Mountain Branch Golf Course

A long drive, but it's worth it

Originally published on May 19, 2002

If Mountain Branch were a little farther up Interstate 95, more Philadelphia's than Baltimore's, it might be time for another hearty debate about what is the best daily-fee course in the area.

Yes, it is good. Very, very good.

Not that the 1 1/2-year upscale daily-fee layout would necessarily leapfrog over Pine Hill, Bulle Rock or Hartefeld National, but Mountain Branch would surely be part of the discussion. The course has bite (with a 74.6 rating and 139 slope), length (6,969 yards), and an embarrassment of riches (it has variety, visual appeal and well-conceived holes).

At a glance
Getting there: Mountain Branch is at 1827 Mountain Rd., Joppa, Md. The phone number is 410-836-9600 or toll-free 1-877-588-1492. The Web site is Follow Interstate 95 south into Maryland and take Exit 74. Make a right and head north on Mountain Road (Route 152). The facility is 1 1/2 miles on the right-hand side.

Green fees: $95; twilight rate $60. (Fees are reduced in the off-season.)

Walking: Walking is permitted anytime, but cart fees are included. No pull carts.

Amenities: Comfortable, well-appointed lodge-style clubhouse with locker room, well-stocked pro shop, driving range, putting green and banquet facilities. Locals rave about the restaurant.

Rating: Excellent new addition to the daily-fee scene, a definite four-star course. Demanding, full of variety, a good test for any level of player. Too bad it's closer to Baltimore than Philadelphia. Still, it's well worth the trip for the hungry golfer.

Accurate as of May 2002.

What makes Mountain Branch all the more interesting is that it is not the handiwork of a big-name, top-dollar architect, as are Pine Hill and Hartefeld (both by Tom Fazio) or Bulle Rock (Pete Dye). Mountain Branch was designed by Maryland architect Jeff Matthai with a creative assist from the course's owner, Davis Sezna.

Sezna's name is no doubt familiar to many people who follow golf around Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. Besides owning Hartefeld National, Sezna is a successful restaurateur, a former Delaware Amateur champion, a top amateur in the region, and a member in good standing of several top clubs, including Merion and Pine Valley. The man is very much a mover and shaker.

(Sadly, Sezna's name was most recently in the news because he lost his oldest son, Deeg, in the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11.)

With Mountain Branch , it also becomes evident that Sezna not only knows a thing or two about how to hit a golf ball, but he also knows what makes for a challenging, dramatic and downright fun course.

So far, Philadelphia golfers don't appear to have discovered Mountain Branch . Only a relative trickle are making the drive down to Joppa, about 30 miles north of Baltimore. At $95, it's hardly cheap, but it's a better bargain than quite a few of its high-end competitors around Philadelphia and the Jersey Shore.

Compared with its sister courses, Hartefeld National and Pine Hill, all of which are owned by Empire Golf, Mountain Branch 's lodge-style clubhouse is casual and comfortable. Locals who don't even play golf drop by to dine and hang out.

But for golfers, the real payoff is the course, which sprawls across a terrific piece of hilly property with plenty of water and wooded areas - but, thankfully, no homes and no plans for them.

After a simple but undistinguished downhill dogleg to start you out, Mountain Branch begins to pick up speed. No. 2 is a reachable 533-yard dogleg featuring a split fairway that immediately has you licking your chops.

From there on out, Matthai and Sezna mix and match short, almost drivable par 4s, beastly par 5s, dicey little tight dogleg par 4s that gamblers will love, the occasional yawning fairway, uphill and downhill thrillers, a couple of blind tee shots, a sampling of deceptive approach shots, and one wraparound water hole with a giant two-tiered green that could give you fits.

Many of Mountain Branch 's regulars think Sezna and Matthai saved the best for last: a 519-yard dogleg par 5 that plays uphill and over a creek that slashes across the fairway. Par is no problem, but a birdie is one outstanding finish.

I know I plan to make the trip back to Mountain Branch soon. In the middle of my round on Tuesday, a sudden thunderstorm ripped across the course, leaving me struggling to play the last four holes in driving rain and gale-force winds. Wet and cold, I couldn't give some of the best holes my best shot.