Back Creek Golf Club is Pride of Delaware

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

MIDDLETON, Del. - So you want to design and build your own golf course, do you? Come on, what avid golfer wouldn't love to bring a new, quality course into existence? Naturally you will need to acquire the money and land, but, those trifles aside, it can be done. Back Creek Golf Club in Middletown, Del., is the proof.

To be honest, first-time course designers usually meet very limited success. The exception to this rule is Back Creek Golf Club. Owner Allen C. Liddicoat recruited veteran designer David Horne and, faithful to the American can-do spirit, designed and opened in the fall of 1997, a beautiful links-style course in one of the most crowded golf markets in America (just outside Philadelphia).

Back Creek Golf Club was ranked as one of the best modern courses in America by GOLFWEEK. It came in as number 98, but hey, it's still in the top 100. And truthfully, how many of us, when we think "Delaware," think "golf?" So the 98 rank really is an achievement.

The property on which Back Creek is located was once a farm owned by Delaware's first governor, Joshua Clayton. And, although the course winds through and around a subdivision, the homes on the course are for the most part far enough back from the fairways that they don't detract (much) from the visual aesthetics.

On the scattered occasions when back yards border fairways, Liddicoat has very wisely chosen to consider the yards as hazards, rather than O.B.. Thus, the occasional errant tee shot results in only one lost shot and a drop, rather than the devastating penalty for O.B.. More courses should take the same approach, as far as I and duffers everywhere are concerned.

Back Creek has a quirky but wholly attractive appearance. Only three holes have any trees on them (Nos. 6, 7, and 16). The rest of the holes are linksy, but American linksy. By this I mean that, yes, houses provide a relatively distant backdrop for a number of greens, and yards do run along some fairways. It is hard to imagine executive lots lining Carnoustie.

In addition, ponds come into play on six holes, which isn't very links-like, either. But if you want authentic links golf, go to Scotland.

These unlinks-like features aside, most of the time, you will be struck by the ever-present waist-high rough, well-done mounding, and over 80 bunkers strategically placed from tee to green. You most likely won't be struck by another golf ball, as only Nos. 11 and 12 and 9 and 18 run parallel.

Back Creek is even walkable, increasingly more rare among new courses. In this Respect, a true links golfer would most definitely appreciate the course. Also, since carts are to be run on paths only, riding involves nearly as much walking as simply walking.

The layout is also appealing, with each nine looping out in opposite directions. So there are no crossing cart paths or neighboring tee boxes to beguile and confuse the uninitiated. Rangers were also vigilantly working to keep the pace of play steady and pulling the metal-spiked heathen off the course for a quick conversion.

At 7,003 yards from the tips, Back Creek is no cakewalk for even the low handicapper. Three shorter sets of tees provide the opportunity for all skill levels to enjoy the course. The starter suggested that I be very careful in pulling my driver out of the bag on several holes, though, despite the length of the course. Placement takes precedence over length here.

More challenging than the length for the first-timer at Back Creek is the fact that there are no hole descriptions on the scorecard, nor are there pictures of the holes at the tee stands. So on many holes, my photographer and I found ourselves guessing distances to and over hazards, and even the direction of the greens on some holes.

Only after the round did I find a distance card in the clubhouse, with all of the crucial information spelled out. Be sure to get one of these BEFORE your round. I could have saved several strokes (or so I tell myself to justify my abysmal score).

The condition of the course was very good, which is truly remarkable considering that the East Coast is experiencing of one of the worst droughts this century. Back Creek is blessed with a high water table and its own wells, so water is not a problem. As a result, the rye grass fairways were lush. The bentgrass greens were lightning fast, but especially on the front nine, a bit chewed up.

My playing partners didn't seem to notice, but I was somewhat distracted by brown dots left by ball mark repairs and numerous 4-inch brown circles where the old cups had been. More of a problem, however, were places on several greens where the mower had scalped the crests of the more extreme contours on about six greens. The greens on the back nine were in better shape than the front, though. And again, considering the severity of the drought, they were in pretty good shape overall.

One positive effect of the drought is that the waist-high fescue lining many holes was dormant and brown, so it was much easier to locate errant shots (not that I would know firsthand, mind you...). It was still plenty hard to get back out of the wiry rough, but at least you could find the ball to give it a whack (or so I was told...).

Middletown, Del., is located just a stone's throw from three counties in Pennsylvania that call themselves the Mushroom Capitol of America. Apparently 90% of all the mushrooms eaten in the U.S. grow in these counties. Consequently, mushroom spillover is apparent on the fairways of Back Creek.

More than once I headed towards my ball, only to find that it wasn't a ball at all, but rather a bulbous button-cap mushroom. Now, I've scoured the USGA rulebook, and I can't find any penalty for holing out with a mushroom instead of your ball. (So that birdie stands, dammit.)

The greens are generally very large. Unfortunately some have what I consider to be unfair or novelty features. For example, the green of the par-4 3rd has slope in the middle that looks like something from a skateboard park--practically three feet high!

This slope had been scalped by mowers. So even if you like tricked-up greens, you must admit that the groundskeepers have to be able to mow without killing the grass. Another example is the green on the par-4 18th, where a deep trough runs from front to back through the middle of the green. Again, there's no purpose for this sort of thing that I can see other than sheer novelty.

Aside from the occasional silly green, you'll find a putting challenge on every hole. As I said, all greens were extremely slick and well-contoured, so accuracy on your approach is critical. For golfers like me, this means lots and lots of three putts. On most of the holes, going over the green or even past the hole will result in an extra stroke or two. Some of the greens drop off so severely to the back that you'll be lucky to find your ball, much less get it back onto the putting surface.

A quick tour of the highlights of the course starts with the par-5, 541-yard 5th, which presents you with an intimidating tee shot over high mounds and even higher rough. The short par-4 No. 6 (341 yards), and a candidate for signature hole status, is a hard right to left dogleg beginning about half-way down the fairway.

The tee shot is over a veritable jungle and between trees. If you can rip it just right of the tree on the left and keep it from drawing into the woods farther up in the left, you'll get a nice bounce off the mounding along the left-hand side of the fairway. I was, in fact, lucky to find my tee shot just short of a greenside bunker. The much wiser, safer play would be to aim down the right side, just short of the bunkers, with a long iron or fairway wood.

No. 7 (433 yards, par 4) offers another intimidating tee shot with bushes and two nearly dead trees to get past. No. 8 is a very pretty par 3. At 156 yards, it is typical of the par threes here; only one is over 180 yards (the 14th). At all the par threes you'll find lots of nice bunkers filled with quite fluffy sand and the occasional water hazard to avoid.

The par-4 No. 9 is a tester at 460 yards. Fairway bunkers jut well out into the short grass and surround the green. Don't screw up and aim at the practice green, just behind the 9th green. True, you'll have more holes to putt at, but...

Making the Turn

Nos. 10 and 12 are very long par 4s, and the 11th is a long par 5. All require nearly perfect tee shots to navigate around the doglegs in each. No. 13 (462-yard, par 4) is another potential signature hole and the number one handicap hole on the course.

Unlike most of the fairways, it is very tight, with deep grass right and bunkers left. And, if you tee off from one of the forward tees, a patch of rough slices across the middle of the fairway and comes into play. The road running parallel on the right might disqualify this otherwise great hole from signature status.

The par 4, 413-yard 15th is a very pretty hole indeed, and the third potential signature hole. The tee shot is absolutely crucial as only 210 yards out on the left, a pond cuts into the fairway. 183 yards out on the right is the end of a sandtrap, so precision, rather than length, is the key. But even a precise tee shot leaves a second to a pin guarded on all sides by traps. In fact, it looks as if some golfer-hating dump-truck driver just dumped a load of sand around the green out of spite.

The three finishing holes are quite enjoyable, until the very end. No. 16 messes with your head because you need to drive over water--not far over water, but just far enough to give duffers the jitters. Duck hook it, though, and you will end up in the water running half-way to the green on the left-hand side. No. 17 is a lovely par 3 where you need to carry a pond and wide expanses of sand to a very shallow green.

Finally, No. 18 requires the circumnavigation of two fairway bunkers. Up by the green, there's no sand right so if you're going to miss, miss right. Of course, if the pin placement is on the left, you'll have to putt across that ridiculous trough I mentioned earlier.

I think one would be hard pressed to find a better course by a first-time designer (even with the assistance of an experienced course architect). And given the location of Back Creek, smack-dab in the middle of the crowded Eastern Seaboard, I imagine that the course will only become more and more popular (and crowded) as word gets around.

Rates are reasonable for this part of the country ($55 weekends, cart included), and the layout offers a unique and challenging round. So, if you're planning a business trip to Philly, Baltimore, Wilmington, or one of the other nearby metropolitan areas, pack up your clubs and hit some real links at Back Creek.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.


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