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Md. competitions suit enthusiasts to a tee

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

And, Kuntz says, the winner will be a monument to stamina, having survived 18 holes Thursday and 36 each yesterday, today and tomorrow, all in muggy, 85-degree heat.

After hauling up I-95 to Bulle Rock, LPGA spectators are steered toward ... a cow pasture? At least that's what the overflow parking area looks like.

But a yellow school bus comes along soon enough to deliver fans, who paid $20 for a one-day pass or $60 for a weeklong pass, to a tournament that rivals the Booz Allen for spectacle.

Around every corner there's a yellow-shirted volunteer offering directions or a pair of attractive blondes trying to sell you ice cream. Hole-by-hole scores for every player are scrawled ornately in marker on a big board greeting visitors. For many spectators, the first day carries a loosey-goosey feel.

Barefoot on the hill

"We're just floating," says Bev White of Annapolis, who is attending her first pro tournament with her golfing buddy, Cynthia O'Connor. The women are camped on a hillside overlooking the ninth green, their sandals kicked off. They clap politely as veteran stars Meg Mallon and Karrie Webb putt out.

Mallon and Webb are playing with Laura Diaz, who is stalking the lead. But their gallery is thin. The true throng can be found back at the seventh, where a prodigy is struggling through her front nine.

Spectators such as Ness and Schmidt don't know that Wie has an upset stomach. They've waited all afternoon to see her wallop the ball like no other 15-year-old girl alive.

Standing at the eighth tee, Wie rolls her powerful shoulders, takes a mechanical half-swing and then whips the air with a full practice cut. It's like she's winding up a machine, which then spits a low, 270-yard bullet down the left center.

Not bad, but this kid already has a tough audience.

"She didn't beat Laura Davies," Ness says.

"Nah," Schmidt replies.

Two shots later, Wie gives the crowd a jolt, pitching from thick rough to within a few feet of the cup.

"Whooo!" scream men three times her age, who have formed a tight semicircle around the sensation.

Even the dark clouds rolling in over the fields of tall grass don't stop them from charging off after the teenager, who will finish three under par after a rain delay.

From Singh to Wie, golf has Maryland surrounded this weekend.

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