- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

There was a time during this country’s expansion phase that west of Baltimore County was considered “out there.” Why else would they name a private, liberal arts college just 30 miles northwest of Baltimore Western Maryland College?

Times, like the name of that school, changed. McDaniel College, in Westminister, is practically a suburb of Baltimore. As Maryland’s population spread west to Frederick, then over the Catoctin Mountains, then out to its panhandle, Maryland’s “wild west” designation began to move, well, west. Three sides of Western Maryland have always been clearly defined — it is bounded by the Mason-Dixon Line on the north, the West Virginia state line on the west, and the Potomac River to the south. The question is where Western Maryland begins.

Folks from the Baltimore-Washington area claim everything west of Frederick city is to be considered Western Maryland. However, those from the more rural counties of Allegany and Garrett consider Sideling Hill the boundary between their beloved mountain region and the eastern part of the state.

In terms of golf, we like to define Western Maryland as anywhere to the west where more tranquil and peaceful surroundings supplant the bustle of Baltimore and the District’s Maryland suburbs.

Locals in this region say the climate is a little cooler during the summer and a little more of a winter wonderland during those months. They say their rural landscapes are better suited for farming, for small-town values, for less-stressful living and for a slower pace. Some might even say their land is better suited for golf landscapes. Who’s to argue? Several of the state’s most majestic layouts are situated somewhere between its midsection all the way out to its craggy left tip.

Despite its agricultural history, Western Maryland has developed a reputation as a tourist attraction. Places such as Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County are frequented by many visitors year-round. The region is well known for its numerous state parks and outdoor activities, including skiing and golf, and the Wisp Resort in the little resort town of McHenry.

So what better place to start a discussion about golf in Western Maryland than at The Wisp? For a course with such a soft, soothing name, The Wisp has always had a hard edge. But that’s a good thing. That edge has been sharpened recently on the Dominick Palumbo design. Located on the side of the mountain that the ski slopes dominate in the winter, the course now features four new holes that have been integrated in the layout to replace four original holes. The lost real estate will soon accommodate resort expansion.

The character and routing of the 14 other holes have remained the same. They were built on traditional values of golf course architecture in the early 1980s, and they remain that way today.

Narrow to midsized fairways were cut from dense mountain timber, while ample greens slope and roll with the terrain that often tumbles off the hillsides. The four new holes change the course numbering but keep the charm and character of the 28-year-old course. The new holes are on a tract of land known as Fantasy Valley.

The 6,905-yard, par-71 course continues to be one of the region’s great challenges, with bentgrass tees and greens, varying-width fairways, hazards and bunkers. Water comes into play on five holes, and players have numerous risk-reward opportunities to improve scores.

Strategic play, rather than brute force, is the primary ingredient to a good score here. Todd Schoeder, the mastermind behind the course renovation says that “each hole is a chapter in a greater story, contributing character to create a great test of golf.”

Speaking of tests of golf, there’s no one in the golf course design business who creates them more consistently than Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear built the 7,000-yard-plus Nicklaus signature course at Rocky Gap Resort near Cumberland. The dual-personality routing winds its way through the mountains with dramatic elevation changes on one side. The other features a more expansive, gently rolling tour across meadows with outstanding vistas back up into the highlands. The 243-acre Lake Habeeb and Evitt’s Mountain serve as natural backdrops but don’t really come into play as hazards.

For those who haven’t played Rocky Gap recently, a return visit will provide an enhanced experience since the last time you teed it up there. Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort underwent a series of upgrades and additions for 2008, making the AAA Four Diamond award-winning resort stronger than ever. The improvements weren’t limited to one area of the resort; they impacted the course, pro shop and other amenities.

Down the mountain to the outskirts of Frederick, a number of outstanding designs are easy day trips for urban and suburban Marylanders. Two of them are located just a few miles apart. A 36-hole day including both of them would be about as fine a day as you could imagine in the Middle Atlantic - and you’d still most likely have time to catch a home-cooked meal before the sun went down.

Of the two, Worthington Manor arrived on the scene first, and very little has changed there since the day it opened back in 1998. The course, designed by Brain Ault of Ault, Clark and Associates, soon became the standard- bearer of upscale quality in the northern and western reaches of the state of Maryland. And it continues to impress those who play there, including the pros. The biggest impact Worthington has made has been in the area of hosting USGA qualifying events (eight in 10 years). This year the two-day qualifying for the U.S. Amateur returns to Worthington in August.

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