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Exclusive courses are not the only options in the Beltway

By Jake Schaller,

Tucked inside or located just minutes from the Washington Metropolitan Area's Beltway are a handful of courses that can be listed among the best in the nation.

Columbia Country Club, just minutes from the Maryland-D.C. border, was the site of the 1921 United States Open. Congressional Country Club, less than a mile from the Beltway and I-270, has held several U.S. Opens on its storied Blue Course. And minutes from Reagan National Airport is the Army-Navy Club, where many golf-loving presidents have teed it up.

Toss in the Chevy Chase Club's difficult, immaculate course, located less than a mile down the road from Columbia; the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, just blocks from Congressional; and Bethesda Country Club, site of the 1990 Mazda LPGA Championship. Without question, there is a stable of fabled courses that befit the world's most powerful city.

To play these courses, however, you must be a member - quite a feat at most of them - or know someone who is. Failing those options, a quality nearby round is difficult for Washington's everyday golfer. Most who cannot play at the aforementioned clubs but want the "Country Club for a day" feel are forced into mini-road trips - to Frederick County, Ocean City, Williamsburg or further.

But there are some options inside and just beyond the beltway for Washington golfers that don't necessitate friends in high places, a long drive or a pile of money.

The most notable of the courses is Raspberry Falls. Located 15 minutes from Washington Dulles Airport and accessible via White's Ferry, the 7,191-yard, par-72 Gary Player Signature Design is a gem.

It does not take long to realize it. Raspberry's third hole is a majestic, 479-yard par-4 that plays from an elevated tee which provides a view of the Virginia countryside below.

From there, the course makes its way through rolling terrain spotted with ponds, meandering creeks and natural rock outcroppings. The course has a true links feel with Scottish style stacked-sod bunkers that call to mind the British Open.

Located just above the beltway off I-95, Cross Creek Golf Clubopened in Beltsville, Md., in late August of last year to little fanfare. The course was originally scheduled to open in 2001, but problems with zoning forced delay after delay.

The fanfare should come, however, for the Ault, Clark and Associates par-70 design that is pleasing to the eyes yet difficult on golf games.

The widths of the fairways are mostly average, but there is little rough separating the short grass from trees or water. Combine that with frequent elevation changes, and Cross Creek becomes a challenging test.

After 12 holes, the course has a distinctly southern feel due to the abundant trees and water hazards. But Cross Creek then offers a pair of holes that seem like they have been transported from Arizona. Nos. 13 and 14, carved between rock outcroppings, are known as the "Quarry Section" of the course and are reason enough to plan a visit.

Montgomery County was without an upscale public option until late in the summer of 2001, when the Arthur Hills-designed Blue Mash finally opened in Laytonsville, Md. The 6,885-yard par-71 had been in the works for years, but problems with the county delayed its opening.

Blue Mash already has become a favorite among area players, however. The course is eminently fair with no blind shots and no forced carries. The Mash sits right out in front of a golfer, but that does not mean it is easily tamed.

The course starts with three consecutive tough par-4s, the third perhaps the most daunting. No. 3 plays to 478 yards, and the prevailing wind and uphill approach make it even longer.

The risk-reward par-5 ninth has a skinny fairway with water to the left and a slightly elevated green guarded by bunkers. The back is more of the same with several difficult holes - the 217-yard par-3 11th that plays over water in particular - and equal chances for birdie.

Montgomery County Golf owns and operates five other public courses in the county - Hampshire Greens, Falls Road, Laytonsville, Poolesville and Rattlewood.

Hampshire Greens opened in June of 1999, eight miles above the beltway in Ashton. MCG's signature course is in good shape and a favorite of many in the county. It is also quite challenging, however. The course has blind tee shots, sloping fairways and several forced carries that make a round trying for a beginner.

Falls Road and Laytonsville both recently underwent significant face-lifts, and both now provide quality golf for reasonable prices.

Poolesville, located near White's Ferry, offers another chance for a bargain round. Tucked in the woods of the quaint town of Poolesville, the course is mostly open, but it is the longest of the MCG courses and does bring some water into play. It also has one of the best golf course bars in the area. Bring your scorecard in after your round and drink draft beers for the price of your score (one stroke equals one cent).

For those who work downtown and want to find someplace inside the city, options are extremely limited with just three public courses. One of them, however, East Potomac Golf Course is worthy of a mention.

It's flat, open and the only water hazards you will encounter are the puddles that appear after heavy rainfall. It's crowded, the fairways are patchy and the greens roll about as true as a Clinton deposition.

But there are few courses in the Washington area that have such a loyal clientele.

East Potomac - or Haines Point to the regulars - offers an 18-hole layout and two nine-hole tracks (one that consists of just par-3 holes). The courses are perfect for beginners, but you will find golfers of all skill levels there.

They come for the low greens fees, the proximity of the course to where they live or work and the beers that can be shared on a porch overlooking a putting green with a "no gambling" sign.

Despite its problems, East Potomac's courses are beautiful in their own way, with vistas of the Potomac River, Washington Channel and many Washington landmarks (On no other course will you hear a golfer tell a partner to "hit driver toward the Washington Monument.").

And the facility has improved considerably in the last several years. East Potomac offers two large putting and chipping areas, a renovated two-tier driving range and a new pro shop.

For more information

Raspberry Falls Golf and Hunt Club
Leesburg, Va.
Tee Times: (703) 779-2555
Web: www.raspberryfalls.com

Cross Creek Golf Club
Beltsville, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 595-8901
Web: crosscreekgolfclub.net

Blue Mash Golf Course
Laytonsville, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 670-1966
Web: bluemash.com

Montgomery County Golf
Web: montgomerycountygolf.com

Falls Road Golf Course
Potomac, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 299-5156

Laytonsville Golf Course
Laytonsville, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 948-5288

Poolesville Golf Course
Poolesville, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 428-8143

Rattlewood Golf Course
Mt. Airy, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 607-9000

Hampshire Greens Golf Course
Ashton, Md.
Tee Times: (301) 476-7999

East Potomac Golf Course
Washington, D.C.
Web: golfdc.com
Tee Times: (202) 554-7660

Jake Schaller resides in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. He grew up in Bethesda, Md., where he attended Walt Whitman High School and played football.

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