Water, Water Everywhere

Shooting around the streams of White Clay Creek Golf Club will push your game to its limit.

 

 

 

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photograph by John M. Lewis

 

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Whether it’s for slots or horse racing, you don’t enter Wilmington’s Delaware Park without knowing your limits. The same holds true for White Clay Creek Golf Club, the third jewel in the recreational and entertainment crown for this historic facility, which dates to 1937. Stay within the limits of your game and what the course offers, and you will enjoy a satisfying round on one of the top layouts in the state. But if you let your grasp exceed your reach, you could be in for a frustrating day of lost balls, penalty drops and a sinking malaise over the state of your game.

Three branches and three tributaries of White Clay Creek define its 70,000-acre and 100-square-mile watershed. Golfers at White Clay Creek Golf Club, unable to control their accuracy off the tee or the fairway, will end their day believing they have deposited balls in all six areas of the creek. Water is in play on all 18 holes of this 7,007-yard Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest design (the only Hills/Forrest course in Delaware), and the layout is striped with meandering brooks and streams that bisect many of the fairways.

Target golf is very much the order of the day.

You may have heard some early grumblings concerning the course’s overall difficulty and, perhaps, unfairness. But a lot of that talk had to be among golfers who chose the wrong set of tees to play—especially for the first time.

There are five sets at White Clay Creek, and many average players may be tempted to avoid the white tees here, which, at 5,884 yards, would seem on the short side of what such players are accustomed to. But to move back to black, at 6,467 yards, is more than a question of adding distance. Forced carries move from modest challenges to heroic efforts. Your game may be pushed beyond its limits, especially as the day wears on and the challenges pile up.

If you’re an average first-time player, swallow your pride and play from the shorter tees. You’ll have a more enjoyable time, and you’ll learn the lay of the land. Playing from the black tees should happen only after some experience with managing your game around this demanding track. For the accomplished players, well, go ahead and go for the gold—it’ll teach you some humility.

That there are 27 bridges and eight miles of concrete cart path traversing the various streams, brooks and rivulets that snake their way across the property gives some idea of the meandering nature of water and fairway here. (This is not a walker’s course. The distance from the second green to the third tee, for example, is a scenic 0.6-mile cart drive along a beautiful stretch of the creek.). From the first hole, you’re confronted with the main challenge of the day: how far to hit your tee shot, without landing it in a streambed that bisects the fairway.

The second major challenge presents itself at the first green, where elevated, softly undulating surfaces are flanked by steep, deep-faced bunkers, as well as cruel shoulders and drop-offs that will drop-kick your offline approaches down collection areas and into leafy green environmental reserves. You’ll have no recourse but to take a penalty drop.

The par-5s provide both the best examples of target golf, as well as Hills’ signature design trait of risk-and-reward play over water to diagonal fairways.

The 521-yard third hole is representative of target golf. Your drive finds a fairly wide landing zone over a short forced carry off the tee. The second shot must then be fitted within a smaller target that is bounded by a large pond on the right and thick woods on the left. Your final approach is over a ravine to another elevated green complex. It’s a definite three-shotter.

Hills’ risk-and-reward holes appear more frequently on the back nine, beginning with the 363-yard, par-4 11th, a sharp dogleg right that begins with a diagonal carry running from left to right toward a creek crossing at 242 yards from the tee box. Bite off too little of the carry and you’ll drive through the fairway. Too much means bye-bye birdie (and hello, double bogey).

The par-5 15th demands another risk-and-reward carry, this time from the short side on the right to a more daring carry running left off the tee. Again, the second shot should be a safety in front of a swampy area that wraps itself around the left side of the green. Better to land something around 100 yards, pitch it up to yet another elevated green, then take your two-putt par and move on.

The challenges of water, distance control and elevated greens are softened somewhat by the generally smooth, gently undulating and, for the most part, flat green surfaces. Getting there is the trick, but once you’ve successfully done that, a number of one-putt possibilities should present themselves.

Hills eases the screws a bit on what may be two of the most benign finishing holes around. After playing initial par-3s that demand both accurate and distance-controlled tee shots, you arrive at the 17th to find a short (126-yard), open green with no carry and room for error left and right. The green sits at the base of a slope and right of a pond, but is one of the easiest looks from the tee you’ll have at White Clay.

Then there’s the 18th. Until you’ve played it once, you may be confused. This is the closest example of a tricked-up hole you’ll find here. What you see from the tee is a challenging drive to clear a stream crossing at about 190 yards to a landing area that’s a left-to-right fairway positioned perfectly at a 90 degree angle from the tee. It’s only when you reach your tee ball that you learn your approach shot is dead right of the tee box and straight ahead from your landing area.

If you had successfully gone for the carry, you have no more than a short pitch to the green and a good chance to end your day with a birdie. But had you decided to lay up short, you’re now faced with a sharply angled approach that must carry a tall copse of trees. It seems too penal a shot for someone who’s decided to play it safe.

But that’s not a criticism. The surprise you’re faced with provides a sense of uniqueness to the hole and will be a lingering memory of just how different golf can be at White Clay.

With free balls for the range, GPS-fitted carts that include an electronic scorecard, and a well-appointed grill room for a post-round beverage, the top rate of $95 (May through September) is reasonable—well within your budget’s limits, as well as your game’s. 

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