Gold-plated golf courses tee off Dearth: A sixth upscale golf course is about to open in an area that many say lack affordable public facilities for average golfers.

July 22, 1998|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Workers are setting up the flags and charging up the golf carts in preparation for Friday's debut of the Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley -- the sixth premium golf course to open in the region in the last 14 months.

Yet even as they await the latest upscale links, golf enthusiasts are debating how best to meet pent-up demand in a sport that these days entices everyone -- from highly-paid chief executives to the lanky teen-ager aspiring to be the next Tiger Woods.

The Baltimore area is one of the most "underholed" in the country, ranking 294 out of 315 metropolitan areas, according to the National Golf Foundation, an organization specializing in golf business information.

Beginning golfers and others who don't want to pay the steep prices at premium courses say the area needs more affordable golfing venues.

More experienced golfers, seeking challenging play, want premium courses but without having to pay the initiation fees -- as much as $25,000 -- and monthly dues of a country club.

Building any golf course in a metropolitan area can be controversial. Witness a developer's thwarted attempt to open an 86-acre golf academy near Loch Raven Reservoir last year. Or the preservationists' five-year legal fight to block converting historic Hayfields farm into a golf club.

"I'm adamantly opposed to any golf courses using prime and productive agricultural soil," said Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican whose northern district includes Hayfields farm. "I question the need for more golf courses."

Local and national experts disagree, however.

"When you are compared with other areas, Baltimore is near the bottom," said Angelo Palermo, a consultant to the National Golf Foundation. The flurry of new courses probably has done little to improve the region's ranking in the number of holes per 100,000 residents, he said.

Although Baltimore County planners are considering zoning changes to restrict where courses can be built, the county's independent Revenue Authority is still looking to add to its five public golf courses, where greens fees range from $15 to $51.

"I think we need at least two more courses," said Robert R. Staab, golf director of the Revenue Authority, which oversees parking facilities and the county's golf courses.

As he shops for more sites, Staab points to an increase in the number of golfers among young people and women, as well as to an aging population with more time to play.

While golf has become increasingly popular for sheer recreation, it's also an important business tool and revenue source, say economic development officials.

The State Farm Senior Classic in Columbia this month pumped $15 million into the local economy, said Richard Story, the Howard County economic development director.

Golf tournaments also are a popular means of raising money for local charities.

And the tales of million-dollar deals sealed on the fairways may be only slightly exaggerated.

Robert Hannon, Baltimore County's economic development director, recalls a helpful golf outing at the exclusive Caves Valley Country Club. The match, between County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the chief executive officer of Sweetheart Cup, was credited with helping clinch a deal for the company's 1996 expansion in the county.

Although golf's role in economic development usually is not so tangible, business leaders say it is imperative to have good golf courses in the region to woo prospective clients, evaluate potential employees and entertain executives contemplating a move here.

"It doesn't come up as a singular issue," said Mary Burkholder, assistant secretary for marketing in the state Department of Business and Economic Development. "But it is a quality of life issue. It's on the top of the list of amenities."

Executives say they develop better relationships with partners, employees, clients and business prospects. "If I take out a prospective client to golf and they cheat, I don't want to do business with them," said Shirley Collier, president of Paragon Computer Services Inc. of Ellicott City.

But business relationships are not nurtured solely at private country clubs as they once were. These days, because of development costs and changes in executive lifestyles, the trend is to prefer a premium public golf course, with hefty greens fees, over a private country club, with an initiation fee and monthly dues.

"When you have a severely underserved market and a market where there tends to be transient people who live there for short period of time, a lot of those people don't want to be associated with a club," said Palermo, the consultant to the National Golf Foundation.

Baltimore County's new Woodlands course, which charges $51 a round on weekends, is one such facility. So is Bulle Rock in Harford County, which charges $126 a round.

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