A ten-mile sliver of high-rise condos and motels and kitschy, neon-blaring amusements, Ocean City, Maryland, had long been a mecca for a certain breed of rowdy tourist—the kind who covet "I GOT CRABS IN OCEAN CITY" T-shirts and derive great joy from repeated playings of Whack-a-Mole. It had not, in other words, been much of a destination for the discerning golfer who valued a fine meal and a good night's sleep.
But a decade ago, when gentrification blew in, it arrived in the form of a golf course. A Pete and P.B. Dye design called Rum Pointe Seaside Golf Links opened in 1997 on the marshland across the bay from Ocean City, and was followed in rapid succession by a series of equally, if not more impressive layouts. Today there are seventeen courses within twenty miles of town, a critical mass that has drawn a class of cuisine and lodging once unheard of here.
To be sure, some caveats remain: Roughly 300,000 revelers (and far more biting flies) still descend upon the beaches and the boardwalk of Ocean City every summer weekend. Thus the smartest option is to visit during the shoulder seasons and treat the city like a lateral hazard by opting to sleep and dine in the quiet pinelands across the bay.
Day One Although many visitors fly into Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington and join the inexorable pilgrimage along the highways of Delaware and Maryland, this is suggested only for folks who enjoy standstill traffic. Rather, if you're traveling by air, book your flight through to Salisbury, Maryland, drive just over twenty miles to the bucolic town of Berlin and check into the quaint Victorian-era Atlantic Hotel. Its dining room and café offer superb regional American fare. And, most important, the hotel is located at the nexus of the area's finest golf courses.
If daylight allows, toss the garment bags on the bed and motor four miles south to play the Newport Bay course at Ocean City Golf Club. It's a clever layout, offering three drivable par fours and a surfeit of holes that flirt with the bay. The open fairways of the links-style back nine afford glorious views of the setting sun.
Since no visit to Ocean City is complete without ripping the guts out of a bucketful of steamed hard-shell crabs, head après golf to Hooper's Crab House, a down-home waterfront joint tucked under the mainland side of the Route 50 bridge into town. It opens in April for the season.
Day Two With the rust duly scraped off your swing, it's time to tackle two of Ocean City's best courses. Start with a round at Rum Pointe, an ornithologist's paradise (home to more than fifty different species of birds) that abuts Sinepuxent Bay. As for the golf, it's typical fanciful Dye: railroad ties, a kennel's worth of doglegs, a legion of fairway bunkers, playful mounding and sprawling waste areas. A golfer who knows where his ball is headed, however, should have little trouble.
The same cannot be said for the Links at Lighthouse Sound, a beautiful brute about thirty minutes north that provides Ocean City's sternest test. It's also one of Arthur Hills's best works, featuring a dramatic opening stretch that fronts a tidal marsh. From there, the routing turns inland, the holes carved into stately pines and distinguished by rollicking greens and bedeviling falloffs.
After your round, enjoy your thirty-seventh hole in one of the plush leather armchairs in the clubhouse bar. Then hustle south and cap off the day at the Marlin Moon Grille, a bustling and eclectic seafood restaurant.
Day Three In years past, those two days might have exhausted the area's notable offerings. But two new courses, each opened within the past year, merit a longer stay.
The first of these, the Man O' War course at GlenRiddle Golf Club, stands to be the area's most debated course when it opens in April. Occupying the former grounds of the horse farm where Sam Riddle trained its legendary namesake, Man O' War is an unlikely layout: an artificial links with an equestrian theme designed by an obscure architect named Joel Weiman and abutting Route 50. Its fescue-covered mounds and roller-coaster greens nicely mimic linksland. A private sister course, War Admiral (named after the celebrated thoroughbred sired by Man O'War), is scheduled to open in the fall.
If it's natural dunes you seek, then drive eight miles south to Assateague Island National Seashore, a pristine barrier island famous for its beaches, marshes and, most of all, its wild ponies.