THE BEAUTY OF BAD GOLF IS THAT you can play it anywhere.
You can play it on the worst cow-pasture municipal course or at the best hoity-toity country club and the results will be pretty much the same: lots of ugly shots, lots of aggravation, followed by -- if you don't immediately go into therapy -- a few laughs when you mentally replay the round later over beers with friends.
For my 20-handicap game, the advantage of a gorgeous golf course, like the one I played on a weekend getaway to Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Western Maryland, is that I can blame the surroundings for distracting me and causing another meltdown on the scorecard.
The upscale 216-room resort outside Cumberland, on the shores of picturesque 243-acre Lake Habeeb, has a Jack Nicklaus-designed course that was recently designated one of "America's Top Golf Courses" by the Zagat survey.
Rocky Gap also offered plenty of other activities, such as hiking, biking and swimming, which would interest my wife, Nancy, who never developed a liking for the peculiar form of self-torture that is golf.
We arrived on a cool Friday afternoon in late April, with the sky dark and threatening, a perfect metaphor for the unholy drama about to unfold on the course.
After checking into the hotel, my wife went off to explore the resort. I checked in at the pro shop for my 2 o'clock tee time, then went to the practice range to hit a warm-up bucket of balls.
Which brings me to about the only gripe I had with Rocky Gap. When you're a hotel guest paying $65 for a round of golf -- $75 for nonguests -- they should throw in a bucket of warm-up balls for free.
To charge four bucks seems like nickel-and-diming, even though the practice range is first-rate. (Practice balls are free if you're there on a "golf package," but we weren't.)
After beating balls for a half-hour in a futile effort to be sharp on the first tee, it was time to get out there and play.
The course is magnificent, with lush, rolling bent-grass fairways and greens, many ringed by woods and offering great views of the lake and surrounding mountains.
Zagat says it rated 1,075 of the best courses in the United States, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for its survey, based on the reviews of 6,250 golfers who play more than 560,000 rounds annually.
It bases its ratings on a course's layout, value, overall quality and staff service provided. But the panoramic views alone would probably be enough to rate Rocky Gap as a top course.
There are five sets of tee boxes to accommodate the skill level -- or lack thereof -- of different golfers. From the white tees, the standard men's tees which I played, the course measures a little more than 6,000 yards, with a rating of 70.8 and a slope of 130.
It's a tough course and the mountain setting, while scenic, guarantees a lot of shots with the ball either above or below your feet, which can be death for high handicappers.
Intermittent rain had left the fairways soft and mushy, so it was cart-path only for golf carts.
This, of course, makes it harder to follow your shots. And if you're a 20-handicap, you tend not to hit the ball straight all the time, which can make it an adventure to try and locate your ball from the cart path and ... well, you see where we're going here.
Actually, I managed to shoot a 47 on the front nine, not bad for me on a tough course.
The first few holes offer a jarring sensory juxtaposition of green manicured fairways and the sounds of 18-wheelers on nearby Interstate 68 loudly backfiring and banging through the gears to get up the steep inclines.
As I attempted a tricky putt on the 184-yard par-3 6th hole, a Fed Ex "double-truck" rumbled up the interstate with a loud roar, belching black smoke, which does not exactly do much for your concentration.
I showed the touch of a blacksmith and rolled the putt three feet past the hole. And I'm blaming the truck. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)
On the back nine, I teamed up with a man named Frank Weaver from New Market, who teaches physical education at Rockville High School and who made my hands sweat when he casually mentioned that he'd shot a 39 on the front nine.
Look, I don't need that kind of pressure, playing with a hotshot capable of breaking 80.
But Weaver, on a weekend getaway with his wife (who also had no interest in the game), turned out to be a great partner, as well as a terrific golfer.
He said he'd played golf as a kid and was on the golf team at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia in the early '90s, and also played basketball and soccer.
He played from the back tees -- which made the course a hair over 7,000 yards from him -- and you could tell by his fluid swing and booming drives that he excelled at the game.
But Weaver wasn't as sharp when he teamed up with me -- I tend to have that effect on people -- and he pushed his drive right on the gorgeous par-5 10th hole, where a small stream runs in front of a green elevated by a stone wall.