Course: Bulle Rock is in Havre de Grace, Maryland, but is just as close as Wyncote or some of the North New Jersey courses mentioned here. It’s a great Pete Dye track that really isn’t that far of a drive. I have heard a lot of complaints or criticisms of Pete Dye courses ranging from course architect buffs to players. PGA players refuse to play on the PGA West Stadium course because they feel it’s unfair (Q school uses it for its finals tourney though) while I’ve heard a lot of discussion that Dye courses have a few memorable holes mixed with a lot of mediocrity. Personally, I like his courses a lot. I’ve played Stadium at PGA West, TPC Louisiana, Trump National Los Angeles, ASU Karsten, Harbour Town and Bulle Rock, among others, and even when I didn’t score or play particularly well, I always enjoyed myself and that is due in large part to appreciating the course design. So I’m a fan.
As far as Bulle Rock goes, it’s a well designed course for sure. It is located which is the northern part of Maryland, just on the ridge of the Susquehanna River. This is hilly terrain. There really wasn’t anything in this area except for a horse farm, so a developer came up with a nice idea that I applaud. After becoming addicted to golf, he realized that all of the really great courses were private. He wanted to provide access to a renown course for anyone willing to make the drive down and pay the greens fee. So he decided to put in some nice houses and have Dye design the course, paying for him to arrive by jet or helicopter depending on what else Dye was doing at that time. I like to think I’d do something similar if I was a billionaire. Most of us golf enthusiasts don’t have access to the really great courses around here, so it’s refreshing to know that if I am so inclined, I can go to such a course. At any rate, Bulle Rock was born out of this idea.
Update, March 2022: Below is a detailed summary of my prior visit to the course, which was approximately ten years ago. I actively avoided the course during that time based on that round and how the entire experience went down. At some point, I seemed to forget about the place altogether and then decided it was worth checking out again and it took a few years to finally get that visit in. Walking back on to the grounds much older but probably no wiser or better at golf, I was hoping I would like this place yet again. It’s the closest Pete Dye design in our area and a very well done one at that, constructed in Dye’s later years where he began to embrace the natural surrounds and incorporate them into the structure of play a lot more strategically than his earlier years. There are times, however, where the design pedigree conflicts with the identity of the golf club, or what perception the club would like to project. I believe that was in place way back during that prior round, where we were essentially lulled into forfeiting a rightly deserved rain check. Back then, the green fees here were indeed one of the highest for a public access course on the Mid-Atlantic sea board and the management was trying to place its stake as one of the premier, higher end golf resort types around. Housing was in place while a second course and even more housing were in the works. With the higher green fees comes an expected level of service and accommodation, which were lacking that day. Instead, we faced the take what we give you or just leave because you’re probably not the kind of clientele we want here anyways mentality. I have not come across that tone in a while from any where but it certainly is one of those things I feel goes against the aura of golf. Alas, my strong reaction and decision to forget this place existed for a spell.
At any rate, it was finally time to see if things have changed. They have indeed. Mind you, no one there had any idea who I was or what I had written in the past. I was just another guy taking his clubs out of his trunk happy to be golfing in early early spring. The plans for a second course never took root, I believe ownership has changed over maybe even a couple times and the green fees have adjusted to a much more reasonable range that will actually get me there more often than otherwise. Everyone was nice and I ended up paired with a member who was fantastic company. We had lunch after the round and the feel in the grill was collegial as locals and those visiting like me shared stories of good old Pete getting us one way or another out there. A sense of redemption, relief and happiness were with me as I left.
My sense of the club identity is much more interesting now and in line with its design chops. Now, Bulle Rock seems for focused on the golf and willing to share and celebrate what makes it special with the game, which is its strong modern design with a good deal of sophistication from one of the generational course designers of a past era. The fact that such a place is within striking distance of the Philadelphia area is huge for all of us.
Bulle Rock and I have settled any past issues and it will now make its way back into the rankings shrine as well as my rota of notable public access courses to visit alone or with those I know will appreciate it.
For the sake of preservation, however, I leave my past experience intact without edit or change below, even though it doesn’t seem applicable any more:
I want to get this out now so there is no misunderstanding why I’m not sure I’ll ever play here again. My recent round here gave me the very strong impression that all this place is really interested in is getting your money. A friend of mine had never played here, so we finally were able to find an afternoon to get down to the course so he could finally check it out and I could play it after a few years. The weather forecast was spotty and I asked about it as I was checking in. They have lightning sirens and were tracking everything, but didn’t think there would be any inclement weather. Ok fine. After getting a 5 minute lecture form the starter on how to drive the golf cart on the course and use their “special” divot tool, we were off as a twosome. A single was in front of us, who we caught up with on the Second and was going ultra slow. From the Second green, he started screaming at us because apparently our cart was partially parked on the rough, which was apparently sacrilege. We promptly moved it though. Well that wasn’t enough for this guy, as he waited for us to putt out, then told us he worked there and we weren’t supposed to park on the rough. Ok fine, our mistake. No tact whatsoever, especially considering he is an employee of the place and was managing to slow us down as a single, but again, our mistake. A 20 minute admonishment was probably a tad excessive. In the big scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal and we forgot about it quickly, but it’s indicative of what to expect when playing here; prepare to feel unwelcome.
At any rate, storm clouds are looming as we continue to play, but a ranger keeps finding us on the course and keeps us updated on what’s happening. The main message this guy keeps telling us is it’s fine, no storms are coming. Anyways, by the time we get to the Thirteenth, lightning is visible and thunder sounds nearby. We also noticed that the ranger hadn’t come by at all since the Tenth hole. So I call the pro shop and ask them what’s going on and the only question they ask me is where I am on the course. I tell them we were on the Fourteenth green. I get put on hold for about 5 minutes, at which point we decide to putt out and are at the Fourteenth, although there seems to be a storm very close by and neither of us are excited about getting out of the cart. The pro shop finally gets back on the line and asks where we are now. I tell her the Fifteenth tee. She then tells me that we are past the point of getting a rain check. That’s it. Apparently once you get to the Fifteenth, with 4 holes left to play, you’re on your own. At any rate, I respond to the pro shop lady that I am more concerned about our safety and would like to know if we should come in. Her only response is that it’s up to us; they don’t see any storm, so if we play, it’s at our own risk. We decide to drive in and as we do, lightning, pouring rain and thunder are all around us. Everyone is in and the cart guys are basically telling everyone that’s it for the day. It certainly looked like it.
So we go into the pro shop to get any type of weather update and they’re telling everyone it looks like the storm will be hanging around for a couple hours and again, if you were on the Fifteenth and on, no rain check. It was interesting to hear how all of a sudden this is the storm of the century when the entire day we were getting another story. So I speak with Jerry, who is an Assistant Pro, or Manager, or Pro at the course, and ask if there’s any way just to get a rain check for nine holes, as we just want to see the rest of the course. The response was nope, without more. No apology, no explanation about the policy; nothing except, no. I explained that it’s not like we were putting out on the Eighteenth; we were basically on the Thirteenth when the storm hit anyways and really, I could have just said we were on the Thirteenth and would have received a full rain check. Jerry retorted that they could just track the carts to make sure we were telling the truth. I again asked for maybe some leeway, but at this point Jerry was ignoring me and why wouldn’t he? The course already has my money and isn’t interested in being accommodating. I get it, but there is a level of service you expect from a course that charges the second highest green fee in the area. Let’s say Jerry did say to me, sure buddy, that’s a bad break and we want you to see the rest of the course too, here’s a rain check for the back nine. Without a doubt, Jerry has two ecstatic customers who will come back, use their rain check, and in all likelihood play another 18, have some lunch and make a day of it. But now? There are two less avid golfers who will consider playing here and will instead take their business to other courses. And will tell their story to other golfers.
We ended up at the bar, seething, feeling like we were essentially ripped off, when we noticed the weather clearing. Yep, the same storm that the pro shop told us was sticking around for hours was clearing out already. I saw Jerry running around the bar talking to other people, so I had get up, track him down myself, and ask for an update. Apparently, they were going to open the course back up. So we eventually were able to get back on the course and play the remaining holes, but it wasn’t lost on me that no cart attendants, or anyone for that matter, met us to transport our clubs once we drove up.
The fact that we were told the entire round (until finishing the Thirteenth) that weather was not going to be an issue; the fact that the pro shop put us on hold until we finished the Fourteenth, then only told us about the rain check policy and weren’t giving us any safety information; the fact that Jerry was such an unflinching, unfriendly and unhelpful fella drunk on the power of their rain check policy; the fact that they then changed course and made the storm sound like Hurricane Katrina, promising everyone the course would be closed the rest of the day, only for everything to return to normal in 30-45 minutes; and the fact that no one apologized, or used an ounce of tact, in announcing their rain check policy, all leaves a very bad feeling for me here. There are way too many courses worth playing (with much less green fees) with stellar service and a friendly atmosphere I would recommend over this place. It is a nicely designed course, but not nice enough to justify the steep green fee and poor unfriendly service my friend and I encountered.
So no, I don’t recommend playing here. God forbid you get inclement weather and are in the same situation. Or someone in your group injures themselves, or has an emergency. I don’t know what the cancellation policy is, but if you had something come up last minute, I’m not sure how likely it is you wouldn’t get charged the green fee. There are way too many other options out there where you get just as nice of a course without having to deal with any of this.
Despite that experience and the big red line I intend to put over it in my rankings, the course itself is set on hilly terrain and features carries over creeks and ravines, undulating greens, unique angles and contours, as well as a few blind shots. Dye’s famous quote about the course is that he, “did not undo God’s work.” This is true, mainly because Dye didn’t need to; the terrain was interesting enough that I doubt he felt the need to move much land. Generally, it felt like the holes melded into the environment and was very minimalist in design. With the hilly terrain, holes would snake up, down and across these hills and many of the greens were tucked in natural mound formations.
Aside from being harassed about faulty cart parking and abused by flippant staff hiding behind ridiculous rain check policies, we were able to play some golf. The course was certainly in great condition and the single in front of us eventually disappeared, essentially giving us the place to ourselves.
The First is a 343 yard par 4 (from the Blues). It’s a slight dog leg left with the fairway rising, then falling at the turn to the green. Big hitters can try to cut the dog leg, but a deep inset and bunker on the left side will catch anything not crushed. The safe play is off to the right, but then you have a longer approach. Figure out how much you can cut off and try to stay as left as possible on the fairway for a shorter approach.
Approach shot territory
The Second is a 555 par 5 that is mostly downhill. A creek bisects the fairway and much be carried on the second or third shot, depending on how you play the hole. The fairway then goes uphill to a raised green, which is protected by bunkers on the front and behind. It is a great par 5.
Second shot territory
Approach shot territory
The Third is a 164 yard par 3. The green is terraced on a hill side that runs right to left. There is a slope with rough on the right and bunkers on the left, well below the hole. There isn’t much trouble short, so take all that in and use the club that gets you on the green.
The Fourth is a 380 yard par 4. It’s similar to the First, but dog legs slightly to the right. The fairway crests from the tee, then falls to a few bunkers that jut up, partially hiding the green that’s tucked in to the right. Club selection from the tee can dictate how you want to approach this shot, as driver may be too long for the bunkers in the center.
Approach shot territory
A look at the left side, where you can scoot around the bunkers to the green
The Fifth is a 453 par 4. It’s all uphill and certainly plays longer. The fairway is angled at about 10:00 from the tee, climbing up to a green that curls to the left a little with trees lining both sides. Stay downhill of the hole at all costs.
Looking back at the fairway from the green
The Sixth is a 387 yard par 4. You go back down hill and just like the Second, a creek bisects the fairway and green. There are bunkers around the right side of the green that come into play off the tee. The rough complicates matters on the second shot and around the green as well. A sneaky tough hole.
The bunkers along the right. And yes, that is Carl Spackler
The Seventh is a 157 yard par 3. It’s not a whole lot different than the Third; a fall off on the left side putting below the hole while off to the right is above the hole and deep grass.
The Eighth is a 519 yard par 5. The fairway sets off at an 11:00 angle from the tee with a Pete Dye classic; trouble entirely along the left hand side of the fairway. Sometimes it’s water, sometimes it’s bunkers; this time it’s a deep ravine, then a ravine with bunkers. Stay along the right and you should be fine.
Approaching the green
Some of the bunkers along the left side
The Ninth is by far the best hole on the front. It’s a 418 yard par 4 and what is great about it are the options presented to you off the tee. A straight tee shot with a forced carry over water possibly puts you closer to the green for a nice approach, while teeing off to the fairway going around the water leaves you with a longer approach and a downhill shot. Lots to think about, but we both decided for the carry over water and the shorter approach. Looking back though, you get a better look at the green if you decide to go around the water, so I’m not sure the reward is big enough for the risk of carrying the water.
A closer look at the fairway option if you want to carry the water
The option off the tee if you go to the left
Approach shot from the left side of the fairway
The front nine is nice and hilly that has a few very good holes while the rest are good enough even though there are some redundancies. The par 3’s are only ok though. Ranking them, I’d go 9, 2, 5, 6, 1, 4, 8, 7, 3.
The Tenth is a 373 yard par 4. The tee shot is fairly wide open to a fairway that crests, then is slightly downhill and sweeps to the left all the way to the green. This is more of a cape hole, as you’re able to carry the turn as much as you can, with bunkers and rough collecting anything that comes up short. Anything to the left of the green is left with a pretty tough bunker shot.
At the turn, with the green in the background
The Eleventh is a 624 yard par 5. Yeah that’s a lot of ground to cover, but the hole careens gently downhill and correctly hit shots will be rewarded with a lot of roll. Once again, you have a fairway that is angled at about 10:00. The fairway is wide and bunkers are placed on both sides to penalize off center shots while bunkers also surround the green.
Down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The Twelfth is a 174 yard par 3. Water is along the entire right side mounds and bunkers hug the left.
The Thirteenth is a 438 yard par 4. With a blind tee shot because of the fairway cresting before the landing area, the hole diverts left around a large ravine that is on the right. The fairway then spills into a punchbowl green that is surrounded by bunkers. The bunkers also have Dye’s famous railroad planks. I didn’t think the planks were that big of a deal until I saw my buddy’s shot hit one of them and bounce 20 yards backwards. It’s one of the better holes on the course.
Going down the fairway
A look at the green
The Fourteenth is a 330 yard par 4. It’s similar to the Thirteenth because it’s a slight dog leg right, with the fairway cresting, then descending and turning to the right, but it’s much shorter. Big hitters are tempted to go at the green, which is visible from the tee, but there are a slew of bunkers on the right side to exact the proper penalty for any shots that aren’t long enough. The green is on the smaller side, making approach shots more difficult, even though they should be on the shorter side anyways.
Approach shot territory
The Fifteenth is a 511 yard par 5. It is one of my favorite holes on the course. The tee shot is off to the right and the further you get it out there, the more options for the second shot come into play. The creek angles and separates the fairway, and temptation lurks as the green sits uphill and in view from the fairway. A well hit booming second shot can get you close to the green, but water, rough and severe hillside will make anything coming up short a penalty. The fairway also snakes up towards the green and you can decide how much of the creek to take on for a shorter approach shot. It forces you to manage each shot from the green backwards and with the green also well protected, there are a lot of decisions to make here and combined with the right amount of quirk and scenery, is a great hole.
Moving up the fairway
A look at the green from the left fairway
A little further back to see how the fairway snakes around
The green. The tree line in the background is the tee shot landing area
The Sixteenth is a 387 par 4. It felt a little repetitive to the Fourteenth, as it’s a downhill par 4. The fairway is straight and wide though, which is different than the Fourteenth, and the green is tucked a little to the right. Bunkers are along the right side to temper those who try t go straight at the green, while woods are on the left for those trying too hard to angle from that direction for a better look at the green on approach.
Approach shot territory from the left
The Seventeenth is a 171 yard par 3. It’s my favorite par 3 on the course, with a large bunker along the entire right side and what I’ll call a dog leg right green. A fade is the best play here and bunkers on both side of the green collect those over ambitious shots.
A closer look
From the back of the green
The Eighteenth is a 459 yard par 4. Dye has said that 18 is the toughest closing hole he’s designed. I don’t know about that, but it is an enjoyable hole. The tee shot is certainly one of the toughest on the course, as the fairway is on the narrow side, water intrudes substantially on the left, trees and rough are on the right and the fairway cants right to left towards the water. The approach shot needs to be precise, as water is still on the left and anything off to the right is either in a large bunker or pretty big rough, which likely brings the water back into play for any shot mis hit from those areas. My par was felt like a pretty big accomplishment. With the clubhouse looming above you on the right, it was a great finishing hole.
Tee shot at 18; taken the first time I played here
I enjoy the back nine more than the front, as there seems to be a little more character, the par 3’s are better and more facets of your game are challenged. I’d rank them 15, 18, 13, 17, 12, 10, 11, 14, 16.
Generally, Bulle Rock is a nicely designed parkland style course that possesses enough distinct holes and features to stand out from the standard tree lined courses that abound on the east coast. There are some very good par 4’s and 5’s, but the par 3’s are its weak spot. It’s a good example of Dye incorporating his design persona into the surrounding land to produce an enjoyable, challenging course that is surprisingly accessible for all skill levels.
Yet as I mentioned above, the black eye is the poor service. Based on my experience, there is no way I would pay their severe green fee again. God forbid there is bad weather in the area, and who knows in what other ways I would get the short end of the stick if Jerry or other of his ilk decided to wield their power once I shelled out my green fee. It was extremely disappointing.
Gripes: The green fee is excessive, very poor and unfriendly service, and not some where I will return.
Bar/Grill: Nice enough with great food and beer selection. Residents of the housing community seem to flock here, it seems to be crowded most of the time.
Clubhouse: Big and well stocked.
Nearby: I don’t know the area all that well, but it didn’t look promising. The clubhouse seems like the way to go.
Getting there: A few miles off 95 at the Havre de Grace exit.
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