When PGA Tour player Jim Furyk was growing up in Pennsylvania, summer vacations were spent in Ocean City, Maryland. But even with a father who was a club pro, the trip was more about swimming and fishing. In those days, Ocean City golf meant windmills, pirates and volcanoes.
Thirty years later, however, there is a bounty of quality golf courses near Ocean City, and Furyk's name is attached to one of the best as design consultant of the War Admiral 18 at GlenRiddle Golf Club. With other courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arthur Hills, Rick Jacobson, and Pete and P.B. Dye, Ocean City has quickly become a bona fide golf destination.
From April to November, the golf scene bustles on the Delmarva Peninsula. The area's growing retirement community helps fill tee sheets, along with players of all ages from surrounding states.
Three decades ago, the only East Coast resort worthy of being called a "golf destination" was Myrtle Beach. Not so anymore.
Looking to Ocean City
Ocean City answered the call in the early 1990s with the Bay Club (1989), Beach Club Golf Links (1991), River Run Golf Course (1991) and municipal gem Eagle's Landing (1991). Combined with mainstay Ocean City Golf Club (1959), the five courses, all in Berlin, made up the core of Ocean City golf.
But they weren't enough to meet the demand. Along came three spectacular courses -- Rum Pointe Golf Course (1997), the Links at Lighthouse Sound (2000) and GlenRiddle (2006) -- and three more stunners in nearby Delaware -- Baywood Greens (1998), Bear Trap Dunes Golf Club (1999) and Bayside Resort Golf Club (2005).
The two distinct waves of upscale public golf have left Ocean City with more reasonably priced, high-end choices than any coastal resort north of Myrtle Beach. In addition, with night spots such as tourist destination Seacrets, and many quality restaurants open throughout the year, there's plenty of off-course activity on the Delmarva coast.
Other courses, further from the shore, are enticing on the drive in or the way back home. Nutter's Crossing Golf Course (1991) in Salisbury is a well conditioned risk/reward gem. Great Hope Golf Course (1995), south of Salisbury, shares the same designer (Dr. Michael Hurzdan) as Eagle's Landing. Heritage Shores Golf (2007) on the road to the Delaware beaches in Bridgeville, is an immaculate Hills design with huge greens and water on all but one hole.
The new wave in Ocean City golf
Each of Ocean City's three newer courses offers something distinctive. Set on the Sinepuxent Bay, Rum Pointe Golf Course is the most windswept, as 17 of 18 holes have water views. With few forced carries and generous fairways and greens, Rum Pointe isn't as dastardly as most designs by Pete Dye and son P.B. But throw out the notion of playability if the wind is whipping off the bay.
There's little question about Ocean City's most stunning course. The Links at Lighthouse Sound, designed by Hills, builds steam early with a double-green at no. 3 and no. 4, then peaks at no. 5, a par 3 over marshland to a peninsula green. The back tee at no. 6 is on an island in the Assawoman Bay with the high-rise condominiums of North Ocean City looming across the lagoon. After a 1/4 mile ride over marshland on the longest cart bridge in the U.S., the back nine is a secluded, tree-lined thrill ride, starting along the St. Martin River.
No facility in Ocean City is more diverse than the 36 holes at GlenRiddle, formerly a breeding farm for thoroughbread horses. Barely a tree comes into play on GlenRiddle's Man O' War Course, which has a Scottish feel with gnarly vegetation, humps, hollows, pot bunkers and undulating fairways. Cut through tall pines and winding its way through a housing development, the War Admiral 18 feels like an exclusive inland Carolina course. The racehorse theme extends to the clubhouse, formerly the stables, which contains an elegant Ruth's Chris Steak House.
While Lighthouse Sound has been called the Pebble Beach of the East Coast, magnificently conditioned Baywood Greens in Delaware has earned comparison to Augusta with its brilliant landscaping that includes 200,000 flowers. The Woodside nine is tree-lined and muscular. The Lakeside nine kicks into high gear with an island fairway at no. 14, an enticing risk/reward par-five at no. 16, and the unforgettable closing hole that plays toward a majestic clubhouse. The Duneside nine, set to open in 2014, has a high standard to live up to.
No course at the shore has the look of Bear Trap Dunes Golf Club, designed by Nicklaus disciple Rick Jacobson on an unremarkable tract of farmland west of Bethany Beach. To give the 27 holes character and definition, Jacobson created man-made dunes via bulldozer and covered them with wild seagrass. With wide fairways and vast waste bunkers, Bear Trap Dunes feels like an excursion to the Outer Banks.
Five miles to the south, Nicklaus and Jacobson collaborated at the resort community of Bayside. Magnificently set on Montego Bay, across from Fenwick Island, there was little need for earth moving at Bayside Resort Golf Club, the longest course at the beach at 7,545 yards. The layout traverses salt marshes, woodlands, and open meadows with views of the beachfront skyline.
While the new courses have significantly upped the ante, it's nice to know that a trip to the area's 54-year-old forerunner -- Ocean City Golf Club -- is still worthwhile. Ocean City's Seaside Course, 18 traditional holes that remain largely unchanged from 1959, and the Newport Bay Course, redesigned in the 1990s by Lester George. The latter is the star attraction. With dramatic views of Newport Bay and the buffering marshlands, it makes one wonder why more golf course developers didn't flock to Ocean City.
Whatever the reason, it was worth the wait.