On city's public courses, golf is a good walk foiled

January 23, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Walking a golf course, about four miles, give or take a furlong or two, is one of the true pleasantries of life. The surrounding trees, heavy and light rough and green fairways underfoot offer a temporary escape, a respite, even a retreat, from a too-often hectic world located outside the perimeter of those tantalizing 18 holes.

This is a brief preamble to the fact the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., which establishes policies for the city's public courses, has arbitrarily made it difficult to be a golfing walker. Its ruling is tantamount to duck-hooking a ball out of bounds. Well, almost.

Pulling a golf cart is entirely acceptable at some of the most historic courses in the world, such as St. Andrews, Ballybunion and Lahinch, but not at Pine Ridge, Forest Park, Mount Pleasant or dear old Clifton Park.

The 12-hole layout at Carroll Park draws an exemption from the new ruling. For the most part, it's all in the interest of time, we're being told, and also as a safety precaution that wasn't previously technically available.

The Baltimore organization, which took over the management duties in 1985 and gets an "A" on its report card for producing excellent results, turned the courses from what looked to be outdoor trash heaps, resembling the city dump, into acres of prideful, well-attended, near-immaculate greensward. Eye approval is unanimous.

If only the streets, highways and public squares looked this presentable, Baltimore would be proclaimed the cleanest community in America -- far from it. The golf courses have taken on a clean and orderly look. Inviting. They are no longer serving as disposal areas for discarded soda cans, candy wrappers, cigarette packs, napkins, gin bottles and other refuse.

In excess of $9 million of the profits have been put back into the courses for better pro shops and club houses, driving ranges, cart paths, restrooms and other improvements that make a round of golf as pleasurable as it can be, at least until the final scores are totaled.

Oh, yes, bunkers have soft, deep sand, not water-driven ruts left over from rainstorms. Greens are adequately cared for, and the putting lines won't lie to you.

The only negative development is what's happening to pull carts, or trolleys, as they are called in Ireland, Scotland and England, where they are a part of the landscape.

In Baltimore, they have been ruled off. They are said to be responsible for those using them taking up too much time. Carrying a golf bag can cause back problems, which is why pull carts, for one reason, have become popular.

Admittedly, they don't have a classic look to them, but there are a lot of golf swings that don't add much eye appeal to the surroundings, either. The Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., earlier instituted an edict that the man-powered buggies couldn't be used on weekends. Now that has been extended to include weekdays.

Over in the next neighborly jurisdiction, Baltimore County golf director David Redmond sees no reason to stamp out pull carts.

Is the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., so flushed with its own success that it can make such arbitrary decisions?

"My guess is they want it to look like a country club instead of a public course," says Eric Johnson, a pull cart advocate. "The big drive in golf is to make everything upscale. No quarrel with that, but don't take away or diminish the fun of walking and pulling your own cart."

Johnson has said walking is now "banned" on city-owned courses. That's not entirely accurate. Every group of players, a twosome or foursome, must have a cart or carts. The driver of the cart can alternate with the other player, if he or she wants to walk.

The safety value is explained by Lynnie Cook, executive director, who answers only to Henry Miller, chairman of the group that was placed in charge when William Donald Schaefer was mayor.

Cook says the new-type rental carts can be monitored by a satellite command post from a point in the club house or pro shop. And if an emergency arises, such as a holdup caused by an entanglement of cart traffic or another kind, such as thugs with guns, that what is called the Global Positioning System, attached to every cart, can be used to put in a call for help. This also would apply to golfers suffering heat prostration, heart attacks, strokes or other emergencies.

According to Cook, 70 percent of golfers on the city courses pay for riding carts, and he doesn't believe it's fair for cart pullers to delay play -- if it's true that they do. The hope is that rounds will be completed in 4 hours, 15 minutes maximum. Until the Baltimore golf management team got in stride, the courses were operating at a $500,000 yearly deficit, a drain on the city.

Now, $9 million in capital improvements have been made, another $1.5 million went to a junior activities fund, and $400,000 contributed to a city foundation. None of the greens fees and cart rentals have gone into Baltimore's general operations but have, for the most part, been spent on course improvements, which means the golfers themselves are paying for the enhancements.

Before the cart decision becomes a cause celebre, if it hasn't already, then a move should be made to set aside times for cart pullers. They pay their taxes and greens fees, too.

It's difficult to be critical of the corporation and its work. But this doesn't mean its decisions are always right, as when it attempted to shorten the tee areas at Pine Ridge and now in not wanting to accommodate the cart users.

Let the golfers play, which is the purpose of it all. Forget the fine-tuning.

Too much thinking and over-management takes away from the game. This restricts relaxation, which is one of the dividends golf gives back.

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