Atlantic Golf at South River Proves Not All Dirt Is Created Equal

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

EDGEWATER, MD - In today’s world, many folks struggle with the concept of equality. Equality’s deeply rooted in the written record of our republic, but it still seems there’s always some representative of an interest group appearing on TV, telling us for some reason or another, they’re getting the short end of the stick. Even in our natural world, there’s an obvious lack of balance between humans and their surroundings—it’s a dog eat dog world out there.

At least you can count on a few things always being equal. Two trees share the air without too much bother. Two rocks occupy the same space without crushing each other. Heck, even two turkey vultures divide up the same carcass—leaving enough left over for some other member of the carrion niche ready to take what’s left. Finally, dirt is something that’s always equal—add water, get mud.

Not so!

I’d always thought soil was soil, until I talked with course architect Brian Ault of Ault, Clark & Associates about a golf course he designed—Atlantic Golf at South River. Ault shattered the notion that all dirt is created equal, and the South River project amply demonstrates this.

“The South River project is memorable for a lot of reasons,” Ault adds, “but I’d say the most notable aspect of the work done there was the ‘great soil exchange.’” Huh? Why would you need to ‘exchange’ dirt?

Ault elaborates, “There was a shopping center being built about a mile away at the same time we were first clearing the land at South River. It turns out the soil at the shopping center site was too good—excellent topsoil, but wouldn’t support the weight of a parking lot and the buildings to be put there.”

Ault continues, “In contrast, we had some real good, load-bearing dirt at South River, but the shopping center’s soil would work much better for our purposes—growing grass for a golf course. So, we decided to ‘swap’ the soil.”

A quarter million cubic yards worth, it turns out. That’s a lotta dirt, and it took the better part of a year to make the exchange.

All the bother was certainly worth it. Atlantic Golf at South River is quite a unique course—and it’s not just because the dirt comes from down the road. It’s an extremely challenging layout with numerous forced carries, more wetlands than many a swamp, and some significant elevation changes thrown in, just to make it interesting.

B.B. Handley, Pro Shop Manager at South River, acknowledges the course’s difficulty: “We’ve got one of the toughest courses in the Middle Atlantic here—especially on the back nine, where environmental areas (wetlands to us lay people) come into play on seven holes. We get a lot of players coming in here, telling us they’ll go and drop quite a bit more money at some other courses and enjoy them—but when they want a challenge, they come here.”

Ault says the nature of the site made it difficult to try and fit things in. “The layout’s a little more challenging than what we envisioned when we first started out. Some new state environmental regulations had just been instituted, and we struggled to work out the details. It’s a good thing we had a great ownership group with the Birneys (who also did Queenstown Harbor and Potomac Ridge)—who allowed us to do what it took to finish it up.”

Ault adds, “The State and County were constantly inspecting us. It was a tedious process, evolving slowly and diplomatically, bite your tongue sort of, to work through the issues--let the regulatory people do their thing, and find ways to make it happen.”

It did happen, in a rather dramatic fashion. Handley even points to the bridge connecting the two nines that passes over Maryland Route 2—“That bridge was pretty expensive to construct—we’re one of the few facilities I can think of where the two nines are separated by a state highway.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Just because ‘a road runs through it’ doesn’t mean you’re dodging cars at South River—or even faced with excessive noise. The layout also winds through a housing complex—and although the houses get fairly close at times, there’s still plenty of seclusion to be ‘found.’ The holes are nicely stretched out, so you’ll rarely see other golfers as you play.

Handley says “When we first came here and there weren’t any houses, it was like being out there in the woods all alone. Even now, it still feels very isolated—the only time you’ll observe players on a different hole is on the tee of #10—where you’ll see groups putting on the eighteenth green. Other than that, you’re out there by your lonesome.”

Just you, the wetlands and the wildlife (and some backyards). Handley did point out one potential benefit to having so much natural vegetation. “We realized the course would play extremely difficult with all the carries and the environmental areas. So we devised a local rule whereby if you hit into any hazards that span the complete length of the fairway, you get to drop on the other side. We’ve defined the vegetation as ‘wetland areas not defined by stakes,’ and they’re played as environmental hazards.”

An environmental compromise, but also a measure to keep things moving. I will note, it takes a good chunk of time to play South River, and if they didn’t have this rule, pace would come to an absolute standstill—not to mention golf ball sales might go through the roof. That’d be great once, but it wouldn’t encourage folks to come back.

So come prepared for a stern challenge, but one with quite a lot of beauty, character, and excellent playing conditions. It’s a course that should be played more than once to learn how to approach it.

The layout begins with a 395 yard par four, fairly straight but tight. Water, wetlands and trees to the right and a road to the left squeeze the tee shot. Here, you’ll get your first introduction to the need for accuracy at South River.

The round hits high gear at number four, one of the course’s signature holes. It’s a 555 yard par five with a severely downhill tee shot--a bunker protecting the fairway left and rough to the right. There is a lake long right, but would take Tiger Woods’ length to reach it. Sand narrows the landing area should you attempt to go at the green in two, but the putting surface is large and receptive to a short iron third.

Five is probably the most beautiful hole on the course, 149 yards of par three with a full water carry. There’s a narrow bunker bordering the green to save short shots from the water—and there’s a nice looking fountain in the middle of the lake.

Eight’s another terrific par five, showing a downhill tee shot, then a dramatic rise for the second and potential third shots. If you try to cut the dogleg right, you’ll have to carry a large bunker and thread the needle to avoid an environmental area long. This hole is reachable for semi-long hitters, but the green is very undulated and won’t surrender low scores easily.

Nine’s a great hole to round out the outward nine. It’s a very challenging 378 yarder with trouble everywhere. The fairway’s quite narrow and the green’s protected by a lake to the front and left. Score a bulls-eye on this target hole or face disaster.

The first three holes on the backside step-up the difficulty another notch, and that’s the main reason why the management flipped the nines—according to Handley. “We wanted people to be good and warmed up by the time they hit that stretch, instead of facing them right off the bat.”

Ten’s a 416 yard, slight dogleg right with a downhill tee shot and water all down the right side, including an attractive waterfall (if you glance back towards the tee from the green). A large bunker protects the green to the short right, just over the water—and I’d guess it gets a lot of play.

Eleven’s the # 1 handicap hole with wetlands carries on the tee and approach shots, and the landing area is semi-hidden on the tee ball. Then the green’s surrounded by mounds, bunkers and deep rough. You’ll be lucky to escape this one without winning a purple heart.

Thirteen’s a 184 yard par three with a mid-range wetlands carry to a slightly elevated green, guarded by bunkers left and right.

There’s only one par four the rest of the way, as South River’s back nine features a unique configuration—three par fours, three par fives and three par threes. The sixteenth and seventeenth holes are the only links where environmental areas don’t rule the landscape—but sixteen has fourteen bunkers that dominate the second half of the hole, and seventeen’s a long par three at 206 yards.

Eighteen’s a monster closing hole. 567 yards in length with a double dogleg and uphill on the second and third shots, it’ll sap what energy you have left. Grabbing par here will serve as a final bit of Herculean achievement if you muster it.

South River’s not for the meek, and Ault admits it may not fit everyone’s game—the sheer number of carries will best many folks. I’d highly recommend playing one of the forward sets of tees if you can’t get a consistent 175 yards in the air off the tee—and even then, you’ll need to be very straight.

But you’ll also learn some things if you come here—about your game, the environment, and perhaps even something about dirt. It’ll shatter your illusions about what soil means to a golf course—and cause you to think twice about how good the soil is in your own front yard.

Pro Shop Manager: B.B. Handley
Course Architect: Brian Ault

Jeffrey A. RendallJeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

Jeffrey Rendall is an avid golfer and freelance writer. After passing the California Bar in 1994, he moved to Virginia to pursue his interests in history and politics, where he's worked since 1995.


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