BUILD IT, AND THEY shall come.
That's what world renowned golf designer Pete Dye was told when plans were formulated for Bulle Rock golf course. Seven years after it opened, this high-end public facility in historic Havre de Grace is widely rated the best course in the state and one of the best in the country.
"We really did no advertising when we opened, it was basically word of mouth," said general manager Rick Rounsaville. "People started to play the course and realized what a wonderful piece of property it is."
Now, after attracting golfers for some 20,000 rounds a year - a fairly reasonable number compared with many similar courses - the question remains whether the same kind of enthusiasm will be generated when the club hosts its first major tournament, this year's McDonald's LPGA Championship June 9-12.
The folks up in Wilmington, Del., where the event was played at DuPont Country Club for the last 10 years, are hoping that it won't draw fans from as far away as Washington and Philadelphia, as Bulle Rock's owners and officials are figuring.
Then again, many in Wilmington experienced the same feelings as Colts fans had when the team moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in the middle of that winter night back in 1984. There were no Mayflower moving trucks last spring, just the terse announcement of an important news conference the next morning.
Clark Turner, part of the consortium that purchased Bulle Rock from its original owner in September 2003, recalled a conversation he had the night before the news conference with one of his sales managers, who lived in Wilmington and whose husband was an executive with DuPont.
"I told her to come at 10 o'clock the next morning for an announcement that the LPGA was coming here, and she told her husband," said Turner. "Her husband said, 'Oh no, Clark doesn't know much about golf, it's some lesser tournament. The LPGA doesn't leave Wilmington.' They were just blown away by it."
It's how many have felt about Bulle Rock after playing the course. A Philadelphia golf writer compared it to one of the nation's most venerated clubs, Pine Valley in New Jersey. In terms of location and setting, it also reminds some of Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run.
There is good reason for that, since Dye also designed those two neighboring courses in Kohler, Wis. Whistling Straits was the site of last year's PGA Championship, and Blackwolf Run was where Baltimore amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn lost to Se Ri Pak in a playoff in the 1998 U.S. Women's Open.
"It was patterned to be a Blackwolf Run of the East Coast," said Rounsaville, who has run Bulle Rock since it opened.
The 1,000-acre property was also patterned after the Kohler facility in another way: It was scheduled to have 36 holes as well as a major hotel-conference center similar to The American Club, which adjoins the two championship courses 60 miles north of Milwaukee.
But those plans were scrapped by Bulle Rock's former owner after business dropped following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the club was sold to the current group that includes Turner, local developer Richard Alter and John Paterakis, whose H&S Bakery makes most of the rolls used by McDonald's.
Even after the sale, Dye's dream of Bulle Rock playing host to a major championship didn't fade. (According to sources in the golf industry, Bulle Rock might have gotten the nod over Whistling Straits for last summer's PGA Championship had the conference center been built.)
"It was built to host a major championship, it was built with that in mind," said Rounsaville. "We felt with Pete Dye being the architect and his knack for building great golf courses, we had a pretty good shot at achieving what the original vision of the golf course was."
Shortly after the LPGA announced last spring that it was bringing one of its four majors to Havre de Grace, plans were drawn for the rest of the facility to be raised to the standard of the course.
After closing the course last November, a new short game area and practice putting green were built, and the clubhouse was renovated and expanded by some 6,000 square feet.
"Obviously it's not your everyday public golf course," said Rounsaville. "We're not opened year-round, we don't have offseason rates or afternoon rates [below the normal $145]. We're all about providing a special golf experience for the people who come here. It was built to be a special place to come to when you wanted a special golf experience. That was the vision of the golf course."
About the only potential roadblock to the LPGA Championship being a rousing success is a conflict in the schedule. The tournament will be held the same week as the Booz Allen Classic, the PGA Tour event scheduled for Congressional Country Club in Bethesda.
This year, because the former Kemper Open is being played at its old home the week before the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, the field there is expected to include all of the world's best male players, with the likely exception being Tiger Woods.
Can the LPGA Championship - which in January extended a sponsor's exemption to celebrated amateur Michelle Wie - compete with that?
"I think the feeling is that the girls are much more accessible to the fans, they have their own niche," said Rounsaville. "With Annika [Sorenstam] and a few of the other players, the women's tour has gained some popularity."
The course itself might be an improvement on its predecessor. Though DuPont Country Club was considered among the best tracts the women played, Bulle Rock is believed to be in a different dimension.
Christy Larrimore has played the course several times, most recently in late fall with one of her women's golf teammates at Georgetown. Having also played DuPont Country Club, the 20-year-old junior from Baltimore thinks the LPGA Championship has found a better home.
"I think it sets up great," said Larrimore. "I think it's really challenging. I think it's a lot better [than DuPont]."
Claire Pogue, a sophomore from Evansville, Ind., said: "It would not necessarily be about the distance. You really have to know where you want to place the ball. In a major, that would be a better show of who the best golfer is, not who can hit it the farthest."
Other tournaments in the area
NCAA Division I men's championships
Owings Mills, June 1-4
Potomac, June 9-12
Hunt Valley, Sept. 16-18
Lake Manassas, Va., Sept. 19-25