Tiny Delaware boasts golf worthy of more than a drive by

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

White Clay Creek CountryWILMINGTON, Del. - The sun's shinning so bright you need protection from the UV rays on an uncharacteristically (for this time of year) East Coast day. There are three groups out on the whole White Clay Creek Country Club course. The clubhouse attendant explains that a number of golfers canceled due to an early afternoon downpour.

This is more than a weather issue, though. It's a Delaware issue.

"We get golfers telling us all the time, 'We just didn't know you were here,'" White Clay Creek Head Professional Ryan Kidwell said. "They drive past us every day, but they just don't expect a golf course to be here."

Kidwell is referring to White Clay Creek's location in the Delaware Park racetrack complex in particular, but he could just as easily be talking about Delaware golf in general. Delaware may be only the second smallest state in land mass, getting edged out for the tiny title by Rhode Island. But there's little doubt it is the most overlooked one in golf terms.

You want tiny? Delaware's got your tiny.

In Golf Digest's "Best Places to Play," Delaware garnered only eight course mentions, whereas Rhode Island pulled in a whopping 12. That doesn't mean Delaware doesn't have some good golf. It just means no one's stopping to discover it.

Forget that "First State" tag line on Delaware's license plates. Its motto should be "The Drive-Through State." Never mind the Blue Hen. The state symbol should be a picture of a foot planted down full flush on the accelerator. For that's how most harried East Coast commuters experience Delaware.

Delaware's courses It is the quick blur New Yorkers and New Jerseyans fly through on the way to Baltimore and points farther south on I-95. It is that place with DuPont and ... well, DuPont to many others.

Maybe it's the only state without a national park (49 for 49 otherwise) because it's a state where no one's parking.

"You just don't thinking of going to Delaware," New York golfer Frank Palazzo said. "Know what I mean? My buddy brought me out here (to play White Clay Creek). Otherwise, I'm more likely to golf up near Saratoga Springs (in upstate New York) than down here, even though this is closer."

Delaware is like lint. It never crosses the mind unless it's in your face.

This is how a course like Three Little Bakers Country Club, a tough inventive design with reasonable rates (less than $50 with cart weekdays) can call itself undiscovered even though it's been open since 1973. And you thought "The 40-year-old Virgin" was sheltered?

Only in Delaware.

You might want to ease off the gas pedal after all. For there are a number of worthy plays in the state where the first John Deere tractor was built. (The company's long since moved on. It's Delaware!) No one's suggesting you do anything crazy, like stay the night. But for some quick day trips, you can do much worse than Delaware golf.

Yes, it's Delaware. And it's going to surprise you.

Must plays

White Clay Creek Country Club: Two huge creeks run through this spread out Arthur Hills design (eight and a half miles of cart path!) and you will feel like you've carried every single one of their tributaries by day's end. Hills is ruthless here with all the forced carries and then even meaner when it's time to approach the raised ridge greens.

If you can get past the probable pain, this summer-2005-opened track brings some touches of real character. You'll see horse barns, not houses. You can hear the scratchy loudspeaker of the neighboring track on part of the back nine. Instead of flags, the pins are topped by jockey helmets. It all can keep a hacker smiling as he's skillfully beaten up.

The humorless score-obsessed should tee it up elsewhere, however.

Three Little Bakers Country Club: Set on the site of the Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre - a 192-acre complex that features Broadway shows and music acts - this course really isn't as hidden as everyone is liable to keep telling you. It receives 40,000 rounds of play some years.

It's more than worth the $49 weekdays greens fee, though. Playing the rolling hills and slanted fairways at Three Little Bakers, you quickly forget that Delaware is the lowest state in the union, averaging just 60 feet above sea level - if you ever knew that in the first place.

Solid seconds

Bear Trap Dunes Golf Club: Delaware does have beaches and this 27-hole, Rick Jacobson design is located in the heart of the First State Shore. The course itself features lots of sand dunes that help mask the fact the holes are so close together that every bit of space seems to be used.

If the wind's kicking up on the beach, you can be sure your ball's going to be going every which way out on the course.

Back Creek Golf Club: First-time owner Allen Liddicoat designed much of this course himself and like many individual ownership operations, it's a reasonable course with some interesting features. Laid out on flat farmland, Back Creek isn't going to crush you.

It will entertain you with its off-beat mix of links-style looks, man-made ponds (on six holes) and trees (on three holes). There's no way all these different styles should fit together, but somehow it does for a satisfying, if untraditional, round.

Delcastle Golf Club: If you want to find a crowd in Delaware, this low-key public track in Wilmington is your best bet. The $25 weekday greens fee packs them in. This is where you'll run into folks who actually live in Delaware.

The course itself isn't anything spectacular, but for hackers looking to bomb away with their driver, again and again, amongst some pretty fall leaves, DelCastle provides a nice afternoon.

Off course

Delaware's coursesDid we mention there's not a lot of there here? Literally. It's 1,982 square miles of state to be exact. That makes it easy to escape to bigger East Coast metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., etc. ...

Fort Delaware is a worthwhile attraction for the history buff and there might be more outlet stores per square mile in Delaware than anywhere else in the United States. Wilmington is something to be missed, though. If you want to experience The Drive-Through State at its best take some time and meander along the 90 miles of coastline.

You'll feel like a pioneer when you tell your friends about that great little beachfront cafe in Delaware. Just ignore the strange looks.

Dining out

Downtown Wilmington is the biggest metro area in the state and a quick ride from many of these courses. 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're into masochism - 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 is 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, however.

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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