OCEAN VIEW, Del. -- In 1990, southern Delaware was not a golf destination at all. Tourists from nearby Washington D.C., Baltimore,and Philadelphia would flock here for the superb beaches, but they left their golf clubs at home. By the end of that same decade, however, golf courses were springing up throughout northern Maryland and southern Delaware, offering golfers from New York to D.C. a golf destination alternative that will save hundreds of driving miles along with hundreds of dollars off the usual golf trip further south.
The best of the new southern Delaware courses is Bear Trap Dunes Golf Club in Ocean View. This 27-hole facility has it all: Playable yet challenging holes, first-rate clubhouse, the best golf instructor in the state, and ocean breezes that can turn the sub-7,000-yard layout into a bear of a test for even the best players.
Publications including Golf for Women and The Washington Timeshave raved about this Rick Jacobson design, which opened as an 18-holecourse in 1999 and expanded to 27 holes in 2001. TV commentator and Champions Tour standout Gary McCord was similarly impressed after playing here.
"The set-up off the tee was just great. Rick Jacobson really shows youwhere to hit the ball," McCord said.
Bret Marshall, head professional and the top instructor in Delaware according to Golf Digest, is also quick to point out the appeal of the design. "[This is a] very fair course," assures Marshall. "Rick [Jacobson] built it with no ego. He didn't want to make any hole unplayable. He was very creative, but there are no long forced carries. There's lots of trouble, but it's off to the sides, not in front of you."
Jacobson, one of Jack Nicklaus's course architect proteges, did indeed incorporate lots of danger, but only if you don't keep your ball in the fairways. On the original 18 holes (Grizzly and Kodiak nines), 13 holes are studded tee to green with bunkers, and 11 holes bordered water. The new nine (Black Bear) is similarly bedecked with sand and sea.
Despite the potential peril, fairways are wide and clearly framed. From each tee, players can begin immediately to plan their routes to the hole. The greens are majestic, swooping swaths of perfectly manicured bent grass,which allow for myriad pin placements and countless methods of approach. With run-up ramps to all greens, they are exceedingly playable for higher handicapped golfers. And with closely-mown chipping areas funneling off the greens on several sides, they also present a high degree of difficulty for scratch players trying to stick it close.
Although Bear Trap Dunes is an award-winning golf development, its homesites do remain in view enough to lend it a bit too much of a "residential" course for those whose tastes run to stand-alone courses. On the positive side, before being transformed into an excellent course, the land was so flat and featureless that the houses are not in any way blocking out the scenery. And to be fair, the homes and yards generally do not come into play.
Though some fairways are obviously sloped, even those that appear level may be canted enough to produce unfortunate bounces. Fortunately, mounding along the track often acts as an equalizer, channeling balls back into play.
Bear Trap Dunes' newest nine is also the longest and arguably the best of the 27. No. 2 is a stern 441-yard par 4, the green complex of which brings to mind some of the inland holes at Kingsbarns in Scotland. The 424-yard ninth is a memorable closer, whether it is the closer of your first nine or your second nine. A gaping trench of a waste area demands one of the few forced carries off all but the forward tees. The sand extends over half-way down the right side of the fairway,where water begins. There is also a pot bunker in the center of the fairway beyond the waste area. In a word, this hole requires precision -- off the tee and into the green.
The Grizzly was the front nine of the original 18-hole layout. The opening holes are tough doglegs that require accuracy and some amount of local knowledge. No. 1 (434 yards, par 4) features a tree guarding the left side of the narrow fairway. Tee shots ending up on that left side could wind up stymied.
The Grizzly's ninth (534 yards) is a par-5 mirror image of the ninth on the Black Bear: This time, the tee shot is over a waste area that stretches along the left side of the fairway. Again, the waste bunker is followed by water running the rest of the way to the green. Another fantastic closer.
One cannot say enough about the eye-catching bunkering and artistically executed greens. Sand traps are in turn functional and decorative. Some beyond the range of play simply provide aiming points or picturesque backdrops. Others promise to add penalty strokes to the cards of the careless.
Nowhere is the bunkering more pleasing than around the green of the easy, par-3 fourth on the Grizzly. At only 163 yards from the tips, this hole won't give you nightmares. But if the bucolic, wild bunkers -- reminiscent of the Irish Course at Whistling Straits -- distract you from your mission, it might yield an undeserved bogey.
Nos. 7 ( 550 yards, par 5) and 9 (427 yards, par 4) are the two best holes on this original back nine. The seventh usually plays into the wind, and once again sand and water guard the right side of the fairway from tee to green.If the wind is howling, any -- repeat, any -- side spin can be accentuated ten-fold, so slicers beware.
The long ninth requires muscle off the tee, and then more muscle over a veritable desert of a fairway bunker jutting out into the line of play. Lay-ups to the right of the sand must find a narrow ribbon of short grass between rough to the left and water to the right.
The "three bears" at Bear Trap Dunes stand as worthy quarries for any golfer, from weekend warriors to big guns. Jacobson's homage to his mentor the Golden Bear succeeds in providing playability along with formidable challenges, not an easy combination to achieve.
Located toward the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, and thus warmed by ocean waters, this is often the closest locale to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C. without snow, so it is open all year most seasons.
The top-notch clubhouse and restaurant, along with the professional-grade practice facilities and instructional program, make Bear Trap Dunes one of the three true "destination" courses in southern Delaware, along with Baywood Greens, which is just 18 holes, and The Rookery, which is considerably easier.
April 10, 2003