Travelin' Joe's guide to Ocean City, Maryland golf courses

No longer the sleepy destination I first visited in 1994, Ocean City, Md., can now stand alone as a major U.S. golf mecca -- and one of the best values to boot. The big draws to Ocean City are its prime edge-of-the-Atlantic location, its convenient bearing to all points north and south and its vibrant downtown filled with restaurants, shopping and quaint beachy hotels. This is prime territory for family summer vacations. Golfers thrive in the spring and fall, when temperatures are close to perfect, but in truth, Ocean City is a year-round golf playground.

Sure it would have been great to have routed a few holes along the ocean -- that didn't happen -- but the good news is that a fistful of the region's inland courses can rightly be called seaside, thanks to the stellar bay views they enjoy. Toss in a dazzling blend of dining, lodging and entertainment options, at all price points, and you have one of America's great golf destinations. For more information, contact Ocean City Golf Getaways, 800-4-OCGOLF, oceancitygolf.com.

The Trophy Collection
When we named the Links at Lighthouse Sound one of the nation's Top 10 New Courses You Can Play back in 2000, we called this Arthur Hills design, "a multi-theme spread that successfully blends classical, modern and links-style holes." We should have added the adjective "unforgettable" as well.

Situated just west of the Intracoastal Waterway, Lighthouse Sound shines with endless scenery and strategic options to match. The anchor tenant in the Ocean City golf mall zigzags through wetlands, salt marshes and hardwoods, often on the same hole and pauses here and there to dish out superb vistas of Assawoman Bay and the Ocean City skyline. A front-nine favorite is the 430-yard, par-4 4th called "Marshside." The hole is aptly named. A drive over marsh to a supermodel-thin fairway starts the festivities, with the landing area bracketed by the Bay on the right and by a bunker to the left. A slender, peninsula green extends into the Bay and is harder to hit than Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime.

Other Lighthouse highlights include the quarter-mile cartbridge ride to the ninth tee, a romp through nature that alone is worth the price of admission and also a pair of par 5s -- the 622-yard 7th, "Devil's Elbow," and the 538-yard 12th, "River's Edge" that are among the best of their kind in the mid-Atlantic.

Ruark Golf manages not only the Links at Lighthouse Sound, but also another seaside gem, Rum Pointe. While this is one of Pete and P.B. Dye's gentler efforts, with its 122 slope from the tips, it's definitely one of their most enjoyable, with 17 of its 18 holes offering Sinepuxent Bay views, including several playing directly alongside, most memorably at the 463-yard, par-4 16th. Overlooking Assateague National Seashore, Rum Pointe is often intoxicating in its beauty, with just enough bite to test you, not only at the 16th, but also at the stern 444-yard, par-4 closer, with a huge lake down the right side and a wild mix of bunker shapes at the green.

Still another Ruark-managed trophy winner is GlenRiddle Golf Club, which gallops to the finish line with two strong stallions, Man O'War, designed by Joel Weiman and its newer, shorter, yet tougher sibling, War Admiral, a Weiman/Jim Furyk collaboration. Why all the equine lingo? Simply because we're in historic horse country here. The clubhouse building that houses the pro shop and the Ruth's Chris Steak House restaurant once served as the main stable building of the legendary Riddle Farm, which yielded such racehorses as Man O'War, War Admiral and Seabiscuit. Memorabilia is sprinkled throughout the facility, including on-course. At the 401-yard, par-4 6th on Man O'War, an original, rusted race track starting gate is positioned right of the green, while at the 228-yard, par-3 9th, you can actually hook your tee shot -- as I did -- onto a sand training track where famous, thunderous hooves once trod. Massive, tufted mounds and wild green contours highlight both Man O'War and War Admiral.

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Among Ocean City's must-plays, Eagle's Landing is the best bargain in the bunch -- as well as an outstanding layout. This Audubon Sanctuary-certified course is a 1991 Michael Hurdzan creation that hopscotches the salt marshes off Sinepuxent Bay. Precision is favored over power, thanks to water and wetlands on 16 holes. Play the proper set of tees and you'll have a blast. Go too far back and you'll be reloading early and often.

The signature hole on the outgoing nine is the 435-yard, par-4 6th. Nicknamed "The Hole From Down Under," this risk/reward beauty doglegs to the left and calls for a bite-off-as-much-as-you-dare tee shot over a lake on the left that extends from tee to green. Still, it's the final two holes that will leave you in agony or ecstasy. The former is a 207-yard par-3 with a huge green -- and nothing but salt marsh, grass and sand between tee box and putting surface. This sets the table for the finale, a 393-yard test of nerve called the "Beast of the East." A solid layup drive leaves you with 160 or so yards virtually entirely over salt marsh, with nary a bailout.

If history, tradition and eye-candy are plusses in your book, don't miss Ocean City Golf Club. Formerly known as Ocean City Golf and Yacht Club, these days, there's less emphasis on boating and more on golf at the region's oldest facility. Seaside is the older brother, dating to 1959, so it's no surprise that the emphasis here is on classic shot values, with wide fairways and a wooded back nine. Gamblers can make up stokes in a hurry on Seaside's reachable par 5s, three of which are under 500 from the tips, but will likely give them right back at bruisers such as the 7th, a meaty par 4 of 475 yards and at the 212-yard, par-3 2nd.

For many, however, it's the Newport Bay course that raises the bar at Ocean City Golf Club. Redesigned by Lester George in 1998, the course once known as Bayside is now a skillful blend of nature and golf. Eight holes are located directly on the marsh or on the water, with nearly half the holes requiring a forced carry over one or the other. Handsome panoramas of the Intracoastal Waterway is only part of the story, with strategic shot options of primary importance. You'll really need to manage your game at Newport Bay.

Best of the Rest
I hope you like crab cakes, because you can stay an extra month sampling the mid-Atlantic's golf menu. Just across the Maryland border, in Selbyville Delaware, is Bayside Resort, a gorgeous Jack Nicklaus Signature design that features shallower bunkers and smaller greens than on a typical Nicklaus product, but one that sports wetlands and water worries on nearly every hole. This beautiful brute stretches 7,545 yards from the tips, with a rating of 77.4 and a slope of 146, so unless you bring an A+ game to the first tee, move up.

The most beautiful inland course in the region is Baywood Greens in Long Neck, Delaware, with its kaleidoscope of flowers bursting with color in every season. Make no mistake, however: Baywood is much more than pretty pictures. Its split-fairway, par-4 14th, with the riskier play to an island fairway, is one of the region's strategic gems and the private club-worthy clubhouse and dining experience makes it worth your while to linger.

Troon-managed Bear Trap Dunes in Ocean View, Delaware, offers remarkable variety in its 27 holes, making it a perfect choice for those in the Bethany Beach area. Each of the nines -- Black Bear, Kodiak and Grizzly -- are worthy plays, with Black Bear the strongest, but no matter which combo you pick, you'll encounter dunes, sand and beach grasses in an appealing, links-like environment.

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