Wednesday, April 14, 2004
Here's what four-time Masters champion Arnold Palmer once said about the game of golf: "What other people may find in poetry or art museums, I find in the flight of a good drive."
Ah, the good drive. For accomplished players, that might mean a ball struck some 280 yards down the center of the fairway. We weekend hackers will settle for not getting lost on the way to the course.
Thank goodness, then, for Ocean City, where one road -- Route 50 -- leads to a beach resort that has matured into a burgeoning golf destination since rapid expansion took hold in the early 1990s. Better yet, getting there does not involve the tedious and circuitous 500 miles required to reach the granddaddy of all East Coast golf retreats, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"I think what has happened is that a lot of folks are realizing the type of golf courses we have," said Dennis Winters, the head PGA professional at the Links at Lighthouse Sound who held the same position at prestigious Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase. "Not to brag or anything, but I think Lighthouse kind of put Ocean City on the map, so what happened was that they were able to play quality and upscale courses in Ocean City. . . . The courses are much better now, and I think people prefer to drive four to five hours as opposed to eight to 10 hours."
For sheer volume, Ocean City is no match for Myrtle Beach, which is home to more than 120 golf courses, according to the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. The best of the bunch includes Pawley's Plantation, the Tournament Players Club at Myrtle Beach and Avocet at Wild Wing. All three courses, as well as a handful of others, make the journey tolerable, if not worthwhile. And for the true golf junkie, there's something to be said for a town with more golf courses, it seems, than 7-Elevens or Starbucks.
But truth be told, a healthy chunk of courses in Myrtle are cookie-cutter layouts, thrown together hastily in an attempt to cash in on the golfing boom along the 60-mile crescent of beach known as the Grand Strand. Myrtle also has the population to support such expansion, approximately three times the residents of the Delmarva town.
Ocean City holds its own, though, when it comes to premium courses. Most every course within a 20-minute drive of the boardwalk is worth playing at least once. The best will leave even the most discriminating golfers longing for their next round and relieved they won't need a full day of driving on their return trip.
Take Lighthouse Sound, for example. Though only four years old, Lighthouse has the feel of a well-aged masterpiece. That's not surprising, considering that the layout, which includes the world's longest cart bridge, was the brainchild of Arthur Hills, among the preeminent golf course architects. His designs in the Washington area include the soon-to-be-private Lansdowne in Sterling and public courses Heritage Hunt (Gainesville), Blue Mash (Olney) and Maryland National (Frederick).
For players who are unfamiliar with links golf, Lighthouse is the place to start. With expansive fairways and receptive greens on the front nine and a few more wooded holes on the back, the course is both demanding and fair -- the scratch golfer will be tested thoroughly; the 20-plus handicapper, meantime, won't be ready to give up the game after playing a round.
The same is true of Rum Pointe Seaside Golf Links. It's another course that pays homage to the European style of design, where sprawling fairways are windswept, mostly barren and lined with bunkers rather than trees. Opened in 1997 and showcasing the handiwork of renowned designers P.B. and Pete Dye, Rum Pointe offers direct views of the water on 17 of the 18 holes and, like sister course Lighthouse Sound, has received accolades from virtually every major golf publication. For beginners or less proficient players, Rum Pointe has an advantage over Lighthouse in that it's not part of a housing community, which means no worries about a wayward drive shattering someone's bay window.
A most welcome bonus at both courses is ProLink GPS in all golf carts. The state-of-the-art technology uses a video screen inside the cart to advise golfers of their exact distance from the ball to the pin. ProLink also offers tips on how to play each hole and allows golfers to order food during the front nine and have it waiting at the turn for pickup at the clubhouse.
The Beach Club Golf Links may not boast such plush amenities, but it does have two courses that stack up to just about any in Myrtle Beach. At 7,020 yards from the back tees, Beach Club InnerLinks is among the longest courses in Ocean City. Even from the forward tees, InnerLinks is a bear, playing 6,193 yards. For players not long off the tee, OuterLinks is more about accuracy than distance. Paul Bunyanesque trees line thin fairways on a target course that requires forced carries over water.