6,400 yards, 125 slope from the Member tees
Burning Tree Club resides in Bethesda, Maryland. Just off the Beltway – steps really – the nonstop bustle of our nation’s capital quickly fades at the club’s entranceway, yielding to restful tree-shaded countryside that not only fosters the type of rejuvenation a refuge is meant for, but happens to be a hell of a place suited for the game of golf. Designed by the architectural firm Colt, Mackenzie and Alison of London, England, the course opened for play in 1923. Hugh Alison was primarily involved in the initial design with the inherent influence of his partners, then William Flynn performed work primarily to the back nine after opening. Over the course of time, others have performed work as well, including RTJ, Arthur Hills and Rich Mandell.
The club enjoys a good amount of privacy, as it is indeed a respite from the nearby Washington scene for many. Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, senators and those well known in the political arena are among its membership. The course is in tranquil seclusion, a parkland within forested hills that heave up and sigh down, parting to wider rolling fairways and coming together at different moments. It reveals itself slowly, and one doesn’t see a particular green or contour or hazard until they are supposed to. It’s rollicking terrain and used quite well. The pull of the fairway is very real here, which, along with a very quick-minded set of greens, angles become especially valuable in accounting for the terrain. Bunkers are placed selectively and there are precisely two water hazards. You will find very few forced carries, again the product of the design realizing the value of the inherent undulations. These contours maintain a firm gentleness that impressively never ventures into severity. For those tasked with creating and implementing policy in running of the country, as well as the rest of us, Burning Tree is a peaceful enclave where simplicity and intricacy in design thrive without conflict.
In the never-ending saga that is my swing, it had become a moving target at this point in the season, regressing a little in the preceding weeks. Every hole; no, every swing, was a new adventure. Yet we were in my favorite time of year for golf and the day was almost made just for the course. I knew there would be ups and downs out there, also slowly realizing it was with purpose. And with purpose I set out.
The First is a 410 yard par 4 (from the Member tees). Mulligans allowed at the First tee and I gladly welcomed it, although my first shot was the better one. Heading straight out from the clubhouse with trees on either side, the fairway teeters from one side then another while a slight uphill at the start turns into a glacial downhill at some point. A subtle handshake gets a bit more direct at the green, which falls away towards the sides and falls off on the left side. Missing the green can mean things get very real much quicker than expected.
The Second is a 476 yard par 5. Now that introductions are out of the way, we get down to business on this par 5 heading back to the clubhouse. I like to think it gives those an opportunity to retreat back to the clubhouse, on days where perhaps a couple holes is more than enough. Like the First, the fairway crests at the start before leading downhill to a degree. Bunkers on either side narrow the fairway at that crest, which then heads to one of the more intricate green complexes of the course. Bunkers on the right encroach towards the middle of the fairway, suggesting the opening at the left, which happens to be the gate of a short grass area leading to the green. This short grass area moves left and down to the green, which is on that side. Greenside bunkers are at the front left to collect those shots that are too slick to hold and give in to the terrain movement. There’s several ways to attack the green; from those going for it in two shots and using the short grass apron in that way to proceeding up the better angled left side or deciding on the safer right side with a trickier angle into the green. Thinking through the options at each shot and at the whims of the terrain is a lot of fun and something seen throughout the round.
The Third is a 147 yard par 3. Moving from the clubhouse/entrance area into the meat of the front nine, the Third is a gateway of sorts. The tee and and green are elevated while a valley of rough lies in between. The entry point of the green is at the left, which then moves perpendicular to the tee with bunkers below on the right side at a fall off on the far side. The green is quick-witted yet its contours subtle, so study the line appropriately.
The Fourth is a 425 yard par 4. The handicap number 1 hole awaits at the same time the terrain begins to churn and really start to show its stuff. While the next three holes switch back and forth, the terrain is so varied one hardly notices. The tee shot is to a swaling fairway, first up, then down, then up, then down, then up, this time to the green. With the swales, the fairway tilts to the right. Two selective bunkers on this hole, both at the green. Short grass area short of the green and around its edges, with more of a severe drop off to the right. This is the elegant simplicity side of the course. Relying on the terrain and sly subtlety of the green, the strategy of deciding on how to best utilize the swales and movement of the green becomes much more involved once you see how much the ball moves upon landing.
The Fifth is a 379 yard par 4. Back the way we came, this is the first fairway we’re able to see in its entirety to the green from the tee. Curving from right to left at the start, the fairway then plunges and twists before rising again and curling left to the green. Bunkers are on the left downhill from the green to yet again collect those shots overwhelmed by the fast paced green. Position placement amongst the dynamic terrain is so much of the fun here and very much at the heart of this hole.
The Sixth is a 402 yard par 4. The fairway dog legs to the right off the tee then heads straight and slight downward to the green. Bunkers are spaced out among the wider fairway just before the green while the area before the green is terrific for a bounding running shot resting easily into the gullet of the green. A wayward approach is essentially a rub of the green proposition, with so many different nooks, bunkers and hollows it could find.
The Seventh is a 396 yard par 4. A sliver of rough separates the two fairways, the first of which is off to the left of the tee, canted towards the right and outwards, towards the second fairway, leading to the green. Water is off to the left of the fairway, mostly in play for those trying to muscle too much from the fairway. The fairway narrows as it moves closer to the green, confounded by bunkers on both sides. Wisps of Augusta harkened here a bit, maybe with the way the fairway and green oriented with the water.
The Eighth is a 181 yard par 3. The green is uphill from the tee, bunkers cut into the hillside off to the right and on the downhill left side of the green. A larger green that is a lot more direct about how wild and raving it is. All in all, a rip roaring fun par 3.
The Ninth is a 470 yard par 5. The front nine closes with a dog leg left that makes its way uphill to the green as slowly as it pleases. The tee shot negotiates the dog legs, which then starts its climb to the green. Slowly at first, then with more purpose. As we’ve seen, knowledge of the terrain and how it moves is advantageous in figuring out positional strategy as you plot your way to the green. A wide entry to the green to a larger green makes a lot of different plays inviting, yet those not careful could end up watching their shots fall off and make a run back down the fairway. Paces from the First tee, you may wish you could use that mulligan as one of your strokes at the green.
The front nine has a cadence that starts at ease, rises sharply and stays at a melodic engaging pace through the end. A symbiotic union of design and terrain resulting in mutual refinement. My ranking of them is 5, 6, 4, 7, 8, 2, 9, 1, 3.
The back nine starts with the 414 yard par 4 Tenth. The fairway dog legs right at a large prominent bunker. Dropping and widening after the bunker, the fairway runs right into the green, which runs from back to front and a green side bunker on the left. The area before the green puts a lot of options on the table for the approach, which relies on the tee shot negotiating that bunker.
The Eleventh is a 181 yard par 3. Following on the Tenth approach, the green is likewise below, a green side bunker at the front right. A good amount of room off to the sides and really, most any where else. The green runs from back to front.
The Twelfth is a 321 yard par 4. A short par 4 that dog legs right once it crests early on, the decision off the tee is how to maneuver the fairway. Whether it’s getting over and around the dogleg to the fairway or opting to a safer shot to the top of the turn, the fairway gets wider after the turn and a good lie is necessary for the approach, which must carry the bunkers guarding the green in front. A well defended short par 4 that tends to eliminate any advantage to those with length unless they can evade the trees leading to the green.
The Thirteenth is a 378 yard par 4. A downhill dog leg right, the cant of the fairway sticks out here for how it moves from right to left initial before changing to a left to right closer to the green and on the green itself. A single well placed bunker at the outside of the turn that comes into play for those who don’t take the terrain movement into account. Most approaches are fair game but the movement towards the right is a lot stronger than it appears. The hole reminded me of Flynn and at that time, did not realize he was involved, so was glad that familiarity was correct. While the terrain pushes you left of the green off the tee, the right side is much preferred for the approach to better account for the pull. One of my favorite holes of the course.
The Fourteenth is a 145 yard par 3. The green lies between bunkers on a hillside that moves from right to left. There’s room short of the green but the shot requires deftness of touch in avoiding the bunkers and accounting for the hillside. Lots of subtlety to ponder at the tee.
The Fifteenth is a 381 yard par 4. We now move out of the woods to more wide open pastures and this par 4 lies out before us completely. Heading straight out, the width allows a moment of freedom from the last few holes that asked for more of a thoughtful precision and guile, so take advantage and lash away. The green overlooks from above with bunkers at its front corners. If you’re wondering, yes the contours of the green can catch putts and send them down the hill for another approach, so I’ve heard. Make sure the approach is a strong one to stay up there and mind the speed.
The Sixteenth is a 476 yard par 5. We’re now at the closing area of the course, which is generally the rear side of the clubhouse. This is in pleasant contrast to the opening sequence, which is located on the other side of the clubhouse. This fairway and the Seventeenth neatly merge into a super fairway, which can be used off the tee. Just know that here, the longer left you go, the infinitely longer the hole becomes. Two bunkers are on this hole, again to great effect. One at the inside turn of the dog leg and the other at the left side of the green. The fairway rolls splendidly up and down towards the green after the turn while the deep some how crowns while moving left to right. It’s a great par 5 and another favorite.
The Seventeenth is a 400 yard par 4. While the clubhouse is off to the right, we still have work to do with these last couple holes. Turning around, we take advantage of the merged fairway and take another lash into the wild green yonder. A bunker short of the green creates a false front, especially in conjunction with a green side bunker on the right, and you’re downhill of the green, so be aggressive on the approach and also note the water, off to the right of the fairway. It’s a touchier approach than it appears, so don’t be lulled from the leeway of the tee shot.
The Eighteenth is a 418 yard par 4. The final tee shot at the last is different in its direct forced carry proposition, where the fairway climbs uphill on the other side before leveling and climbing a little gentler to the green as the clubhouse watches on in the background. One bunker here, this one on the left side of the green yet all the room you could ever want on the right side and behind the green. Just don’t go nuts and air mail the green into the clubhouse patio. The green complex is large with relaxed yet effective contours but it all starts with a tee shot that puts you in a position to take advantage of the flexibility this green provides.
The back nine uses the forest and hills to emphasize shotmaking and finesse at the starting holes before giving way to boldness and aggression to close things out. Most of the holes are strong and exude a unique character resulting from the splendid terrain upon which it is set. My ranking of them is 13, 16, 10, 12, 14, 15, 18, 17, 11.
Generally, Burning Tree is a wonderful combination of rolling terrain and forested landscape that embraces play on the terrain instead of over it. Even those that want to favor the aerial game will need to think deeply about what the ball will do once it lands. The sequencing of the holes together develops a nice relaxed rhythm, especially in presentation. Particular shots, greens and parts of the fairway are revealed and come into play as part of this orchestrated rhythm, with the crescendo of the last few holes into a more wide open green scape that can throw those close matches into a much different mood. I’m very much in favor of the bunkering here; selective and effective, as opposed to the over reliance on them we see all too much. The setting is ideal parkland, with the sway of the trees and resident birds providing a tranquil ambiance. The various movements and pull of the terrain was another highlight, which extended to the greens. Learning the whims of this movement at several parts of the course is certainly part of the fun of repeat play for sure. This is a classic parkland that played right into some of my preferred values of great golf. I’m fairly certain I’m not alone on this.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Modestly sized yet well appointed, it exudes the same relaxed tone as the course. I’ll also say the club logo is one of the best out there and the pro shop was a fun place to peruse after the round. Even though I left with a treasure trove, I wish I ended up with more!
Practice Area: The range is behind the clubhouse, with practice green and a short game area.