The Rocky Gap Casino and resort in the Western frontier of Maryland opened a golf course to offer outside entertainment to visitors during 2000, and they tapped Jack Nicklaus to handle the project (it is the only “signature design” from the Golden Bear in the state).
The course is the story of two nines. The front is the more hilly of the two, as golfers will make a significant drive between the second green and the third tee, to begin the most mountainous stretch of the course. This can perhaps best be summed up by holes Nos. 5 and 6; the former is a split-fairway par five that travels downward between rising slopes on both sides. The latter is a par three that drops dramatically, to the extent that players on the back tees must walk to the edge of the teebox to see the putting surface below them, before firing their tee shot.
The second nine is hardly a flatland, but its altitude changes seem much less dramatic than those on the front. The highlight may be a pair of par threes on the other side of the highway, with one taking advantage of another significant downslope, while the next heads right back up.
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When life gives you tea leaves, you make iced tea. Arnold Palmer proved that the disparate elements make for a delicious combination. Jack Nicklaus couldn’t master the mix at Rocky Gap.
The lemonade, if you will, is the opening nine at this course, which accompanies the casino of the same name in the foothills of Western Maryland. This nine takes full advantage of the foothills. This sort of terrain fires up the creative (lemon) juices in designers who enjoy the unconventional, and Jack’s history certainly qualifies him for the task. No. 5 obliges as players descend through a valley between crests; a split-fairway Par 5 where players can choose to attack from the elevated plateau to the left, or pick up as much yardage as possible off the tee via the right corridor. Both offer chances at an Eagle putt, but the fun is in deciding how to get there. No. 6, a Par 3, descends dramatically from a cliff face down the green, and No. 7 continues the drama with a mountain stream that wraps around the front of the green.
The hills smooth out on the East half of the property, however, as does Nicklaus’s inspiration. Although his back-to-back Par 3s at Nos. 16-17 are consistent with the strength of the shorts throughout the property, the longs prove to be quite the opposite. An interesting note is the course’s five Par 5s to match its five Par 3s. They match in number only, not execution. No. 10 would otherwise make for an interesting addition to any municipal, but it feels like a watered-down version of Nos. 5 and 7’s best features by the time one reaches it. The second half’s other longs echo a common complaint among design devotees: They are long, stringy, and have few features in between.
Rocky Gap, opened in 2000, would have benefitted from the current resurgence in nine-hole courses. The shortened jaunt through the woods would provide satisfying morning respite from the gambling tables in a region that’s not particularly noted for golf trips anyhow. Lemonade and iced tea make for good mates. The formula was just a tad top-heavy here.