A trip to Delaware to see first state's finest

The 17th hole at the Bayside Resort Golf Club in Dewey Beach, Del.

DEWEY BEACH, Del. -- Nostalgia is a funny thing. I’m hard-pressed to remember the stories I’ve written for Golfweek over the past month, yet I can tell you all about the mindless, baseball-themed pinball machine that my cousin Mike and I used to play late into the night 35 years ago at the pizza joint across the street from the house our families rented here every summer.

When we weren’t at the beach just a block away or tossing a baseball in the side yard, we were huddled over that pinball machine, with Mike invariably beating me like an expansion team.

Before a recent visit, I hadn’t given much thought to those days. In the intervening years, I had been here once, only briefly. Many of the family members with whom I shared those memories had passed on, including Mike, whose excesses extended to vices more pernicious than pinball.

Despite the years, the memories were IMAX-quality as I drove down Coastal Highway upon arriving on a cloudless Sunday afternoon, intent chiefly on seeing some of the First State’s top public golf courses.

The best of that group is Bayside Resort Golf Club, ranked No. 1 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Delaware.

I played Bayside on the same week as the U.S. Open, and it shared at least one trait with The Olympic Club’s Lake Course. On both courses, a round quickly can go south because the opening holes constitute the most difficult part of the layouts.

Bayside inevitably draws comparisons to The Peninsula, a private community in nearby Millsboro, because both courses were designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened within a year of each other – Bayside in 2005, The Peninsula in 2006.

The consensus is that while The Peninsula is no day at the beach, Bayside is the more penal test. Bring a couple of sleeves and a sense of humor.

Bayside is often a target course that weaves through woodlands and marshes, while at other times a wide-open layout with lovely vistas across Assawoman Bay toward Ocean City, Md.

From tee to green, the hazard-lined second and 14th holes are as confounding a pair of par 5s as you’re likely to experience. The fifth hole presents an awkward drive, followed by an even more awkward approach to a green that tilts left toward a chasm that will leave slightly offline approaches 8 feet below the putting surface.

The 18th hole – well, you might have to play it several times to begin to make sense of it.

And those greens? Like much of Nicklaus’ recent work, they wouldn’t fall under the heading of “resort casual.”

A more stress-free round can be found a 10-minute drive away at Bear Trap Dunes, a 27-hole facility that’s operated, like Bayside, by Troon Golf. I met up with three residents – R.J. Dominic, Roger Heeger and Ron Sopko – who play year-round at Bear Trap, often logging several rounds per week and always coming equipped with sharp needles.

With three nines, excellent conditioning, a pleasant staff and a lovely clubhouse, this is a comfortable option for repeat play. And it’s no pushover; in past years, Bear Trap Dunes ranked among the top five public-access courses in the state.

• • •

I had asked Mark Coty, general manager of Baywood Greens in Long Neck, if he could arrange for a local person to play golf with me, and he assured me that “a very colorful resident” had accepted the assignment.

I soon found out what he meant.

When Phil Ricker heard that I had arrived at Baywood Greens at 10:15 a.m., he had a question for his buddies at the bag drop: “Is he still sober?”

This man clearly is having too much fun in retirement.

Ricker used to run a liquor store and a sports bar in Maryland, but that all changed the first time he visited Baywood Greens.

“I came here for lunch six years ago and never left,” Ricker said.

An obviously savvy real-estate agent gave him a tour of the property, then took him to a home where the flag from the first green was visible in the distance when Ricker walked through the front door. Within a week, Ricker had accepted an all-cash offer for his home in Maryland, turned over his businesses to his sons and retired to Baywood Greens. These days, when he’s not helping out in the pro shop, he serves as a Catholic deacon, and is never shy about advertising his services. “I can marry you, bury you and baptize your baby,” he said.

It’s understandable that Ricker made such an impulsive move to Long Neck. Baywood Greens makes a pretty splashy first impression.

For a club that bills itself as being “exclusively public,” it has the sort of eye candy normally found at clubs with six-figure membership fees. Check that – even private clubs don’t usually have Baywood Greens’ extravagancies.

It’s best known for its horticulture program (Golfweek, Oct. 20, 2007) that includes 65,000 tulips, 75,000 annuals and more than 5,000 varieties of annuals, perennials and trees. A staff of 25 gardeners keeps the grounds perfectly manicured, which is a major reason why Baywood Greens hosts an average of 55 weddings annually.

Ricker informed me that this green investment has led to a unique local rule: If your ball stops on mulch near plant life, you get a free drop. The Rules of Golf carry great weight there, but the plants are sacrosanct.

It’s almost a shame that the colorful flowers attract so much attention. That likely obscures the fact that Baywood Greens stands on its own as a very fine layout – good enough to rank No. 4 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Delaware.

The front nine tends to be more wooded, while more water comes into play, often memorably, on the final eight holes. (A third nine, intended to be more of an inland-links design, is in development but won’t open until 2015 at the earliest.)

Locals sometimes refer to Nos. 11 and 12 – a par 3 across water and a short par 4, respectively – as Baywood’s “Amen Corner” because the azaleas bloom there in the spring. The showstopper is the 14th, with its dual fairways, one of which is an island. The 16th, played to a peninsula-shaped green, is a potentially reachable, risk-reward par 5.

• • •

After playing at Baywood Greens, there was plenty of time to explore some of the seaside towns. There’s a natural tendency to think of the Delaware shore as a homogenous destination. In fact, each town along the state’s southern coastline has its own identity, almost as though they are intended to appeal to different tourism demographics.

At Harpoon Hanna’s restaurant on Fenwick Island, near the Delaware-Maryland state line, singles and young couples pack the deck overlooking the 142nd Street Marina.

Moving up the coastline, Bethany Beach oozes a family-friendly vibe.

At 8:45 one night, several hundred people gathered on the beach to watch “The Muppets” on a giant screen. Its boardwalk, such as it is, extends only about 100 yards. No one moves quickly in Bethany Beach; even the coffee shops don’t open until 8 a.m.

Rehoboth Beach is a virtual city by the sea, where people of all ages flip-flop down the mile-long boardwalk, past Dolle’s Salt Water Taffy and Thrasher’s French Fries and the ubiquitous Greene Turtle.

They rarely stop; their movements seem purposeful, even though it’s unlikely they have any pressing commitments. It’s even rarer still that they stop to look at the mighty Atlantic, the attraction that brought them here. So it was striking when a family of five, each holding a Kohr Bros. frozen custard, turned a bench so that they could stare out at the ocean at dusk. Only a few people were left on the beach, mostly kids flying kites or tossing balls.

And what has become of sleepy Dewey Beach? It’s now Party Central on the shore for everyone nursing a raging libido or a midlife crisis.

(Nostalgia aside, I was more than happy to eschew Dewey Beach in favor of the comfortable Fenwick Inn, located just across the state line in Ocean City. It’s a popular resting spot for golfers who arrange visits through Ocean City Golf Getaway, a consortium of Maryland and Delaware courses.)

To the north, Lewes, the access point for people arriving on the Cape May (N.J.) Ferry, is as quaint and sedate of a seaside town as you’re likely to find. The Colonial architecture and zoning restrictions suggest that “The First Town in the First State” has changed little over time.

Lewes’ commercial district, if one could call it that, is limited largely to a two-block stretch of Second Street lined with locally owned bakeries, coffee houses and other mom-and-pops. If you’re looking for a Starbuck’s, you won’t find it here.

In a small cottage on Second Street, local artist Abraxas Hudson exhibits his work, which offers a sense of all that the Delaware shore has to offer.

Hudson’s first name, which he is practiced in explaining, is pre-Sumerian, meaning “the culmination of all spirits in the universe. It’s a creative name my parents wanted me to have.”

That’s a lot to lay on a kid, but Hudson seems to have adapted well.

He was raised here and has been showing his paintings since age 14. Now 36, he has traveled to 48 states, but keeps coming home to Lewes.

The varied landscapes – everything from the coastline and bay to rural farmland just on the other side of Coastal Highway – make the shore one of his favorite places to paint.

“I think I do well with my work because our main draw is people from the cities of the mid-Atlantic who come here to get away from the hustle and bustle,” Hudson said. “So they come to find the quiet beach, and then they see that I paint the quiet side of the shore.”

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