By Jake Schaller, Mid-Atlantic Golf
August 14, 2003
On April 22 of this year, Joe Lee died of heart disease in Boynton Beach, Fla., and the golf world lost one of its premier course designers.
Lee designed more than 250 golf courses throughout the world, including Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge in Orlando, Doral Golf Resort's Blue Monster in Miami, Cog Hill near Chicago and La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif., to name but a few. Seven of his designs currently act as PGA Tour stops.
The Mid-Atlantic Region holds the last course Lee designed and built. Tucked among the Catoctin and Blue Ridge Mountains in Myersville, Md., is one final masterpiece -- Musket Ridge Golf Club.
Musket Ridge is named for its Civil War history. In September of 1862, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet staged a strategic retreat across the property before the Battle of Antietem.
Joe Lee, a descendant of Robert E. Lee, was "energized" by the history, according to David Taylor, one of the course's owners. He also was energized by the property with which he had to work.
It would be hard to find as aesthetically pleasing a canvas in the area for a designer, and Lee's finished product is brilliant in how it shows off the marvelous property he was given. The course, which sits on top of a ridge, provides dramatic vistas of the surrounding mountains and countryside from its majestic clubhouse and several of its holes.
And the layout itself lives up to the scenery.
Lee once said, "If the golfer's blaming himself for his bad score instead of you, there's a good chance he'll be back again." Most golfers that leave Musket Ridge with an ugly scorecard will harbor that sentiment.
There is trouble, to be sure, throughout Lee's layout, but all of it is right in front of you. The greens are large and true but undulating, and if you land the ball in the wrong spot, three-putts should be expected. There are no tricks on either of the two nines -- the Blue Course, which serves as the front, and the Ridge Course, which serves as the back (a third nine already designed and marked by Lee -- the Gray Course -- is expected to be ready within the next few years).
The 450-yard fourth, for example, is a straightforward par-4. Hit a drive down the middle and another iron to the green and par is eminently conceivable. But miss left of the fairway and you are in deep grass. Miss right or over the green and your ball is gone down an alarmingly steep hill.
"The golf course is very playable -- there aren't really any forced carries that are commonplace at many golf courses, especially the newer designs," said Musket Ridge General Manager Mike Ahrnsbrak. "The trouble is left and right, and in most cases it's way left and way right. So while [Lee] forces you to keep the ball straight, he doesn't penalize you for not being able to carry the ball tremendous distances or being slightly off line."
Indeed, hitting the ball straight and keeping it in the fairway is the way to stay out of trouble at Musket Ridge. But Lee dares you to bring the lateral hazards into play.
Much of the trouble you can get into at Musket Ridge comes as a result of hubris, as risk-reward is a huge part of Lee's game at the course. As soon as the third hole on the Blue Course, a 400-yard, dog-leg right par-4, Lee challenges you to be bold. A simple iron is the safe play to a narrow fairway that slopes to the trouble on the right, but a driver faded correctly can leave a wedge to the green.
The Blue Course's No. 6, a 520-yard par-5, serves as a microcosm of the course. It is at once breathtaking, challenging and filled with risk-reward decisions. With a forested mountain serving as the backdrop, the hole plays from an elevated tee to a rolling fairway. The hole dog-legs to the left, and a correctly placed tee shot allows an opportunity to fly fairway bunkers and attack the green in two.
Two of the other three par-5s are reachable in two shots, the exception being the ninth on the Blue Course, a 567-yarder that plays uphill and frequently into the wind.
With the exception of the Blue Course's 168-yard No. 2, which plays over a lake to an elevated tee, the par-3s at Musket Ridge seem fairly blasť. But the other three all play 185 yards or more from the tips, and all can be trouble. The area around the green on the Ridge Course's 185-yard eighth falls away considerably, in some areas to bunkers, setting up difficult up-and-downs.
Perhaps the biggest treat on the course does not come until late in the round. The seventh hole on the Ridge Course (the 16th hole on the current route) is jaw-droppingly dramatic and certain to be among the area's best in the near future.
The Ridge's seventh is a 413-yard par-4 that plays from a mountain-top of an elevated tee. The tee shot plays through a chute of trees to a narrow fairway below. The fairway squirms through a hillside that slopes severely from left to right. Drives that miss left are in serious trouble, and those that miss right are gone, no question. But a well-struck shot that finds the fairway can trickle to wedge range.
The approach shot provides a fine second stanza to the hole. With a downhill lie, players fire at a green that drops off severely to the back and right.
Musket Ridge's clubhouse has a full pro shop, a locker room with showers and a grill room that features its own beer and serves everything from quick bites to full entrees. The course hosts corporate outings, using a large tent that sits next to the clubhouse to seat large numbers. A permanent pavilion will take the place of the tent next spring, and Ahrnsbrak said the course will be even more suited to host corporate outings when the final nine holes open.
"That's going to be one of our specialties," Ahrnsbrak said.
Even in the rain-ravaged Mid-Atlantic, Musket Ridge has so far held up beautifully. The shape of the course, its topography and its superb drainage system have kept it in great shape.
From after the snow melted in mid-March to mid-June, when this article went to press, Musket Ridge never was closed due to the rain.
"Joe [Lee] always said, 'You've got to let [the golfers] on the golf course," Ahrnsbrak said. "This spring proves it, with the amount of rain we've had."