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(Astrid Riecken)

Best bargain golf courses

Alex Baldinger and Brandon Weigel  |  Updated 06/14/2012

From the rolling fairways to the altar-like putting surface and the fabric of the fabled wool jacket worn by the Masters champion, the color of golf is green. It's a fitting hue for a sport linked to expensive memberships and a per-player price that can top more than $100 in - here's that word again- greens fees. As the adage goes, it's a costly way to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk. But you don't have to spend private-course money to find a thoroughly challenging round near Washington. Whether you're a bomber who eats up par 5s, a short-game maestro who flaunts his or her flop shot, a newcomer to the game who is just happy to hit the ball on a tee shot (what, nobody else has that problem?) or at any stage in between, these nine public courses are worthy outlets for 18 holes -- and great excuses to ruin a walk on a spectacular summer day -- for under $50.


East Potomac Golf Course

Washington, DC

The three courses at East Potomac Park may not be the best conditioned or the most challenging, but you won't find a golf course anywhere else - in the D.C. area or beyond - that allows you to aim your tee shot at the Washington Monument. With the breeze coming off the Potomac River and stunning views of the monuments, the Tidal Basin, the Naval War College and Fort McNair, East Potomac Golf Course occupies a slice of National Park Service land that is quintessentially Washington. It's convenient, too, mere minutes from downtown. The 18-hole Blue Course is the park's most challenging. The course has wide fairways and bunkers clustered around the greens, making it an ideal layout if you shoot low and straight. Put your ball wide, however, and you'll face a tough recovery because of the mangy rough and the occasional mound of surplus bunker sand. The nine-hole White Course offers golfers a chance to use a wide variety of clubs, from driver to wedge, while the nine-hole Red Course has all par 3s - and that's being generous. The shortest hole is a sand-wedge-worthy 64 yards, making it perfect for those who need to work on their short game. The clubhouse patio is among the most lively in the area, with golfers of all skill levels enjoying post-round (or even pre-round) pitchers of beer.


Goose Creek Golf Club

Leesburg, VA

If you judge Goose Creek Golf Club by the company it keeps - the course is practically a well-hit 3-wood's distance from the Golf Club at Landsdowne Resort and a handful of other Northern Virginia private courses and country clubs - you'll be disappointed. But when it comes to value, it's hard to find a better deal than at this charming 18-hole Leesburg course. What Goose Creek lacks in off-course amenities (there's no driving range for pre-round practice swings) and on-course inventiveness (the back-and-forth layout contains few surprises), it makes up for in aesthetics: The fairways are impeccably kept, and the greens play smooth and fast. The gas-powered carts add to the sense of history at the 60-year-old course; speaking of which, some old-timer by the name of Ben Hogan holds the course record of 59. The layout is wide open, and you're more likely to find your errant tee shots on neighboring fairways than among the trees, which makes for a faster pace of play (and less time in the woods for the habitual slicers among us). "It was very forgiving," said Jordan Andrew, 28, of Washington, after playing the course for the first time. "If I had played like this on another course," he joked, "I probably would have shot 130."


Enterprise Golf Course

Mitchellville, MD

Before playing at Mitchellville's Enterprise Golf Course, make sure to pack your hybrid irons and fairway woods to cope with the trio of 500-plus-yard (and that's not even from the back tees) par 5s. Also pack your patience, because if there's one knock on the Prince George's County municipal course, it's that course congestion and the overall difficulty of the layout can make for rounds occasionally lasting five hours or more. That's not always a bad thing. The leisurely pace makes Enterprise among the more social courses in the area, perfect for those birthday rounds and other occasions where the pace of play isn't as important as the quality time spent with your golf partners. (Related: The snack bar's beers are among the area's cheapest, with four domestic beers just $11, or $13 for imports.) The back nine is where the course's layout begins to assert itself. Water plays a prominent role on the course-highlight 11th, which requires golfers to hit a tee shot over a fountain in the middle of a circular pond before the fairway bends severely to the left. At 473 yards, the par-5 14th hole (the shortest of the course's four par 5s) offers an excellent birdie opportunity for even average players. And the 16th hole begins with an elevated tee shot through a tree-lined alley before opening up to a fairway that swerves to the right.


General's Ridge Golf Course

Manassas Park, VA

There's a tranquility to General's Ridge Golf Course that you don't find at many public courses in the area; the natural hum of the Prince William County woods seems to buffer the course from the outside world. And it's not nearby road or air traffic that pierces the tranquility - you're hearing the outbursts from golfers who have been outfoxed by the course's capricious putting surfaces. The greens at General's Ridge look like they belong in a major tournament and play like they belong on a mini-golf course. There are so many tricky reads and undulations that the only way to make them more challenging would be to add a yawning clown's mouth or spinning windmill. Misread a five-footer and you might be taking your second putt from 10 feet or more. But you have to get to the green first, and the varied, sweeping course makes that a challenge for even low-handicap golfers. The imaginative layout occasionally borders on the majestic. It's not water or sand traps that play the primary culprit here but the staggered, pedestal tee boxes, ascending and descending fairways and blind approach shots that will force even experienced players to question their club and shot selections. Do you play it short and hope gravity helps you with a favorable downhill roll, or do you go pin-hunting and hope for a soft landing on the green? Those who opt for the latter strategy will want to keep an eye on their ball. Shots that look like they've landed in easy putting range can roll into chip shots from the rough.


Falls Road Golf Course

Potomac, MD

Though many of its holes are wide open and not particularly long, Falls Road Golf Course can provide plenty of obstacles if you're not an especially seasoned golfer. Take, for example, the first hole: a straightaway, 310-yard par 4. Sounds simple enough, right? But hook or slice your drive, and you'll suddenly find yourself in thigh-high grass. It's a problem you can encounter several times on the front nine, which feels a bit like the links-style courses in the game's homeland of Scotland. The moral of the story: If you can find the fairways off the tee, you should be able to attack very large, forgiving greens. Overall, Falls Road has a rare quality in that it's a great place to play if you're just starting but also has a fun layout and enough challenging holes for the weekend warrior. The clubhouse has a big bar and dining area for a post-round beer or burger, and tables with hot dogs, beer and snacks for sale sit just beyond the green of the par-3 ninth.


Penderbrook Golf Club

Fairfax, VA

One of three area courses operated by Arnold Palmer Golf Management, Penderbrook is fairly short but also tricky. Tucked in the woods of Fairfax near Route 50 and Interstate 66, the course has seven holes with water hazards and more than 60 bunkers to trip you up as you work your way through the tree-lined layout. But with many short par 4s - we're talking just a shade more than 300 yards from the white tees, if that - you can card a low score if you stay out of trouble. Easier said than done, especially during the eighth-, ninth- and 10th-hole stretch. Your drive and approach on the eighth must contend with a huge pond to the left of the fairway and in front of the green, and you have to go back over the same pond on the drive from the ninth hole, an uphill par 4. The 10th is especially brutal - a 200-yard par 3 (that's PGA distance!) back over water. The course throws consecutive water hazards at you again on holes 12, a sharp dogleg left that requires an accurate tee shot, and 13, a 135-yard par 3 from the whites. Stay dry through these holes and you should be able to score well. There's no driving range, but Penderbrook offers a full-scale pro shop and an eatery, Traditions Grill.


Cross Creek Golf Club

Beltsville, MD

Beyond its generous fairways, Cross Creek will challenge every aspect of your game. It throws a tough test right out of the gate: a dogleg-left par 5 with a tee shot over water and seven sand traps. With fairways winding through thick woods and plenty of water hazards, each of the 18 holes presents its own test. Hole 11 is a 407-yard par 4 with water down the entire left side. The ninth hole doglegs right, around the edge of a pond. Hole 14 is a mammoth, 447-yard par 4 that features a huge mound to the right and a Jersey wall of the Intercounty Connector to the left. Too far left and you're out of bounds; too far right and the large hill presents a blind approach to the green. The 18th provides a beautiful finish: a 396-yard par 4 with a green guarded by two bunkers and a pond that wraps around the front and back. Cross Creek certainly presents a challenge, one we might not recommend for golfers just starting out. But if you're looking for a dazzling track at the right price, look no further.


Little Bennett Golf Course

Clarksburg, MD

Many of the holes at this beautifully maintained course facing Sugarloaf Mountain place an emphasis on accuracy over distance, with tight fairways and uphill drives. Accuracy proves especially important on the holes closing the front and back nines, which require a well-placed tee shot downhill to set up an approach that must carry a waste area to the green. Unlike many municipal courses, the par 5s at Little Bennett are quite long for your average weekend golfer, with the shortest, the undulating fifth hole, coming in at 498 yards from the white tees. A few holes are a bit gimmicky, including two par 3s with such steep declines that it's almost impossible to take a full swing with a wedge, and the short par-4 13th that splits a fairway in half. But the other 15 holes make up for those, especially the gorgeous 10th, with a huge pond down the entire left side of the hole, and the 12th, a rather simple downhill par 4 with a spectacular view of the mountain. Before your round, warm up on one of the few grass driving ranges at any public facility or on the course's three practice greens. Or enjoy a beverage or snack on the clubhouse's porch and watch as golfers tee off on the first or putt to finish the 18th.


Greendale Golf Course

Alexandria, VA

Greendale provides about what you'd expect from a municipal golf course: The tees and fairways can get a little gnarly, the greens play fairly slow and the clubhouse is little more than a snack bar, pro shop and locker room. But what it lacks in style, Greendale makes up for with a layout that is more than your standard up-and-back, offering plenty of doglegs and water hazards that will test you. After a relatively easy first five holes, things pick up at the sixth, a 158-yard par 3 over water with an undulating green. Hole No. 7 is a classic risk-and-reward hole, a par 5 with water to the right that will swallow any hard slice (or hook if you're a lefty) and a stream that cuts across the fairway closer to the green, forcing you to decide whether you want to lay up or try for an eagle putt. The back nine starts and ends with two beautiful holes. The 10th is a sharp dogleg left par 4, with woods to the right and a massive pond along the fairway to the left. The 18th is a terrific finisher, a downhill 513-yard par 5 that bends left through tight trees and opens to a pond that can swallow errant approaches. All told, there are eight holes where water becomes a factor. If you avoid trouble on those, you can score well. My golfing buddy Pat, who usually shoots in the 90s, carded a 75 (there it is, Pat, in print). So while Greendale may not be flashy, it offers more than enough to make for an enjoyable round.


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