Ties to Clifton Park still strong for Vaeth

John Steadman

August 17, 1992|By John Steadman

It's going on seven years since Joe Vaeth closed the books, disposed of inventory in the pro shop with "going out of business" sales and walked off into retirement. But, in reality, he never left. Practically every day continues to start for him at Clifton Park Golf Course.

He hasn't been able to pull himself away. Not that he's there to look over the shoulder of the present professional, Mark Paolini, but the surroundings afford comfort and it's the place where he knows he's going to see friends.

The Vaeth identity at Clifton is so strong that on Aug. 28, a tournament will be held in his honor -- The Joe Vaeth Invitational.

You can be a fellow professional, a scratch player or have a handicap that even the computer can't handle because it's a scramble format. And, happily, the field is filling fast. Vaeth was always a man of the people, kind of a pro for we of the working class, and he's elated over the tribute that's coming his way.

For 26 years, he was at Clifton, which gave him more seniority than his predecessor, Johnny Bass, who was there for 24 years. It became the ideal location to observe the passing scene and to be involved in introducing golfers to what is a grand puzzle of a game.

Bob Herlth, a member of the committee arranging the party for Vaeth, says, "Joe has probably been responsible for starting more golfers in the Baltimore area than any man living today. He'd let you buy on the book system when it came to getting a set of clubs. You could pay on an installment plan. I don't doubt a lot of golfers still owe him money."

PD Clifton has afforded Vaeth, 72, a chance to watch the astounding

growth of golf. And, in making a pertinent point, he draws from personal experience. "I try to play every Wednesday around noon. Even if I call a week ahead, I can't always get a starting time. I remember when I was the pro, you could almost close the shop at 6 o'clock every night. Now golfers are teeing off at that hour. I was at Clifton yesterday and the urge was so strong more than 100 players were out on the course in the rain and slop."

Vaeth believes he knew the best of times for a municipal golf pro. He only had one boss, Doug Tawney, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, and every five years signed a new contract. He didn't have rent to pay but, at the same time, didn't collect a salary either. His income, in the main, came from selling equipment, lesson fees and cart rentals.

In a lifetime of golf involvement, Vaeth, as an amateur and then a professional, has been able to see players of potential come and go. He's still in awe of the ability of Billy Collins, who played the PGA tour successfully, winning tournaments and earning a place on the Ryder Cup team.

"Collins, Otto Greiner and Charley Bassler were the best from Baltimore. I remember saying Bassler had one of the best hand positions at the top you'd ever want to see. Then Bill Strausbaugh, who studies a lot about the swing, said the same. All three, Collins, Greiner and Bassler had beautiful rhythm. That's one quality you find in every good player. Rhythm."

But don't forget the proper grip and stance, he reminds. They are a part of the preswing preparation and, Vaeth insists, "Regardless of how well you swing the club, those two things are vital. You can't do without them and play respectfully.

Clifton Park, an in-city course, began in 1915 on property formerly owned by Johns Hopkins, who had built the present mansion house in 1802.

Vaeth wasn't around then but knows enough about the history of the place to point out for its first 13 years of existence Clifton offered free play. Then a fee of 25 cents per round was instituted.

There also was an unlimited golf ticket, valid for a full year, costing only $10.

Golf and Clifton have come a long way since then. There are watered fairways, a new pro shop and other improved facilities under the jurisdiction of the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., which is in charge of the city's five public courses.

Vaeth, over the years had the opportunity to play friendly rounds of golf with such prominent pros as Gene Sarazen, Ed "Porky" Oliver, "Dutch" Harrison and Lew Worsham. They are included in his special book of memories. Bottom line though, the chance to provide neophyte golfers an entree to golf and watch their progress offered a satisfaction he can't adequately put into words.

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