Bulle Rock

Talking Bulle Rock? Use only superlatives

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. -- What do you get when you find a wonderfully raw piece of rural real estate, hire one of the foremost golf-course architects, and turn him loose with an almost limitless budget?

Bulle Rock.

At a glance
Getting there: Bulle Rock is at 320 Blenheim Lane, Havre de Grace, Md. Take I-95 south into Maryland, to Exit 89 for Havre de Grace. At the top of the ramp, turn left and follow signs for Route 155 south. Follow Route 155 for 2.2 miles, bearing right at signs for Route 155 and Route 40. At the light, turn right onto Route 40 west. Follow Route 40 west for 1.9 miles. The entrance to Bulle Rock is on the right. The phone number is 410-939-8887.

Green fees: Weekends and weekdays (closed Monday), $126, including cart, range balls, and use of the clubhouse locker room.

Walking: Walking is permitted anytime, although cart fees are included. Caddies ($12.50 per bag, plus tip) are available.

Spikes: Nonmetal only.

Amenities: Country-club-style clubhouse with restaurant and banquet facilities. Well-stocked pro shop. Grass driving range and putting green. Also has a nice Internet site, www.bullerock.com

Rating: Five-star course. Premier daily-fee course within 100 miles of Philadelphia.

Remember that name. If Havre de Grace, about 50 minutes south of Philadelphia International Airport, just into Maryland, can be considered part of our area, then we have a new undisputed "best public course."

We're talking first class on a national scale. We're talking shoo-in to join Pebble Beach and Pinehurst No. 2 in Golf Digest's elite handful of daily-fee courses awarded its ultimate five-star rating.

You think I'm overreacting to designer Pete Dye's resortlike, top-dollar creation, pronounced, by the way, Bully Rock?

It opened on March 30, and already Golf Digest's Ron Whitten, perhaps the most respected and well-traveled architecture critic around, said Bulle Rock has "major championship written all over it." He's recommending the 2006 U.S. Open.

"Masterpiece," "off-the-scale," and "Augusta National for a day" have been tossed out by other reviewers. You get the idea.

No argument here. If you told me I could play only one golf course for the rest of my life, and I could choose between world-famous Pine Valley or this place, well, I'd need some time to think about it.

So what's the catch?

Other than the drive, which is Interstate 95 except for the last three or four miles, the only other caveat would have to be the $126 green fees. Eye-popping, yes. But if you don't wince at forking over $95 to play Hartefeld National, trust me, you won't mind springing for $31 more to play Bulle Rock.

When I played a round there last week, with a golf writer from Washington and a guy who's seen his share of courses as owner of a golf-outing company in Virginia, we no sooner hit the second hole than we were talking "signature hole."

No. 2 at Bulle Rock, a 555-yard par 5, starts from an elevated tee, then sprawls downward for about 400 yards before rising another 150 yards to an elevated green. Woods line both sides of the fairway. A huge fairway bunker squeezes the left side. A creek runs across the fairway at just the spot to give big hitters pause as to whether to go for it.

"Got to be the signature hole," I said.

The other writer, who had played one previous round at Bulle Rock, shrugged. "Just wait," he said.

Sure enough, at the sixth, we had a new candidate for signature hole. Then again at the par-4 ninth that wraps around a pond, and again at the 11th, the 13th, the 14th, the 18th.

The 13th may be the best of all. At 476 yards from the black tees, it is a long carry just to reach the fairway. Anything to the right is down an ominous ravine that leads to woods. The second shot, with a fairway wood or long iron, is another long carry down a hill into a green riddled with bunkers.

By the time we finished, we had seen no fewer than six breathtaking holes, any of which could have been a candidate for having its picture on a scorecard.

By the time we finished, we were also whipped. No doubt thinking major championship, the legendary Dye has given us a 7,375-yard layout from the tips, carved out of a onetime horse farm within sight of the Chesapeake Bay.

True to Dye's style, it's also plenty: a 76.4 rating and a 147 slope from the black tees. From the blues, it goes 74.0/139.

Bulle Rock was the dream of Ed Abel, a construction company baron from Lancaster County, Pa., who sold his company in 1993 and walked away with millions. Not long before he cashed out, he took up golf and found himself addicted.

"When I started playing six years ago, I was fortunate enough to get invited to play some great courses," said Abel, rattling off names such as Pine Valley, Sawgrass and Seminole.

Problem was, he said, they were all private, unattainable to all but a few members and their guests. With time, money, and energy on his hands -- he's only 53 -- Abel decided to develop an equally impressive course for any and all.

As a developer, he knew land. He searched for several years before coming across this horse farm. (Bulle Rock was the name of a horse.)

Once he settled on the land, Abel hired Dye, the famous, prolific and somewhat eccentric designer of such layouts as Harbour Town, PGA West, Crooked Stick and Sawgrass, where he invented the island green.

At this stage of his career, Dye, in his mid-70s, doesn't take a job unless the land and the budget are right. The budget is important because Dye doesn't draw plans, as most other architects do. He designs with his eye. If a hole doesn't look right, he orders the bulldozers and shapers back again and again. The process is expensive but ultimately worth it.

With the land, the two miles of 10-inch water pipe, the impressive clubhouse, Dye's fees and construction costs, Abel figured he has got $18 million in Bulle Rock.

"I spent $250,000 just on jet fuel flying him back here from other projects he was working on," Abel said.

For golfers, anyway, the result is worth it. Is Bulle Rock going to unseat Pine Valley as No. 1? No chance. Pine Valley has the mystique, and it is, after all, an original, a masterpiece unlike any other. But Bulle Rock will immediately join the front ranks of the new breed of fabulous courses.

This fall, on land adjacent to Bulle Rock, Abel and Dye expect to break ground on a second 18 holes, with a hotel and conference center.

Abel acknowledged that at $126 per round, Bulle Rock might as well be private as far as many golfers are concerned. But he said he has to charge that much to recoup the investment in the land and in Dye, and to maintain it.

For his part, Dye, still spry and witty the other day, credited an even higher power. "I did not undo God's work," he said of the land.

Orginally published June 14, 1998