Playing Through (Spring 2022)

GolfStyles Destinations

Course Spotlight

GONE - The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of Departed Courses

by Jeff Thoreson

 f all the golf course designers to leave their mark on the Middle Atlantic, Thurman Donovan has to be the most obscure. He was a horticulturalist and a landscape architect, and in the early 1970s when the City of Rockville, Maryland, wanted a golf course, the city council hired him, even though he had never built a golf course and would never build another one.

RedGate Golf Course opened in 1974 without the fanfare of later courses designed by Tour-player-turned architects like Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Els and Norman (or others named Fazio, Jones and Hills), thus the name Donovan never got much appreciation. He died of cancer 10 years later at the age of 60 without ever getting his due in the golf design game. His layout was at times billy goatish, but it also reflected the virtues of classic golf course design. So for a one-and-done designer, we’ll give him a “not-bad.”

If you get right down to it, his work was probably frequented by just about every golfer who ever passed through Rockville and many from much farther away. So there is a tinge of sadness as the 2019 season begins without Donovan’s design. The city closed the course at the end of last season, saying it was struggling financially as play declined with the still-struggling golf economy.

Rockville mayor Bridget Donnell Newton told The Sentinel, a local newspaper covering Rockville and surrounding Montgomery County, that the company hired to manage the course in 2012 – Billy Casper Golf – had let course conditions deteriorate, noting that the course had been in great shape up until then.

Ultimately, RedGate succumbed to the same demise that has befallen courses across the country – that downward spiral of fewer players, meaning less revenue and then cuts in service and maintenance that lead to deteriorating course conditions that drive more players to the competition. The formula may vary slightly, but ultimately the result is the same – the gates are locked.

The last decade and a few years more has been hard on golf. Anyone who has paid attention at all knows that. But the overall demise of the game may have crept up on you. We see courses closing one by one, year by year, but until you see it in totality, it’s hard to grasp of how dramatically the golf landscape in the Middle Atlantic has changed.

So we compiled a list of course closings since the beginning of the decline of golf, which we peg as about 2005. Perhaps the worst is behind us, but the reality is that more courses need to close. The dwindling golf pie is still divided too many ways.

If we were to assign blame, much of it would have to be laid at the FootJoys of the National Golf Foundation, whose prediction that the industry would need to open a course a day in the 1990s and early 2000s to keep up with its estimations of how much the game would grow as Baby Boomers retired was more misguided than the WMD threat from Iraq.

Knowing full well these aren’t the last of the courses to close, here’s a look at what preceded RedGate to the grave. Likely not a complete list, it is meant to give you an idea of how overbuilt golf became in its heyday and how severe the course correction has been.
May they all rest in peace.

Beacon RidgE GOLF CLUB
(2001-2006, Leesburg, Va.)
Intended to be a luxury private club in a community of million-dollar-plus homes, the Johnny Miller design was over the top hard and had the unfortunate timing of opening shortly before the game went into its downward spiral. It was on the market at $2.5 million for eight years with no takers. In 2014 the Beacon Hill HOA bought it for $1. In 2016 there was talk about rebuilding the course as Belle Terre Golf at Beacon Hill, but it never materialized.

(1998-2008, Aberdeen, Md.)
Once one of the premier courses of the region, the expansion of the military base at Aberdeen Proving Ground proved the acreage was more valuable as a housing development.

(2000-2007, Cologne, N.J.)
The short life of this course included hosting the 2003 USGA Amateur Public Links Championship. A plan to build an enormous condominium project on the course fell victim to the soon-to-tank economy and now the remains of the course are still there, but are barely recognizable as the grand course it once was.

(1962-2014, Elkton, Md.)
When it opened, then-named Brantwood was the only course in Cecil County. Competition and the recent recession caught up to it and in 2017 the Maryland Board of Public Works bought 121 acres of the course to turn it into a park.

(1945-2017, Wilmington, Del.)
A once-fine private club, the economy forced its hand in opening to the public and then conditions deteriorated to muni levels. The city’s housing development plans for the site are moving slowly but moving forward.

(2003-2012 and 2016-2018, Fredericksburg, Va.)
Built as the first of a planned five-course complex for a massive resort, residential and business development, the overall development stalled, leaving Cannon Ridge as a stand-alone course that would struggle despite a quality layout and the name of former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman attached to it. The recession delivered the final blow, although a local owner reopened the course four years later after a large Del Webb community was built nearby, but not even that could generate enough revenue, and the layout again lies fallow.

(1963-2017, Denton, Md.)
We’ve seen this club’s story dozens of times. A small-town country club struggles to find new members as its older membership declines. So the club opens to the public, but that creates additional problems and expenses. The course closes, goes to auction, and is bought for pennies on the dollar by a local businessman who still can’t make a go of it in the current golf economy.

(1959-2017, Newark Del.)
Squeezed between established neighborhoods and the new Christiana Mall, it was only a matter of time until the club’s valuable 145 acres just south of Wilmington succumbed to the almighty development dollar. A mixed-use residential development is in the offing.

(1962-2018, Norristown, Pa.)
Host of the U.S. Women’s Public Links Championship in 1980 and again in 1997, the course occupied valuable suburban land and is slated to be redeveloped into 250 homes.

(1957-2011, Lutherville, Md.) Declining membership forced the club to file civil suits against past members who hadn’t paid their dues and that was pretty much the deathknell of this club just outside of Baltimore. It was a short-but-fun course that in its heyday was always in great shape. But there were no legitimate par 5s – three holes were labeled as such but they were all well under 500 yards.

(Formerly Hercules Country Club, 1937-2010, Marshallton, Del.) Under-appreciated Alfred Tull designed this 27-hole course just outside of Wilmington and it served members well for more than 70 years. Now its skeleton remains as a development plan that has lingered for almost a decade.

(1963-2016, Edgmont, Pa.)
While other prestigious Philadelphia-area clubs – think Merion – catered to the wealthy, Edgmont found a niche with the middle-class. But unlike the blueblood clubs, middle-class golfers can’t fight off development money and the Delaware County club became more valuable to houses than golf.

(1967-2016, Sicklerville, N.J.)
This is reportedly the first African American owned 18-hole golf course in America. Southeast of Philadelphia, it was put up for sale at $2.4 million and in 2017 sold to a locally owned property investment company, Black Horse Properties LLC, for $1.25 million purely as an investment with no immediate plans for its future.

(1952-2015, Leesburg, Va.)
For most, The Goose was one of those once-is-enough courses, although like many downscale courses, this one had a loyal following – just not loyal enough to fight off a housing developer.

(Formerly Confederate Hills,
1967-2009, Highland Springs, Va.) Designed by Michael Hurdzan, Buddy Loving and Algie Pulley, the course had 13 lakes that came into play on 16 holes.

(2003-2015, Alexandria, Va.)
The nine-hole, par-31 course was built on a capped landfill, but despite the movement toward shorter courses and quicker rounds and a great location, golfers, and the Fairfax County government, just saw a dump.

(2001-2011, Philadelphia, Pa.)
The first course built in the Philadelphia city limits since 1966, Island Green was a non-descript layout by local designer Jim Blaukovitch that developed a good local following before being bought by Teva Pharmaceuticals USA.

(1998-2011, Bealeton, Va.)
The course was built as a pet project of a local developer but went into foreclosure in 2010. The thing anyone who played here (and there weren’t many) remembers is the cart paths were two strips of concrete, one for the tires on each side of the cart. Other than that the course was largely unspectacular and very difficult to get to being south of Manassas and east of Stafford.

(2006-2018, Irvington, Va.)
An excellent design that would have attracted traveling golfers, but it was difficult to get to in a very rural part of Virginia’s Northern Neck. And it opened just before the economy crashed in 2008. Its neighboring course, the highly regarded Golden Eagle at the Tides Inn, was slated to close last year but got last-minute interest from a group of investors.

(1934-2014, Phoenixville, Pa.)
As if golf courses aren’t having enough trouble staying open, this nine-hole course in Chester County outside of Philadelphia was doing just fine, but became the victim of an eminent domain land-grab by the county school system to build an early learning center and elementary school.

(1970-2015, Snow Hill, Md.)
The club was too far out of the Ocean City orbit to be a regular play among traveling golfers, but for 45 years it served as a fine private club for locals. An aging membership and few younger members to replace them took its toll. In 2017, the 211 acres were listed for sale at $1.9 million but there were no takers. Last year, the course returned to nature, becoming part of the Pocomoke River State Park.

(1997-2015, Woodbridge, Va.)
Golf was hot and greens fees were high when this short course along the Occoquan River opened, but as players’ wallets tightened, the green fee dropped to around $40. Part of a mixed-use development, the cart paths are now used for walking and biking by community residents.

(1960-2019, Laurel Md.)
Cards on the table, this is one of the first courses I ever played, back in high school when it was called Laurel Pines and we used to sneak on and play as much as we could before getting kicked out. It was reworked in 1987 to make room for some commercial real estate and a new neighborhood along Route 197, but this was long before big-name designers started turning well-worn courses into upscale gems, and the re-do was marginal at best. It is just a couple blocks over from the busy Route 1 business district and within a few minutes drive of dozens of middle-class neighborhoods. Maybe a more upscale course would have worked in such a great location, but in the end, the parking lot was barricaded this year and the bulldozers will move in soon to turn another golf course into another neighborhood.

(Formerly Three Little Bakers,
1972-2016, Wilmington, Del.)
Despite its unusual name, the course was a hidden gem and popular among local golfers. Later in its life the name was changed but that didn’t affect the fact that the Wilmington-area land grew in value and became a prime target for development, although the contentious plan for the course is still being argued over.

(1979-2010, Ocean Pines, Md.)
The ever-popular and eminently affordable 27-hole, par-3 course shouldered most of the public play in Ocean City for its first decade until the opening of The Bay Club. It continued to thrive, doing as many as 35,000 rounds a year, and owner Al Janis opened Pine Shore South, also a par-3 course, which also closed.

(1991-2015, Chester, Va.)
The Steve Smyers-design was built along the James River and became popular with Richmond-area players and traveling golfers before its demise. Much of the course is now a land conservation easement along the river.

(1988-2019, Berlin, Md.)
The January closing of the Ocean City golf-package staple for the past 30 years was shocking and abrupt. Carl M. Freeman Companies, which has owned the 36-hole complex since 2000, said in a letter to members that rising costs and declining revenue forced its hand. President Michelle DiFebo Freeman wrote, “The Bay Club has a rich history of 30 years of serving a wonderful membership with a dedicated staff. Upon review of the 2018 golf season results and our projections for the upcoming year, the Carl M. Freeman Companies has determined that we will discontinue the golf club operations.”

(1996-2012, Berlin, Md.)
The Bay Club’s 36-hole running mate for most of its existence, the Beach Club swirled into disrepair as the golf economy went south. Once a fine 36-hole facility with two Ault, Clark & Associates-designs, the complex was cut to 27 holes, then to a decrepit 18, then zero. In 2015, it was sold at auction for $1.3 million.

(1995-2007, Williamsburg, Va.)
Solid but not flashy, The Colonial was the course that launched Williamsburg as a destination beyond the three main resorts – Kingsmill, Golden Horseshoe and Ford’s Colony.

(1995-2015, Easton, Md.)
It started out to be an upscale destination course on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but the layout never achieved the cache of nearby Queenstown Harbor or Hog Neck.

(1993-2012, Olney, Md.)
Designed from the get-go to be a no-frills, municipal-level experience, Trotters Glen was a horse farm converted to a golf course and neither matched the elegance of the $1 million-plus homes that occupy the land now.

(1997-2005, Ellicott City, Md.)
In the expansive 809-acres that is Turf Valley Resort, residents were once lured to buy homes along what was developed as the resort’s third championship course. Now they live amid apartments and commercial development, and rather than views of a golf course, they look out at Harris Teeter and small shopping centers. The resort’s other two courses remain.

(2002-2009, Denton, Md.)
The location seemed great – on the way to the Maryland and Delaware beaches from Baltimore and Washington – and the linksy layout was quite nice and rather different from the courses closer to the cities. Despite always in good shape and challenging, travelers were more intent on getting to the beach than stopping for a pleasant round of golf.

(1989-2005, King of Prussia, Pa.)
A long-running zoning dispute was finally settled and the course – the last remaining undeveloped track in King of Prussia – became a hospital, apartment complexes and retail space.

(1999-2017, Gainesville, Va.)
The P.B. Dye-layout was a victim of a quirky (and sometimes just plain bad) design. Having to share the shoreline of Lake Manassas with the ultra-exclusive RTJ Club and the far-better Tom Jackson-design at the public Stonewall Golf Club made it a third and unprofitable wheel.

(1999-2012, Bluemont, Va.)
A fun layout along the Shenandoah River flanked by Civil War lore, Virginia National had a linksy character as well as a little mountainous flavor. But it was too far from the population centers and when players stopped driving to destination courses, it couldn’t survive.

(1971-2017, New Market, Md.)
After the original developer of the course and community sold out, the nice but quirky private course spiraled downward. Plagued by poor management, a constant struggle between a public or private identity and ownership that chopped up holes to accommodate more homes, WestWinds is now is just a sorry weed field snaking through a modest Frederick County subdivision.

(1938-2018, Pocomoke, Md.)
Well outside the Ocean City golf area, the nine-hole muni was a course for locals. When annual revenue losses hit $150,000, the city council said no mas.