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Rocky Gap: A Classy Challenge

October 16, 2007

By Matt Hombach

Heading west on Interstate 68 into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, it’s hard to believe you’re in the same state that offers congested beltways, bustling cities and flat, sandy beaches. It seems to be America in miniature.

Designed by Jack Nicklaus, Rocky Gap is a western Maryland gem.
(Rocky Gap)

The case could be made that golf courses throughout Maryland are also representative of the style and atmosphere of a variety of courses throughout the lower 48 states. Resort courses on the Eastern Shore and near Ocean City could pass for upscale courses located in Florida or the Carolinas.

Play some of the gorgeous old parkland courses near the cities and you can easily imagine what it’s like to play northeast classics like Merion or Winged Foot. The only type of courses Maryland is missing are desert-style courses like those in Arizona or Las Vegas.

While western Maryland offers the most dramatic and breathtaking scenery in the entire state, it also offers one of the most beautiful and challenging courses -- Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort.

Located near Cumberland in the town of Flintstone, Rocky Gap was designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened for play in June 1999. The course has received a number of accolades, including a four-star “Place to Play” rating by Golf Digest, and it was voted one of America’s Best Golf Courses by Zagat Survery for 2007-2008.

The course is nestled at the base of Evitts Mountain and on the shores of 243-acre Lake Habeeb. The course is also surrounded by Rocky Gap State Park. A more picturesque and tranquil setting you would be hard pressed to find.

All that peace and tranquility ends on the first tee. In Nicklaus’ signature style, the layout is designed to challenge all aspects of the game.

Five sets of tees give some versatility and can make the course playable for golfers of all ages and ability levels. From the tips or black tees, Rocky Gap goes over the 7,000-yard mark. From up front, the red tees measure a very playable 5,198.

The course is also fairly straightforward in how hazards are positioned and viewed from the tees and fairways. Nicklaus’ design group wasn’t looking to trip anyone up with hidden hazards and blind shots. This is typical of many resort courses like Rocky Gap that get a fair amount of play from beginning golfers.

Nicklaus utilized the natural slopes and valleys already present on the land to add to the drama of the course. The frequency and severity of elevation changes in the course are somewhat reminiscent of one of his favorite courses, Augusta National.

Nicklaus didn’t leave the entire design to Mother Nature, however. During construction of the course, the sounds of dynamite-fueled explosions blasted through the Appalachians as healthy doses of TNT helped to carve out and level some of the landing areas and fairways at Rocky Gap. 

Signature Hole: Par-5 No. 5

Rocky Gap is beset with a number of elevated tees that serve a dual purpose. First off, they give the best vantage point from which to view the resort itself, the beautiful mountain scenery and, at this time of year, the gorgeous fall foliage. Secondly, they can help get some extra distance from drives on some of the longer holes on the course.

One of these elevated tees is also the gateway to one of the most difficult and dramatic par-5s you’ll ever encounter. The par-5 fifth hole measures more than 540 yards and continues on its downhill descent all the way to the green. Mature hardwoods frame the fairway, adding to the hole’s visual appeal and difficulty.

The fifth hole features one of the broadest landing areas on the golf course. It is one of the few holes on the front nine where long hitters can have at it and get aggressive with a tee shot. 

The generous fairway offers some trouble. It is split in half by two large bunkers. Dump it in the sand, and you'll have no chance of reaching the green in two. The wide fairway narrows quickly nearing the traditional layup area and the green. Layup shots and fairway woods aimed at the green must be struck precisely.

The challenge of the fifth hole doesn’t end in the fairway; the green is multitiered and slopes back to front. Be sure any chip shot or short approach shot leaves an uphill putt. If you end up above the hole, work to guard against a dreaded three-putt.

Get through the fifth hole and the more mountainous front nine, and things open up considerably on the back. The holes are more level and open, but still put a premium on accuracy and shot-making, typical of a Nicklaus design. 

In addition to golf, dozens of other activities abound at the Rocky Gap resort. From simple outdoor pursuits like hiking or bird-watching to upscale dining and first-class spa treatments, there’s something for everyone. Four-star lodging is available on site, which is enough reason to spend the night and challenge Rocky Gap more than once.

Issue 2.42: October 18, 2007