Choice of courses is now above par

Golf: The area's boom of new facilities, including several upscale ones, has reduced crowding and increased options for recreational players.


July 25, 2002|By Travis Haney | Travis Haney,SUN STAFF

Five years ago, golf outings took an immense level of planning for Dave Gasper and his friends. He had to make tee times weeks in advance and literally set aside an entire day from his Bel Air brokerage firm for the endless waiting that goes along with public golf.

A recent boom in the number of the state's courses, however, has taken the hassle out of golf for people like Gasper.

"There are certainly more opportunities, more places to play," said Gasper, a 25-handicap player. "If you go to one course and it's really packed, you can walk on at another within the hour. It's a lot easier."

Harford County golfers aren't the only Marylanders finding new and more luxurious golfing venues close to home. According to National Golf Foundation statistics, 27 courses (three so far this year) have opened in the state in the past five years, a 13 percent increase in the number of courses. Fourteen more are under construction. Twelve others are in the planning stages.

On a recent Friday morning, Gasper and fellow broker Amy Roberts chose to sample Joppa's Mountain Branch Golf Club, which opened in October 2000.

Despite the nearly $100 weekend rate, Gasper said it was time - and money - well spent.

"It was a little pricey, certainly not something you could come out and do every day," Gasper said, "but I felt like it was well worth it."

Jon Guhl, assistant executive director of the Middle Atlantic Professional Golf Association, said most of the newer courses, like Mountain Branch, are upscale daily fee facilities - those high on course management and quality and steep on the price tag (the regional average is about $60 for a weekday round).

"They [developers] want to recoup their money," Guhl said, "and that's the first place they start."

The area's new courses offer creative approaches to attract new customers and then keep them coming back. Upscale courses, because of the added investment, are particularly in need of fresh sales pitches.

Located 20 minutes from the Inner Harbor, Mountain Branch has the chief selling point of proximity.

"The great thing about this course is it is so close to everything," said Christopher Sheaffer, the course's head golf pro. "We're hoping to cater to a more regional crowd because of that."

The convenience of the course shouldn't overshadow the product itself, though.

The par-72 layout is well-kept, but players will want to avoid the course's perilous and gnarly rough. Hole No. 15 is Mountain Branch's defining hole. The 362-yard, par-4 plays much longer considering the numerous bunkers barricading the approach to an elevated green.

Perhaps the most inventive attention-grabber is at Musket Ridge Golf Club. The course, just off Interstate 70 west of Frederick, connects itself to nearby battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Antietam, through its use of logos and memorabilia inside the clubhouse.

"We're not going to have people in Colonial dress with muskets come out to greet you, but if it works out that way, where the local attractions bring more people in, that's great," said Brian Hughes, head pro at Musket Ridge. "This, obviously, is a very historic area. With Gettysburg being so close by and various battles being fought in this area, I think there's a historical bent [to the course]."

For a track that opened last September, the par-71 layout looks and plays like it has been around for years. Beyond the condition, there isn't a cookie-cutter hole on the course. Each hole - some more than others (such as the short par-4 11th and dogleg left par-5 12th) - forces golfers to think their way from tee to green.

The major marketing tool of The Upland Golf Club in Denton, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, isn't too difficult to figure out based upon one figure: 6 million cars pass by the course each year on Route 404, the majority of those cars heading to and from the beaches.

"We want to pull from the people going to beach and some of those who are on the way back," said Upland pro Julie Russum. "This certainly gives people an option of making a stop halfway to D.C. and Baltimore instead of sitting in traffic."

The course is uniquely designed as a cross between a modern upscale track and a Scottish links facility. Holes 8 and 9, with tough carries over narrow gaps off the tee, are particularly memorable.

Cross Creek Golf Club, in Beltsville in suburban Washington, is hoping the art of surprise will attract golfers to its facility.

"Beltsville and golf aren't really synonymous," said Cross Creek head pro Michael Kummer. "When people think of this area, they think business and commerce. We want to make them think of golf, too."

The course, which is scheduled to open in the next two weeks, was carved out of a rock quarry; sheer rock faces line a few holes, making golfers feel at times as if they're in the highlands of Colorado, not the heart of a major metropolitan area.

With all the new choices, it seems as if Gasper and the rest of the state's golfers have more excuses to play hooky from work, which Gasper said isn't necessarily a bad thing given the current condition of the stock market.

"I have an offer to play on Wednesday afternoon," he said recently, "and with the way the market is going, I just might do that."

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