FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN 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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

There are 12 separate teeing areas, each on a pristine carpet of grass. The grass betrays no sign that any human being has ever walked on it, let alone hit a golf ball off it.

Next to each teeing area is a carefully sculpted, 2 1/2 -foot-tall pyramid of gleaming white Pinnacle practice balls.

"That's the feeling someone would get [on the range] if they were playing the [Professional Golf Association] tour," Rounsaville says with a smile.

Mentally, Oz and I take stock.

Let's see: No hard, gouged rubber mats to hit off, no dead range balls with garish red stripes, no mall rats with pink hair and tongue studs or geezers in "I'm With Stupid" T-shirts, plaid Bermuda shorts and black socks hitting next to us -- hey, what kind of practice range is this, anyway?

In truth, the range is so gorgeous that when I nick the grass on my third swing, I look around quickly to make sure the cops aren't coming to take us away.

After 20 minutes of hitting balls, we go over to the velvety practice green and putt for 10 minutes.

Compared to the uneven municipal greens we're used to, this is bowling-alley fast. Already I'm having visions of 2-foot tap-ins skidding 10 feet past the hole.

Finally it's time to hit the first tee, where we meet our caddie, Frank Johnstone.

Johnstone is a friendly guy, tanned and very fit-looking. He tells us he's 57 and looks seven years younger. He's actually a cart caddie, which means he doesn't carry bags.

What he does do is ride along with you to point out trouble on the course, suggest approaches to the greens, provide exact yardages to the pin, find lost balls, clean your clubs after shots, and so on.

For all this, as an independent contractor, he charges $25 per twosome plus gratuity.

As this is our first time on the course, we feel it's extremely important to have someone along who can point out the dangers, sort of the way Sacajawea did for Lewis and Clark.

However, we also feel it's important that we first acquaint Johnstone with the various, oh, nuances of our games.

"We really haven't been playing that long ..." I begin.

"We stink," says Oz, rather less delicately.

Johnstone grins. He tells us he worked 32 years at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the machine shop, then retired, and now works three or four days a week caddying here.

"I'm a high-handicapper myself," he says, then goes on to suggest that many of his clients have swings so bad they should have machetes rather than golf clubs in their hands.

This makes Osborne and me feel better. And after we both tee off and Johnstone does not duck behind a tree to giggle hysterically, we feel even better still.

It can be difficult

By the third hole, the breath-taking beauty of the course, as well as the challenge it offers, begin to sink in.

Bulle Rock has four sets of tees measuring 5,426 to 7,375 yards. Rounsaville says the course, when played from the black "championship" tees, is the most difficult in Maryland.

Needless to say, we are not playing from those tees, as this would just about guarantee we finish sometime around Labor Day.

Instead, we're content to hit from the standard whites. And, as we walk the carpeted rolling hills and drink in the pretty ponds and streams and woodlands, we nod in appreciation at the Pete Dye quote featured on the back of the score card: "I did not undo God's work."

I'm playing well early, Oz is struggling, Johnstone is ever-encouraging.

After I par the 368-yard, par-4 fourth hole and Oz rings up a 7, I try to cheer him up.

"Hey, it's early," I say.

"And I stink," Oz replies.

"Nah, it's even too early to say that," Johnstone says.

No wonder I like this guy.

And when I bogey the next hole, a long, uphill, dogleg left considered the toughest hole on the course, Johnstone says admiringly: "Bogey on this hole's like a par anywhere else.'

At this point, it's all I can do not to invite the guy home for dinner.

From what we've seen, what really sets Bulle Rock apart from other courses is that each hole is distinctive, requiring a different strategy of attack.

The greens are also excellent, pool-table fast but true, better than any we've ever played on.

I play the front nine fairly well, finishing with a 50. For me, on a tough course like this, that's enough to break out the champagne and party hats.

For Oz, the wheels are still coming off the cart -- he checks in with a 56. Still, he's not the type to stay down. A Pepsi and a smoke at the turn and he's radiating good cheer once again.

And we both agree that in a gorgeous setting like this, it's hard to get too upset about anything.

This is golf as Prozac, wonderful for the mind.

A second course

Pete Dye has said Bulle Rock's tract -- another 18-hole course is scheduled to open here on an adjacent 289 acres in the year 2000 -- is the best piece of inland property he's ever had to work with.

Each morning, five workers walk the course with seed buckets to cover bare spots in the grass and work on ground imperfections. (The course will not be overplayed; Rounsaville says the goal is 30,000 to 35,000 rounds per year, compared to the average 45,000 to 50,000 at most public courses. It will close for the winter.)

So how to explain the horrific way I blow up on the back nine?

If the course is perfect and the weather is perfect, I don't have any excuses. And I hate to be without excuses when I'm spraying the ball all over the course.

It's not fair. Heck, it's almost un-American.

I start leaking oil on the 11th hole, taking a double-bogey on the 596-yard par-5, the hole that's so long starter Paul Gehring advises us to "bring your lunch."

I double-bogey the next hole and then go Chernobyl with a 7 on the par-4, 415-yard 12th.

It's not that I'm striking the ball badly. But I seem to be finding every bunker on the course. And watching me hit a sand wedge is like watching a man whack a blanket with a broom.

Meanwhile, Oz has completely turned things around. He's driving the ball well, his iron play has picked up and his putting is back.

He shoots a sizzling 46 on the back nine to finish with a 102, and a smile lights up his face. Naturally, I hate him and all that he stands for.

Well, not really. But he is sort of getting on my nerves.

Me, I bogey the 18th -- the par-4, 422-yard finishing hole that Dye calls one of the toughest he's ever built -- and limp home with a 56 for a final score of 106.

Still, far from being depressed, I'm exhilarated. It has been an extraordinary experience. We shake hands with Johnstone, who has been terrific out there, an encouraging, upbeat figure, and head off for lunch.

Over ice teas and sandwiches we agree we've answered the burning question of the day.

If there's a golf course worth $126 a round, this is it.

Although it isn't killing me to put this one on the company credit card, either.

Pub Date: 6/10/98

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