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Capital Golfing Ideas in Washington, D.C.

Hail to the beach: These five courses are worth the challenge.

The U.S. presidency comes with certain perks -- veto power, posh air travel and playing privileges on almost any golf course you could want. Once you've been elected, odds are someone in your Rolodex can pull some strings.

For recent golfing occupants of the Oval Office, Congressional Country Club has been a popular choice.

The plush, intensely private Maryland club sits a quick skip from the corridors of power along the Potomac, and its fairways have been favored by presidents ranging from Ike to Ford. George W. Bush has been known to chop it up there. And William Jefferson Clinton, who rarely said no to a Big Mac or a mulligan, frequently made his way around the tight, tree-lined layout, recording some famously (and dubiously) low scores.

But what about the rest of us? For those without an in at a private club, not to mention a motorcade to clear the Beltway traffic, or Secret Service agents to search for errant shots, Washington, D.C.-area golf presents a different sort of challenge: Where, exactly, should we play?

The question occurred to me a few weeks back when a family vacation took me to the nation's capital, and I found myself with a few hours to kill (OK, full disclosure: I'd blown off my wife, kids and the Air and Space Museum).

The district was caught in a summer swelter, with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and humidity verging on the inhumane -- imagine Mars, with granite monuments.

Reston National

On a friend's recommendation, I got up early that morning to beat the heat and traffic, and headed west toward Dulles Airport along a toll road of the same name.

Reston, Va., isn't technically a city; it feels very much like the well-groomed suburb it was planned to be. Densely arranged housing has left room for open spaces such as bike paths, playgrounds, soccer fields and parks.

Among the most prominent swaths of green is

Reston National Golf Course, a remarkably serene and subtle layout set less than a mile from the Dulles Toll Road.

Designed by the prolific architect Ed Ault, and managed by Virginia-based Billy Casper Golf, Reston National is kept in superb condition, especially for course in such a populous area that absorbs such persistently heavy play.

Unlike a lot of tree-lined courses, Reston National doesn't beat you up off the tee (though the 10th hole, a long, downhill par-four with a modest dogleg and a copse of trees guarding the left side, requires a precise and powerful drive). The bulk of its defense comes from big, gently breaking greens.

It's a pleasure to play, the kind of course that holds your interest without bludgeoning you so badly that you want to quit the game. For $74 midweek, it's also hard to beat the price.

As I strolled the back-nine, measuring iron shots and three-putting routinely, I found myself playing before occasional spectators: Reston residents, out walking their dogs or sneaking in some exercise to start the day, frequently use the cart paths to stretch their legs.

When I teed up on the 13th, a jogger wearing headphones stopped to watch. She smiled and waved, a fitting scene in a planned community where outdoor enjoyment has been stitched into the fabric of daily life.

Raspberry Falls

The following morning, I rose once more with the roosters (my family and the Natural History Museum could wait), lighting out this time for Leesburg, Va., and the highly rated

Raspberry Falls.

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A pivotal location in the Civil War, Leesburg was the site of the Battle of Balls Bluff, a skirmish won by the Confederacy. But the only fierce battles this day came from deep Scottish-style bunkers with daunting names like Grant's Tomb and Satan's Foxhole.

The lovely, high-end layout was designed by Gary Player, one of the best sand players of his era and a top architect of the modern age. Here, on a former berry farm, Player worked with the rolling landscape, carving dramatic holes through the thick bramble without undercutting the natural contours.

A sweeping vista greeted me on the third tee box, a stout par-four that plummets steeply to a narrow fairway and a green jealously guarded by an ample trap.

This is the theme at Raspberry Farms: eye-catching elevation changes and intimidating bunkers that provide a fair challenge on a course conditioned like a private club. How about $74 midweek? You could bounce around the Beltway for an entire summer and not come across a sweeter deal.

Whiskey Creek and More

Seeing as I was already in the doghouse with my wife, I decided to make it 36 that day (if you're going to be convicted, you might as well fully enjoy the crime).

The noontime Beltway traffic was moving swiftly as I looped the capital on my way to Maryland and a stunning young course called

Whiskey Creek ($83 midweek). Architect Michael Poellet teamed up with two-time U.S. Open championship Ernie Els to build this rolling course through bucolic farmland, and the layout has the free-flowing feel of the Big Easy himself.

While generous fairways make it playable for initiates, the course, from the tips, is all the golf that you can eat.

There isn't a bad hole, but the one that lingers longest in my memory is a risk/reward par-five with the ruins of an old stone farmhouse squatting squarely in the fairway.

After pummeling my tee shot, I decided to risk a 260-yard approach to a green guarded by water. Splash! I carded a triple bogey. But no matter -- this was golf as it was meant to be.

Two days remained on my family vacation, and two other courses lingered on the list. A trusted friend had recommended two other must-plays,

Old Hickory ($71) and

Musket Ridge ($75) both regarded highly for the sharpness of their service and the quality of their courses.

That night, at the hotel, I floated the idea, like a lobbyist working Capitol Hill.

I realized I was up against stiff opposition. Five rounds of a golf on a six-day family trip? I gave a rousing stump speech in support of the measure. But my wife, the only speaker in our house whose voice really matters, frowned and quickly shot it down.

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Josh Sens is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif., and a contributing writer to Golf Magazine. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men's Journal, Golf Digest and other national publications.