Drive for show, worth the dough: Across the bridge to Bay Creek on the Eastern Shore

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

CAPE CHARLES, Va. - Most long drives to great golf courses could be described, at best, as "necessary." It's a means to an end.

Not so with the Bay Creek Golf Club, located about 25 miles from Virginia Beach. If you make the 30-to 45-minute trek, you'll be spending most of those 25 miles over-and sometimes under-Chesapeake Bay, one of the world's great estuaries.

It's an impressive body of water, a shimmering sight to behold as you steam over the 17-mile bridge, which occasionally dives underwater through a tunnel system. Gulls wheel in the sky and if you're lucky, you can see bald eagles, snowy egrets, geese and swans among the hundreds of thousands of birds that live in and visit Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. If the tunnels were made of glass, you'd see everything from eels and sturgeon to stripers, catfish and cobia.

So, by the time you reach the Eastern Shores, that thin peninsula that juts south from Delaware and Maryland into Virginia, you may be thinking the golf will be anticlimactic.

Again, not so. Bay Creek is a man-made beauty, an Arnold Palmer course that's all hat and cattle. Beauty isn't just skin-deep here; the course's glitzy exterior, with its impeccable landscaping, is a seductress that throws substance at you to go with its style.

With a slope rating of 141, one of the higher in the area, Bay Creek can be as difficult as a squall sweeping into the bay off the ocean. In fact, the front nine can get formidable winds that make pars as slippery as one of those eels.

"If the wind is coming of the water, the front nine can be very tough," Bay Creek Director of Golf Tom Stevenson said.

It's almost a sensual experience, with the azaleas blooming and red and yellow flowers everywhere. Wood bridges slither through stands of coastal growth on shell cart paths, and on the fairways, sea breezes keep you cool, even when you hit into one of the sparkling-white bunkers.

"I'll make that drive any day of the week to play that course," said Kelly Hansen, who visits Virginia Beach every year. "It's a pleasure to play, even when I'm playing bad, which I usually do."

The verdict

Bay Creek measures 7,204 yards from the tips and, when the wind isn't blowing, the back nine is tougher than the front. The first few holes all have the bay off to your right, then the holes turn the tree-studded inland, before opening up at No. 8. Still, you always have the feeling that you're stuck way out in the ocean, with clouds skudding across the sky and the smell of salt air.

As pretty and formidable as the course is overall, there are several holes that stand out. The first few holes have the bay to your right and No. 3, the No. 1 handicap, is a long par 4 that requires a long drive; otherwise you're looking at a long carry over water to the green.

"When I first visited the property five or six years ago, that hole took my breath away," Stevenson said.

Bay Creek has a great closing hole: water runs across deep down the fairway and you need to hit down the left side. Even then, you're looking at a carry over water in the 220- to 250-yard range. You can lay up to the right, or go for the rock-guarded green. Save your strength for this hole.

Another Jack Nicklaus-designed course is scheduled to open here soon. The first nine is expected to open in July and golfers will alternate between the three nines. The back Nicklaus nine will open some time in September or October.

"I think the Nicklaus course is a little wilder and woolier," Stevenson said. "Nicklaus went so far as to point out particular bushes or trees and say, 'that one stays.' It will have a very natural, seaside feel."

The course is hardly a well-kept secret. It was No. 86 in Golf Digest's "America's 100 greatest courses in 2003" and Golf Magazine named it to its list of "top 10 you can play" in 2002.

Green fees are $90 weekdays and weekends until November, when they are $69 through December. It's well worth the price. Bay Creek will stay open to the public until all memberships are sold, which could be as long as five years, according to course officials.

Places to stay

There's a wide range of accommodations in Virginia Beach, from mom-and-pop motels to exclusive beach resorts. A good bet is the Cavalier Hotel, at the northern end of the "strip," the area of high rises, stores and bars that line Atlantic Avenue for about four miles. It's on the beaten path, but far away enough from it to get away from the noise and chaos.

The original hotel, built in 1927, sits on a hill overlooking the strip and ocean. The newer building is beachfront, with terrific views of the ocean to the north, where no high-rises loom.

The hotel has a "sunshine guarantee," in which guests who suffer through a "no sun day" in June, July or August get a free night in conjunction with a future trip - if it's within a year.

The Cavalier has five restaurants, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a 1,500-square-foot fitness club and the only private beach in Virginia. It also has tennis courts, including clay surface, basketball, croquet, volleyball, shuffleboard, a game room with pool tables and bike rentals.

Places to eat

There are, obviously, some very good seafood restaurants in Virginia Beach, like Waterman's, Mahi Mah's Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Salon, the Rockfish Bar and Grill and others like The Black Angus, Abbey Road Pub and Restaurant and Rockafellers.

If you want to stay at the Cavalier, it has five eateries, including Orion's, with its 11th floor spectacular, panoramic view to go with fresh seafood and hickory grilling. The Hunt Club Grill is at the hillside building and has wood-paneled walls and a fireplace, only for winter dining.

Fast fact

Palmer was shooting a promotional video at the course on Sept. 11, 2001, the day after his birthday. Palmer flew in to Norfolk on his private jet and then took a helicopter to the course. When the FAA shut down air traffic, Stevenson drove Palmer to Norfolk, where he rented a car to drive back to Pennsylvania.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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