Charlie Howard was presiding over the usual slow day at the 18-hole public course that flanks Rock Creek Park at 16th and Rittenhouse streets NW. Unlike a typical suburban course, where a golfer can wait up to three hours to tee off, both the front and back nines were open.

"It's a good little challenging course," Howard said innocently to a golfer who was not familiar with the special nature of these links. Then, as if sensing his understatement, the calm gray-haired man who has played Rock Creek for more than a decade drove the point home: "If you par the course your first time out, we let you play free the rest of your life."

This is not an offer common at golf courses, especially in the Washington area where most public courses are wrought from pastureland that once bored cows. Large fairways have gentle hills, if any hills at all. A duffer who hits the ball as far laterally as he does forward can still salvage par. What is played at public courses in the suburbs can only be called sissy golf.

You can play St. Andrews, that Scottish granddaddy of courses that don't roll over and die, and still not forget Rock Creek.

The back nine at Rock Creek is the Twilight Zone of golf. It is certainly the only public course in the area where a golfer needs as many spare balls as the number of holes. I've played the back nine for the last 10 years. For the last eight I've never kept score.

Ask the knot of 30 old- timers who gather daily at the clubhouse about the course record and you hear about the guy who "had a 27 -- five birdies -- on the front nine." Rock Creek is probably the only 18-hole course in the world where the back nine is not considered in computing the course record.

The basic numbers that describe the back nine make it sound easy: 2,582 yards, par 33. The longest hole is only 400 yards. But those numbers don't say anything about the topography.

The course is on the east slope of the Rock Creek valley just north of Military Road. The bench mark at the corner of Rittenhouse and 16th streets where the course begins reads 206 feet above sea level. The highest point on the course is roughly 290 feet, the lowest point about 170 feet -- both on the back nine. Three north-south ridges intersect two east-west ridges.

Old-timers call the back nine "heart-attack hill." And the hills do worse things to golf balls. Roll becomes uncontrollable, bounce is unpredictable and the terrain always forces the ball toward the nearest patch of woods.

All great golf courses have woods. But at showcases like Augusta National, the woods often have the character of a shady park. All the underbrush is raked away so observers can sit and watch the pros defy nature.

Rock Creek is one of the few courses anywhere that gets mentioned in a hiking book. From the Potomac Trail Book: "The stroller who is awake to nature will find much of interest on the trip through Rock Creek's forest-clad valley. Here, beneath the stately and venerable hardwoods, are sheltered scores of interesting flowers, herbs and orchids, while under leafy canopies, scores of bird visitors may be seen."

Sounds good for hikers, but this is what it means for duffers: on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th holes, any crick in the swing can send the ball crashing into "stately and venerable hardwoods" and when the golfer hikes into the "forest-clad valley" to look for his ball, he will poke through poison ivy, weeds and mounds of leaves that look as if they took refuge in the forest to escape the World War II draft.

If the golfer sees anything white it is never his ball, but a dogwood blossom, bloodroot, periwinkle, tree rot or the old man with the foot-long white beard who supplements his income by finding errant slices.

This is not hyperbole. The last golf course in a nation's capital to go to seed was in Managua, Nicaraga. But that was a fruit of revolution. In Washington, it was nature that almost reclaimed the back nine at Rock Creek. A little history:

The course opened in 1923, and according to George Voigt, a golfer who once gave Bobby Jones fits during the British Amateur at St. Andrews, playing Rock Creek then was quite the thing. Voigt, who died recently, once got a hole-in- one on a par four on the front nine. But the back nine "was very challenging, very hilly. There were some very tough holes. Players always tried to avoid it."

My father, who played the course in the 1940s, had a great excuse for avoiding the back nine. He'd go to the course at 5:30 a.m. When he finished the ninth hole at 8, it was time to go to work.

By the 1970s, so many golfers had given up on the back nine that holes were chopped in half into par threes, whole fairways left to the ravages of time. The theory was that losing your ball in the woods on a par three was somehow better than losing it on a par four. Eventually the greens began to erode. Often, to putt on the back nine was to calculate the ball's roll through crab grass, leached dirt and ruts from the runoff of the last thunderstorm.

Three years ago a firm called Golf Course Specialists restored the back nine to its original form and began to clear away the brush. Now, says Howard, people are coming back to give it a try. The greens are in great shape and management boasts that it has cleared away a lot of the brush. It has, but not enough.

The 12th hole is a 276- yard par four with no dogleg, no water hazard, no traps fronting the green and no trees in the middle of the fairway. If a pro could elude the oaks overhanging the green, he might get an ace. A Sunday golfer's 180-yard drive should set up an easy iron shot and, if the crab grass is tame, a birdie putt.

That's not the way it happened to me one round. I clubbed my drive to the left, deep into the woods. I drove another ball straight, save for a slight tail-end curve to the right. On any sissy course, I'd have been sitting pretty. But on the 12th, my ball skipped into the "forest-clad valley."

I couldn't find my ball, so I stepped out of the poison ivy and dropped another. I was lying four or five (I always forget the rules on the 12th). The green is eye level on the other side of a steep valley. I avoided being short and having to chip up the hill. I avoided going long back into the woods. I shanked the ball to the right. It bounced around a flat oak and trickled down the gully to the right of the green.

You get the idea. And all I had to do was hit it straight.

The dogleg 14th fairway spreads 320 yards down a steep valley. I've lost a dozen golf balls trying to dodge the trees in front of the men's tee; for awhile I hid my face in my collar and hit from the women's tee.

The 390-yard 15th hole curls up a valley with trees lining the fairway like cannons lining the way for the Light Brigade. But the Six Hundred had it easy. They didn't have to come back down through the adjacent valley. From the tee of the 400-yard 16th hole, the trees on the sides of the narrow sloped fairway seem to cross swords. And the women's tee offers no relief.

One hole is easy: the 18th. You can slice or hook or sky or top or push or pull or shank your tee shot and still have a shot to the green and a possible par. Last time out, I reached the 18th after pulling a ball on the 11th. It hit a tree in the forest and came out. I then lost a ball on the 12th. I sliced the ball on the 15th but it hit a tree in the forest and came out. I lost two balls on the 16th. Naturally, on the 18th, where any error is correctable, I hit the straightest, lowest, meanest and longest drive of my not very illustrious career.

All days, whether spent on the back nine or in offices, are meaningless without some sort of challenge. I suppose that if I ever did par the 15th and 16th holes back-to-back, I would give up the game. Or start keeping score again.