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SWING TIME

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Seeing green

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.

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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.

Still, he scrambled respectably for the rest of the round, although he didn't tell me his final score. Meanwhile, I was having my own personal crisis, struggling with my driver and putting miserably for a blow-up 51 to shoot 98 on the day.

Who needed a beer more than me when it was over?

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(When I ran into Frank in the hotel lobby while checking out Sunday morning, he said he'd also played Saturday and shot an 81. This is someone you could really hate if you're a bad golfer. But, again, he was such a good guy that you couldn't even muster resentment, never mind hatred.)

Welcome respite

That night, dinner consisted of sandwiches and iced tea in the Lakeside Lounge. The Lakeside Restaurant offers fine cuisine and candlelight dining overlooking the lake.

But when you're trying to keep a weekend golf getaway to $500, and lodging and golf have pushed the bill to $420 already, you have to sacrifice something. So we skimped on the food. In my case, that was definitely a good thing.

A word now about the "snootiness factor," if you're the type who wonders about this sort of thing.

Rocky Gap is considered an upscale resort in every sense of the word -- AAA rates it as a Four Diamond resort. The grounds are pristine, the rooms feature custom-made Shaker furniture, the service is first-rate.

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And sometimes upscale resorts can be stuffy. But we found the staff at the pro shop, lodge, and lounge and restaurant to be remarkably friendly and down-to-earth, making the atmosphere totally relaxing throughout our stay.

Saturday was chilly and blustery, and we spent most of the day hiking around Lake Habeeb.

A word or two about that unusual name. You would think a lake in rural western Maryland would be called, I don't know, Lake Barney or Lake Clem or something.

OK, we kid about that. But you'd still figure on it being named Lake Smith or Lake Jones, certainly nothing as exotic as Lake Habeeb.

Instead, the lake, part of 3,400-acre Rocky Gap State Park, was named after a Lebanon-born businessman, Edward Habeeb, who spearheaded the development of the park.

There are three distinct hiking trails around the lake: the Canyon Overlook Trail, an easy quarter-mile hike perfect for serious couch potatoes or those with health problems; the Lakeside Trail, which loops 4.7 miles around the lake; and the Evitts Homesite Trail, which takes the hiker over rougher, steeper terrain and is 5.6 miles around.

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We hiked the Lakeside Trail and stopped first at the state park's aviary, run by the Department of Natural Resources, where several injured birds of prey were on display.

Let me go on record as saying this: you haven't lived until you've been stared down by a screech owl, which is only eight or nine inches tall but has the most piercing yellow eyes you'll ever see outside of an angry Maryland state trooper.

There was also a very skittish hawk that, according to a sign, had become disoriented in captivity and kept smashing into the glass front of the cage.

So a mesh netting had been installed over the glass, which apparently calmed the hawk considerably, so much so that he appeared to be on birdie barbiturates when we visited.

During our hike, which took a little over three hours, we passed only four people: three mountain bikers and a man hiking alone who wore a loud track suit that looked like something Will Ferrell used to wear in those cheerleading skits on Saturday Night Live.

We also didn't see any of the deer, turkeys, grouse, beavers or raccoons that are said to live in the park. Nor did we see the "occasional black bear" mentioned in one brochure, which also advised a hiker coming across a bear to "not approach it" and instead "remain watchful."

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Oh, you didn't have to worry about that, as my wife and I tend to spend almost all of our time in the woods trying not to approach bears or any other creature that could run us down and gnaw our heads off.

The lake is stocked with trout annually and is a favorite of fishermen and kayakers, but we only saw two fishermen and two kayakers all afternoon. A campground on the lake offers more than 270 campsites, but there were only a handful of campers around, so apparently the weather was discouraging outdoor activity of all kinds.

That night, beat from hiking, we had a light dinner. Then we watched a movie on AMC, Open Range, starring Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, a story of greed, murder and revenge in the Old West as free-range cattlemen battle a corrupt lawman and his hired guns.

There was probably a metaphor for my golf game in there someplace. But this time I didn't bother searching for it.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

IF YOU GO

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GETTING THERE

Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort is in Western Maryland, about a two-hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 70 west to Interstate 68 west toward Cumberland. Exit at Pleasant Valley Road (Exit 50) and follow the signs to Rocky Gap State Park and resort.

LODGING

The resort features 216 rooms in a wooded setting, with a stunning view of Lake Habeeb. Premium season rates (May 1-Nov. 30) are $219 Sunday-Thursday and $239 Friday-Saturday for a lake-view room and $199 Sunday-Thursday and $219 Friday-Saturday for a golf-view room. We stayed two nights at the tail end of the off-season, but the resort offers several one-night golf getaway packages starting at $350 throughout summer.

DINING

Lakeside Restaurant

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-- Offers fine dining in a candlelight atmosphere overlooking the lake. Lakeside Lounge, adjacent to the restaurant, offers casual fare.

Signature Bar & Grill

-- A relaxed, casual atmosphere for poolside dining.

GOLF

In-season (May 21-Oct. 31) green fees are $65 for hotel guests on weekdays and $85 on weekends (Friday, Saturday and Sunday.) Nonguests pay $75 during the week and $95 on the weekend. Fees include golf cart equipped with GPS.

ACTIVITIES

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Fishing, hiking, swimming, tennis, beach volleyball, kayaking and canoeing are a few of the activities offered. Spa treatments at Rocky Gap's new Garden Spa -- including facials, massages, manicures and pedicures -- are also offered. Lakeside bonfires for the entire family take place at night.

INFORMATION

Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort

-- 16701 Lakeview Road N.E., Flintstone, 21530. 800-724-0828, 301-784-8400 or rockygapresort.com.

Rocky Gap State Park

-- 12500 Pleasant Valley Road, Flintstone. 301-722-1480. More than 3,000 acres of public land overlooking Lake Habeeb and surrounded by mountains. Camping, boating, fishing, canoeing and hiking trails available.

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[KEVIN COWHERD]

HOW THE MONEY WAS SPENT

Hotel

-- $347.86

Golf

-- $69

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Gas

-- $35

Food

-- $50

Total

-- $501.86


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