Fore Score and a Seven Iron Ago . . .
Wednesday, July 2, 2003
On July 1, 1863, several thousand Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade marched north from Washington along the Taneytown Road, intending to intercept the Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee. On that hot and dusty day, they could little know that a few miles ahead, just outside the modest town of Gettysburg, Pa., they would engage that southern army in the climactic battle of the Civil War, a fight many of them would not escape.
And so on a silvery afternoon nearly 140 years later, I look upon a landscape that is little changed -- meadows and fields of grass and stands of trees and rail fences, all against a backdrop of low mountains fading into blue and gray -- and I can't help but think: What does a guy have to do to sink a putt around here? These greens are as slick as Teflon.
Such are the uncivil thoughts that can occur at the Links at Gettysburg, a handsome, challenging, sometimes heartbreaking golf course just a mile off that same Taneytown Road and six miles -- as the weary bluecoat limps -- from the military park that attracts about 1.8 million solemn visitors a year. If you play golf and decide to combine a battlefield tour with a round at the links, as I recently did, you'll find the two experiences complement each other in strange and satisfying ways.
While none of the historic conflict took place on the 340-some acres of former Adams County farmland the course now occupies, Links at Gettysburg President Rick Klein says he's been told by a park historian that troops bivouacked there en route to Gettysburg.
In any event, the course is clearly cut from the same raw stuff as the battleground: Low rock walls trimming cart paths recall those Union troops defended against the famously doomed Pickett's Charge on the battlefield. Course architects Lindsay Bruce Ervin (designer of Queenstown Harbor in Queenstown, Md., Hog Neck Golf Course in Easton, Md., and other top-ranked regionals) and Steve Klein (Rick's cousin, a low-handicap golfer and landscape contractor) left many meadows and ravines intact but sliced open a few low hills to place putting greens or fairways, exposing vertical faces of shale the color of dried blood. On a quiet late-spring afternoon, one can actually hear the thud of gunfire in the distance: It's probably the sound of a firing range a few miles away, but the transporting effect is eerie.
While the course has plenty of appeal to serious players, like many upscale courses that seek corporate outings and vacationing dabblers, it features five sets of tees, making it playable by golfers of all levels, including the inexperienced and the inept (we know who we are).
Play from the green tees (second-from-shortest) and most of the par 4s are in the mid-300-yard range, and many of the hazards are minimized. Play from the blues and you have to hit long and dodge water and trees all day. If you can play well from the monster-long gold tees (No. 7 weighs in at 600 yards, the entire 18 at 7,031), you probably need to spend more time with your family.
But back to those slippery greens. Because I'd spent the morning on a wander-and-drive tour of the Gettysburg battlefield, I played in the afternoon. I was paired with a guy named Jim who, happily, was not much of a better scorer than I am. (Golf tourist hint: Afternoon tee times are easier to get than morning slots, which are filled by the folks with fancy clubs and little desire to play with plinkers like you and me. And most courses, including this one, have "twilight" discounts after 1 or 2 p.m.)
Jim and I were overmatched by the greens from the outset. They are fast, immaculately tended and as smooth as cashmere. On the third hole, a par 3 measuring 160 yards from the white tees, the putting surface slopes away from an amphitheater of burgundy rock embracing it from the rear. The slightest taps sent our putts rolling to the bottom of the green, and our return efforts curled past again, carried by subtle textures invisible to us. By day's end we'd learned a lot about reading good greens, and our cards showed it.
This doesn't mean we didn't enjoy ourselves. Far from it. Jim is from New York, a big shot in the telecommunications field just seven years into his golfing habit. He shared my belief that hitting the ball 100 or more times per round shouldn't disqualify one from playing beautiful courses.
The landscape at the Links is magnificent, with abundant wildlife, particularly on the back nine, where water comes into play on most of the holes. The green of the finishing hole is backed by a 30-foot waterfall. As we searched for our balls on No. 17, a 417-yard par 4 lined by two reedy ponds, the bullfrogs were so loud they sounded like a pack of idling motorcycles.
As it happened, Jim was in Gettysburg for a business leadership seminar being presented by a couple of retired military officers. Before the participants arrived, they were assigned to read "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara, regarded as the most riveting and humanized narrative of the Battle of Gettysburg. The group was to spend a couple of days talking about Lee and Meade's mistakes and victories, and then a day out on the battlefield to soak it all in. Then they'd talk about how those lessons might apply in business.