Golf courses seek upscale players Similar sites tout designer quality and fees to match; Country club conditions; Facilities often more attractive than municipal courses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"If you build it, they will come."

That's the familiar phrase that's being repeated by supporters of a pair of 18-hole championship golf courses proposed for a 550-acre estate outside Havre de Grace.

Those familiar with the project say they have no doubt that golfers will drive up to two hours and plunk down $90 to $100 to play on a public course designed by a world-famous architect.

"We hope to build a public golf course where the working person can feel like he's playing at an exclusive club," said Pete Dye, the well-known architect who will design the courses.

The proposed facility is typical of a national trend in which more exclusive, daily-fee courses are built, said David Wells, a senior associate for Legg Mason Realty Group who serves as a consultant to golf course developers.

Daily-fee courses are privately owned but open to the public. They tend to be better maintained and more attractive than municipal courses, which used to be the only golf courses open to the public.

"High-end" public courses, such as the one planned for the Blenheim property near Havre de Grace, fill the needs of individuals and corporations who want access to well-manicured, designer-quality courses without joining a private club, said Mr. Wells.

But how far people are willing to drive to play a spectacular golf course is difficult to predict, he said.

And will they pay $90 for a round of golf?

"My gut feeling is that that is a bit aggressive," he said. "Because at $90, you're at the top of the high-end market."

Maybe so, says E. B. Abel, the Mountville, Pa., millionaire golf addict who is developing the project.

But he's confident golfers in Maryland and neighboring states will support his courses, which he estimates will cost up to $30 million.

Mr. Abel's plans for the property, known as Blenheim Farm, include two 18-hole courses, a $2.5 million clubhouse and renovation of an existing mansion into a bed and breakfast. He wants the first tee shot by 1997.

'Very expensive'

"This is a very expensive golf course to build. But it's like a fine restaurant; you don't go there every day," Mr. Abel said. "You go there to experience the ambience."

There are plenty of examples of thriving upscale, albeit expensive, public courses, he said. One is Black Wolf Run in Kohler, Wis., an hour north of Milwaukee, where 55,000 rounds a year are played on two 18-hole Pete Dye courses.

Golfers from Europe and Japan, as well all over the Midwest, pay $100 to play there, said Edward Allmann, a spokesman for Kohler Co., which opened the first 18-hole course in 1988.

"It's a stunning course," he said. The 1998 U.S. Women's Open is scheduled to be played there.

Closer to home, there is Queenstown Harbor Golf Links, 10 miles from the Bay Bridge on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

"They have received tremendous play and are probably the most successful of the high-end courses in this area," said Mr. Wells. Greens fees, which allow one golfer to play a course and sometimes include cart rental, are $60 on weekends there.

Queenstown draws golfers mostly from the Baltimore-Washington area who don't have to drive more than 1 1/2 hours to get there, said Trent Wright, the head pro. He wouldn't reveal the number of rounds played there annually -- "That's confidential; everybody's a competitor," he said -- but if a public course has "country club conditions and a championship layout," he said, it can collect high fees.

Mr. Abel, who said he ordered an extensive feasibility study before agreeing to buy the Blenheim property, said the analysis indicates that his golf course can sustain $90 greens fees.

"There are 15 million people -- 6 percent of the population of the United States -- within driving distance of this area," he said.

The study, which analyzed the habits of golfers from Ohio to New York to the Carolinas, indicated that about 32,500 people a year would play the Blenheim course, an adequate number to support his investment, he said.

Willing to travel

Furthermore, he said, it is estimated that 60 percent to 70 percent of them will come from more than 50 miles away, making the Blenheim courses a "destination course" rather than one limited to Baltimore-area golfers, he said.

Mr. Abel, who took up golf after selling his York County, Pa., contracting businesses four years ago, would not reveal the cost of the Blenheim property. He estimates the first phase of the project will cost $18 million, including the cost of the property, the first 18-hole course, the clubhouse and the mansion renovation. The land stretches northwest from U.S. 40 to Chapel Road, just west of Havre de Grace.

"I think it's definitely a viable idea -- if it's a good course," said Mike Healy, head pro at Geneva Farm, the only public 18-hole golf course in Harford County. He said about 45,000 rounds were played in the past year at Geneva, which charges golfers $31, including cart, to play on weekends.

"But we're not even in the same league as that course," said Mr. Healy. "When you're talking about spending $18 million, you're talking about a difference in a lot of things."

More money means better irrigation, more structured courses with more obstacles and challenges for the golfer, beautiful scenery, a variety of soil and grass, specialized equipment and staff to maintain the courses, and more personal services, he said.

The avid Harford golfer might play on such a course once a year, because of the expense, he said. "But if you give people their money's worth, if you make it like a private club for a day, they will come."

While "high-end" courses won't compete on the same level with suburban Baltimore municipal courses, where greens fees range from $14 to $30, they might help ease the overcrowding that has golfers from the Baltimore-Washington corridor routinely driving into Pennsylvania to get tee time on weekends.

"In terms of public golf course availability, the Baltimore metropolitan area is one of the lowest in the country," said George Hale, executive director of the Baltimore County Revenue Authority, which oversees that county's three public golf courses.

A preliminary study under way for Baltimore County has concluded that "there is probably a demand for 20 more courses to bring the metropolitan area up to the national average," he said.

Meanwhile, Harford officials are supporting the proposed golf courses at Blenheim and have asked the County Council to pass legislation to facilitate zoning procedures necessary to get the courses approved.

More jobs, more tourists

Besides employment -- an estimated 58 full-time and 16 to 25 part-time jobs at completion -- county officials hope the facility will bring tourists into Harford.

Robert Hockaday, an aide to Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, said there are at least six hotels at the nearby exits of Interstate 95, plus several bed-and-breakfast establishments in Havre de Grace to accommodate golfers staying overnight.

He said Harford hotels and corporations would be encouraged to offer golf packages to support the golf course and tourism.

But whether tourism flourishes in the county doesn't concern Mr. Abel, who has confidence his golf courses can stand alone as an attraction.

"The course itself will be enough to draw them," he said. "You have the Chesapeake and you have absolutely beautiful countryside.

"All you have to do is look around at what God created. It's a beautiful, beautiful area."

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