Fabulous Fairways

Golf: At five top-rated regional courses -- all within driving distance -- the views are splendid and the play is challenging.


All right, we admit it. We're suckers for the big name, the glitzy rep, the veneer of instant respectability bestowed on a resort by a favorable review in a top-flight travel publication.

So when the slick and tres influential magazine Conde Nast Traveler came out with its annual survey of the Top 50 golf resorts, our first thought was: How can we glom onto this idea and use it for our own purposes?

We put our pointy heads together and came up with this: Five of those 50 resorts happen to be within a reasonable drive -- five hours is our idea of reasonable; please, let's not argue about this -- of Baltimore.

So we threw our golf bag in the car, nosed it south and set out to visit each of the Fab 5 resorts in the noble cause of reviewing them for our discerning golfing readers.

The Greenbrier

White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

Along with the Four Seasons Resort on the tiny West Indies island of Nevis, the venerable Greenbrier, in the Allegheny Mountains six miles from the Virginia border, was rated the top golf resort by Conde Nast Traveler.

Pulling up to the soaring main hotel, with its Georgian-style buildings, one imagines arriving for a summit conference of European foreign ministers, not a golf weekend.

But the Greenbrier oozes golf tradition. On the walls of the plushly appointed clubhouse is an impressive photo montage of the dozens of golf legends who have played here, including former staff member Sam Snead as well as Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

PGA Tour regular Nick Faldo was there the week we visited, working on a book, and PGA Senior Tour members Craig Stadler and Peter Jacobsen were hosts of a corporate outing.

(Speaking of plushly appointed, you may not want to leave the gleaming locker rooms, particularly the alcove in the back of the men's locker room that has soft carpeting, leather couches and a big-screen TV.)

(One more locker room tip: The tall canisters of blue liquid adjacent to the sinks are not soap dispensers. They're mouthwash dispensers. We found this out the hard way.)

On a gorgeous spring afternoon, we played the famous Greenbrier course, a gently-rolling track with generous landing areas redesigned by Nicklaus for the 1979 Ryder Cup matches.

But measuring 6,377 yards from the blue tees, the course is a definite challenge for all golfers, especially mid- to high-handicappers.

The greens are multileveled and protected by deep bunkers. And as head pro Hill Herrick points out: "Just about every hole is a carry hole. You're not going to play too many run-up shots."

The signature hole is No. 2, the 402-yard par 4 with a gorgeous view of the mountains on your left and a shimmering pond with fountains on the right.

We played behind a foursome that included former Virginia Tech basketball star Bimbo Coles, now playing for the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA.

On No. 2, everyone in Coles' group appeared to struggle, a state of play with which we were not unfamiliar.

After watching two members of their foursome launch balls into the water, we took pains to hit our drive well left - and promptly ended up in the tree line, where a punch-out still left us a 170-yard carry over the pond.

No. 6 is the hole that Herrick feels is the hardest on the course for scratch golfers, a par 4 that plays 456 yards from the championship tees and requires a long, uphill approach shot to a green the size of a napkin.

For the high handicapper, No. 18 is a finishing hole as designed by the Marquis de Sade.

It's the longest hole on the course (525 from the white tees), and if you're standing on the tee box, the green you're shooting for appears to be somewhere in Ohio.

The fairway is long and narrow and ringed by evergreen trees, the green heavily bunkered.

We managed a hard-fought bogey and then slunk back into the clubhouse, where we felt like sinking into one of those plush leather couches.

Only by then, we probably needed a psychiatrist to go along with it.

The Homestead

Hot Springs, Va.

Let's just come out and say it. If there's a prettier course than the fabled Cascades in the middle of autumn, with the surrounding Allegheny Mountains a riot of color, we've yet to play it.

The Homestead was ranked No. 8 by Conde Nast Traveler, which makes you wonder what slice of heaven the six other resorts, (excluding the Greenbrier, which we know about) occupy.

Of all the courses we reviewed, the Cascades was the toughest, mainly due to the severe dips and rolls of its mountain setting.

Whereas the Greenbrier's fairways have been leveled by man, the Cascade's fairways pitch hard right in some places, drop off dramatically left in others.

"There's nothing man-made. You have to pick your spots," says head pro Don Ryder. "You can't just aim down the fairway and hit the ball."

Still, the 6,659-yard par 70 course, designed by William S. Flynn in 1923, has been the site of six major U.S. Golf Association amateur events and two Senior PGA Tour events.

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