the 9th and 18th greens.  The food was good, the service a bit slow, and the panoramic view excellent.  Oddly enough, the view was obscured a bit for those sitting at the tables by the large top railing, but in the grand scheme of things, this was inconsequential.

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

Scheduling replays from any of the Ocean Ridge Plantation Courses at any of the others was a breeze.  We had 3:00 p.m. reserved at Tiger’s and when we arrived, they were cognizant of our standing and had us set up and ready to go on time after we ate lunch.  The pro-shop staff, starter, and beverage service attendants as well as the ladies working in the grill were friendly and accommodating.  We had the course to ourselves all afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed our day.

For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,628 yards and shot a five-over par 77.  For summer time golf in Myrtle Beach, Tiger’s Eye has my highest recommendation.

Overall Rating (4.0 out of 5.0)

Friendly cold-blooded lizard by the 18th green at Tiger’s Eye
Photo by Mike DeOrio

Leopard’s Chase – Course Review

Summary

Approach on #18 at Leopard’s Chase

Leopard’s Chase, is considered the premium play for the four Big Cats courses at the Ocean Ridge Plantation located in Sunset Beach, NC.    My travel group played here on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, and the experience was decidedly different from when we played this Tim Cate design in 2009.  Unfortunately, the change was not for the better and course conditions were the issue.  As we did three years ago, we enjoyed the same great routing and hole variety, especially on the back nine,  but the excellence ended there.  The L-93 bentgrass greens had just been treated for a fungicide and were colored aqua-blue and were rolling extremely slow.  Most bentgrass greens get hammered in late summer from the persistent heat in the Southeast U.S. and it seemed a bit early to see greens on a course of this caliber stressed.  Also, general maintenance had clearly slipped.  Last time out, the course was pristine with lightning fast greens.  This time we noticed a few bare spots on the approaches, the landing surface on the practice pitching green was literally covered in weeds, and there was grass growing in several fairway bunkers.  You got the feeling that a general level of malaise had set in regarding pride of ownership.  Interestingly enough, this was not evident when we played Tigers Eye later in the afternoon (another Big Cat course) which was in beautiful condition and is under the same management.  Leopard’s Chase was still quite playable and we had a good time, but were surprised at the shape.

Our group on the range at Leopard’s Chase

A few playing notes:  There is a lot of sand.  You will hit into greenside and fairway bunkers so bring you’re A-bunker game.  Also the back nine is more challenging than the front and features the par-5 11th, which requires three precision shots to get home, and the scenic par-4 18th ,with the lovely approach over the stone configuration and waterfall.  I enjoyed one of my better ball striking days on our trip, but was continually frustrated at my inability to get short birdie putts to the hole because of the shaggy putting surfaces.  Others in our group felt the same.

Checking yardage on the par-3, 6th at Leopard’s Chase

Value (2.0 out of 5.0)

Morning greens fees for the summer run at $83.00 which seems high for the current conditions.  Range balls are included in the greens fee and you are given a very small bag of about 20 balls to warm up with.  I do recall a much higher greens fee back in 2009 and a very steep replay rate of about $80.  Clearly, rates have come down, but with our prior replay rate experience, we played the afternoon at Tigers Eye for $45 and were happy we did.

Facilities (2.5 out of 5.0)

The pro-shop is little more than a double wide trailer with a decent retail area with some clothes and limited equipment for sale.  There was a very small snack bar and a restroom but nothing else.  The practice putting green was modest sized and the all-grass driving range while limited to about 15 hitting stations was in pretty good shape.  I already mentioned the dreadful shape of the pitching green.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

The pro-shop staff were courteous and helpful getting our replay time set up over at Tigers Eye when we checked in.  The bag drop was staffed by one gentleman who was a bit slow unloading us (we essentially did it ourselves) and the course was basically empty when we got there.  We warmed up and teed off when we were ready.  It struck me as a bit unusual that the place was so empty on a Wednesday morning, as all other courses we played mid-week had plenty of players.  Perhaps word got out regarding the conditions.  For visitors planning on playing at Ocean Ridge Plantation, spend your money at Tiger’s Eye and bypass this one until the conditions improve.  For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,645 yards and shot a four-over par 76.

Overall Rating (2.5 out of 5.0)

Tee shot on the par-3, 4th at Leopard’s Chase

Grand Dunes Resort Course – Course Review

Summary

View from the clubhouse at Grand Dunes Resort Course

Grand Dunes Resort Course, located off Rt. 17 in Myrtle Beach, SC is one of the finest golf courses you can play on the Grand Strand.  Our travel group played here on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 and found the golf course in excellent condition and the service and amenities top notch.  Right from your arrival at the bag drop you are treated with country club level service that sets the tone for a great day of golf.  Grand Dunes boasts some of the best playing conditions from tee to green, as well as on all their practice facilities.  It was hard to find a blade of grass out of place and it was a treat to play on such pristine surfaces.  Depending on the set of tees you play, the layout can be very tough with a premium being placed on solid ball striking.  Hit it close, or you’re going to three-putt a lot of these very large and contoured greens.  Also, bring plenty of balls, as water comes into play on several holes.  The course boasts a string of holes (8-10) that run along the scenic Intracoastal Waterway that can play brutally tough if the wind is blowing.  The downhill par-3, 14th is the course’s most scenic hole and requires a precise tee shot to keep it out of the Intracoastal on the right.

Par 3, #14 at Grand Dunes Resort Course

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

This is a premium course and the prices reflect the conditions and superb level of service.  Green fees can run well over $100 and while our first round was built into the price of our package, we replayed for a fairly expensive $55 rate.  You get what you pay for at this course and it’s worth the extra money to get the conditioning and level of service we received.

Facilities (4.5 out of 5.0)

Course conditions were excellent with the greens running smooth and medium-fast.  Grand Dunes has a 15-station grass driving range that was in excellent condition and balls were included in the greens fee.  The range was conveniently located next to the first tee.  Three practice greens (one for putting and two for short game) were also nearby.  Get to the course early to take advantage of these excellent practice facilities.

The clubhouse boasted a fully stocked pro-shop and a nice snack bar and full service grill.  The food was good and the service prompt.

Customer Experience (4.5 out of 5.0)

The pro-shop, starters, cart attendants and beverage service staff were all very professional and attentive to our every need.  Carts are fully equipped with GPS, coolers with ice, and as many free bottles of water as you want.  We were especially pleased that the afternoon professional on duty allowed us to replay as a fivesome.  His only contingency was for us not to hold anyone up, and we didn’t.  It makes a big difference when you can play with your friends and not have to split up into groups of two and three players.  We had an awesome day at Grand Dunes and I highly recommend this play to visitors in Myrtle Beach.  For the record, I played twice and shot 83 both times which was 11-over par.  We played from the blue tees which measured 6,737 yards.

Overall Rating (4.0 out of 5.0)

On the green at #14

Rattlewood – Course Review

Tee shot on the par-4 6th at Rattlewood

Summary

Rattlewood Golf Club in Mt. Airy, MD is on the border of Frederick and Montgomery Counties and is one of nine courses managed by Montgomery County Golf.  While not extraordinarily long at 6,501 yards from the championship tees, the course is challenging in certain spots and provides ample opportunities to score in others.  Located in a fairly rural setting, the terrain is rolling but without any significant changes in elevation.  I would not advise on walking because of the considerable distance from green to tee box on several holes.  Every time I have played here I ride and and enjoy the course routing which takes you through a secluded front nine and some nice homes on the back that border but do not intrude.

We played on May 27th and found the course in excellent condition from tee to green, with no bare spots in the rough and the putting surfaces rolling fast and pure.  A little local knowledge goes a long way and can help you avoid some serious pitfalls on what you’d think was a fairly benign track.

Playing notes:

  • #1 is a medium short uphill par-4 and a good drive will leave you with less than 150 yards in.  If the flag is cut in front, you must stay below the hole because putting from behind and downhill is a carnival.  It’s better to miss the green short than to have a 30 footer from behind.  When the hole is cut middle-back, go for it.
  • The approach on the par-4 second hole plays two clubs shorter than the yardage because of the amount of rollout.  If you have a short iron in, you better be able to spin the ball or you will go over.
  • #3 is an uphill par-5.  You cannot see the green on the second shot but you must avoid the fairway bunker protecting the right side.  Hit it and you’re looking at a 100-yard bunker shot so take the left side where you’ve got ample room to miss.
  • The par-4 fifth hole is a shortie but the tee shots bounce hard left.  Aim your driver or 3WD down the right side fairway/rough line to put yourself in the best position.  Over the green here is usually a lost ball so take care with your approach.
  • The par-4 sixth (pictured above) is another shortie.  You want to leave yourself enough room to spin a full wedge from the fairway, especially if the flag is in front because the green is shallow and only holds approaches that are well struck.  I like to lay up with a 3WD, which usually leaves a full sand wedge.
  • On the par-5 10th, if you hit a good drive, you’ll be tempted to go for the green in two.  Don’t.  The myriad of greenside bunkers can leave you with a very tough play so lay back into the fairway for an easy third.
  • The par-3 12th is a long tough hole.  The green rolls slopes from right to left making it even more difficult to get it close.  Missing short in the approach is preferred to right or left and I often take less club than I need if I’m not comfortable hitting a 3WD or 5WD from the tee.  Don’t get greedy here.
  • Hit your driver as hard as you can on the par-4 14th.  It plays short but the green is small and approaching with the shortest iron possible gives you the best chance to score.
  • #15 is a great risk/reward drivable par-4.  At 265 yards from the white tees, if the flag is in front and you’re feeling good, go for it because even a leave in one of the front bunkers is a nice play.  If the flag is in back, avoid the front bunkers and lay back in the fairway.

    Risk – reward tee shot on #15
  • #18 is a hard dogleg left that tempts you with a tee shot that can get pretty close to the green if you fly it over the pine trees guarding the parking lot on the left.  Mishit your shot and you are out of bounds.  I prefer to take a 3WD for position, which usually leaves me under 100 yards for an easy approach.

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

We played on the after 12 noon weekend rate of $38 which is an excellent value considering your cart is included and the quality of the golf is good.  The greens fee + cart rate before noon is $59, which is still reasonable.  A small basket of range balls runs you $4 and a yardage guide is available in the pro shop for free, which is a nice touch.

Facilities (3.0 out of 5.0)

The facilities are a mixed bag.  The 18,000 square foot clubhouse is nice and provides ample room in the grill to relax and have some post round food and drink and take in a game on their big screen TV.  The pro-shop is of adequate size and is nicely stocked.  The practice putting green is large, has a variety of sloped/flat putts, and is located conveniently between the clubhouse and first tee.

Unfortunately, the driving range leaves much to be desired.  When it was created, the supporting concrete surface was not leveled leaving a ball above your feet shot (for righthanders) at each of the hitting stations.  Mats are the only surface provided.  A small pitching green is located in an odd bowl like depression between the range and clubhouse and the configuration doesn’t leave you with many flat lies to practice from.  The practice area is good enough to get loose but should be avoided by those serious about working on their games.

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

Booking tee times through Montgomery County Golf’s website is easy and there were ample tee times available one week in advance.    We arrived at the course at 11:15 a.m. for a 12:36 p.m. tee time and the starter offered to get us out ahead of three consecutive foresomes if we were willing to start at 12:00 noon.  We happily accepted his offer and were appreciative of the attention because our round was completed in under four hours and we didn’t wait on any shots and the group behind us never pushed us.

For the record, I played the white tees at 6,104 yards and shot a 5-over 77.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

Little Bennett – Course Review

Par-5, #1 at Little Bennett

Summary

Little Bennett Golf Course in Clarksburg, Maryland, is the northern most of the nine Montgomery County Golf operated facilities.  Located on the border of Montgomery and Frederick Counties, the course combines the look and feel of a country club with an upscale daily fee cost structure.  The par-72 layout at 6,770 yards from the blue tees is very hilly and extremely challenging.  The course is usually in excellent shape, and was for my round on April 21, but conditions have waned a bit in mid-late summer when some of the greens become stressed by heat and lack of air circulation.  Little Bennett features some of the most difficult greens to putt because of significant sloping and lightening quick pace.  Significant local knowledge is required to score and I’d advise players equipped with a GPS unit to bring it.  I’ve been playing Little Bennett since it opened in 1994 and still struggle with a lack of familiarity with the course’s nuances.

First time players might observe a carnival golf feeling, especially on some of the near-impossible par-3 holes that seemingly drop out of the sky and make a mockery out of club selection.  With that in mind, the course plays significantly easier from the white tees and for some reason, I insist on humbling myself from the back in order to remind myself of that.  Play from the tips and you better be striking it superbly or you’re in for a long day.  They used to play the local Kemper Open / Booze Allen Classic Monday qualifier out here, and while the tour pros are capable of going low, you will not.  So, be patient and enjoy the thrills because even some very well struck shots can turn out badly and the course can get inside your head.

Playing tips.  Here’s what you’ll need to score well:

  • Like most county courses this spring, Little Bennett is playing hard and fast.  Take less club into your approach shots.  Often a play to the front of a green will bounce and roll all the way to a back pin position.  Flag hunting is not advised.
  • Warm up your driver because right out of the box, #1 is a tough uphill par-5 (pictured above) and you’ll need to clear a ravine and ascend a steep hill on the tee shot.
  • The carnival begins on #3 which is a downhill par-3 and starts the guessing game on club selection.  Err on the short side as a shot over the green trickles down a hill and into some woods.  Take 2-3 less clubs from the yardage.
  • The tee shot on the par-4 fourth hole bounces severely from right to left.  A left to right shot into the right side of the fairway has a chance to hold it.
  • The approach on the par-5 fifth is critical because the green slopes from front to back and left to right.  This is a little unfair since holding even a wedge shot is difficult so adjust for both.  Your best chance is to leave enough distance on your approach to allow for maximum spin and bite.
  • The par-3 sixth is a long carry and is brutally tough.  Unfortunately there is no good bailout spot.  Hit the green and the putt is still a tough one because of the severe back to front slope.
  • Depending on where they have the tees on the par-4 ninth, which doglegs hard right, and then plays downhill and over a ravine, you need to get a good yardage to the bunker guarding the fairway and add 30 yards for a center placed tee shot.  Here’s where a laser range finder comes in handy but a general rule of thumb is a 200 yard shot from the  regular men’s tees is fine.
  • #10 is a short par-4 with water hidden behind the fairway bunker on the left.  Play to the right side of the fairway for more run-out distance and a better look at the hole.
  • On the par-4 twelfth, aim your tee shot at Sugar Loaf mountain (you can’t miss it) and take a three-wood for placement.  The shot rolls a long way and the premium is on accuracy, not length.  Bounce your approach in front of the green and it will roll on a good ways.
  • #13 is a short par four and plays to a split fairway.  Generally a 180 to 200 yard shot to either half is fine but don’t go long because a ravine waits as the fairway runs out shortly past the 100-yard marker.  This tiny green is the least accessible on the course because of its size, the severe slope from back to front, and the hill behind.  You must play from below the hole.  Even the front bunker is a better play than over the green.
  • On the par-5 fourteenth, the third shot is to a green with a ridge bisecting it left to right.  Get your ball on the same tier with the hole because judging distance on a lag putt rolling over the ridge is difficult.
  • #15 is a short par-3 that descends a very steep hill and plays about two clubs shorter than the yardage.  If the pin is cut right in front, putting from behind is difficult.  Otherwise, taking the middle of the green is a fine play.
  • A good tee shot on #18 leaves you anywhere from 150-200 yards into this par-4.  The tee shot plays short so don’t hit driver, as you may run through the fairway and into trouble, so generally a long iron or hybrid is a good play.  The approach is tough and plays downhill and over a ravine with club selection important and good contact essential.  Shots just short and to the right should play okay but there’s not a lot of room to miss.
Downhill approach to #18 at Little Bennett


Value (3.0 out of 5.0)

A carts only rule is not enforced but you must ride because the course is so hilly.  Cart fees are baked into all the greens fees and we played on the after 2:00 p.m. rate of $40 which is a great value.  Early morning weekend rates are $65, which are reasonable.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

Little Bennett has a wonderful large clubhouse with a fully stocked pro shop and grill.  A nice wrap-around porch allows excellent views of the whole course and is a great place to wrap up your round with some food and drink.  The practice facility includes an all grass driving range and three practice greens, one of which is dedicated to pitching and bunker play.  Green markers are used on the practice greens and I’d prefer to putt at real cups, but otherwise you have ample room and a variety of opportunity to work on all aspects of your game.  The main driving range and short game area are a significant cart ride from the pro shop and have their own parking lot so be advised to utilize if you’re out there just to practice.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time is easy through the MCG website and there are ample openings after 2:00 p.m. to take advantage of the value rate.  Once you arrive, you are basically on your own to unload at the bag drop and load clubs on carts, so assuming you can manage this, you’ll be fine.  To get a higher rating, the course should assist here.  The pro shop staff and starter were both prompt and courteous, and we were visited three or four times on the course by the beverage cart which was nice.  Frequent coolers of fresh drinking water are available on the course which we found to our advantage.

Little Bennett is challenging and quirky.  You need to drive, putt, chip, and think well all the way around.  If you are patient and don’t get frustrated by some bad breaks, you’ll enjoy yourself out here.  For the record, I played from the blue tees at 6,770 yards and carded an 88.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

Northwest – Course Review

476 yard par-4 #10 at Northwest

Summary:

Northwest, in Silver Spring, Maryland is operated by Montgomery County Golf and has been a favorite of county golfers for many years.  Previously known as Northwest Park, conventional wisdom holds that if you’re breaking out a new driver, or want to play a round where you feel like bombing your tee ball, this is your destination.  The course was originally designed in the early 1960s with the thought of hosting a U.S. Open and at 7,376 yards from the tips, the length would qualify but the layout is fairly wide open and would present a minimal challenge for touring professionals.  Challenges for the amateur ranks are abundant with ample length being the main defense (6,827 yards – men’s tees) and huge greens that allow for very difficult pin placements.  The facility also has a par-34  “Inside Nine” that I’ve played on several occasions, which provides more challenges than your typical executive track.

I played the course on Friday, April 13 and found conditions very good, with fairways and greens hard and rolling out due to lack of moisture.  Nothing was burned out as the hot weather had not yet hit DC.  The putting surfaces had been aerated over a month ago and were fully recovered and rolling fast.

Most greens are sloped from back to front and are very large.  Long downhill lag putts are commonplace and are very difficult to two-putt, but you can attack coming from the low side.  If approach shots are not carried to the putting surface, they will most likely roll all the way over these greens, making this a tough track to play bump and run golf, but you can hold a well struck iron shot.

Playing tips:

Over the years, I’ve developed a game plan for playing Northwest that consisted of laying up to 100 yards on the long par fives and attacking with my wedges.  This works well and avoidance of most greenside bunkers is advised because the size of the greens will leave you with long tough shots from the sand.  Here is the local knowledge you’ll need to score:

  • After a routine first hole, Northwest hits you with four straight tough ones that established single-digit handicappers frequently play in several strokes over par, so be patient, play conservatively, and don’t get discouraged if you get off to a rough start; you will have opportunities to score.
  • #2 is a 446 yard par-4 from the men’s tees and plays long.  The front right greenside bunker is a popular landing place and should be avoided.  Short left or wide left is a fairly easy place to chip or pitch from.
  • #3 is a sharp dogleg right and is probably the toughest tee shot on the course because you need to strike your tee shot left to right to hold it in a fairway that bounces right to left.  Long hitters can knock it through the fairway into some penal rough and the second shot is uphill and must be played below the hole.  Putting or chipping from pin high or above the pin is hazardous.
  • On the par-3 fourth hole, take the fat part of the green wherever they have the flag.  Do not mess with the front left bunker and do not be tempted to go long if the flag is in the back.  A routine par here is great.
  • #5 can play tough if they place the pin directly behind the unique front-middle greenside bunker.  In that case, a miss short right, just left of the cart path is fine.   Long is dead because of the severely sloping green and in the front bunker is a poor play because you can only see the top of the flagstick.  Bogey is not a bad score here.
  • # 8 is a par-5 dogleg right 90-degrees.  Go for the long tee shot by cutting the corner next to the last tree on the right and you’ll be in fine shape to go for the green in two.  Avoid the front right greenside bunker as it’s an awkward stance and particularly tough play to a back flag.
  • The par-4 ninth looks docile from the fairway but if the flag is back, take the middle of the green and putt uphill to give yourself a chance.  You should attack a front pin though as the slope is not as severe.
  • #10 is a long par-4 but plays shorter than the yardage on the approach.  You can get a lot of roll on a  low running iron shot that lands 40 even 50 yards out in the fairway.  This is one of the few holes to try a bump and run approach.
  • #13 is a dogleg left par-4 where the fairway runs out quick on the right and is protected by a hidden water hazard, and there are woods on the left.  Take an iron off the tee or draw a fairway wood if you’re comfortable with that shot but do not hit driver here; there’s nothing to gain and everything to lose.
  • #15 is a straight forward par-3 playing 186 yards from the men’s tees.  The tee shot usually plays 1/2 club shorter than the yardage and I’m not sure why.  I’ve also had more success playing from the front of the green than attacking pin positions wherever they put them.  When the pin is deep, short-siding yourself from over the green or putting from pin high is difficult as the green slopes severely from back to front.

    Par 3, #15 at Northwest
  • #18 is a short but tricky dogleg right par-4 with a large sycamore tree guarding the right side of the fairway.  The key here is to find the fairway with any club you can hit 200-220 yards, but I’d caution against hitting driver unless you’re sure you can shape one left to right.

Value:  (3.0 out of 5.0)

I played on Friday afternoon and walked for $39, which I felt was a very good value.  Weekend morning greens fees are $56 which are a little on the high end for municipal golf, but demand is high for starting times and when the course is in good condition, the cost is justified.  During the summer, the course gets heavy play and weekend rounds can slow down in the 5+ hour range as players struggle a bit with the length.  Still, if you’ve got the patience, your golfing dollars are well spent here.

Facilities: (3.5 out of 5.0)

Northwest has a recently renovated clubhouse with a good sized pro shop and fully stocked grill.  A large 40+ station driving range is available with about half the tees covered, lighted and heated, which allows for all-season practice.  All hitting stations are mats only.  Finally, there is a good sized fairly flat practice putting green adjacent to the first tee, but there is no separate chipping/pitching area.  They do allow you to chip on the practice green.  If they were to construct a separate practice green, this facility ranking would move to the upper echelons but is more than adequate.

Customer Experience: (3.5 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time is easy for any course managed by Montgomery County Golf by using their website.    On the day I played, the starter proactively found me on the putting green and offered to get me out with an earlier group, which I much appreciated.  If you want to get in a quick nine during busy periods, your best bet is to play the Inside Nine, as demand for the regular course is high and walk-on play without a reservation is difficult.

So muscle up your driver, practice your lag putting and enjoy your day at Northwest!

For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,827 yards and shot a six-over par 78.

Overall Rating: (3.5 out of 5.0)