ELLICOTT CITY, Md. -- When asked to timeline some of the alterations over the years at Turf Valley, Director of Golf Nick Spinnato squints into the distance, scratches his head and asks for forgiveness.
It's easy to understand why Spinnato's memory isn't so clear. After all, few golf facilities have undergone as much change as Turf Valley.
When it opened in 1959, Turf Valley was the first private golf course in then-sleepy Howard County, occupying land formerly used to train thoroughbred horses.
A generation later, it had become a combination private club/golf resort so successful that it added nine holes in 1996 and nine more in 1999, becoming the only facility in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area with three full-size 18s.
These days, Turf Valley is the centerpiece of a bustling community of the same name, with so much residential and commercial real estate sprouting nearby that its 54 holes have been reduced to 36 to accommodate the surge.
"We've never stood still," said GM Pete Mangione, whose father, Nick, purchased the club in 1978 and added the resort hotel a decade later.
The best news for nonmembers is that inexpensive stay-and-play packages are available to enjoy Turf Valley's upscale accommodations, spa, fine dining and private-course experience, which include an extensive practice area and a state-of-the-art indoor learning center.
Turf Valley's golf courses
Turf Valley's original 36 holes were designed by the region's most prolific golf architect, Ed Ault, who passed away in 1989. When the facility added 18 holes in the 1990s and needed renovation a decade ago, it entrusted the job to Ault's son, Brian Ault.
The work of Ault and his family spans generations and runs the gamut in the region from low-budget munis (Falls Road in Potomac, Md.); to military courses (Fort Belvoir G.C. at Andrews Air Force Base); to daily-fee gems (Worthington Manor in Urbana, Md., Blue Ridge Shadows in Front Royal, Va.); to ritzy housing-development projects (River Creek in Leesburg, Va., Baywood Greens in Long Neck, Del.); to illustrious privates (Baltimore Country Club in Lutherville, Md.).
Count Turf Valley among the most ambitious projects the Ault group has designed.
When the club was still in its infancy and decided it needed more exposure, Turf Valley hosted an LPGA Tour event from 1962-66, won the first and final years by Kathy Whitworth and in 1965 by Baltimore native Carol Mann.
And with that, and a growing membership, Turf Valley was off and running.
Today the two 18s have their own distinct character.
Cut through rolling, mature woodlands and criss-crossed by streams, the Hialeah Course (6,547 yards/72.0/138 slope) is short, tight and full of elevation change and pitfalls. Turf Valley's Original Course (6,762/71.3/130) is longer, flatter and more reminiscent of layouts of its era, with parallel holes and short walks from greens to tees.
Players looking for a challenge and aesthetics will favor the Hialeah Course, which opens -- appropriately enough -- with an intimidating tee shot from an elevated tee to a narrow, twisting fairway framed by thick woods.
The fourth at Hialeah, a dogleg right and the longest par 4 on the course at 437 yards, is the toughest hole on either course, playing over a ravene to a domed fairway. The hole is reminiscent of another Ault creation of the same length, no. 1 on the West Course at Baltimore C.C., though Turf Valley's version has a much more demanding tee shot.
Highlights on the back nine are the co-located greens of no. 13, a 192-yard par 3 over water, and no. 15, a tough par 4 with both the tee shot and approach over ponds.
The Original Course is played on flatter, less wooded property, with the exception of the first five holes. The best is no. 2, an L-shaped par 4 with a long tee shot over water where players can leave themselves an approach anywhere from 100 to 250 yards, depending on how much they are willing to gamble.
Two holes later, the 445-yard fourth tests players with a dogleg that bends the opposite way as well as a downhill tee shot and uphill approach.
The rest of the Original Course is straightforward, level and feels like a retro, communal experience. On the back nine, holes are so close together that players are often visible across one, two and three fairways.
Length is the primary requirement on the closing stretch. The 14th is a 507-yard par 5. The 15th is by far the longest par 4 at Turf Valley at 466 yards. The 17th is the Original Course's longest par 3 at 197 yards. And the 18th, overlooked by the hotel, is a 429-yard par 4.
Turf Valley: The verdict
The best thing about Turf Valley is its private feel and public access. There are many stay-and-play options in the region, but none can match the combination of upscale amenities at a reasonable price, the private-course conditions, the diversity of courses and the Interstate convenience of Turf Valley.