My friend, David Murray, recently wrote about the pervasiveness of clichés in sports, specifically among professional golfers, who constantly talk about taking each tournament "one shot at a time." In his blog, Writing Boots, he wrote:
"I don’t mind when a golfer says his strategy is just to 'take it one shot at at time,' even though it’s the biggest cliché in golf and a version of the biggest cliché in sports history, 'We’ve got to take it one game at a time.' But one shot at a time is also true, though it’s easier to say than to do, and you can imagine a golfer actually telling himself or herself that before a round, or in the middle of one."
One shot at a time is certainly how I try to play my game; it's the only way I know to forget the swing that sent me deep into the woods so I can focus on the laser I'm about to hit through that small gap in the trees to give myself a birdie opportunity.
And that's the way I've got to think about the daunting goal I've set for myself to play more than 200 of America's great golf courses in the next 10 years. One shot at a time, one round at a time, one course at a time.
I recently had the opportunity to cross another course off my list, when I visited Bulle Rock Golf Course, a fantastic Pete Dye design in Havre de Grace, Maryland. Bulle Rock is currently ranked No. 74 on Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Greatest Public Courses, and it's easy to understand why.
This isn't Pebble Beach or Pinehurst, but Bulle Rock is a fantastic facility. For a course built adjacent to a housing development, you only actually see the homes off to the right of the first hole. The range, practice green and short game practice area are beautifully manicured and stocked with shiny white practice balls for you to warm up ... or to sharpen the skills you found to be lacking during the round you've just played. And the course itself is beautifully manicured, making excellent use of the natural terrain.
Apart from the fact that it was 95 degrees and cart paths-only, which made for a long slog, I was delighted to experience Bulle Rock, and I'm happy to share some photos from the course here.
Hole 1 at Bulle Rock is a short par-4, but God help you if you find yourself in the rough ... a lesson you learn early and carry with you if you want to score well at all on this Pete Dye layout.
No. 2 is a long par-5, stretching to 665 yards if you hate yourself enough to play this course from the tips (which I don't). I found that a tee shot aimed just right of the fairway bunker with a little bit of a fade set me up perfectly for a layup short of the creek on this three-shot hole.
No. 2 -- A look at the green complex from the fairway as you think about your third shot into this green.
A relatively short par-3, this hole shouldn't have been as much trouble as I made it. Fanning tee shot into the high stuff on the right made recovery impossible. I had to just hack it out, and then I still had to play from the thick rough downhill to a green that sloped away from me. I was almost happy to escape with a double.
I didn't score well on No. 4, but I really like the hole. The high stuff and trees on the right trick you into believing you've got all kinds of room to go left. But the fairway bunkers over there work like some kind of golf ball magnet. Didn't help that I hooked by shot out of the bunkers into the high stuff way up on the hill. By the time I made it to the green area, it took a pretty little chip-in just to save a 6.
When we got to the tee on No. 5, one of my playing companions -- a guy who'd played the course a handful of times and was kind enough to offer some tips -- told me that the play on this hole is to bail out right and play it like a par-5. At over 400 yards from the blue tees, and all uphill, he said the landing area if you go left is really narrow, and he'd never seen anyone hit the green in two. But this was one of those holes that just fit my eye as soon as I saw it. I could see the shape of the ball I wanted to it, starting just right of the far fairway bunker and gently drawing to a landing in the middle of that narrow landing strip he'd mentioned. And that's exactly the shot I hit.
A smooth 6-iron later, and I had a 30 (or so)-footer for birdie. I wound up three putting for a bogey, but we don't need to talk about that.
No. 6 is a fun hole. Downhill off the tee, a well-struck driver runs the risk of running out of room and winding up in the creek that crosses the fairway at about 260 yards. Don't go right on your approach, especially with the pin tucked front-right. Those bunkers produce bogies like General Motors cranks out cars.
No. 7 is a short, pretty, uphill par-3 ... unless you're playing from the tips, where it stretches out to over 200 yards. I hit my 9-iron a bit thin and wound up deep on this green, and I was happy to come away with a two-putt par. Worth noting, the elevation makes a lot of the trouble around the green difficult to see from the tee or at least convinces you that it's not as bad as it looks. But the little pot bunker short-left and the four bunkers on the right don't look like they'd be any fun to play from once you reach the top of the hill and see them up close.
No. 8 is a really pretty mid-length par-5. Aim right of those trees and hit a draw, and you just might be able to reach this green in two. Or, do what I did. Top it off the tee. Hit a 5-iron from just left of the forward tees. Hit another 5-iron. Then hit a wedge into the green and two-putt to turn what should have been a birdie hole into a bogey save.
No. 9 is a beautiful hole to close out the front half of your round. The smart play is a conservative drive just over or slightly left of the three fairway bunkers. (The green, if you can't see it in the picture here) is to the far right of the frame, over top of the last of the rocks lining the lake. I gambled and hit a big drive straight at the green, biting off the whole of the lake and just barely clearing the hazard. But the payoff was worth the risk, as my ball settled in the bit of fairway there that dips down below that bunker. A beautiful sand wedge from 105 yards there left me with just about four feet for my birdie.
No. 10 is a dogleg left. I found this to maybe be the least spectacular hole on the course. Anything right of the bunkers off the tee is safe with just acres of open space. And given that it's a short hole, even leaving yourself a long-ish approach isn't that bad.
But if 10 was unremarkable, No. 11 is a beast of a par-5 that is hard to forget. Don't miss the fairway, or it quickly becomes a par-6 (or worse!). The hole plays slightly downhill, with fairway bunkers virtually the entire length of the hole calling out to any mis-hit ball. And you best be precise with your approach to the green as the lake behind the green waits to drown any ball that doesn't stop on the putting surface.
No. 12 looks scarier than it ought to be. That water down the entire left side of the hole is intimidating and demands that you look at it ... that you think about it ... that you fear it as you set up to your tee shot. And the green appears to be so narrow. but it is a bit of an optical illusion as the contours of the bunkering and mounds around the green hide the fact that there's a bit more room than you realize to go left. I hit a leaky 7-iron that flirted with disaster before winding up on the right front of the putting surface. But it could have gone wrong so easily.
No. 13 is a long, beaurifully designed par-4, measuring over 400 yards even from the white tees. The drive isn't particularly intimidating, but the more you go left to avoid the high grass and the ravine on the right, the longer and more troublesome your second shot into this well-protected green becomes. Four is an excellent score on this hole. I took six.
Like 13, No. 14 is another dogleg right, but it plays completely differently because of then length. At just 372 from the tips and 331 from the blues, players have the option to bail out left for a mid-iron approach or to bite off a big chunk of the dogleg by driving over the bunkers on the right to leave themselves with a short wedge into the green. I took my drive up over the bunkers and left myself with just a short wedge, setting up another birdie attempt ... which I missed.
No. 15 is a reachable par-5 that reminded me a little bit of No. 11 at Dye's TPC Sawgrass. The water on this hole is a stream insted of a lake, but from the tee, the drive out to the right leaves the player with a second shot across a hazard and the option to either lay it up into another length of fairway on the left or to step on the gas and go for it with a long second shot at a green protected by bunkers and water on right.
I really enjoyed the finishing three holes at Bulle Rock -- maybe because I parred all three ... or maybe just because I could see the finish line and knew at this point that I was going to survive the round despite the oppressive heat and humidity, not to mention the challeng of the course itself.
No. 16 is a beautiful short par-4. The bunkers down the right side make you want to bail out left, but be careful -- there's a small creek over there and a hazard area that can suck up any ball pulled just a bit too far. I set up on the tee to aim one down the left side and hit a fade ... only it never faded. Thankfully, a tree saved me from winding up in the creek, but it took a delicate punched pitching wedge to get my ball up near the green. Lipped out on my chip and tapped in for par despite the ugly tee shot.
17 is another relatively short par-3. There is bunker trouble left and right, but I hit a beautiful 8-iron into the middle of the green and two-putted for an easy par. It's easy to imagine, though, how much more challenging this hole would be if you didn't find the putting surface from the tee.
The 18th at Bulle Rock feels like a Pete Dye special. Dont. Go. Left. With water down the entire left side, a promise that any ball pulled or hooked will be wet, Dye dares you to put one down the middle. I got lucky. I crushed a drive over the tees on the right with a bit of a draw and wound up dry, just in the fairway about 150 yards out from the green.
The approach shot on 18 doesn't get any easier. Left, and you're Natalie Wood. Right, and you're in the thick rough, looking across the green at the lake and praying you don't skull your chip as you try to get it out of the jungle and onto the putting surface. Time for those nerves of steel. I reminded myself of something I just read in Arnold Palmer's last book ... that every time he swung the club, he was thinking about hitting the ball in the hole. A smooth 8-iron from 152 yards, and I found myself with a mid-length putt for birdie.
I didn't make the birdie putt, sad to say. I haven't been making many putts at all lately. Maybe I should have left the putter in that lake on 18. Regardless, I was pleased with the strong finish and absolutely loved my visit to this fantastic course.
One thing that stood out to me is that this was the first Pete Dye course I've played where water wasn't a prominent, if not dominant, feature throughout. Apart from an occasional stream running through the property, water really only came into play on a few holes here. It was fun to see how Dye used the land, bunkering, mounds and ravines to shape his holes and to force players to shape their shots here.
Not only was it a terrific course, but I have to give a shoutout to my playing partners, Dena and Steve. We lost our fourth about 6 holes in due to a family emergency. But Dena and Steve, who are local and members at Bulle Rock, could not have been more delightful playing companions. They made the round really enjoyable, and I'd be thrilled to play with them again any time.