More choices than Bulle Rock

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You are eager for a challenging round of golf, but Bulle Rock is tied up this week.

Where do you go?

Checking the U.S. Golf Association's slope ratings and fees on the Internet, and consulting the guy next door and the pro from Dover, The Sun set out to provide an answer. Only courses open to the public were considered, and we restricted the search to within 60 miles of downtown Baltimore. You need to be home for dinner, so Northern Virginia, let alone The Links at Lighthouse Sound near Ocean City, were off-limits.

What did we find?

Frederick and Harford counties were focal points for the upscale, daily fee construction boom of the 1990s, and Crofton-based architect Lindsay Ervin has his fingerprints all over the region. His designs include Queenstown Harbor's River course and The Woodlands in the Baltimore County system. Once its rough matures and gains some consistency, his Compass Pointe in Pasadena will be welcome on any list.

Challenges, of course, come in many guises. A country clubber will turn up his nose at Clifton Park in northeast Baltimore, but how would he react to the No. 12 tee, flanked by Belair Road traffic?

A mixture of upscale, middle-of-the-road and municipal courses was sought in this highly subjective list of 10 challenging places to play in the area, besides Bulle Rock - the host of the LPGA Championship. All fees include cart.

1. Pilgrim's Oak: Thanks to the abundance of public courses in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County, the quality of this 9-year-old layout is magnified by its cost, $46 weekdays, $59 on the weekend. Located in Peach Bottom, about 10 miles north of the Conowingo Dam, Pilgrim's Oak is worth the drive. Rolling hills and sidehill lies add up to a slope - the system the USGA adopted to rate courses and make handicaps more accurate - of a whopping 146 from the tips, which measure 6,766 yards. Head pro John Martin may recommend moving up a box, which measures 6,320 but still has a slope of 139.

Telephone: 717-548-3011. On the Web: pilgrimsoak.com.

2. Beechtree: Weeks after Bulle Rock's 1998 opening, Harford County had a second, less ballyhooed upscale destination down Route 40 in Aberdeen. A minimalist who moves as little earth as possible, Michigan-based architect Tom Doak eschews modern touches, like waterfalls or railroad ties. He typically keeps the front of greens bunker-free, so the player who wants to run the ball up has a chance despite slope ratings of 142 (7,003 yards) and 135 (6,634). Nos. 14 and 15, dubbed "Sahara" and "Elbow," are as tough as back-to-back par 4s get. The fee is $85 Monday through Thursday, $95 on weekends.

Telephone: 410-297-9700. On the Web: beechtreegolf.com.

3. Queenstown Harbor: The Golf Digest rankings of Maryland's best places to play begins with Congressional, Caves Valley and the Baltimore Country Club, then comes Bulle Rock at No. 4. The next public courses are the aforementioned Lighthouse Sound at No. 9 and Beechtree at No. 14, one spot ahead of the River course at Queenstown Harbor. Just over the Bay Bridge, where the Chester River empties into the Chesapeake Bay, Ervin had to work around stringent environmental regulations to mix tree-lined holes with ones along the water. Fees are $76 Monday-Thursday, $99 weekends.

Telephone: 1-800-827-3984. On the Web: mdgolf.com.

4. Whiskey Creek: Like Harford County, Frederick County has a proliferation of upscale courses. Worthington Manor, a regular U.S. Open qualifying site, and P.B. Dye Golf Club are less costly options, but Whiskey Creek lures those willing to pay $79 Monday-Thursday, $95 on weekends. Ernie Els was a consultant in the design, which fits into the rolling countryside and has a traditional look until No. 18, where an 1840s farmhouse remains in the fairway of the par 5. The slope ranges from 137 (7,001 yards) to 136 (6,525) to 128 (5,979).

Telephone: 1-888-883-1174. On the Web: whiskeycreekgolf.com.

5. Greystone: A developer's loss was the Baltimore County Revenue Authority's gain. Joe Lee, who designed the Blue Monster at Doral, was working on what was supposed to be a private club when funding fell through. The county purchased the property, installed a heartier turf designed to withstand more play and opened for business in 1997. The fairways are generous, but the greens can punish any approach above the hole. The slope begins at 139 from the tips (6,925).

Telephone: 410-887-1945. On the Web: baltimoregolfing.com.

6. Wakefield Valley: Hank and Sally Majewski added a conference center to the course they purchased in 1982, which still produces a good, affordable round. Fees are $39 weekdays, $53 weekends, and golfers have three different nines to play, each with a distinct personality. The green nine works its way around Little Pike Creek, the white nine is hilly, and combined, their slope ranges from 142 (7,100 yards) to 138 (6,600) to 129 (5,900).

Telephone: 410-876-8787. On the Web: wakefieldvalley.com.

7. Mountain Branch: Harford County gained a third upscale course in 2000, in Joppa. One of the designers was Jeff Matthai, who has also gotten compliments for his work on Patriots Glen in Elkton. The course offers a varied layout, with water coming into play on four holes. The slopes include 139 at the tips (6,969) and 131 (6,146). Fees are $95.

Telephone: 410-836-9600. On the Web: mountainbranch.com.

8. The Woodlands: Built on property abutting Diamond Ridge, The Woodlands was opened by Baltimore County a year after Greystone debuted. Its fairways are narrower, and its greens just as challenging. "It doesn't give an edge to one particular type of golfer," Ervin said. "The big ball striker who's a poor putter will have issues if he doesn't hit his approach to a certain part of the green." The fee is $45 weekdays, $65 weekends, and the white tees, at 6,122 yards, still boast a slope of 130.

Telephone: 410-887-1349. On the Web: baltimoregolfing.com.

9. Little Bennett: The USGA slope isn't outrageously high, but it's hard to find an even lie on this Montgomery County municipal course, which opened in 1994. The fairways seem to tighten as a round progresses, and if there's a Big Bennett, you may have no interest running into it. You can walk for as little as $25, but the fee to ride on the weekends is $66.

Telephone: 1-800-366-2012. On the Web: littlebennettgolf.com.

10. Mount Pleasant/Pine Ridge: Thoroughbred owners can couple an entry, and the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation should be allowed to do the same with its jewels. Play both in the same day for less than $60 total, and you've got the poor man's Myrtle Beach. You won't get wet at Mount Pleasant, but the greens are four-putt huge and fast. Want water? Pine Ridge winds along the Loch Raven watershed.

Telephone: Mount Pleasant 410-254-5100; Pine Ridge 410-252-1408. On the Web: bmgcgolf.com.

Golf Extra section

Golf Extra includes a preview of the LPGA Championship at Bulle Rock and a look at the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional Country Club. Section S

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