Golfers savor unique setting of a diamond in the rough

Southwest Baltimore's industrial country club has eclectic members

July 09, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

On the practice green hard by Washington Boulevard, Nick Gardner strokes chip after chip within 3 feet of the hole, his hands steady even as passing tractor-trailers rattle the ground. On the first tee, Carroll Koslowski ignores a loud bang from a distant fairway -- a train? the scrap-metal yard? -- and unleashes his hideously consistent swing. His feet stumble two steps backward, and his ball settles 175 yards away in the right rough.

The golfer, who at 77 still carries his own bag and goes by the nickname Bowser, is pleased anyway. "Let's play 12," he says.

Yes. 12.

After three-quarters of a century, Carroll Park Golf Course has emerged from segregation, neglect and dying neighborhoods to become a green diamond of Southwest Baltimore, an urban curiosity apparently unique in America. Golf courses come in nine and 18 holes. The United States Golf Association says it has no record of a 12-hole layout anywhere else.

For some, that is evidence enough that Carroll Park is holy, that the usual laws of nature do not apply in Pigtown. How else to explain the tree on the fifth hole that bears some of the juiciest apples in Maryland? What earthly reason could there be for all the putts that fall on the ninth, with St. Benedict's Church visible in the distance? And what about the juniper that, the regulars insist, blooms in February?

"Sometimes, I pray for six more holes," says the Rev. Felton Williams, a Carroll Park regular whose sermons at New Second Baptist Church are birdies but whose golf game is pure double bogey. "From Harlem to Jerusalem, from Pennsylvania to California, I have never seen another 12-hole golf course. God has done something different here."

What He has wrought is Baltimore's industrial country club, an $8.50-a-play muni tucked between warehouses, train tracks, and Interstate 95. From the fifth tee, with the old Montgomery Ward building behind the green, a golfer can hit a 7-iron and take in paint and glass factories, the container cranes of Locust Point and the giant chemical plants of the Fairfield peninsula.

Drawing from that vista, Carroll Park takes all kinds: snake-chasing, cigarette-smoking teen-agers, old incurable shop foremen who play through ice and crime scenes, retired cops who cheat on their lies, a Baltimore Colts running back, and Gardner, an old pro who will be inducted this weekend into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in North Carolina.

Country club snobs, not knowing any better, call them hackers. But most Carroll Park regulars play slightly different versions of the same, tough, city-efficient game, turning even the most unconventional of swings into low scores with the steely putts and pitches of those who have steered locomotives, fingered service weapons, or fixed boiler valves.

"I think it's safe to say I'll never see a PGA tour event here, but some of these guys can really play," says Glenn Carpenter, the course superintendent, who is constantly and successfully battling the worms that would devour his 67,000 square feet of bent-grass greens. "This is such an oddball place, and a well-kept secret. You wonder how it got here."

Carroll Park opened 75 years ago this week as a nine-hole course, and quickly became the stepchild of city golf. Clifton Park players tried to banish their beginners there. The condition of the course -- and its sand greens -- suffered. In September 1934, the city declared the course open to "Negroes only."

That led to protests by whites, who were able to restrict blacks' use to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Businessmen like Willie Adams played there regularly -- sometimes joined by visiting celebrities like the boxer Joe Louis -- but many of the most devoted patrons were the caddies, teen-agers from the nearby neighborhood of Mount Winans, like Nick Gardner.

He made 70 cents for nine holes of caddying, enough for a couple of rounds for himself. The oldest of five children, the son of a construction worker, he was a natural ball striker, deadly with a tough pin and a short iron in his hand.

If he'd been born 40 years later, Gardner would have played on the PGA Tour, say those who saw him play. But even after the city integrated its golf courses, Gardner found he couldn't make a living playing golf. Few professional tournaments were open to African-Americans, and a small tour for black pros didn't offer enough money to cover traveling expenses.

In 1958, frustrated, he joined the Army and was sent to Germany. Four years later, he was discharged, and found his way back to Baltimore and Carroll Park. The course was suffering. A Sun story during the 1960s described the course as covered in coal dust, its greens overrun by crab grass, its rough overgrown enough to swallow golf bags whole. The city contemplated paving over much of the nine-hole layout to make way for I-95.

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