When River Hill senior Justin Fabling tees it up today at The Timbers at Troy Golf Club in the 18-hole Howard County golf championship, he'll be defending the title he won last October.

But this year's championship is different. This time golf is a varsity sport again.

Funds were cut in the 1993-94 school budget, and golf dropped to club status. With golf's restored varsity status, a victory for the 17-year old California native, who has called Maryland home for the past three years, would be extra special.

"It would be great, a nice confidence booster," said Fabling, whose soft-spoken and humble demeanor was evident in his next sentence. "The number one goal, though, is for the team overall. It's a team sport now. In the [junior] tournaments over the summer, it's about myself, but [today] it would be great to say 'River Hill won it.'

"As a team, we're not just looking at counties, we're looking to states, and if good individual things come with that, then that's just a bonus."

Fabling has played No. 1 for the Hawks this season, and River Hill was undefeated in 10 matches through Monday. His nine-hole scores have ranged from even par (which he shot at Willow Spring) to 6 over. He shot 2 over last week against Howard at Hobbit's Glen. The county uses a Stableford scoring system, awarding points for pars (3), birdies (4) and bogeys (2); Fabling is averaging about 23 points per match.

"It's definitely my goal to win [the county championship] -- one I set for myself," said Fabling, the 2004 all-county player of the year. "Pressure? I don't really see it. I'm going to go out and play my game. There are some really good golfers playing." Mount Hebron's Kyoo Hwang, Oakland Mills' Donnie Shin (who scored a county-best 31 points last month), Centennial's Chris Wellde, and the Glenelg pair of Andrew Gotschall and Matt Phile are also among the favorites at today's match.

In last fall's championship, Fabling, Wellde, Gotschall and Hwang were tied after 18 holes played in the rain over two days at Turf Valley. The quartet came back a third day for the playoff, won by Fabling.

The 6-foot-3, 150-pound senior, who works at Hobbitt's Glen and considers it his home course, hadn't played Timbers at Troy in about a year. So on Friday, Hawks Coach Matt Graves had his players on the course for a practice round.

"I'm just looking how the course is laid out," Fabling said, walking the front nine with Graves and freshman teammate Patrick Bindle. "What's best to hit off the tee to give me the best opportunity to make a good score."

Graves, who played golf at Wesley College in Dover, Del., in the early 1990s and then coached at Lynchburg College in Virginia, is in his first year coaching River Hill (He's also the Hawks' basketball coach.). As they played, Graves gave Fabling tips for today's match -- including preparing for a different feel from the mid-70 degree temperatures of Friday.

"You're teeing off at 8 in the morning; it's going to be cold," Graves told Fabling. "The conditions are perfect now but probably won't be then."

The River Hill coach praised his top player -- not only for his golf but for his attitude.

"His mental approach to the game is great," Graves said. "He's taking a snapshot of every hole. He looks at the game a lot different than other golfers do.

"If he's had a bad round, he'll say, 'Coach, I need a bucket of balls.' He's a role model for the game. I wish I could have six others like him."

After graduation, Fabling plans to major in golf management in college. To that end, he has an internship at Hobbit's Glen, where he is learning about golf course maintenance. And there is the competition, which he hopes continues.

"Playing college golf is something I would like to do," he said. "My game is not where I'd like it to be to compete Division 1 or Division 2, but it's something I'm working toward. If I can keep up this pace [of improvement], I think I'll get there soon."

River Hill senior Justin Fabling won last year's county championship.