The Links at Lighthouse Sound

February 16, 2007

Until the resort boom exploded in the 1980s, Ocean City was a family-oriented community on the Maryland coast whose antecedent was a 19th century fishing village. The peaceful quietness led many locals to call it their “sequestered paradise.”

In fact, in the acknowledgements to his best-selling 1978 novel, “Chesapeake”, author James Michener wryly noted a wish among the locals that he “would quit the project and go elsewhere, lest my writing awaken the rest of the world to the Eastern Shore.”

That Michener enjoyably remained two years to write the story of this diverse geographical and ecological area, is a testament to the polite acceptance of outsiders and tourists. So if you see any bumper stickers that read, “Welcome to the Eastern Shore, now go home!”, just take it as another example of the gentle bucolic charm for which this area is so well-known.

From the magnificent 5,600 miles of shoreline that forms the resource-rich Chesapeake, to the beach resort of Ocean City, it would be difficult indeed for local residents to truly rue the presence of the torrents of visitors that come to play and relax amid the unhurried lifestyle of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The pedigree for hospitality, in fact, dates back to colonial times when a 300-acre land grant in 1677 created the Burleigh Plantation that also came to include a stop for wayfarers known as the Burleigh Inn. It is believed that a corruption of Burleigh Inn to Burl-Inn eventually became Berlin, the little community on the western edge of the bay that helps form the peninsula of Ocean City, and which has since become a magnet for several of the fine upscale daily fee tracks that have brought golf into the forefront of Ocean City area attractions.

Where Berlin’s Main Street once was traversed by hunters of the Assateague and Pocomoke Indian tribes, it’s now utilized in ever greater numbers by that peculiar breed of golfing wayfarer, the migratory Northern Snowbird, ever searching for warmer climes in the dead of winter to tee it up.

Although the amount of courses here are somewhat low, the numbers to the right of the dollar sign for green fees are on the moderate side. Realizing it could not realistically hope to compete with the glamour and glitz of Atlantic City, or the sheer numbers of courses in Myrtle Beach, Ocean City has successfully positioned itself as a family resort and an alternative beach and golf destination.

On the other hand, Ocean City lops anywhere from five to six hours off a golf trip to Myrtle for travelers coming from the north, and it offers pleasant weather deeper into the summer than more southern climates.

This is not to say that Ocean City can’t offer everything you want in a golf destination; quite the contrary, it’s some of that low-key lifestyle that defines the Eastern Shore that may have you hankering to come back again and again to enjoy quality golf in a relaxed and neighborly setting.

There is, however, one particular plot of marsh and wetlands where it appeared golf would never appear until last summer. For almost 30 years developers and environmentalists squared-off over 1,000 acres of pristine woods and wetland that formed the western boundary of the Assawoman Bay.

Sufficient concessions to environmentalists to protect the fragile marsh, which included construction of a quarter-mile long wooden cart bridge between the eighth and ninth holes, reportedly the longest in North America, finally permitted Arthur Hills to fashion The Links at Lighthouse Sound.

The first three holes cut through a limited residential development, and include a double green connecting the consecutive second and third greens — another North American first.

The routing then moves outward to the stunning views of the bay and the glistening white Ocean City skyline.

A marsh creeps into play at the 430-yard par-four fourth, both at the tee and then the back of the green, and wind, marsh and bay combine to direct play at the fifth, sixth and seventh holes.

Even if you’re not playing from the tips, take a moment and retreat to the back tees of the sixth. A man-made construction out into the bay that preceded stricter environmental regulations, this is the tee box that has some dubbing the Links as “the Pebble Beach of the East.” Only the severely topographically-challenged would equate a sea-level back bay with the rocky cliffs of the Pacific Ocean. But if the comparison is meant to suggest a once-in-a-lifetime golf experience, then perhaps the comparison may seem somewhat valid by the time you walk off the seventh.

This 622-yard whopper of a par five requires a risk/reward forced carry (or forced-laugh if the wind is in your face) over marsh, then a club decision must be made to reach a green separated by a creek and two bunkers placed in front.

The back nine is played amid woods surrounding the St. Martin’s River, but the relief from open wind provided by tall pines is offset by tighter fairways requiring straighter tee shots.

Your wooded hike ends with a 532-yard par-five double-dogleg that coils itself around the marsh one more time, and ends on top of an elevated green that provides one last look at the Ocean City skyline.

If The Links at Lighthouse Sound is the jewel in the crown of Ocean City’s golf tiara, that is not to say the rest is cubic zirconium.

In fact, the one true “muni” here, the city-owned and operated Eagles Landing is a wonderfully well-kept track that can hold its own against many far more expensive upscale venues.

Eminently playable on one of the flattest terrains in the area, Eagles Landing, is a 1991 Michael Hurdzan effort. Challenge begins at the nifty little risk/reward sixth, a 435-yard par four dogleg left that rewards the greatest risk over the lake with a short pitch or iron to the green.

On the 528-yard seventh, a 90-degree dogleg requires a fairway wood to clear the forced carry, followed by another carry to reach a green surrounded by marsh.

The 394-yard ninth requires a lay-up short of a protected waste area, leaving a short iron or better to another mostly flat green.

Water, marshland, or both sidle up to you on the entire back nine of this inviting public venue unencumbered by housing, ending with a 393-yard par four that is textbook target golf.

Overall, Eagles Landing seems aptly named, because it manages to soar above its presumed limitations. It’s a “muni” with an upscale commitment to maintenance and manicuring.

Playability, especially for the average player, is a key ingredient at River Run, a Gary Player design that opened in 1991. Part of a golf and residential community, this layout is routed along the St. Martin River, just a bit upstream from The Links at Lighthouse Sound.

At a relatively modest 6,705 yards from the tips, and with greens that are for the most part as flat as those at Eagles Landing, the course invites the average player to get his or her arms around it by playing safe short shots, while the skilled player can launch precise lasers off the tee to preferred but ribbony landings farther down the fairway.

Playability is not always on the front burners of the family Dye, but at Rum Pointe, at the southernmost point of Ocean City, with the bridge to the Assateague National Seashore visible from much of the course, father and son Pete and P.B. Dye left most of their “cheerful sadism” for other projects.

Quick Facts
  Links at Lighthouse Sound
(888) 555-4557 $75-$135

  Eagles Landing
(800) 2-TEE.TIME $35-$89

  River Run
(800) 733-7786 $30-$89

  Rum Pointe
(888) 809-4653 $45-$99

  Ocean City Golf and Yacht Club
(800) 442-3570 $35-$86

  Baywood Greens
(888) 844-2254 $48-$78

  Bear Trap Dunes
(302) 537-5600 $70-$80

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

It features greens that are quite flat and puttable by Dye standards, and fairways that for the most part are open and generous at least for the shorter hitters.

Like other Ocean City venues, Rum Pointe has two different looks. The front nine is primarily open, links-style golf that depends on the winds blowing off the Sinepuxent Bay for its degree of challenge. The back nine flows through tall stands of pines and hardwoods where straight shots become paramount. Though the tendency toward the Dye-abolic is not present, father and son couldn’t resist at times a little teasing.

After entering the deep woods at 10, you emerge again into the open at the 501-yard, par-five 13th, which offers the best birdie opportunity on the course. The 444-yard, par-four 18th is a traditional risk and reward, with a cape design down the right side.

Rum Pointe offers on-site accommodations as well, which positions you in close proximity to both Eagles Landing and the Ocean City Golf and Yacht Club.

In fact, the latter course is the grande dame of the Ocean City golf scene, located about a mile down from Rum Pointe. The original 1959 Seaside Course, a William Gordon and Russell Roberts collaboration, is more of a traditional parkland layout, with mature trees and smallish greens.

The other 18 holes here, called Newport Bay, were renovated in 1998 by Lester George. This track moves from parkland to seaside with a rather abrupt change of scenery on the back nine. A birdie-birdie or par-par start is certainly possible here, and then the 490-yard par-five third allows you to continue either streak, provided your drive can avoid the chute of trees on either side of the fairway.

An otherwise mundane front nine is redeemed by a couple of holes requiring precision and a little daring, such as the 560-yard sixth hole, which features a bisected fairway that begs for sound course management decisions.

The scenery and strategy change beginning at the 525-yard, par-five 12th, as the course opens links-style to portions of the Sinepuxent Bay, and you are now more subject to the vagaries of wind.

Marshland is in play at the 230-yard par-three 13th requiring a solid tee shot to the bulkheaded green, and the 535-yard par five 14th, whose green is surrounded by marsh.

The two finishing holes offer the best visuals, as they both play out to and back from parts of Newport Bay.

During your stay in Ocean City, you may hear others talking about a course located over the border in Delaware, near Rehoboth Beach.

The talk mostly centers on the sheer physical beauty of the place, and deservedly so. Baywood Greens, an Ault-Clark stunner, debuted nine holes of breathtaking beauty in 1999, and the other nine in the summer of 2000.

What separates Baywood from its neighbors is not so much what was taken out of the ground of this 750-acre site, but what was put back in, namely approximately 200,000 plants, shrubs and trees, including 40,000 tulips, 14,000 daffodils, and other assorted azaleas, hyacinths, crocuses, among many others.

And if you can take your eyes off the feast of color and manicured magnificence here, there is a round of golf to be played. The “Woodside” nine features a more traditional, strategic routing through thick woods that rewards proper placement of tee shots with shorter and more amenable routes to near-perfect greens with only gentle slopes and undulations.

The bulkheaded par-three sixth is a robust 223-yarder, with a wide opening to the green. But it also has a huge waste-style bunker right, large enough for two pines to be planted in the middle — something that will only add to the agony as time goes passes and they both become taller.

The back, or “waterside,” nine grows even more eye-popping. Take (yet another) moment at the tee to the par-four 12th that doubles back across the pond you just navigated at the par- three 11th, and then around a copse of hardwoods amid a carpet of flowering color. Your emotions may take flight as you anticipate your little white sphere piercing this painting like a 3-D image.

The 14th, should you still be bothered with the mundane chores of tee shots and positioning on this garden tour, features an island fairway that cuts about 100 yards off the total of 425 yards. Oh yeah, it’s also another drop dead gorgeous hole.

Beauty of a more naturalistic and raw variety awaits at Bear Trap Dunes, a windscape of dunes, native beach grasses, and waste areas that jolt you from the present back into the classical past.

In fact, the 163-yard par-three fourth is a veritable postcard from famed Pine Valley. It features a dramatic ridge of sand dune running down the left side, and then wrapping itself around the green like a rough-hewn necklace of sand and fescue.

Fairways and greens are cut short and play hard and fast, so even with few steep slopes, the art of putting remains a key task here.

Those who favor the gamble of risk and reward off the tee will be treated to several holes that entice with carries over water or waste to set up chip shots, or where longer irons await those less stout of heart.

Play Baywood in the morning and Bear Trap in the afternoon, and you won’t find a greater contrast of aesthetics and strategy.

Several packagers offer very affordable in-season packages, along with a variety of off-season deals to lure you out of your late fall or mid-winter hibernation. Some include other Ocean City venues such as The Bay Club, The Beach Club, and Ocean Resorts.

All are close by and offer a mix of playability and open links-style terrain that should play easier on swings not yet in peak condition.

As a family-resort, with 10 miles of beach and a three-mile boardwalk of shops and attractions, Ocean City offers plenty enough for your family to do while you play golf.

There’s no doubt that the area could certainly stand a few more quality tracks by big name designers.

But Ocean City seems quite content to proceed in the unhurried way that seems to describe the way of life here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — where no one is anxious for this “sequestered paradise” to become a “paradise found.”