It was here on the fifth tee at Whiskey Creek Golf Club that I was reminded, yet again, that I’m a damned fool.
Whiskey Creek, just south of Frederick, Md., was the last stop on a trip that I had begun with more than a touch of ambivalence. That seems silly in retrospect. After all, my assignment was to spend a week visiting some of the Mid-Atlantic’s famous Civil War sites and playing five relatively new courses that quickly have become household names for many golfers in the region. I’ve been known to spend weeks shamelessly lobbying for gigs like that. My ambivalence sprung from the fact that I had grown up not far from here, in the rolling farm land north of Baltimore. Over the years, when people learned that fact, they sometimes would stop me in mid-sentence and tell me how lucky I had been to spend my formative years in such an idyllic setting. I’d smile, nod politely and quickly try to change the subject. I was the poster boy for the never-appreciated-what-I-had crowd.
Sure, I still returned occasionally to visit family members, and took pride in much that the region had to offer. I routinely boast about the Maryland blue crabs pulled from the Chesapeake. I still live and die – in recent years, mostly die – with the Orioles.
But I’d long felt strangely disconnected from this region. Thomas Wolfe might have overreached when he said you can’t go home again, but I wasn’t exactly stockpiling frequent-flyer miles on the Southwest shuttle from Orlando to Baltimore.
Then I stepped up to Whiskey Creek’s fifth tee, about 140 feet above the fairway, with a sweeping view of the valley below and the Catoctin Mountains to the north. It didn’t even dawn on me to pull my driver from my bag. I was content simply to savor the view.
We play golf for many reasons – for its challenges, its camaraderie, to appease our masochistic tendencies. But sometimes we play it for moments like this, when there is a perfect, harmonic convergence between nature and a course’s design. Even my buddy Pete, never at a loss for words, was reduced to monosyllabic “wows.”
My other playing partner, Bob Gearinger, a retired bank president who has called this area home for his entire 74 years, pointed to a speck on the Catoctin ridgeline, about 15 miles away, where he resides. It occurred to me, in one of the week’s many ironies, that Gearinger is lucky to live in such an idyllic setting.
I had flown to Washington five days earlier and immediately began binging on Civil War history that I’d largely, and foolishly, ignored during grade-school field trips. Harpers Ferry, W. Va., where the conflict effectively began, seemed a logical place to start.
It was there on Oct. 16, 1859, that a feverish, if hapless, abolitionist named John Brown and 21 motley followers briefly seized the federal arsenal and its 100,000 weapons, hoping to incite an uprising among slaves. Ironically, the first person killed in Brown’s raid was a black baggage handler named Hayward Shepherd. The raid was squelched 36 hours later, specifically by U.S. Marines led by a soon-to-be-famous officer named Robert E. Lee, who captured Brown on Oct. 18. Brown quickly was brought to trial, found guilty of treason and was dispatched to the gallows on Dec. 2.
Upon passing through Harpers Ferry in 1783, Thomas Jefferson declared the sight of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers crashing through the Blue Ridge to be “perhaps one of the most stupendous in nature.” Harpers Ferry’s arsenal and location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad made it a key North-South battleground. It changed hands eight times, and never truly recovered. Today many of its buildings are little changed from a century ago, and its population of roughly 300 is about one-tenth what it was before the war.
Nowhere was the Civil War’s toll greater than 15 miles away, in Antietam, Md., where Lee’s Maryland Campaign boiled to a head on Sept. 17, 1862. Lee’s first invasion of the North ended in the bloodiest battle in U.S. history, claiming more than 23,000 lives that day.
The war, of course, wasn’t supposed to last even a year. Cocky Union sympathizers had gathered with picnic baskets in Centreville, Va., a few miles from Manassas, anticipating a quick knockout punch during the first battle there in July 1861. But the Union troops were raw, and as became clear time and again, they lacked the South’s difference maker, Stonewall Jackson. His monument on Henry Hill, where he earned his nickname during First Bull Run (“There stands Jackson like a stone wall!”) is one of the first things you see upon arriving at the Manassas battlefield.
Jackson was old school – all substance and no style. When he captured Harpers Ferry in 1862, a Union soldier remarked, “Boys, he’s not much for looks, but if we’d had him, we wouldn’t have been caught in this trap.” Even one of Jackson’s own officers referred to him as “the worst dressed . . . and dingy looking general” to whom the North ever surrendered. But some Jackson buffs go so far as to suggest that if he had lived to fight in Gettysburg, Pa., you’d now need to show papers to cross the border from Virginia into Maryland.
Stonewall – honestly, has there ever been a cooler nickname? – remains a favorite son of Virginia. The legendary war hero’s name was borrowed by Stonewall Golf Club, adjacent to a course honoring an architectural legend, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, home to next month’s Presidents Cup.
Stonewall – the golf club, that is – shares RTJ’s spectacular views of Lake Manassas, without the six-figure entry fee. Director of golf Gary Huebner is particularly fond of No. 4, a par 3 across a ravine that feeds into the lake. My tastes ran more toward No. 15, a dogleg-left par 4 that wraps around the lake, leading to a deep green guarded by water.
Fittingly for a course that bears a war hero’s name, there is, as you make your way around Stonewall, a sense of danger – from water, from woods, even from temptation. The last is felt most strongly at No. 18, a risk-reward par 5 that will tempt even players of medium length to dream of eagles.
Drained from two long days, I checked into my hotel in Old Town Alexandria, near where I once lived. I had chosen Old Town not to reminisce but because Alexandria was the first city to fall during the war (still a sore point for some locals). The story goes that on May 24, 1861, Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Lincoln’s, stormed into the Marshall House on what is now King Street, tore the Confederate flag from the roof and promptly was shot, becoming a martyr to the North.
At least that’s one side of the story. A plaque at the Holiday Inn that now sits on the site honors Ellsworth’s killer, James W. Jackson, the hotel owner and fervid secessionist who subsequently was killed by Union soldiers. Jackson, probably peeved that Yankees had stormed his town the day after Virginia seceded, is remembered on the plaque as “the first martyr to the cause of southern independence.”
These days, though, visitors typically don’t come to Old Town for such history. They’re usually more interested in the pubs and restaurants that, seemingly by city ordinance, sit shoulder to shoulder on King Street.
The next morning, I drove south along Interstate 95 to Augustine Golf Club, like Stonewall, one of a wave of high-end, daily-fee courses opened in northern Virginia in the 1990s. Head pro Bob Foster urged caution on the first three holes, a difficult stretch of par 4s. The variety of the par 4s proved to be one of Augustine’s strengths, and the bowled fairways on many holes make it more forgiving than it appears at first blush.
From Augustine, it’s only a short drive to The Wilderness, where the armies of Lee and Grant first met May 5-7, 1864. Nearby, in Chancellorsville, Va., the South suffered perhaps its greatest loss when Jackson fell victim to friendly fire on May 2, 1863. His death eight days later prompted Lee to remark, “I have lost my right arm” – ironic given that Jackson’s left arm was amputated in an effort to save him.
It was near the High Water Mark on the Gettysburg battlefield that I met a modern-day rebel. He arrived not on a horse, but in a Ford station wagon, slightly built, with more beard than brawn, dressed in a wool uniform on a day that uncomfortably reached into the low 90s. Camera in hand, he introduced himself as a soldier in Baltimore’s Second Confederate Division and asked me to take his picture on the spot where the Union held fast against Gen. George E. Pickett’s suicidal charge.
Despite being a Union sympathizer – we Marylanders have long been famously divided on the whole North-South thing – I obliged the rebel, took his camera and waited patiently while he struck a stern, proud profile.
Afterward, he thanked me. “I’m really into it,” he said. (You think?) He then began describing the latter stages of that famous battle, saying, “This is where it all happened.”
Sounding less like a tour guide than like John Madden using a Telestrator to illustrate a sweep around right end, the rebel waved his arms across this country’s most famous battlefield, describing the Confederate and Union maneuvers in the late afternoon of July 3, 1863. He spoke excitedly of how Pickett’s three brigades began their milelong charge – in truth, more of a hopeless, robotic death march – through an open field, joined by six more brigades from A.P. Hill’s division. He recalled how J.E.B. Stuart tried to lead his cavalry around the Union line for a rear attack, while Union Gen. Henry J. Hunt patiently lured the rebels into firing range, there to be slaughtered.
“And, oh, what’s his name, a real good friend of mine?” the rebel said. “Armistead, that’s it, that’s where he was killed.”
This rebel, I realized, maintained a timeless bond with Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, one of the roughly 5,500 Confederates massacred that afternoon.
Lee retreated from Gettysburg, never to invade the North again, and Lincoln arrived four months later to deliver a 272-word address that became the most famous speech in this nation’s history, despite the irony of this line: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here . . .”
About 15 miles from the battlefield, just off busy U.S. 30 in Abbottstown, Pa., sits the Bridges Golf Club, which is as peaceful as Gettysburg was chaotic that July afternoon 142 years earlier.
Like a war relic long hidden, the Bridges – so named for the 10 bridges that traverse wetlands – qualifies as a “find,” even attracting golfers from as far away as Philadelphia, nearly two hours away.
“People think it’s just a little mom-and-pop operation, and that’s what it is,” says Doug Altland, the head pro at the course his father, Charles, designed and built a decade ago and now manages.
He’s being modest. It’s immediately clear that the Altland clan dotes on this property.
From the clubhouse, an immaculately refurbished furniture factory that dates to the 1800s, to the bentgrass practice tee where noted instructor Ted Sheftic holds court, to the sometimes-amusing scorecard (“water left, trees right, hit straight,” players are advised on No. 3), the Bridges has a distinctly personal feel.
It also has some wonderful golf holes. Fun holes such as the short par-4 second, where you have the option of bombing it over the trees toward the green 315 yards away, leaving just a short pitch up the hill. Scenic holes such as the downhill par 3s at Nos. 4 and 16. And demanding par 4s such as No. 17, which works slightly uphill, with water fronting the green. The fact that many of the holes are tree-lined adds to the sense of splendid isolation in the middle of Adams County.
There’s nothing isolated about Gettysburg when reenactment weekend is approaching. The town square was humming when I returned after my round.
Just a few steps off the square sits the James Gettys hotel, which dates to 1804 and was named for the town’s founder. The Gettys’ evolution included a stint as a hospital during the war, when it was known as the Union Hotel, but it entered its third century as a graceful boutique hotel – an ideal base camp for enjoying the town and for launching my final day’s mission.
The Links at Gettysburg was a natural stop the next morning, and not just because it’s located on Mason Dixon Road. Maryland-based architect Lindsay Ervin doesn’t get much ink, but his layouts quickly seem to find a spot on various best-of-state lists.
That is the case again at the Links, opened in 1999 and No. 6 on Golfweek’s list of top public tracks in Pennsylvania.
This fact is made more impressive because of the terrain on which The Links sits. Superintendent A.J. Moyer describes the ground as “about 50 percent rock and 50 percent clay. It’s a challenge at best.”
Somehow, it all works. Red-rock formations memorably frame the greens at the signature par-3 third and par-5 18th, providing a dramatic counterpoint to the course’s 14 water holes. Those holes include No. 12, a short par 3 with a green surrounded by a small lake, the start of what Ken Picking, the Links’ general manager, refers to as “our own Amen Corner.”
By the time we turned home on No. 16, our group had been bruised by a taxing trio of long, watery holes on 13 through 15.
Afterward, I headed down U.S. 15 to Whiskey Creek, where Pete and I were joined by Gearinger, who, when not playing golf, spends part of his retirement overseeing the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.
It’s immediately clear that Whiskey Creek is a special place, and not just because of its great name, a reference to some Prohibition-era moonshining on the property, according to general manager J.P. Lunn. The layout swings wildly up and down the Piedmont, and the experience is virtually unspoiled, with only 12 home lots on the course.
While playing Whiskey Creek’s 14th hole, another that offers a panoramic view, Gearinger told me that the famed Confederate scout J.E.B. Stuart had held his Sabers & Roses ball nearby, at the Landon House in Urbana, on Sept. 8, 1862.
The swashbuckling Stuart was hoping to bolster the troops’ morale before continuing the Maryland Campaign that, within 10 days, would take them to Harpers Ferry, South Mountain and finally Antietam. During the ball, news arrived of fighting nearby, and Stuart immediately marshaled his men and led them off to battle.
As Stuart discovered that night, all parties must end. For me, all that remained was Whiskey Creek’s distinctive par-5 18th, running downhill 275 yards, then splitting into two ribbons of fairway that wrap around the remnants of a 19th-century stone house. Lunn says there was talk of moving the house, but Ernie Els, a design consultant on the project, insisted on keeping it.
“It’s just something no other course has,” Lunn says.
While at Whiskey Creek, I recalled another quote I’d written down earlier in the week from Jefferson, who, upon making his first trip here from Harpers Ferry in 1783, described the sight of the Blue Ridge and the great rivers leading eventually to the rolling, peaceful Maryland farmland to be “as placid and delightful as that is wild and tremendous.”
“This scene,” he declared, “is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
I didn’t have to cross an ocean. I just had to come home.