Arthur Hills releases his golf demons at White Clay Creek

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

WILMINGTON, Del. - If Leroy Brown is meaner than a junkyard dog, Arthur Hills must be meaner than a junkyard dog with a toothache and a broken heart. You want something, bad, bad, bad? Try out Hills' design at the new White Clay Creek Country Club, the baddest golf course in the whole damn town - and then some.

White Clay Creek doesn't just spit out average hackers with its endless parade of forced creek carries, it chews them up some more with its raised ridge greens. Play this recently opened monster at Delaware Park and you'll become certain that Hills has tapped his inner Pete Dye. White Clay Creek isn't just mean, it's merciless.

"Some of the things that golfers are saying as they get back to the clubhouse is it's very, very difficult," Head Professional Ryan Kidwell said. "We do have five sets of tees though and if you play the tees that are suitable to your abilities ..."

And if monkeys could fly, we'd all be in "The Wizard of Oz." What self-respecting male hacker under 60 do you know who's playing one of the two forward tees? Even taken on from the middle white tees, White Clay Creek is scarier than your mother-in-law.

This course is hard and there is no sense in trying to hide that. Which doesn't mean it's not impressive or worth the pain to play. Sometimes getting your ego and your game bruised delivers its own satisfaction.

White Clay Creek is part of a Delaware golf scene that's frequently sped by at 70 mph, but seldom stopped at. Forget that "First State" tag line on Delaware's license plates. Its motto should be "The Drive Through State." Doing that will never let you discover some excellent, reasonable East Coast golf however. There are plenty of courses that bring real character into this forget-me-often state.

White Clay Creek fits right in. Its pins don't have flags on them. They have jockey helmets, a nod to the race track next door. Speaking of the Delaware Park track, on White Creek's 11th and 12th holes you can hear the race announcer calling the afternoon's action over a scratchy loudspeaker. On the back nine in your backswing, everyone's coming down the backstretch.

It's neat rather than annoying. Our group's only regret was that we failed to lay down $20 on the long shot in the 10th race. Imagine hitting the trifecta, while you're on the green.

The real thrill is the chill Hills gives your irons though. There's a forced carry on almost every hole, two on most. Some are downright devilish.

Take No. 6. This 491-yard par 4 features a 250-yard clear from the raised back, back tees. That's right, a 250-yard forced carry right off the tee. It's a huge brush and vegetation expanse rising out of a marshy creek tributary. All you see is the tall stalks in the air. You hear the water when your ball crashes through the brush and lands in the muck.

If Hell has a forced carry hazard, this might be it.

No. 6 is a beautiful looking hole, with those elevated tees looking down into a fairway framed by trees and bunkers. As is No. 11, a dramatically sharp-curving dogleg-right 444-yard par 4 complete with the requisite two forced carries.

It's easy to forget you are mere minutes from the East Coast lifeline commuter sprawl of I-95 at White Clay Creek. The course is spread out (there's eight-and-a-half miles of cart path!) in the woods with no houses in sight.

Of course, sometimes it's hard to appreciate the aesthetics when you're getting mugged. Arthur Hills can force the average hacker to run through so many sleeves of balls here that before you know it, you're ankle deep in creek muck, telling yourself it's worth it to fish out that Wal-Mart cheapie.

"It's a little hard for me," 30-year golfer Ed Chambers said, his face still red from frustration at the cart return. "With all the water left and right, it just becomes a little much. There were too many dinky creeks and ravines. It's a little tricked up for my taste."

Chambers flashed a smile the most sarcastic teenager could appreciate.

"Other than that, it was wonderful," he snarled.

Then, there are golfers like Eliza Jourbon. A first-year duffer, who declined to play from either of the forward tees and instead hit back with the men in her group, couldn't stop raving about White Clay Creek.

"It's really pretty,'' Jourbon said. "And I think it's fun. It's one of the courses I've enjoyed most."

It all comes down to how much pain you can take without losing your smile.

The verdict

The service at White Clay Creek is seamless. The beer cart girl comes around so often that someone in your group is liable to become convinced she's trying to date him by the turn (she's not).

The player assistants are full of good cheer without being overbearing in the least. Kidwell and his staff hand out comment cards to everyone and ask you once, twice to fill them out and actually seem to act on the comments they get. The locker rooms are so huge and full of wood, you think you've stumbled into a private club.

The price is semi-reasonable for the East Coast ($85 weekdays greens fee). The setting is serene.

It's all about whether you want to take on Hills' turn toward mean. Water comes into play on 16 of the 18 holes. Getting to the green is often no relief, with the raised ridges kicking shots back off down hills, starting right away with No. 1.

If you're good humor can survive serious lumps, play White Clay Creek. If not, save your money for the track.

Dining out

Downtown Wilmington is a quick freeway jaunt away. If you're smart, you'll just keep driving the 35 minutes to Philadelphia for real big city East Coast dining.

If you insist on staying local - if your car happens to break down or you've been inspired to masochism by Arthur Hills - there's the Green Room ((302) 594-3154) in the Hotel DuPont. Here you can join senior citizens in old jackets and gowns for a glimpse into the 1920s at 2020 prices.

A better bet is to go casual at Govatos ((302) 652-4082), a lunch and breakfast joint in a building that dates back to 1894.

Stay and play

Ditto on the Philadelphia advice. You'll be there before you know it.

If something's keeping you in Wilmington, the Hotel Dupont ((302) 594-3100) is your best choice even if it's grossly over-hyped. With the way locals talk about this place, you expect to be stepping into the mother of all historic hotels. Instead there's a small, disappointing lobby. The rooms are the best in town, though.

Fast fact

There are actually two huge creeks that run through the course. The name honored White Clay Creek and the dissed Mill Creek.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin 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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