Md. competitions suit enthusiasts to a tee

It's a long drive, but the best in professional and amateur golf can be seen live this weekend in Maryland.

June 11, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

It's 8:30 a.m. and a handful of men sit along a grassy ridge staring down at the 17th and 18th greens at Bethesda's Congressional Country Club during the opening round of the Booz Allen Classic. In the distance to the right, a red speck - also known as the world's No. 1 golfer, Vijay Singh - plops his approach within a few feet of the 17th flag.

Later that day and 80 miles northeast, Jeffrey Ness and Eric Schmidt of Jarrettsville are standing beside the eighth tee at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace.

They've already grown smitten with co-leader Natalie Gulbis and watched Annika Sorenstam plow through another near-flawless round at the LPGA Championship. Now, they're waiting to see teen phenom Michelle Wie.

Life is great this week for Maryland golf lovers, who find themselves in a virtual sandwich of excellence.

To the south, the best men in the world - sans Tiger Woods - are battling at Congressional, generally regarded as one of the dozen finest courses in America. To the northeast, the best women are trying to win a major title at Bulle Rock, also rated near-perfect by golf experts.

If that isn't enough, some of the state's best players are providing a tasty snack as they vie for the Maryland State Golf Association's amateur title at Norbeck Country Club in Rockville.

Durable feet, the willingness to blow a half tank of gasoline and healthy levels of tolerance for heat and traffic are the only things a golf nut needs to see all three in a one-day panorama.

Getting to Congressional on Thursday morning is more than half the battle to enjoy the Booz Allen.

With traffic snarled as usual on the Capital Beltway, the creep from Interstate 95 to Exit 39 takes more than an hour. But inside the club (tickets are $40 for one day and $150 for a weeklong pass) the grinding sounds and putrid smells of the highway melt into the melodic chirping of birds and the inviting odor of meats grilling in the hospitality tents.

Banners listing past winners - Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Raymond Floyd - link this year's spectacle to its past.

A perfect perch

On the ridge over the last two greens at the Booz Allen, spectators figure this unassuming perch is one of the best in golf.

"Just to be able to sit here like this and stare at two of the most beautiful holes at one of the world's most beautiful places to watch golf, it's spectacular," says Jack Lauroesch of Bethesda.

For those used to watching golf on television, live viewing requires some adjustment. The long moments when players size up shots are no longer intercut with action from other holes, and any sense of the tournament's overall story line seems largely unobtainable.

But pleasure unfolds in smaller moments at Congressional.

Impressive drive

A gallery of several hundred stares silently as Singh lopes around the 10th tee and sweeps his driver through the hot, heavy air in majestic practice arcs. Then, he brings the club head upon the ball with the kind of thwack you just don't hear at your local club.

Say what you will about Singh's personality, but get up close to a craftsman of such distinction and it's hard not to fall under his spell.

"Aw, crap," a man says as the ball rockets on a straight line down the fairway. Another man lets his shoulders sag as if to say, "He's from the same species as me?"

Spectators in Singh's gallery say they like going to tournaments on Thursday because it's their best chance at such intimate moments before big crowds surround the weekend leaders. Booz Allen organizers said they do not release attendance figures, but galleries appeared comparable to those at the LPGA, where Thursday's attendance was 16,700.

"Golf is a great game because you can get so close to the action," says Jim Byrd of Annandale, Va. "I mean, we were just within a few feet of those guys."

"Look at Vijay, the way he's built up his body," says Byrd's friend, Fernando Martinez. "His back is enormous. He's a towering inferno out there."

Of course if it's intimacy you want, the amateurs over at Norbeck, a 20-minute hop from Congressional, are hard to beat. You can chat with them as they drag their own golf bags across the parking lot, and you don't have to pay for the privilege.

"This is all about the passion for the game," says Matt Sughrue, a veteran of the tournament who hones his swing between long hours as a Washington insurance broker. "That's the only reason we're here."

The players at Norbeck are terrific, scratch golfers every one. They can't match the jet-propelled "Wshhh" sounds that Singh produces on every drive. But who can?

Chance to show off

What the top amateurs do is drive straight, hit greens and roll long putts within a few feet of the hole far more dependably than the average local foursome.

"This tournament gives local amateurs a chance to show off their talents," says MSGA Vice President Michael H. Kuntz. "It's very hard to work full time and keep your golf swing tuned."

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