Two duffers find their dream golf course within driving distance of Baltimore. It's perfect, it's public and it's a mere $126 a round.

FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

June 10, 1998|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

HAVRE DE GRACE -- It's a morning right off a Department of Tourism brochure. Opening before us, under a dazzling blue sky, is a perfectly manicured fairway ringed by tall trees and ivory-colored bunkers and, somewhere off in the distance is a green so smooth and pure they say it was carved in golf heaven.

This is the first tee at Bulle Rock, the new world-class 18-hole course designed by the legendary Pete Dye on 275 lush acres hard by the Chesapeake Bay, in the northeast corner of Maryland. Open just two months, this is the course that has golfers all over greater Baltimore buzzing.

It's a public course, but if you want to play this baby, you have to plunk down $126, which is heavy iron to your average hacker more accustomed to a daily fee of $11.50 on most Baltimore city courses, or $15 on county courses.

And since you can't get much more average than my game, I have come here on The Sun's tab, along with assistant night editor Tom Osborne, to experience Bulle Rock's "country-club-for-a-day" atmosphere.

Oz, a stone golf junkie, has already smacked his drive down the left side of the fairway, which means I'm up.

Standing under the gaze of the course starter, Paul Gehring, and our caddie, Frank Johnstone, I've got the first-tee jitters big-time: clammy hands, nausea, the whole nine yards.

But you know what? It's a good kind of clammy and nauseous. And somehow I manage to hit my drive straight down the middle.

It didn't go too far. But, hey, I'm just happy I didn't yank one into the parking lot and kill someone.

And, with that, we jump into our carts, two awe-struck municipal-course denizens, and set off to answer the burning question: Is any round of golf worth $126?

It's a dirty job.

7+ But somebody has to ... well, you know.

Our day at Bulle Rock begins early. It's 7 a.m. when we nose our car through the railroad tunnel and up the long, winding road fringed with tall grass that leads to the gleaming new clubhouse.

Jerry Coudon, assistant golf pro, greets us and takes our clubs off to be cleaned and then loaded into a cart. After checking in at the pro shop, we're led to the men's locker room, which is plush and fully carpeted and only slightly less spacious than a cathedral.

Presiding over the locker room is Bennie Harper, 65, a lively, energetic man who worked at Bethlehem Steel for 45 years as a roller and utility man.

Harper gets us a locker and takes our street shoes off to be shined, one of Bulle Rock's locker-room perks, along with hair dryers, shaving lotion and a number of aftershaves. (Although for 126 bucks, it could be argued, they should wash your car, too, maybe even go to your house and do some light dusting and vacuuming.)

When he returns, Harper announces he's a 7-handicap who still plays twice a month.

Then he announces that he's about to announce Bennie's Tip of the Day for playing this course.

Well. Since, I need all the help I can get, I crane my neck forward to hear.

L In a low, theatrical voice, Harper says: "Hit 'em straight."

That's it? That's the Tip of the Day?

Harper nods solemnly.

Oz and I look at each other.

Well, um, sure. That might come in handy.

Bulle Rock, which hopes to draw golfers from the Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, and southern Pennsylvania areas, sprang directly from the vision of owner Ed Abel Jr.

As director of golf and head pro Rick Rounsaville tells it, Abel had a site contracting business in York, Pa., which did very well and made him a pile of dough.

He took up golf and quickly became addicted. In fact, his golf jones was so bad that he started traveling around the country to play the top courses.

Most of these, of course, were private, and the people who ran them terribly snooty, and unless you knew, say, the secretary of state or regularly attended cookouts with the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, you had no shot at ever playing them.

"So Ed set out to build a world-class course that anyone can play," Rounsaville says.

Abel retired from the site development business and is now in golf course development full-time.

Rounsaville says Bulle Rock, named after an 18th-century stud horse, is being marketed as a "special treat" for the average golfer -- maybe a gift for Father's Day or retirement. Bulle Rock, though, is expected to do a fair amount of corporate business and attract wealthy professionals as well.

(Two days before we played the course, for instance, four members of the Orioles, among them pitchers Doug Drabek and Jesse Orosco, had reserved a tee time. They had to cancel when Drabek was scheduled to pitch that evening. He did and the Orioles got shelled. He should have played golf.)

"This is the ultimate golf experience," Rounsaville says, "the upscale public facility between New York and Washington."

And as Oz and I make our way onto the magnificent practice range, it occurs to us that Rounsaville might even be understating things a bit.

The practice range (access is included with the greens fee) has to be seen to be believed.

Choice of tees

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