Exploring the best of golf and travel in the Mid Atlantic

By Jake Schaller, Contributor

OCEAN CITY, MD -- As recently as the early 1990s, a round of golf at a quality course in the Washington Metropolitan area was far from just a phone call and a short drive away.

There were some standout courses, to be sure - either of the 18s at Congressional Country Club, Columbia's famed layout, Bethesda Country Club, or the TPC at Avenel. But in order to play any of them you needed a pile of money, a relative with a membership or a seat in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration. It certainly seemed that difficult, however, to find a good round on a good layout because the gap between the great tracks and the cow pastures was huge - not just around the Beltway, but throughout the entire Mid-Atlantic Region. If you weren't a member of a club, municipal courses seemed to be your only option.

That is no longer the case. Thanks to explosions of growth in several pockets of the region, the Mid-Atlantic now has a collection of quality daily-fee courses to go along with its stable of venerable country clubs. That has been the biggest trend in the last decade in the Mid-Atlantic region, according to area experts.

"There's been a proliferation of daily-fee courses," said Peter Hill, the CEO of Billy Casper Golf, which operates 40 courses in the area. "Ten or 15 years ago, if you wanted to play daily-fee golf in the Mid-Atlantic, it was a mess. There was nowhere to go. Now it's the exact opposite. There are a ton of golf courses in the immediate area."

According to Jon Guhl, the Assistant Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic PGA, as of January of 2002, there were 603 golf facilities in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. That includes 220 daily-fee/semi-private courses, 195 private courses, 60 municipal courses, 82 driving ranges, 21 other facilities (indoor, academies, etc) and 25 under construction.

As those numbers seem to indicate, the new courses mostly increased the number of high-end, daily-fee courses in the Mid-Atlantic. The upscale movement of the last decade has given non-country club players a plethora of options.

"Almost all the new facilities being built are daily-fee courses instead of private," Guhl said. "It puts the onus on existing daily fees to compete. Now it's a question of value, what you're giving and what the customer is paying for."

Areas that once had limited public options now seem to have enough courses to be considered an actual golf destination. Ocean City, Md., Frederick, Md., the Route 7 corridor of Virginia and Williamsburg, Va., are but a few of the locations that now boast numerous quality courses.

"Look at Ocean City," said Bob Dolan, the head professional at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Md., and the current president of the Mid-Atlantic PGA. "You've got Queenstown, Bear Trap Dunes and Beacon Hill, just to name a few. Golfers are into going somewhere for a long weekend where they can play a cluster of courses, and now you can go anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic region and have that option."

The question now is whether or not the Mid-Atlantic area can support this onslaught of new courses. With the country's economic experts on pins and needles, golf course owners are too.

"I think a lot of our current owners and the management of courses would argue that there are too many," said Guhl. "On the PGA side, more courses mean more jobs. But I've definitely heard arguments from our people and owners that there are too many golf courses. Some are protecting their turf, of course, I'm McDonald's and I don't want a Burger King next door. There's a certain amount of that as well."

According to Guhl, the participation numbers for Maryland and Virginia (the percentage of people who play golf) are average or below average when compared with the rest of the country. They haven't increased along with the number of courses in the area.

Dolan thinks there aren't enough golfers to pack the tee sheets on all the courses in the region. His main concern is that the upscale movement of the early- and mid-90s gave golf fanatics more than enough courses to enjoy but priced out many fringe players.

"The question is have we built enough golf courses to accommodate the public player in the lower-price range," Dolan said. "We haven't really provided a lot of affordable golf."

Dolan attended last year's GOLF 2020 Conference along with members of the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, the USGA, First Tee, the National Golf Foundation, major manufacturers and others. Among the missions of GOLF 2020 are to make golf as popular as the NFL in America and to increase the number of golf participants (defined by the National Golf Foundation as anyone age 5 and above who played a round of golf or visited a golf practice facility in the last 12 months) to 55 million by the year 2020. Now, according to the National Golf Foundation, there are 37.1 million golf participants.

Without enough cheaper courses, that goal may not be possible.

"Research shows that when people do leave the game of golf, the two most common reasons are because it takes too long and it costs too much," Dolan said. "We've got plenty of upscale, daily-fee courses, but is that really the target market? How are we going to grow the game of golf?"

Creating more affordable options is easier said than done, however, as Dolan admits. The cost of land and the expense of building a course almost necessitate high prices. "You have to charge a lot of money to recoup your investment," he said. "It's no different across the country."

While those are potential problems for the Mid-Atlantic course owners and professionals, things are better than ever for avid golfers in the region.

"In terms of quality courses, we have a high number of quality courses," Guhl said. "We have some very well-established private clubs, but on the topic of daily fee courses, we have some acclaimed courses that are Top 100 courses you can play. I'd stack them up against pretty much everybody. There are some places that are warm year round that have that advantage over us, but if you're living in this area, you're not hurting for good places to play."

Hill agrees. "Williamsburg is now a destination, the Eastern Shore is now a destination for golf, and they are beginning to get marketed that way," he said. "It used to be if you wanted to play golf, you'd go to Pinehurst or Myrtle Beach. Those used to be the only choices. Now they're not the only choices."

The only problem that seems to threaten both established players and courses is out of their control - a lack of rain. Drought-like conditions hurt the majority of the country this year, and they could be even worse in the future.

"I think it will effect region for years to come, and it's likely to get more acute before it gets less acute," said Hill.

Jake Schaller, Contributor

Jake Schaller resides in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. He grew up in Bethesda, Md., where he attended Walt Whitman High School and played football.

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