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A world tour of golf - close to home
Replica golf courses are all the rage now, but many in the course-design industry, a group previously not noted for extreme sensitivity toward the needs of the average golfer, are wondering if this is a good thing.
Does your garden-variety hacker really want to tackle a long par 5 from a famous Scottish links-style course, with killer rough lining a narrow fairway and hidden pot bunkers the size of small condominiums?
Does he or she really have the skills to parachute a tee shot over 150 yards of water to an island hole with a bentgrass green as slick as a marble floor?
Well, we can kick that around till the cows come home.
Having said that, Renditions, the new replica course that opened recently outside Davidsonville in southern Anne Arundel County, actually manages the impressive feat of being challenging without leaving you reaching for a Xanax when the round is over.
Built on 250 acres of an old sand- and gravel-mining site near the Patuxent River, Renditions bills itself as "Golf's Grand Slam Experience."
This means it replicates famous holes from courses at which Grand Slam tournaments (the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship) were held -- the only course in the country with this theme.
(The lone non-Grand Slam hole is a replica of the famous par-3 17th, or island hole, at TPC Sawgrass in Florida, which is known as golf's "fifth major." But more on that later.)
On the front nine alone, golfers can play replicas of holes from Royal Lytham and St. Annes and from Royal Birkdale, two British Open sites, and the only thing missing from the links experience are the raging gale-force winds duffers battle in the British Isles.
These two holes are followed by three holes that replicate the famous "Amen Corner" at Augusta National, revered site of the Masters. And the back nine features imitation holes from such venerable tracks as Medina, Oak Hill, Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot and, yes, that devil-made island hole from TPC Sawgrass.
Off to a good start
Thus far, despite being relatively pricey -- greens fees are $79 Monday through Thursday and $89 the rest of the week and on holidays -- golfers have flocked to the course.
Jeff Sheehan, Renditions director of golf, said the course is averaging 200 rounds a day, and it's projected the course will average about 40,000 rounds a year.
"The golf course has been very well received," said Sheehan.
Adding to the historic ambience of Renditions is its full-service 1930s-style clubhouse, the rich-looking wood-paneled walls decorated with pictures of famous golfers from pre-World War II to the present.
Renditions also has a banquet room that holds 170 diners and a grill room that holds 50. And the pro shop peddles everything from clubs and balls to logo merchandise.
In keeping with the turn-back-the-clock feel of the place, Sheehan said, the starters and other course workers will soon wear Bagger Vance-style knickers, vests and bow ties -- the ultimate proof, one recent visitor remarked, that the workers don't have a union.
Renditions expects to draw heavily from the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis area, which, according to a study done for the course, is home to 6 million people and is considered the fourth-largest consumer market in the United States.
Renditions, said Sheehan, will be a "regional destination draw" and will remain a daily-fee course that does not offer memberships.
"It's not a golf course you're going to make your home," he said. "If you're going to spend that kind of money [to play regularly], you're going to join a private club."
Instead, he said, the course expects to cater to golfers looking for a unique experience -- even if most of those only play the course once or twice.
"The guy who can't afford the 79 bucks all the time -- he may do it once or get to play here as a Christmas gift or Father's Day gift, something like that," Sheehan said.
"A big part of our focus," he continued, "will be the outing business. We'll target corporate outings and charity groups."
We played the course on a sunny but chilly spring weekday just three weeks after it opened and found it to be rough in spots, as are many new courses.
The fairways, in particular, seemed thin and patchy in stretches. But the greens were lush and well-manicured. They were also, mercifully, not nearly as fast as the ones on a real Grand Slam course.
I was particularly eager -- or maybe anxious is the better word -- to play the links-style holes (patterned after the rugged seaside courses of England, Ireland and Scotland) and didn't have long to wait.
The fourth hole is a 324-yard (from the white tees) par 4 that replicates the famous 16th hole at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, complete with a blind tee shot over a large ridge. Stray your drive even a little and you end up in an ocean of heather. And if you can get out of that without breaking your club, you'll be shooting at a green the size of a drink coaster ringed by treacherous-looking bunkers.
As you can imagine, we had, oh, loads of fun on that hole. The next hole, a 499-yard par 4 imitation of the famous No. 15 at Royal Birkdale, was not as memorable -- which, in this case, was a good thing.
The 15th at Royal Birkdale is described on its official Web site as being "a golf hole of the highest class and the longest on the course."
But, at least from the white tees, the Renditions hole didn't play that long. And if you avoided the requisite pot bunkers on the left side of the fairway -- what is it with the British and pot bunkers? -- the hole didn't inspire the inherent fear I associate, Pavlovian-style, with a links hole.
Sheehan and course architect Dave Edsall of Annapolis explained how the various holes at Renditions were re-created.
First, aerial photographs of the famous holes were taken, along with aerial photos of the Renditions site where they'd be replicated. Then a topographical map of the famous hole was created, and laid over the "topo" of the Renditions site.
Finally, a digital, three-dimensional model of each hole was made, and from this image the ground was contoured to the shape of the replica hole.
"The tee box locations, bunker locations, streams, creeks and all the features are extremely accurate" renditions of the original holes, Sheehan said.
But with four sets of tees, golfers of varying skill levels can play tough holes like the British Open replicas -- well, at least some of them -- without feeling overpowered by the course.
"All the glitz and glamour is fine," said Edsall. "But at the end of the day, you've got to have a golf course people want to play."
The other highlight of the front nine were the three Amen Corner holes, particularly the seventh, which is a replica of the famous No. 12 par 3 at Augusta National.
This hole is considered the finest par 3 in golf and is the one hole at Augusta that has remained unchanged for 50 years.
It was neat to see it all laid out before us: the infamous Rae's Creek, the tiny napkin-sized green, the four gleaming-white bunkers looming like huge, puffy pillows.
At the 1988 Masters, Curtis Strange hit a 7-iron on No. 12 that traveled 155 yards for a hole-in-one. We took a few more strokes than that to get down. But crossing Ben Hogan Bridge on our way to the next hole, we definitely had the feeling that we'd just experienced a true, big-league golf hole.
For most golfers, the highlight of the back nine will be No. 13, the island hole replica of No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass.
From the white tees, the hole is only 97 yards away and looks even closer, which caused me to momentarily take leave of my senses and think: piece of cake.
Then I promptly plunked my sand-wedge tee shot into the water. I plunked my second shot, from the drop area, in the water, too. Then I looked around for a bunker rake with which to bludgeon myself.
My playing partner fared only a little better, going into the drink with his tee shot and landing his shot from the drop area on the back of the green, only to have it roll off like a BB spinning from a table.
All in all, though, Renditions was a fun course to play. Sure, it's a course based on a gimmick, and the conceit that says imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But it also offers the average duffer a unique setting and all the golf shots he expects from a quality course.
"People think it's gonna be a little hokey, a little Disney, a little Mickey Mouse" before they play it, said Sheehan when our round was over. "But I like to tell people: You can take away the signage and the memorabilia and the signature holes, and it's still a good golf course."
Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-97 south to Route 50 and go west toward Washington a little over 4 miles. Exit at Route 424 and proceed south to Davidsonville. Then take Route 214 west 2.4 miles. The course entrance is on the right, just before the Patuxent River Bridge.
Renditions, 1380 W. Central Ave., Davidsonville, MD 21035
Reservations suggested -- or at least call ahead to see how busy the course is. Course opens at 7:30 a.m.
Greens fees: $79 Monday through Thursday, $89 Friday through Sunday and holidays