The well-documented oversupply of golf courses has forced closures all over the country, leading to many examples coast-to-coast of overgrown, former golf holes.
What do to with these defunct corridors going back to pasture - if you can't build on it - has been a major question.
But here's one concept taking place:
The operative word in the name of a new golf course near the Maryland coast isn’t "golf;" it's "Jeep," as in the popular off-road vehicle that got its start during World War II in the military.
The Deer Run Jeep Golf Course in Berlin, Md., is indeed a golf course (more like a pitch 'n putt at this point), but golf certainly isn't the emphasis. The attraction is the opportunity to travel between holes through mud, tall grass and over and around the bunkers and greens that were once there as part of a regulation 18-hole golf course that closed in 2015.
Off-road golfers here aren't worried too much about having 14 clubs and premium golf balls. Most of the fun is getting from hole to hole, then getting out and just swinging a club on these pitch and putt holes. In this case, golf really is about the journey, not the destination – or the score.
"We're introducing something new," said Justin Hearne, who operates the course and still works as a paramedic in the Ocean City Fire Department about 10 miles away. "Instead of just shutting down and going bankrupt and then houses get built, this gives a golf course new life. "
Hearne knows all about the old course, the 160-acre Deer Run Golf Club that opened in 1998 and was fairly well received by golfers. It was owned by his father-in-law, Ed Colbert, who closed the course after his wife became ill, which also coincided with difficult times in the local golf market, Hearne said.
But Hearne, who watched the old golf course deteriorate over the past three years as it was overgrown by native plants, convinced Colbert that he had a better idea than just selling off to developers. His brainstorm was to offer something unique – an off-road course that meanders its way through the old course, while offering some new short holes, giving guests a reason to get out of their vehicles.
Last week, the course just opened its first nine holes –which range from 15 yards to 35 yards -- and Hearne is shooting for the end of June to open another nine holes. The new nine will have holes as long as 100 yards (plans call for an ongoing hole-in-one contest in one hole). The course also affords an opportunity for off-roaders, whose only local option until this point was to visit Assateague State Park on Assateague Island off the Maryland coast.
And while Hearne doesn't pretend that his Jeep course is serious golf, he says the early reviews have been great.
"All the people we've had come out and play have loved it," Hearne said. "It's a fast quick game, and it'll improve your short game, and you get the off-road feature."
How it works
At Deer Run Jeep Golf Course, the customers usually bring their own vehicle, although the course has one Jeep it can rent and will soon have two more, Hearne said.
Golfers can't bring just any recreational vehicle, though. They must have a short wheelbase -- like most Jeep vehicles or Toyota 4runner, for example – and can only be so wide (there's a set of poles that the vehicles must be able to fit through). Pickup trucks aren't allowed. They also must have license plates. Trailering in radical machines to use on the course will not be allowed.
As for the course, the holes are somewhat rudimentary. Don't expect manicured conditions – that's the not the goal here. And golfers don't have to wear golf attire. Tennis shoes and shorts are the usual apparel for folks who live in and visit this resort area, and that will do just fine.
And there is a pro shop, Hearne says. They sell packaged food and drink, and hope to reinstate its liquor license in the near future. Of course, there will be limits on that, Hearne says, given the nature of the "golf carts." Golfers must also sign a waiver before playing, and there are also marshals on course making sure vehicles stay on the "path."
How much it cost to play
The basic green fee is $35 for 18 holes, plus $50 if you rent a Jeep from the facility. There are also three tiers of membership that are basically required. Fifty dollars covers a one-time visit (for out-of-towners most likely). For a $100 annual fee, golfers/off-roaders get one free visit and are charged $25 for each subsequent round. And for a premium $150 membership includes two free visits, $25 each after, use of a pavilion for special events, and free fishing (catch in release) at the property's nine stocked ponds.
"We had guy last Saturday who played a couple holes, stopped and fished, then went on the rest of the way," Hearne said. "He spent about four hours here."
Hearne says the property still has several acres of land available for some more projects, which are already in development.
The facility will soon have foot golf, as well as a walking pitch and putt course aimed toward seniors. Unlike the Jeep course, Hearne is paying a little more attention to agronomic conditions. He wants the Foot Golf course to be taken seriously by those who play in sanctioned events. Plans call for those courses to be built before the end of the year.
He would also like to add another nine holes to the Jeep course on the other side of the road where Colbert still owns property and once planned to expand the original course.
What would you like to see happen with a shuttered golf course's land near you? Let us and your fellow golfers know in the comments below!