River Marsh - Non-Fiction Golf on the Choptank River

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos By Jeffrey A. Rendall


CAMBRIDGE, MD – As the title would imply, James Michener’s epic novel ‘Chesapeake’ tells the story (through historical narrative fiction) of life on the great bay, but specifically focuses on a much smaller piece of it, the mouth of the Choptank River.


The novel details several hundred years of regional history, and Michener chose this little-heralded slice of the Chesapeake’s eastern shore to capture the essence of the early Mid-Atlantic seafaring lifestyle(s) – which was probably a good choice, because the little towns in this neck-of-the-woods are all married to the sea, as well as steeped in historical tradition.

Looking back down the 18th fairway, the Choptank River's on your right, and history's all over.


It’s not bad in the golf sense either, as we discovered on a visit to the relatively new River Marsh Golf Club (at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay) in Cambridge – just over the bridge from Talbot County, about an hour and a half east and south of Washington DC.  Opening in 2002, River Marsh adjoins Michener’s Choptank River, and its choppy waves even come into play on the layout’s dramatic closing hole.


The property itself offers more significance than its proximity to a famous body of water, though its inland portions probably wouldn’t be lauded for tremendous natural beauty.   Course designer Keith Foster’s taken the land’s ‘potential’ and shaped it into a demanding but enjoyable resort golf experience.  Like all good resort courses should, its playability varies widely between sets of tees, allowing for the occasional resort player to navigate the layout without too much trouble, yet challenging better players from the back tees to test their accuracy and shot-making.


Probably not as apparent from glancing over the landscape, the Hyatt Resort and River Marsh Golf Club property used to house the Maryland State Mental Hospital, and there’s even a graveyard commemorating that fact, visible from the cart path between the 16th green and 17th tee.  Not really what you’ll encounter during an everyday golf round, but another gentle reminder that the land’s history goes back further than birdies and bogeys.

From the tee of the par five 3rd hole, you'll see where the 'Marsh' part of the name 'River Marsh' comes from.


Driving onto the property, you’ll see the Hyatt Hotel in the distance, and instantly your expectations inflate – happily, the golf doesn’t disappoint.  Eric Claxton, River Marsh’s Head Golf Professional, says they’ll make sure it stays that way:  “I think River Marsh is unique because it’s completely ‘out’ of the DC area mentality.  It’s really not that far to drive, yet it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere – and when you come here, it’s much more than just a great golf experience.”


“We have a world class resort, with a full service spa and a marina.  It’s terrific for people from DC, if they just want to come down for the day and experience the golf and the Spa and the hotel amenities.  They could even stay for a night or two on the way to the beach, or on the way back.  It’s not a bad trip from the heavily populated areas, but you feel like you’re in another country when you come out here,” Claxton added.


As Michener the author alluded to, that ‘country’ might have belonged to the land’s original Native American inhabitants, or perhaps the pre-Revolutionary families dependent on Great Britain.  River Marsh and the Hyatt are very new, however, so ‘modern’ is the word on the grounds -- but you don’t have to travel far to be right in the middle of farming ‘country’ in the 21st century.

At 241 yards from the back tee, the par three 13th is one serious challenge.


Or, you could be in Scotland (well, sort of).  River Marsh, despite all the marsh and river views, very much has the feel and look of a seaside links course.  Keith Foster talks a little about what he saw, and what he was trying to create with the design:  “We were trying to design something that fit seamlessly into the ground, while also creating some visual elements to define the course with the tall grasses, mounds and bunkering.  Aside from the river views, it really wasn’t that attractive a piece of land, so there was a lot to work with.”


He continues, “With a flatter piece of ground and all the marsh land, I was actually trying to downplay the amount of water throughout the entire golf course – so that it would be much more playable and enjoyable.  As I do with all my designs, we sought to position tees in straight lines with the fairways and emphasize some roll in the ground with the bunkering, which makes it charming and picturesque.”


Foster worked for many years with master architect Arthur Hills, and it’s clear that he’s taken much of what he learned from Hills to heart.  Foster says River Marsh doesn’t really look like a Hills Course, but the elements you’ll find at all Hills designed facilities – rock solid routing, impeccable engineering and sensitivity to the environment – is included in the package.

Some fluffy grass around the greens gives River Marsh a bit of a links-style look. Here, the 4th green.


A good example of that dedication to the environment is the coastal bunker on the 18th hole.  “Everybody always says the tee-to-green bunker on the 18th hole looks really great – but the existence of that bunker was driven by the coastal agencies.  It looks like a bunker to the players, but it’s actually a huge drainage and filtration system for a good portion of the golf course.  The water flows into that bunker and filters before it reaches the Choptank,” Foster said.


There were other restrictions that influenced the layout, and they weren’t all player friendly.  You probably won’t realize it when you see it, but River Marsh’s signature par three wasn’t necessarily meant to turn out the way it did.  Foster explains:  “We’d never anticipated making the 17th hole as difficult as it is (170 yards of water carry, even from the white tees).  But what most people don’t know, it took a good three to four years to get all the permits for that course, and on that hole, they told us where we could put the walls.  It also points into the prevailing wind, so it plays much tougher than we would’ve wanted.”


There are a lot of things more difficult about River Marsh than expected at first glance.  The back tees (gold) measure a yard over 6,800, but the slope is ‘only’ a tepid 126.  True, the course offers plenty of room on most holes to land the ball off tee shots and the approaches, yet there’s also more than enough trouble to go around.

The 11th tee -- not much marsh to drive over, but you'll still need distance and accuracy to set up a decent approach shot.


“I was a bit surprised when I saw that slope rating,” Claxton said.  “From the back sets of tees, there’re a number of marsh carries where you’re challenged to hit it long and accurate.  We’ve also got very large, subtle, undulating greens.  The course was rated before we opened, and they’ll hopefully be coming out again in the fall to take another look.  Most people think it plays a lot harder than the rating (from the back tees), so maybe that will change.”


We didn’t get the rating either.  Take the 9th hole for example.  From the back tees, it’s a 482-yard par four – and the second shot has to clear a marsh.  There’s a bit of room to land the ball short of the putting surface, but if you’re tee ball’s not long (or if it’s in the rough), you’re probably thinking of laying up on a par four.


As hinted at above, the 6,000 yard white tees are much tamer, especially on the tee shots.  At that distance, the landing areas are wide enough where you can slap it around and probably still keep it in play.  Claxton says a lot of people tell him they’ve shot their career-best rounds on this course, and that’s believable from the men’s forward set.

Sculpted bunkers and finely manicured greens -- River Marsh is in great shape.


Another ‘Hyatt’ type amenity you’ll find at River Marsh is the course conditioning.  The playing surfaces are in outstanding shape, and even the tall grass is usually playable (if you find the ball).  The greens were quick but not impossible, and despite the copious amount of ‘outings’ on the course, the ball marks and divots were at a minimum.  If you don’t score well here, don’t blame the superintendent.


The service also is something to remember, definitely worthy of the Hyatt name.  Claxton says they really try to provide a first-class golf experience from the bag-drop to the minute you leave, and they certainly deserve high marks in this regard.


Highlights at River Marsh are the par threes.  The par fours are pretty straight forward and there are a couple reachable par fives – nice holes, no two the same – but the one-shotters will take the best you’ve got, particularly numbers six (216 yards over a marsh), eight (194 yards to a narrow green bordered by water on the right) and of course, seventeen (203 yards into the wind across Shoal Creek).

The 2nd hole moves out towards the river. With the prevaling wind, it makes this par four play much longer than its 369 yards would indicate.


In addition to the par threes, the 360 yard seventh hole is a nice short par four.  The landing area is completely bordered by steep fairway bunkers, and it’s nearly 280 yards to carry them (with high grass beyond, too).  So you’re laying up with a long-iron or fairway wood off the tee.  The approach shot is into a deep but narrow green, which depending on the placement of your tee ball, might be blind.  Trust your yardage and let fly.


No review of River Marsh would be complete without raving about the finishing hole – simply one of the finest in the Mid-Atlantic region.  As Foster talks about above, it’s bordered the entire length of the hole (567 yards, par five) by a bunker, and the Choptank River.  With the Hyatt Hotel as the backdrop and wide fairways, you’re inspired to air out the lumber.  It’s the #2 handicap hole, but if you stay out of the bunker(s), you shouldn’t have much trouble making par.


Not to belabor the point, but the entire trip around River Marsh is a ‘natural’ experience, and that includes wildlife.  Claxton says you’ll come face-to-face with some of it for sure:  “We’ve got a bald eagle’s nest near the 18th tee, we have a number of red fox.  We have the wooded area behind the 17th green, where there’s a blue heron rookery.  We have an osprey nest behind the 16th green.  There are also swans, ducks, rabbits and deer – over 60 head of deer on the property.”

The par three 17th hole plays entirely over water. If you're seeing it from this vantage point, you've at least made it over the bridge.


It just proves that much of what Michener wrote about in Chesapeake still exists there on the banks of the Choptank River, even if it might look a bit different with the multi-story hotel rising above the water.  Some things change, some stay the same – but playing River Marsh truly is a literary inspiring experience.


Where We Stayed


Seeking to take advantage of the historic and cultural offerings of beautiful Talbot County, we stayed at The Tidewater Inn in Easton, about a half hour from River Marsh.

Coming up the 18th hole, there's little doubt what dominates the scene.


The Tidewater Inn calls itself the ‘Pride of the Eastern Shore,’ and that’s no exaggeration.  You’ll enter through beautiful mahogany doors into a lobby richly decorated as a fine private historic home – this is definitely not your average hotel.


Guest rooms are equally tastefully decorated with fine antique reproductions and fabrics.  We particularly enjoyed the striking Colonial color patterns.  With all the amenities of a fine hotel, you’ll feel like you’re in a historic building without foregoing the comforts and conveniences of the 21st century.


Located in downtown Easton, the Tidewater Inn is convenient to shopping, sight seeing, diverse sporting opportunities (including golf) and a wealth of restaurants nearby.  It’s also surprisingly family friendly, with an outdoor pool on site. 

The Tidewater Inn, Pride of the Eastern Shore


The Tidewater Inn also can accommodate business or private groups and wedding receptions up to 300 people, with extensive conference rooms and facilities.


For more information on the Tidewater Inn’s offerings and reservations, try their website:  www.Tidewaterinn.com, or call (800) 237-8775.


River Marsh Golf Club at The Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay

100 Heron Boulevard

Cambridge, Maryland  21613


Phone:  (410) 901-6396


Website:  http://www. chesapeakebay.hyatt.com


Course Designer:  Keith Foster

Head Golf Professional:  Eric Claxton, PGA


Tees/Yardage (par 71)/Slope/Rating

Gold              6801   126/71.9

Blue              6400   123/69.9

White            6045   117/68.5

Red               4828   111/67.8




$120 on the weekends, $100 during the week.  You get 10% off if you’re staying at the resort.


Fees include cart and driving range privileges.


Replay rate is $20 for the cart fee.

Related Links   Comments on this article?
Maryland National Golf Club
Hollow Creek Golf Club
Rocky Gap Resort
PB Dye Golf Club in Ijamsville
Whiskey Creek Golf Club
E-mail Jeff Rendall, Editor: