Many LPGA and PGA Tour-host golf courses are all hype. Not so at Pete Dye's Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace. The LPGA Championship host is a superb golf course by any measure, maybe the finest in all of Maryland.
HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. - If you land in the deep bunker on the right side of Bulle Rock's first hole, you might think this is the bunker where surprise LPGA Championship leader Na On Min sent her first nervous shot in the fourth round. The bunker Min needed two shots to get out of in a major she'd lose by two shots.
If you're the ultimate pro golf nerd, you might think that.
Most of us are just trying to keep the wheels from coming off too early in a Pete Dye round that's guaranteed to get much tougher.
And therein lies the truth about Bulle Rock Golf Club. This golf course gets most of its publicity for being the host of the LPGA Championship these days. Which obscures the fact this is a great course, maybe the single best Maryland golf course, one that can more than stand on its own merits.
It doesn't matter if you barely know who Michelle Wie is, let alone Na On Min. You'll love Bulle Rock all the same.
This is anything but one of those golf courses that's status as a PGA or LPGA Tour venue gives it an aura it doesn't deserve (see TPC Scottsdale Stadium). Bulle Rock is the real deal.
In fact, it's a little funny that Bulle Rock's become associated with women's golf. For this is a course that can beat up any man, woman or child, one that stretches to 7,375 yards and all but eliminates the idea of a drivable par 4.
Simply branding Bulle Rock a beast is as limiting as categorizing Raging Bull a boxing movie though. There's so much more there. Dye makes Bulle Rock's torments enjoyable because they're so interesting.
Sometimes a double bogey with a great story behind it is better than a ho-hum par.
"You don't play this course thinking about score," said Jeff Atkins, one of several golfers who didn't want to reveal their own score at Bulle Rock. "You play it to experience it."
In other words, it kicked Atkins' behind all the way from here to Maine. And that's OK.
"There are some really unforgettable holes," Atkins said.
Everyone leaves talking about No. 18. This 485-yard par 4 has you shooting down from a long elevated tee box to a fairway that seems skinnier than it is with water running along the left side and cutting in even further around the green. It takes two Herculean shots to be on this green in two and even then you're hardly out of trouble.
This is a slopping devil child of a green. It can almost seem like a funnel, with approach shots rolling far past the hole or into a near crevice below a hill. Mere mortals should play 18 like it's a par 5. Pete Dye's the only one who thinks it isn't anyways.
Still, this golfer found No. 2 even more impressive than Dye's finisher. Not to mention more fun.
Bulle Rock's second hole gives golfers their first real indication of what the day has in store. This 572-yard par 5 begins with a downhill shot, and then it's uphill over a rocky creek to a high up green that's about as inviting a target as Lawrence Taylor.
With LT, at least you'd have a chance of getting one hit in before getting killed.
Land in the pot bunker below Bulle Rock's second green and you may as well just call a priest over for final rites.
With No. 2, what you see is largely what you get though. The caddies at Bulle Rock will be much more valuable to you on the back nine stretch. Thirteen and 14 are a particularly befuddling combo, one that even LPGA players like Paula Creamer spend extra time figuring out the best way to play.
No. 13 doglegs sharply around a ravine, providing a great view. Unless it turns into a look at your Pro V1 plunging into a rocky eternity. No. 14 is actually a reasonable par 4 (by Dye standards), a 372-yarder that's all downhill and hope.
That's hope your approach finds the right spot on a green that is tilted enough to play like an air hockey table.
"Those two holes can leave you scratching your head," one of the LPGA caddies at the tournament told me. "They can be wicked."
When you're trying to win an LPGA major, they're wicked. When you're a rec golfer playing for kicks, they'll leave you with some great stories. No one's promising a happy ending though.
It's not so easy to find Bulle Rock. It's in the otherwise unremarkable little town of Havre de Grace, down snaking side roads, about 30 minutes north of Baltimore. It's worth the effort and the trip.
This is one of the better public plays on the entire East Coast. Pete Dye once said he didn't get in God's way when it came to designing Bulle Rock. But that's largely a bunch of bunk. Sure, the woodsy setting is nice, but this is not a golf course where the views are going to blow you away.
It's not a Chateau Whistler in British Columbia, let alone a Pebble Beach or Cabo del Sol.
Bulle Rock is special because of Dye's ingenious design, his theater of toughness. It's up, down and all around those big trees. You have several options on several holes - which only might make your head ache more.
The course offers caddies with advance reservations, which is the best way to experience the course. If you're real adventurous, you'll walk it with your caddie and get a real workout.
That's certainly not going to save your score. Your smile will likely stay intact though. At Bulle Rock, it feels good to be made to look so bad.
If you want to eat near Bulle Rock, your best choice is the big hulking clubhouse. You can munch and drink on the balcony that overlooks the course. Otherwise, there are a bunch of fast food places a few miles up I-95 at Exit 85.
There is actually a brand new, good Courtyard by Marriott within 10 minutes of Bulle Rock. It's right across the street from a huge Cal Ripken youth baseball stadium complex.
Still, unless it's for a one-night, early-tee-time stay, you're better off using Baltimore or Philadelphia (only an hour away) as your home base. Both have tons of hotel choices, with Baltimore boasting the better golf and Philly the much better restaurant/nightlife scene.
September 20, 2007