It is an intriguing question – how does one improve on greatness?
Ponder that for a moment.
Heck if you have already received recognition and respect you obviously want to maintain that level of greatness and so work a little harder to find areas where you might improve.
For a golf course, it’s a never-ending battle with Mother Nature to maintain a level of greatness. But improve?
Bulle Rock Golf Club, the Pete Dye masterpiece located just off Interstate 95 in northeast Maryland, has been recognized with the respect of players and golf enthusiasts since being unveiled in 1998.
You want chops? The LPGA played five major championships between 2005 and 2009 and saw an impressive list of Hall of Fame caliber champions such as Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak hoist the trophy. Other winners included Anna Nordqvist, Yani Tseng and Suzann Pettersen. Numerous state and regional competitions have been held there, to say nothing about USGA qualifying for national championships.
A 148 slope on its course rating tells a story about its difficulty, and numerous plaudits have been given by players of all abilities on the venue itself as another chapter of its own. Bulle Rock is a special place.
For 20 plus years Golfweek magazine has recognized Bulle Rock as one of the best modern courses in United States. It also has the layout as number one course “you can play” in the State of Maryland.
After her win Pak said through a translator, “What a win! And over such an outstanding golf course. It was a major challenge for the players, as a major championship should be. I am thrilled to have won. This golf course is an intense challenge.”
No doubt Bulle Rock has the credentials to beckon daily fee players throughout the East Coast, whether for a day trip or a stop on the way to destinations such as Ocean City, Md., Williamsburg, Va., Pinehurst, NC or Myrtle Beach, SC. It’s an easy stop along the way, one which will have you talking about the facility during the rest of your trip.
But improve as a golf course? You bet!
One guy who knows is Operations Director Damon Klepczynski, PGA, who was brought on board a while back to do just that as the club was placed on the sale market. You see, through all the plaudits and the greatness Bulle Rock was not a --- well --- profitable facility.
Its green’s fees were high, as in above $125, and many players extolled its virtues but couldn’t find a way to play more than one or two rounds a year. It’s a difficult layout, and up to six hours was needed to truly play the course as its course rating indicates.
In many respects, Bulle Rock epitomized Lee Trevino’s views of the state of the game. “Golf is too expensive, it takes to long to play, and it is just plain hard!” the Merry Mex told me few years back.
That about described Bulle Rock to the casual observer. Klepczynski addressed that statement and more when he arrived at the facility.
“Basically, I spoke with our customers. What did they love about Bulle Rock, what they didn’t like? How could we improve the overall golf experience? We knew we had a demanding course, a classical layout, but we knew we needed to improve the bottom line,” said the native of Bucks County, Pa. “Nothing was sacred, we considered everything.”
It was clear to Klepczynski that upending the applecart was important. No idea was too small or large. He drew from the yield management playbook, he talked to customers, he looked at the entire operation and broke things down in increments. He realized he could turn things around and still maintain the course’s prestige.
First off, the golf course is legendary, one of Dye’s best works and that is saying something. But for most players it was over the top penal. A slightly offline shot found its way, many times, in tall fescue grass that was hard to hit from if findable at all.
“We addressed this my taking down the historical fescue on 13 holes, providing for challenge and difficulty with less lost golf balls,” explained Klepczynski. “That enhancement alone cut about 45 minutes out without severely impacting the natural general difficulty.”
The players loved the revision, it made a world of difference. An errant shot was penalized by the rough, but it didn’t necessarily lead to a lost ball.
Another revision was to add a fifth set of tees giving visitors an option to play the right distance for their game. Additionally, there is a separate set of youth tees to enhance the experience for all levels of player.
Small enhancements to the bunkering were completed, sodding a couple of what started as more than 140 bunkers on the site. This eliminated a couple, say, dreaded 60-yard bunker shots and enhanced playability and cut a couple minutes from what was a marathon.
The club owner, MTBR LLC, has had the club on the sale market for a bit, and while there has been lots of interest at this writing there is no deal complete. Under Klepczynski’s oversight the financials have improved as rounds are up as is the club’s food and beverage revenue stream.
Daily fees were refreshingly lowered, and more players came…more than once or twice. Course enhancements reduced the amount of time to play, and the restaurant business was buoyed by a new golfer friendly menu and addition of numerous TV screens to allow viewing of golf and other sports while enjoying a beverage or meal.
Also introduced were up to 100 golf memberships to attract more play from the local community, something that was absent in prior years.
“We created a little bit of buzz,” laughed Klepczynski. “All of these things have been well received, and all we have to look at is the increase in business as an indicator of success. The momentum meter moved in the right direction.”
Heck, some even believe the facility will be in the green for the year!
Dye carved Bulle Rock over acres of rolling terrain in Harve de Grace near the junction of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay. Its signature hole is, well, all of them. Each hole stands on its own as a unique test, with obstacles to snare errant shots and pristine greens that tantalize.
The tests are endless. The par-5 second, a 489-yard rolls downhill with trees to the left and OB to the right, is a classic Northeast hole. The green is well protected, slightly uphill from the fairway, making club selection imperative. The hole stretches out to 572-yards for the long knockers. Of course, diabolical Dye worked his magic around a stream less than 100 yards from the green that acts as a magnet. Beware!
Dye offers a respite in the par-3 third hole (116 to 177 yards) so a player must take advantage and score before the next two demanding par-4s. That’s the beauty of a Pete Dye design, as all the holes have difficulty and uniqueness, but some are just plain angry bears.
Trademark railroad ties are woven into the design, but not overbearing. Bunkers are strategically placed and seem to jump out to bite at the most inopportune times. Dye’s creations seem to lull into a sense of security at times, but clearly force the player to take their medicine when required.
The par-3 12th hole (138-190 yards) requires evading of a lake all along the right side. The green protrudes into the lake so shots short, right or even a bit long can easily find a watery grave. Bunkers guard the left to force players to pick their poison.
The closing hole, the par-4, 377-yard (485 from the back tees) 18th, is a test that brings fear to the heart and swing of every golfer. Water blankets the left side of the hole, a hill on the right, while the pin position on the green allows for multiple opportunities that can cause a couple club difference for the player. Many a match is settled right there below the clubhouse.
“It is an exciting hole,” explained Klepczynski. “So many variables, so many nuances, it promotes strategic play.”
Today Bulle Rock continues as a challenging “must play” course, one that is not only difficult but playable and surely memorable. And the public agrees with its wallet, as rounds played increase by more than 1,000. The small membership base provides some financial stability and the buzz from visitors gets around and leads to more play.
Clearly Klepczynski and his team did the things that the public liked, as the guest comments sung praises.
Players find their challenging rounds more enjoyable. Tough, but fair. And they spend more time in the tavern after their round, as they don’t have to quickly leave after what was a 6 hour march.
Clearly, the club is well on the way toward providing a better experience and better value, something that is providing a nice shot in the arm improving an already great test of golf and overall free-standing golf experience.
All was accomplished without upending the designer’s approach. As the legendary Pete Dye said, “I did not undo God’s work.”