During his more than 20 years on staff in a variety of different roles, Scott Wunder has developed a unique perspective when it comes to the Piney Branch Golf Club.
From his humble beginnings on the cart staff when he was 15 all the way through to today where he fills the dual role of general manager and superintendent, Wunder has literally seen things from every angle. So there’s significant weight behind his words this spring when he says he has never been more excited about the direction that the private 18-hole facility in Upperco is headed.
“Being in one place as long as I have, you naturally see a lot of change — fortunately for us a lot of it for the good. But, like the rest of the industry, we had to get a little creative after the recession in 2008 and that’s why I think it’s so exciting to be here now and finally be able to really see things starting to uptick again,” Wunder said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of not only what we’ve already been able to accomplish, but what’s in the works for the immediate future as well.”
Piney Branch, which opened originally as a nine-hole layout in 1964, has long been regarded as one of the area’s top golf courses in terms of conditioning, particularly when it comes to its fast, sloping greens. The par 71 course has hosted three United States Amateur qualifiers in the last 12 years and several Maryland State Golf Association events.
As Wunder points out, the product from a golfing standpoint has been incredibly consistent for a membership that currently sits around 360 individuals.
The extra projects, however, were temporarily put on hold during the last decade. That is, until last fall.
With the launch of a Capital Improvement Project that launched last October and is scheduled to run through the end of this season, the facilities are getting a significant uplift.
There’s over two miles worth of new and wider cart paths in the works, a new 1,500 square foot patio with fire pit being installed next to the clubhouse, eight new tee boxes already added or in the plans, along with a scheduled repaving of the parking lot. And that’s not even mentioning the thing Wunder is most excited about — the brand new short-game facility that the club is scheduled to break ground on in August to be ready for use next spring.
The short-game area, which will afford golfers the chance to practice shots up to 125 yards with a variety of target areas and sand traps, was made possible through a member-driven fundraiser that brought in $100,000 in a little over six months.
“We worked very closely with membership to identify a number of things, whether it was structural, cosmetic or facility-related, that could be done to really improve the overall experience. And we got great feedback and support that allowed us to come up with a plan to start tackling those improvements,” Wunder said. “Currently being in the middle of this project and knowing that we are ultimately going to be investing over half a million dollars in capital improvements to the club, it’s just so exciting for not only our current members but also for any prospective members considering joining.”
Initial feedback, even with construction ongoing, has been overwhelmingly positive from current membership. Bill Hoffman, who has been a member since 1996 and currently serves on the Green Committee, says the progress and new direction has been a great rallying point for members.
“I remember when everyone heard the plan last October, there was just such a great feeling that we were in a position to invest in the club and begin doing some of these projects we have always been hoping to do,” Hoffman said. “It really has been something everyone can get behind and, big picture, I really believe it’s a huge step forward for the club.”
The last time Piney Branch saw these kind of major improvements was between 2004 and 2006, with a brand new clubhouse constructed to go along with a complete bunker renovation and redesign.
The improvements to the clubhouse, which include a banquet hall that can seat up to 250 guests and an outdoor pavilion that can accommodate up to 150, made it an ideal location for weddings and other large gatherings. Wunder says the facility currently plays host to around 30 weddings a year and up over 100 outside events overall — ranging from birthday parties to reunions.
While the golf course itself is fully private, the rest of the facilities are made available for the general public to rent out the space. The same goes for outings, with the course hosting more than 20 a year on either Mondays or Thursdays.
Among the other things Wunder takes great pride in is Piney Branch achieving Audubon International certification earlier this year for “accomplishments in sustainable natural resource management and environmental stewardship.”
The golf itself, though, is the crown jewel of the club and the general takeaway is the same for members and guests alike. The course is fair and playable from tee to green, featuring plenty of scenic elevation changes and a wide variety of well-spread-out holes.
But once players reach the putting surface, that’s where the real fun begins.
“From a quality and difficulty standpoint, I’d put our greens up there with any course in the area,” said Jeff Zachman, who is in his 30th year serving as Piney Branch’s Head PGA Professional. “On this course, you can hit the ball great but it’s really how you manage yourself around the greens that determines how well you are going to score.”
One of the things that make the putting surfaces at Piney Branch unique is the significant amounts of poa annua mixed in with the bent grass. It’s a blend that requires a lot of maintenance, but yields incredible results.
“At a lot of courses, the poa annua is actually considered to be a weed,” Wunder said. “But in my experience, if managed properly, it has the potential to make for one of the best putting surfaces out there.”
Zachman adds that the course’s greens are typically regarded as some of the fastest in the area as well. They roll so fast on some days that entire sections of the green become off limits for pin positions.
So, naturally, when it comes to the big tournaments with the area’s top players, the course is afforded an opportunity to really show off.
“For our members, playability is very important and we try our best to set it up accordingly,” Zachman said. “But yes, on those occasions where we do have an event like an US amateur qualifier or a Maryland State event, we are able to move things around to make it a little more challenging. The big thing is that they are incredibly smooth so you can definitely make plenty of putts out here, but if you get out of position with some of these pins … you can also make a big number in a hurry.”
Address: 5301 Trenton Mill Rd, Upperco, MD 21155
Driving Range: Yes (13 stations for mats; grass stations open on weekends and for tournaments as weather permits)
Putting Green: Yes (Large green located between clubhouse and first tee)
Chipping Green: No (Chipping allowed on putting green; Short-game facility scheduled to open Spring 2019)
Membership opportunities: https://www.pineybranchgolf.com/golf-membership
Guest Policy: Members may invite guests any day of the week, with guest rounds ranging from $40-85 depending on the day.
Locker room: Yes (250 lockers and four showers in men’s room; 56 lockers and two showers in women’s)
Best Par 3: 7h hole
The first par 3 on the course doesn’t come until late in the front nine, but it’s well worth the wait. The downhill tee shot features a forced carry over a large pond running across the entire front of the green. High up on the hill in back of the green is the clubhouse, adding to the picturesque nature of the hole. It’s not overly long, but the oversized putting surface features plenty of undulation and is guarded by a sizable bunker short and right.
Best Par 4: 1st hole
There’s no easing into things with this opening-hole dog-leg left that features a bit of everything. There’s a pond guarding the left side of the landing area at the bottom of what is a downhill tee shot. Long hitters can potentially carry the hazard, but most players will need to play to the right into one of the narrowest fairways on the course. The approach is then straight up the hill to an elevated green that gives golfers a taste of the difficult pitched putting surfaces from back to front that they will be faced with all day.
Best Par 5: 6th hole
This is one of the few blind tee shots on the course, with golfers hitting up over a hill into a fairway that slopes down and to the right. From there, the green is visible in the distance and is reachable for longer hitter. The carry over a valley in front of the green is fairly deceptive, however. And should a player’s approach shot miss the putting surface, chipping up to what is arguably the most sloped green on the course becomes incredibly difficult. There isn’t a flat spot on this large green that slopes from back right to front left. Putts from behind the hole are tough to simply keep on the green.
Overview: On a course that isn’t overly long from any of the tee boxes and is fairly straightforward in terms of layout, it’s the greens that will leave players thoroughly challenged from start to finish. There are few breather holes and even the greens that are generally flat are so severely sloped that they still feature significant breaks. The rule of thumb every member and employee will tell you is to keep the ball below the hole, which certainly helps. But just as important is making sure your misses are on the correct side of the hole to make chipping manageable. Fully expect to take more than half your shots around the green. All that said, the putting surfaces roll so smooth and are in such pristine shape that players will still end up making their fair share of putts. On the whole, the club is tucked away from busy roads and residential areas to provide a relaxing, secluded feel during the round. With some of the more affordable membership rates in the state, it’s not hard to see why those close to the course call this a hidden gem.
Course Work: Do you have a golf course you would like to see featured here? Contact Brent Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BKBSunSports