Category Archives: Washington DC area

Hampshire Greens – Course Review

Summary

We played Hampshire Greens, in Silver Spring, MD, on Monday, October 8, 2018.  Of the nine courses in the Montgomery County Golf (MCG) rotation, this Lisa Maki design is considered the high-end play.  They boast a country club level atmosphere and service level at a daily fee price point.  While it’s been open since 1999, this was my first time on the course.  I’ll usually play between 15-20 rounds per year on the MCG courses, but have not included Hampshire Greens as there are lower cost options that provide an equal level golf experience.

There are four sets of tees on this par-72 track and I found it a very enjoyable play.  We played one up at the blues and I felt that this was a course I could score on.  They put all the length into the par-5s and don’t kill you on distance or forced carries on the 3s and 4s.  If the strength of your game is driving, you’re going to love the looks they give you with neatly framed fairways, superb conditioning, and fairly generous landing areas.  Hit your drive solid and in the fairway, and you’re usually left with a medium to short iron in.  The course’s main defense is well bunkered raised greens with a decent amount of slope and quickness to them.  I found you needed an extra club hitting into these raised greens.  Also, the reputation is for lightning quick speed on the putts but we found them medium fast.  Perhaps it was because of our early afternoon tee time, but either way, the bentgrass surfaces were in excellent condition and rolling smooth.

Playing notes:

  • They had positioned some pins in difficult spots either right in front or on the sides of some greens.  I left thinking it was best to just play for the middle of these greens rather than go flag hunting and missing into some tough up-and-down spots, which I did.
  • Pay attention to the aiming sticks they have in some of the fairways, especially on the second shot for the par-fives.  Each of the fives has a similar design where the landing areas are squeezed down to very narrow corridors the closer you get to the greens.  We thought this was a bit awkward and felt like the par-5 2nd hole was a little unfair.  I lost my ball into the hazard left on a well struck medium iron layup.  You must hit it right of the aiming stick there to keep it in play.

    Marie on the 2nd tee

 

  • With these narrow corridors on the fives, for long hitters, it felt like you needed to approach with supreme accuracy, else you were taking an unnecessary risk going for the green in two.  This was my only bone to pick with the layout.

    Look down #2 fairway. Par-5, 563 yards
  • From the blue tees, none of the par-4s were short enough to try and drive close to the green, but you need to pay attention on where to land your ball.  #10 is a downhill tee shot and an uphill approach.  The hole is only 362 yards but everything bounces hard left to right in the fairway.  You must keep your tee shot out of the fairway bunker left, which is about 220 yards from the tee, or you could be looking at a big number.

    #4. Par-3, 182 yards

Facilities (3.25 out of 5.0)

This course is designed for cart play.  You cannot walk.  Actually, you may be permitted to walk but your greens fee includes a cart and for good reason.  Some of the distances between greens and tees are huge.  I like to walk but couldn’t imagine playing this one on foot.

Patio at Hampshire Greens

The course has a smallish clubhouse and grill with a patio that overlooks the fairway of the 9th hole.  The 9th finishes up going away from the clubhouse, which I found a little strange, and if you need to stop, you have to backtrack for half a hole.  We didn’t and just continued on to the inward half.

The driving range

They have a grass driving range but the grass tee was closed on this day and we were hitting from one of 13 driving mats.  Balls are $5 for a bucket of about 40-50 and are purchased in the pro-shop.

Staging area and putting green

There is a single practice green next to the clubhouse and while you are permitted to chip, it feels a little squeezed to make this an actual short game practice area, especially when golfers are warming up their pre-round putting.  I came out the day before just to practice and didn’t feel right hitting chips and pitches in, and just putted.  If you want to seriously work short game, I’d seek another venue.

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

We played on a Monday after 12 noon rate of $39.99.  At this price, the value is superb because of the quality of the course.  Pre-noon, the cost is $49.99 which is still good.  The normal weekend morning rate is $74.99 and after noon it falls to $59.99 which brings a lot of the other area courses into play if you are budget conscious.

The quality of the golf course is the main allure.  An equivalent area play for layout and conditions would be Blue Mash.  I’ve picked up a 30 round membership there which works out to $47/round for afternoon weekend play and that appears to be a better value.

Lining up a tee shot on #15

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

Monday was Columbus Day, a federal holiday.  The course was busy and the bag drop guy doubled as the starter.  While friendly and helpful enough when it came time to get us paired up and out on time, when I arrived he did not unload my bag.  This was of no inconvenience to me.  However, if they boast a country club experience, folks may expect more than one person working the bag drop on a busy holiday or weekend, and some assistance with their clubs.

The fellow manning the golf shop processed my check in with a “business as usual” attitude and while he wasn’t rude, didn’t go out of his way with a warm or friendly greeting.  The guy at the snack bar provided snappy service and the hotdog with sauerkraut graded out pretty good on the taste test.

There was ample cold drinking water on the course and we were serviced several times by the beverage cart which was appreciated.

Par 4 18th. 418 yards.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)

On this day, we played from the blue tees at 6,512 yards (71.6/129) and I carded a five-over par 77.  I enjoyed my round at Hampshire Greens and wouldn’t hesitate to return, but would only play on the weekday rate.  If you are a walker or are serious about practicing your short game, you may want to try out another close-by venue like Blue Mash or Northwest.

The Links at Gettysburg – Course Review

Summary

We played The Links at Gettysburg on Sunday, August 26, 2018.  The course is a one hour drive from Montgomery County, MD, and a couple of miles east of the famous Pennsylvania battlefield.  There are six sets of tees that make this a fun and playable experience for golfers of all abilities.  We challenged ourselves from the whites which play at 6,277 yards with a rating/slope of 70.5/136.

This course is known for its beautiful scenery and excellent conditioning and did not disappoint. The architect did a great job fashioning several holes out of the local red rock and presenting them as mini-cathedrals surrounding the greens.  They use a lot of hard red sand in their bunkers, which looks a bit unusual but is fine to play from.  As the course is located in the rolling countryside, there are many elevation changes but none too severe, and we didn’t find any holes that were tricked up or unfair.  The course is also bordered by some very large and beautiful homes, but you don’t feel as if they are on top of you.

Downhill par-3 third hole.

From the whites, most of the par-4s are under 400 yards and if you are hitting your driver well, you can score.  Greens are bent-grass and were rolling medium fast and very true.  There is significant mounding and sloping on the putting surfaces that make chipping and putting from above the hole ill-advised.  The rough was cut at medium height and didn’t kill your chances to recover from a stray shot.

Property overlooking #7 fairway

Jim from the fairway on #7

On the 9th tee

From a ball striking perspective the front nine plays fairly easy with the reachable par-5 4th hole offering a great scoring opportunity at 457 yards.  The back is more difficult.  On this day, I was fortunate enough to hit #4 with a six-iron and drain my eagle putt.  After going out in 1-under 35, I managed a birdie on the par-4 10th hole and followed with a couple of pars.  Just when I thought I was rolling, I ran into the buzz saw at 13, 14, and 15.  These three straight holes bring water into play all down the left side – on every shot.  If you fight a hook, you are in trouble.  My big miss is a pull hook and I had not seen one all day.  But with all that water left, and a strong wind blowing in my face, #13 got in my head and I pushed a drive into trouble and carded a triple.  The par-5 14th was playing 531 yards into the same wind and I left a couple more shots right but managed to salvage par.  The par-3 15th finally gobbled up one of my big misses into its leftward watery grave and left me with a deflating double on the card.

Jim on the bridge at the par-3 12th

With no water left on the remaining three holes, I managed to right the ship and finish strong with a par-birdie-par run for a 2-over 74.

Playing notes:

  • #1 tee shot.  We got a lot of conflicting advise on what to hit at this blind downhill short par 4.  From the white tees, you need about 210 yards on your shot.  Don’t take more else you will go through the fairway into trouble.  I didn’t take enough club and left myself with a longer approach into this green that is protected in front by a steep stone wall.
  • #4 tee shot on the short 457 yard par 5.  Hit it over the pine tree on the left, closest to the fairway.  My tee shot was aimed at the middle of the fairway and I pulled it a bit only to see it roll to the extreme right side of the fairway.  Everything bounces and rolls right.
  • #8 tee shot is a precision placement play.  The hole has trouble short and an elongated fairway bunker long that abuts a rock cliff.  Hit it 180 yards from the white tees and you’ll have something between 80 and 110 yards in from the middle of the fairway.
  • #11 tee is a 345 yard gentle dogleg right.  The wind was blowing left to right and I took 3wd which was a good play.  Looks like driver may be too much here.
  • #13-15, as previously mentioned, try to block out the water left 🙂
  • #18 is another short par-5 but has water in front challenging you to go for it.  On the tee shot, aim slightly to the right of the pump house.  There is ample room past the water to land your shot but it’s mostly rough.  If you can fade one in, you can follow the contour of the fairway, which you cannot see well on your second shot.  If you don’t have a good yardage, layup left for an easy wedge shot third.

18 green seen from the clubhouse

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

The regular weekend rate to play is $79 before 11 a.m.  We played between 11:00 and 2:00 p.m. when the rate drops to $59.  They offer a senior discount of $44 which we played on.  This includes your cart but range balls $5.00 are extra.  At the regular rates, the quality of this course justifies the price.  At the senior rate, the value is outstanding.

Facilities (3.5 out of 5.0)

There is a 16 station driving range with mats and grass tees.  Next to the range is a small practice area for chipping and bunker work.  Back by the clubhouse are two medium small putting greens.  The surfaces are beautiful, but if the course gets busy, crowding might be a small issue.  Behind the clubhouse and pro shop, and overlooking the 18th green, there is a grill where the attendant fixes your burgers and drinks.  There was some music going softly and a bit of a festive atmosphere when we finished our round.  Seemed like a great 19th hole spot.

Practice putting green

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

There was one club attendant at the bag drop and he took our bags and loaded us promptly upon our arrival.  The pro shop staff was very professional and got us checked in quickly and our starter and on course marshal were friendly and helpful, although we could have used some better advice on the first tee on how to play the hole.  They tell you to hit it 160-190 yards, but take 210, as I have indicated above.  There was ample cold drinking water on the course and the beverage cart hit us up two or three times during the round.  We played as a twosome and while going off at 11:12 a.m. didn’t have to wait on any shots, nor did we get pushed by anyone from behind.  It was a truly relaxing and delightful day on the course.

Overall Rating (3.75 out of 5.0)

The Links at Gettysburg provided excellent conditioning, value, and a fun day.  The one-hour drive from the Washington D.C. area is well worth the trip.  I will be back.

 

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)

Needwood – Course Review

#18 green at Needwood

Summary:

Needwood, located in Derwood, Maryland is a municipal course run by Montgomery County Golf and is my home course.  I’ve been playing here for over 30 years and have seen many changes, most for the better.  The course is popular and traffic can get pretty high in season, but despite the heavy play, the superintendent keeps the course in good shape year round and has the greens rolling fairly fast and smooth in the hotter months.

Needwood plays to a par of 70 and at just over 6,200 yards from the tips is not much of a challenge for long hitters.  Right-handers who play a fade can score well since there are five holes that dog leg to the right and only two to the left.  The par-36 front is a collection of straight forward holes but the par-34 back is a wonderful mix of long and short holes, forced carries over water, and significant elevation changes.  The course features an excellent slate of closing holes with the 400 yard par-4 sixteenth and eighteenth holes posing the toughest challenges.

Recent improvements include rebuilding most of the green side bunkers to improve drainage and adding new sand.  I hit several bunker shots and the quality of sand was good.  In the last year the course removed several greenside bunkers which has improved the pace of play but may warrent a review of the course rating and slope, as it plays considerably easier without these hazards.

My regular weekend group played it on Sunday, March 25 and we found the course wet after overnight rains, but not sloppy.  Greens had very small tine punches that looked about a week old and were not part of their general aeration which was planned for April 23/24.  The greens were rolling medium fast and a bit bumpy being that it was early spring.

Playing tips:

After 30 years and hundreds of rounds, I know every nook and cranny of this layout but will cover the main points that a first timer would find helpful.  Here we go:

  • #2 is a 400-yard par-4 dogleg right.  The tee box is misaligned straight into the right rough and you must take extra care to line up your tee shot with the fairway.
  • #5 is a short straight par-5 with two big bunkers guarding the front left and right.  Big hitters are tempted to go for it in two but the front bunkers are hard to get up and down from so if you are doubting your ability, lay up.
  • On the par-4 sixth, when the pin is back left on this two-tier green, only suckers go for it.
  • On the par-3 seventh,  it’s okay to miss the green front right.  Long and left or wide right is a very tough up and down.
  • On the par-4 eleventh, if the flag is back, take the middle of the green.  If you are pin high right or left, the break is severe and two putting is difficult.  Front and middle pins are very accessible.
  • The par-3 twelfth is the toughest par-3 because of the length (195 yards) and the ball sucking woods on the left.  A shot in the trees is an automatic double bogey.  Hit the green or put your shot on the right side where they’ve removed a green-side bunker and the play is easier.
  • The tee shot of the par-5 thirteenth hole is elevated and dog-legs to the right.  In cool wet weather, I hit driver but when the course plays fast, I take a three wood for position.  During the summer, tall rough creeps up fast on the left and can snag just a slightly hooked drive.  You must keep it out of the woods on the right off the tee and the second shot or you might be looking at a big number.  There is no advantage to hitting a fairway wood on your second shot because you cannot get home in two and the risk of rolling into the woods on the right is too great.  I always hit 3 or 4-iron into position for an easy short iron approach.
  • #14 is another elevated tee shot to a very short but tricky par-4 dogleg right.  Cut the corner with a big drive and you’ll have a sand wedge in for a short uphill approach and a great birdie opportunity, but pull or hook your tee shot and you may lose it in the creek on the left.  A conservative play with a hybrid or 3-iron still only leaves about 130 yards in and is the safe option.  If the pin is up front you want to be pin high or just short of the green for an easy chip.  Middle of the green or back is almost an automatic three-putt as the front slope is very severe and difficult to negotiate.  Back or middle flag locations putt much easier.  When you play #2, glance to your left from the fairway and note the pin position on #14 as it’s harder to see while playing #14 because of the uphill approach.
  • The par-4 sixteenth is the toughest tee shot on the course and you must favor the right side of the fairway as the hole dog legs to the left and then drops down a hill with a pond guarding the right side approach.  Even if your tee shot finds the left side of the fairway, you may be blocked from the green by a tall tree guarding the corner and will have to hook one to get home.  There is room to miss left around the green but do not miss short or long right, as a deep bunker or tough side hill lie awaits.
  • On the par-3 seventeenth, over the green is dead.  Always play for the front or middle, as shots landing on the back will often roll over and down into the junk.
  • Finally, crank your tee shot on #18 and get as much distance as you can because the second shot is a forced carry over water and can play long.  #18 green is right next to the first tee and is sloped back to front with a tricky ridge in the middle (see photo above.)  Check the pin placement on #18 before you tee off #1 and if it’s in the middle or front middle, make a note to try and approach from below the hole as putts from the back roll a long way once they catch the slope.

Value:  (3.0 out of 5.0)

Greens fees are $47 on the weekend and range balls are $5 per bucket.  For a municipal course that’s usually in reasonably good condition, I’ve found Needwood as a good value and play it 5-10 times per year.

Facilities: (3.0 out of 5.0)

Needwood has a bare-bones pro shop that sells a few clothes, shoes, and accessories.  They used to stock equipment but have scaled back considerably in recent years.  Upstairs from the pro-shop is a fairly large and well stocked grill that overlooks the first tee and 18th green and is a nice place to grab a drink after your round.  A driving range is available with 20-30 stations featuring only mats.  There is a decent size practice putting green but it’s built on a hill in front of the pro shop and it’s difficult to find a flat putt.  A newer practice chipping green was installed in the last 10 years that is very flat and offers a variety of short game shots and conditions.  I’ve made extensive use of this area for practicing all facets of my short game except for sand as there is no bunker.  Needwood has an executive 9 that consists of seven very short par-3 holes and two short par-4s.  The “exec” is popular with beginners and those trying to get in a quick nine holes.  I’ve played it with my son when he was learning the game and it’s appropriate for that purpose but the slow pace of play will irritate more experienced players.

Customer Experience: (3.0 out of 5.0)

Booking a tee time is easy through Montgomery County Golf’s website but you will have to create an account.  Otherwise, call the pro shop at 301-948-1075.  There are usually ample times 1-2 weeks in advance but they fill up fast in good weather.

Mike Kenny was the resident pro and has moved over to Falls Road (another MCG course) and has been replaced by Chris Cissel, PGA.  The operation had been run well by Mike over the last few years and I’m hopeful Chris shows the same attention to detail that Mike had.

For the record, I played the blue tees at 6,254 yards and shot a four-over par 74.

Overall Rating: (3.0 out of 5.0)

Poolesville – Course Review

Par-3, #8 green at Poolesville

Summary

Poolesville is the western most golf course in Montgomery County, Maryland and is one of nine public courses operated by Montgomery County Golf.  This track is nothing more than bare bones basic municipal golf and seems to be the primary course of choice for residents of the town, as the balance of county golfers enjoying the more upscale courses in the center and west of the county.  I usually play here once or twice per season and just for a bit of variety, because the overall experience is lacking.

During my round on March 18, I found the course in decent shape through the green with the putting surfaces mowed fairly close but unable to hold a shot from any distance.  Approaches were bouncing off these greens like super balls on a concrete parking lot.  Even up close, the most crisp of chips and pitches failed to hold or bite, making for a frustrating afternoon.  Tee boxes were in good condition but the grounds crew didn’t clean up before or after mowing and there were a litany of broken tees littering all 18 holes.

Playing tips:

The front nine is rather ho-hum and the holes are very straight forward.  The back has more variety and challenge.  General rule of thumb; play your approach shots below the hole because most greens are fairly sloped from back to front and shortsiding yourself to tight pins is a recipe for high scores.  Some specifics:  #2 is a long par-5 and you should avoid the fairway bunker on the left at about 150 yards out because the carry from it is over two greenside bunkers.  A third shot is much more easily played from the right side of the fairway or even the right rough.  If you are on the back of the green on #2, the break on putts back to the front is very severe from right to left; much more than it looks.  #10 is a medium length par-4.  Tee shots on the left part of the fairway bounce hard left into the rough and shots in the left rough bounce down the hill, so favor the right side.  Also there is a small greenside bunker protecting the front left that you cannot see from back in the fairway.  #11 is a dogleg right par-5 that longer hitters can reach in two.  From the white tees, aim your shot straight over the last tree in the right rough.  If you hit it 230-250 you’ll be in the left side of the fairway looking at about 190 yards in.  If you hit it shorter off the tee, play for the aiming flag in the fairway.  #12 is the toughest hole at Poolesville and is a long dogleg left par-4.  If the flag is in the back DO NOT GO OVER THE GREEN!  The chip or pitch is impossible to get close.  Same thing on #15 which is a shorter par-4.  If the pin is back, over is dead.  The green on #16 is tiny.  If the pin is in the front, play below it or leave it just short, as the chip is quite easy.  Putting from behind a front pin here is very difficult and for back or side pins, just play for the middle of the green.  On the par-3 17th, take 1 1/2 more clubs than you normally would, as the uphill shot is all carry.  Finally, on the par-4 18th, if the pin is back center, all putts from the front/middle will break much more right than they look.

Value (2.5 out of 5.0)

Greens fees are $42 to walk and you don’t need a cart to play here.  All you get for your money is the golf with the low greens fee in-line with the entire golf experience.

Facilities (1.5 out of 5.0)

Poolesville’s original clubhouse and grill are closed, shuttered, still standing, and unsightly.  They’ve been replaced with a very basic structure hosting a small pro-shop and restrooms.

Clubhouse at Poolesville

The shop sells a few shoes, shirts, balls, and snacks, but no equipment and there is no grill or sit-down food service.  The driving range has mats and rubber tees; some of which are broken.  The best part of the facility is a large practice putting green that has several mowed approaches and a bunker with good sand.

Customer Experience (2.0 out of 5.0)

I played as a single and had called the day before for a starting time.  The shop attendant reserved a spot for me with a threesome but when I showed up at the course I was mildly annoyed that they had no record of my reservation.  Indeed, it appeared that the person I spoke with had rushed me through the phone call.  When I explained the situation to the shop attendant, he booked me over the existing single’s name in the same time slot.  He indicated he thought they might have used an alias as the name in the original booking.  Needless to say but I viewed this as very unprofessional.  I presented myself to the starter when I was ready to go and he pared me up with a single on the tee and we had no issues getting off but I sensed the operation was not being professionally run.  One of the criticisms of Montgomery County Golf in the past is that they use general managers at some of their clubs in-lieu of head professionals with PGA certification.  A check of the MCG website staff listing indicates this is the case at Poolesville, so apparently the practice continues.

I would only recommend Poolesville as a stop gap or if you get shut out from tee times at all the other MCG courses.  For the record, I played from the white tees measuring 6,405 yards and carded an 82.

Overall Rating (2.0 out of 5.0)


University of Maryland – Course Review

University of Maryland, par-3 #2, Black Nine

Summary

We played the University of Maryland golf course on Sunday, November 13, 2011.  I used to play the course frequently while in school but had not been back in many years.  The course is a lovely layout and definitely requires significant local knowledge to score.  I found my recall excellent but was reminded that Maryland is difficult to play in the fall as the par-71 track routes extensively through tall deciduous trees, and while the fall colors make for a beautiful site, the accompanying carpet of leaves makes ball identification difficult.

The course had top dressed the greens with a light layer of sand which didn’t affect playability too much, however conditions were a bit scratchy and the greens appeared stressed with significant areas unplayable as ground under repair.  After the course underwent an award-winning $3.5 million renovation in 2008, the Nationwide Tour annually scheduled The Melwood Open at Maryland and we were left to wonder how they get the greens in tour condition, only to let them falter in the fall during good growing season.  We noticed that our ball marks were very easy to repair which may have indicated shallow root growth.  There were also many bare lies in the rough which made clean contact an adventure and often balls sat down in the gnarly second cut.  Fairways and tee boxes were in good shape as were the numerous green-side and fairway bunkers.  The course is adequately marked for yardage but no golf cart GPS  service is available.

University of Maryland, par-5 #9, Gold Nine

Playing tips from the gold tees:  The course is configured with two nines (Gold and Black) with golfers playing the Gold as the front.  Right out of the box you are hit with two meaty par fours, each over 400 yards with water in play on both so there’s no time to ease into your game.  The second shot on #2 plays 1-1/2 clubs longer than the yardage.  Most of the holes are straight forward but we found that even in the fairways, you often had lies slightly above and below your feet which made clean strikes and getting the ball close a challenge.  On the Black Nine par-5 fourth, everything bounces right on the drive and second shot.  You need to honor this and going for the well bunkered green in two is not advised.  The Black’s par-3 fifth is a long shot (211 yards from the gold tees) and you must play for the left side of the green as everything bounces right and down the hill.  The greenside bunker on the right is a very tough up-and-down and should be avoided.  Finally, the tee shot on the par-5 seventh on the Black is all about placement.  Get the ball in play on the top of the hill to position for a long downhill second shot.  It is rumored that Jack Nicklaus once eagled this hole hitting driver-seven iron but unless you can bomb a cut 300 yards, hit a 3 wood for position.

University of Maryland, par-4 #9, Black Nine

Value (3.0 out of 5.0)

We played on the winter weekend rate of $50 to ride.  You can walk for $35.  In season weekend rates are $69 to ride which seems like a good value if conditions are better than what we played on.  Range balls are $4 for a small and $7 for a medium bucket and are not included in the greens fees.  However, if you book your tee time through the web, your group is given one free small bucket of balls.  Memberships are offered as are discounts for students but we played on the regular guest rate.

Facilities (3.5 out of 5.0)

The clubhouse boasts a modest sized pro shop with the basic essentials.  A locker room and grill-pub are available but we did not sample the food.  The practice facilities are nice with a full size driving range with both grass and matted teeing areas.  The grass was closed and I sensed it was primarily utilized for the Melwood Open as well as college tournaments.  Separate modest sized chipping and pitching greens with a practice bunker are available and a large putting green is adjacent to the main clubhouse.  I practiced here for a couple of hours a week before we played and was very satisfied with the offerings.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

I booked a tee time on the web with no difficulty with guests permitted to reserve five days in advance.  The starter and pro-shop staff were pleasant enough and everything seemed to run on-time with a moderately crowded golf course.  There was no beverage cart service which I found a bit odd considering the numbers of players and the agreeable weather.  Carts were not permitted in the parking lot so hauling a heavy bag to your car could be considered a minor inconvenience.  I’d like to try Maryland again in season, perhaps right after they play the Nationwide event, just to see how good this course can play.

For the record, I played the gold tees at 6,369 yards and carded a six-over 77.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)


Blue Mash – Course Review

Summary

Blue Mash golf course in Laytonsville, Maryland is a Joe Hills-Tom Healy design that combines links and parkland styles into a single theme that is both challenging and very fun to play.  The course is home to a fabulous grass driving range and large short game practice facility that begs the seasoned player and beginner alike to come and spend time.

Always in good condition, this upscale daily fee track smacks you right out of the box with three meaty par-4 holes each playing over 420 yards from the men’s tees.  Water and well placed fairway bunkers come into play and frame the approaches on several holes but there’s only one forced carry on the par-3 17th.  A mixture of short and medium length par-4s and 5s keep the route interesting with no two holes alike.  The true toughness of Blue Mash is evident in hot dry conditions when the greens are rolling fast.  I recently played on August 14, 2011 during “Diabolical Pins Week” where the course attempts to mirror some feature of the major tournament being played at the time (2011 PGA.)  The pins were cut on various humps and near the edges and needless to say, I made nothing outside of six feet.  Fortunately, some early rain had slowed the greens to a manageable pace but I left imagining what kind of day I could have had with these pins cut on fast rolling greens.

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

Greens fees for 2011 are $79 for morning weekend starting times.  This includes cart and range balls.  You can get $10 off if you elect to prepay.  A variety of weekday, 10-year, and corporate memberships are available that offer good value to the individual who plays a lot.

Facilities (4.0 out of 5.0)

Blue Mash is where I go when I need to do serious practice.  The driving range is the best I’ve found in Montgomery County and always seems to be in excellent condition.  The practice putting green can handle a large number of players quite comfortably and is always rolling smooth and true.  Nearby is a short game area that provides a variety of shots from all sides.  Several tightly mowed areas are provided as are a variety of tall grass configurations, as well as uphill and downhill lies.  Two bunkers at opposite ends of the green are much lower than the surface of the green and are the only awkward feature, as thinly struck sand shots from either can sometimes endanger players at the opposite end.

A modest sized clubhouse is home to a small pro shop and medium-sized grill area.  A good-sized patio  overlooks the short game area and is a great spot to enjoy some food and drink after a round.  Finally, a small set of lockers are available to the members for a nominal fee.  The allure of Blue Mash facilities are the course and practice area.

Customer Experience (4.0 out of 5.0)

The pro shop staff and starters are friendly and accommodating.  With the driving range, putting green, and short game area closely situated to the clubhouse, the process of warm-up and teeing off was a cinch.  Everything moved orderly and we did a minimal amount of waiting on the course, albeit after teeing off on a less crowded rainy morning.  The course had aerated greens which I thought was a little awkward considering it was still late summer but then found that another local upscale daily fee (Whiskey Creek) had done the same a week later.  Perhaps there’s a reason, but I’m accustomed to a mid-Fall aeration schedule.  Anyway, the greens were a little slow because of the rain and not rolling true from aeration.  The course had drained very well from heavy early morning rains as we rode and played cart-path only.  Tee boxes and fairways were in good shape with the lone exception on the short par-4, 8th fairway which had many unrepaired divots left from numerous short iron approaches.

Overall Rating (4.0 out of 5.0)


Clustered Spires – Course Review

Summary

Clustered Spires is run by the city of Frederick, Maryland and is adjacent to the Frederick municipal airport (about 10 minutes from downtown Frederick).  We played on August 7, 2011 at the height of the summer heat and drought that’s gripped the Washington D.C. area.  Surprisingly, the course was in good shape, with well watered tee boxes, lush fairways, and thick receptive greens.  There’s not much length to the course with the regular men’s tees playing just over 6,200 yards.  Most par-4s are under 400 yards and several par-5s are reachable in two with a good tee shot.  Water comes into play on a few holes but there are no forced carries and ample bail-out areas for sprayers off the tee.

My last three times out at Clustered Spires, I’ve switched to a ball with a lower spin rate (Titleist DT Roll) as I’ve found my regular ball (Pro-V1) provides too much bite on these greens.  Again today, those in our group playing high spin balls were backing up full iron shots 10-20 feet.  Once on the greens, the surfaces rolled smooth and were easy to read, albeit a little slow, as the greens crew was clearly working to preserve them in the heat.

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

Greens fees are quite reasonable with a weekday fee of $40 to ride and $59 for Saturday/Sunday.  The combination of low greens fees and good course conditioning in the summer heat make Clustered Spires a very good value for your golfing dollar.

Facilities (3.0 out of 5.0)

Clustered Spires has a good size clubhouse that encompasses a nice fully stocked pro shop, a walk up grill with a medium size indoor seating area, and a fairly large covered patio overlooking the 9th green and 1st tee.  Separate practice putting and chipping greens are available, but the chipping green lacks an extended closely mowed area for practicing longer pitch shots.  A good size grass driving range is available but was in very poor shape with hardly any grass remaining.  Either the hitting area had not been rotated, the summer heat and lack of water had taken their toll, or both.  As a result, I spent most of my warm up hitting woods and irons off a tee.  Our only complaint with the course was the hard packed crusty condition of the sand.  While consistent from hole to hole, it was too firm and hadn’t appeared to be groomed for quite some time.

Customer Experience (3.5 out of 5.0)

Calling ahead for a reserved tee time was easy and there were ample times available one week in advance.  The staff in the pro shop and snack bar were friendly and helpful.  Our starter seemed organized but tried to be too accommodating and sent a twosome off ahead of us and in our time slot.  These guys had played nine holes on the back and were looking to squeeze in nine more.  As a result, we were frequently waiting on our front nine until the twosome mysteriously quit and rode in after six holes.  The pro shop staff should work to better ensure the integrity of the scheduled starting times.  On the course, the beverage cart came by every five or six holes and there was a good supply of fresh cold drinking water.  Starting in late morning, activity at the adjacent airport picked up with a fairly continuous drone of propeller driven aircraft and sightseeing helicopters.  If you’re looking for quiet secluded golf experience, Clustered Spires is not it, but for a fairly inexpensive municipal golf course with pretty good conditioning at reasonable prices, you can’t go wrong.  I’ll be back.

Overall Rating (3.5 out of 5.0)


Maryland National Golf Club – Course Review

Summary

Maryland National is located in Middletown, MD about 45 minutes from my home in Rockville.  While not overly long at 6,811 yards from the championship tees, this links style course has beautiful mountain vistas and significant changes in elevation on several holes.  The course will test your ball striking ability, especially into some of it’s very small protected greens.  There is ample room off the tee on most holes with the course’s main defense provided by creative green-side mounding and deeply contoured bunkers.  Players enjoy GPS in all golf carts and five sets of tee boxes make the course a fun challenging experience for everyone.

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

The club lists greens fees on the weekend after 10 a.m. at $74 but we were playing on a pre-purchased discount card that allowed you to play on any day/time for $50, which is an excellent value.  Greens fees before 10 a.m. on the weekends are $94 which seem a bit high.

Facilities (3.5 out of 5.0)

The practice area is a medium length cart ride from the clubhouse and consists of a nicely maintained grass driving range, albeit on the small size, with about 15-20 hitting stations.  Balls are included with greens fees.  Adjacent to the range are two very small nicely maintained pitching (bunker included) and putting greens.    I was left with the distinct impression that these practice areas could become very crowded during times of heavy play because of their limited size.  There is a fully stocked pro shop and the on-site restaurant provides either sit down or walk up service.

Customer Experience (4.5 out of 5.0)

On Sunday, May 15, 2011 I found the course to be in excellent condition with all tee boxes and fairways nicely manicured and the greens running medium fast and very true.  The course had received significant rainfall the night before but all bunkers were nicely raked and there was very little standing water as the fairways and rough appeared to have drained nicely.  It was clear the staff takes pride in their course conditioning.  Everyone from the pro shop staff to the beverage cart girl to the staff in the restaurant were very friendly and accommodating.  My only complaint was a malfunctioning GPS.  Once we left the cart path, a message to “Return to the cart path immediately” was displayed and could not be cleared until the cart was back on the path.  When we questioned the clubhouse staff, they indicated the GPS was infected with a computer virus and had been for several days.

Overall rating (4.0 out of 5.0)