Gallant Hillendale chips back from its shot of adversity

John Steadman

August 23, 1993|By John Steadman

Fire, as it did to the mythical phoenix, has reduced the Hillendale Country Club, in Phoenix, to ashes. The reality is that the clubhouse is a shell -- burned-out timbers, twisted steel and blackened brick walls standing grotesquely in dark contrast to the pleasurable moments of innumerable yesterdays.

Hillendale, chartered in 1923 just north of the city line, moved to its location beyond the Loch Raven watershed in 1954. It's a facility in the rolling terrain of Baltimore County that has 615 members and is where Bill Clarke, professional emeritus, emerged to become national PGA president and establish a reputation as one of America's foremost authorities on the rules of golf.

Clarke and his successor, club pro Allen Wronowski, were observing the damage, answering questions and describing how it looked on Friday night to look into the heavens and watch Hillendale go up in flames as firefighters pumped water from the swimming pool and two golf course lakes in a desperate effort to control the intensity of the fire.

Hillendale, before the embers even lost their glow, was making plans for a new tomorrow. And, why not? It's the "old Hillendale spirit" again asserting itself. "No doubt," said Clarke, "the replacement will be bigger and more functional."

Clarke and Wronowski realize the losses in golf equipment could have been extensive -- more than 500 sets of clubs, plus pro shop inventory -- except that Hillendale was involved in a $3 million expansion program. The new cart shop is intact, since it's apart from the main building, but what was to be spacious headquarters for the pro staff suffered damage.

Now the Hillendale effort will go back to the drawing board and, no doubt, become a state-of-the-art undertaking -- a momentous plus for all concerned -- with perhaps a colonial clubhouse comparable to the extraordinary example at Rolling Road Country Club.

Where the golfers of Hillendale got lucky, despite the misfortune, is that the pro shop and golf club storage shed had been moved to two trailers that were not involved in the disaster, as a favorable wind took the fire in the opposite direction.

As for a definitive total of the losses and how much coverage the insurance policies provide, general manager Chet Beatty said he had been advised by attorneys that such a matter couldn't be discussed until investigators had completed their studies of the fire scene.

Standing outside the wire fence, erected for security and safety, a smiling Walter Engle, a longtime Hillendale member, held out two relics he had recovered. Both were putter heads once used by Bob Jones, not the Grand Slam Bobby Jones but a proficient club champion, and the late professional Charley Betschler.

The two wooden shafts had been destroyed, but Engle had the Kroydon-made Jones and the Betschler putter head, the exact make obscured by the blackness of fire, except to read "Made in England." Both will be restored to a place of honor when the new building goes up.

It hasn't been an easy year for Hillendale. First a combination of conditions, the summer heat, drainage and possibly some unknown environmental influences, created a loss of all 18 greens. Hillendale took a beating. Call it "rub of the green," except there wasn't one to rub.

Just two years ago, visitors were calling it the best-groomed course in the Baltimore area. Now temporary greens are being used. Fifteen outside groups scheduled to play there in early fall had earlier been notified they couldn't be accommodated.

"Many other clubs have been super-sensitive to our golfing needs," said Wronowski. "They responded to our emergency and are acting like the good neighbors they are. I know if the tables had been reversed, the Hillendale officers would have extended a similar helping hand. We are grateful for this show of respect and kindness in our time of need."

The clubs that have extended playing privileges to Hillendale members during the crisis include Towson Golf & CC, Woodholme, Hunt Valley, Chestnut Ridge, Wakefield Valley in Westminster, Country Club of Maryland, Rolling Road, Maryland Golf & CC, in Bel Air, and even Cumberland CC, 160 miles away.

It's hoped Hillendale will be back in full stride for next season -- with luxurious greens and a replacement clubhouse made possible by a phoenix that aptly came to a place called Phoenix with a tongue of fire that lit up the summer sky.

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