Guarding the Rock By Drew Markol
He remembers it like it was yesterday. The pomp and circumstance of opening day. The pageantry of cutting the ribbon on a new public course destined for greatness. Except it wasn’t like that at all.
“We just kind of opened up the course, and there was no fanfare,” says Rick Rounsaville, who has been at the helm at Bulle Rock since before construction was finished. “It was exciting, and we knew we had something really good, but it wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t much talk about it beforehand.”
That was in late March of 1998 when the public course debuted. But it wasn’t until two months later when Rounsaville and Bulle Rock invited the media to see Pete Dye’s big-time layout in little Havre de Grace, Maryland, that the true magic of Bulle Rock was unleashed. Word spread quickly.
“Pete Dye was here and he showed the press the course and answered questions,” Rounsaville says. “Then stories were written in the Philly and Baltimore newspapers about Bulle Rock and our phones lit up like Christmas trees. That kick-started everything and got it all going.”
Rounsaville, 60, figured that would be the case considering his familiarity with Dye and with what Dye had done on the 230-plus acres.
“I had spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic with the Pete Dye courses he’d built (at Caso de Campo) and they’re great,” says Rounsaville. “Then I was contacted by the then owners here in November of 1996 and my interest was piqued because they had hired Pete Dye. I’ll never forget what the original owner, Ed Abel, said. He said that a lot of people say they’re going to build a championship golf course. I’m really going to do it.”
Rounsaville was hired in March of 1997, a year before the opening, as the general manager and director of golf.
“A couple of holes had been sodded and watching it progress through the summer of 1997, you could see that it was going to be special,” Rounsaville says.
Already, Bulle Rock has hosted the LPGA Championship (2005 through 2009) and the 2002 Maryland Open. The course appears on almost every list of the nation’s best public courses.
Many consider the layout to be worthy of hosting a men’s major championship, and if the USGA or PGA of America came calling, Bulle Rock would listen.
“Are we actively seeking a major tournament? No,” Rounsaville says. “But we’d certainly be open to it. This course was built with the hopes of hosting a major and there is no doubt in my mind that we could do it.”
Dye never makes his courses easy. Play Bulle Rock from the back tees and the slope is a punishing 147. Seven of the holes feature water and the rough, not as punishing as in the past, is still not a good place to be.
“I tell anyone that you have to choose the right tees,” Rounsaville says. “If you try and go back you’re asking for trouble. Every set of tees offers a really strong challenge. The comments I get from golfers are wonderful. This golf course is tough, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s fair. There are no forced carries off the tee and everything is right in front of you.”
Bulle Rock was one of the first to champion the “private club-for-a-day” model. In other words, the golfer gets first-class treatment from start to finish and drives home without worrying about dues, assessments or food minimums.
“The directive I’ve always given to the staff from Day One was to treat every golfer like if you paid $130 (Bulle Rock’s top greens fee) for a round of golf,” Rounsaville says. “We try not to have the golfer touch his or her bag from the time they arrive until it’s back in their trunk. Our facilities are top-notch with a locker room attendant on staff, the personalized bag tag, a great restaurant with a great chef.
“And we’ve established a VIP Player Rewards Program with four levels that makes coming here more affordable. There’s just a lot to offer.”
Rounsaville, not surprisingly, has received offers from other clubs looking to hire him, but having helped establish Bulle Rock from its infancy, the attachment he feels to the place feeds his loyalty.
“I don’t get too many chances to play the course, and the free time I do have I usually spend giving lessons, but what I love to do is get on a cart and ride the course backwards.
“When you look back at the holes from green to tee, you can really see what a wonderful job Pete Dye did here. It reminds me of the times I’ve played Pine Valley, just looking back at the holes and shaking my head. I don’t ever get tired of doing that at Bulle Rock. This is just a great place.”