FRAYED CARPETS, bus station bathrooms, unraked sand traps and casual service add up to double bogeys for Hobbits Glen, Columbia's best.
Luckily, the splendid course compensates for the dowdy clubhouse and the occasionally indifferent staff.
That said, the current operation seems to be good enough for otherwise demanding and discriminating consumers.
The condition of Hobbits Glen is symbolic of life in Columbia: It's not very professional, showing its age, but seems impervious to change.
The motto of its members might be: What're ya gonna do?
Some will say that Hobbits isn't really a business. That's appropriate, maybe, in a city that's not really a city. Think of it as a theme park for housing developments?
As a golfing venue, Hobbits is a different breed of cat. It's an amenity, something offered as is, proffered by the town fathers on a take- it or leave-it basis. Lots of people take it.
It's part of a package deal subscribed to by Columbia residents and corporate interlopers. Traditionally, it loses money. But how? It gets a ton of play. Win or lose financially, it gets bailed out by Columbia Association lien payers.
Par for the course in Columbia, where subsidies make the recreational world go round. Deficits worry some and greens fees are occasionally increased, but nothing much is done to improve management.
Once a Columbia Association employee, it is said, always one. You don't have to worry about performance evaluations.
Like Hobbits, Columbia's a lovely place. It offers a lot of what we want in a community: plenty of flowering shrubs in the spring; usually safe bike and jogging trails; a splendid mall; an equestrian center; lots of pools; acupuncture clinics; great community spirit.
And golf: two courses, the better of which is Hobbits by far. It's a tarnished gem, though, not nearly what it could or should be. A little like the Columbia Council, which has smart and courageous people (Barbara Russell, Vince Marando and Cecelia Januszkiewicz) and a structure that defeats the concepts of democracy and good government. Everybody talks about it. But ... what're you going to do?
The golf courses may well be an expression of life in Columbia's middle years. People think they should be doing better, but no one seems to find what improvement would take.
So you get a staff that can seem, putting it charitably, a bit distracted. The nice blonde lady in the pro shop meets and greets people and tries to accommodate them - as if they were actual customers.
The rest of the group can tend to get lost in its individual or collective reveries.
Just about what you'd expect to see, one golf-loving executive said recently, when you have a captive audience. The management, he shrugs, is just as good as it needs to be to avoid outright embarrassment.
It's been like that for years, says this highly successful businessman who'd never tolerate such a performance at any of his stores - couldn't survive if he did. But here, a question about the management doesn't arise in his mind. It's what he expects.
And, he predicted, it's only going to get worse. The course lost its senior professional tournament last year and, honestly, you have to wonder how the tour ever stayed as long as it did. These professionals are used to being pampered: Columbia must have been their annual purgatory.
But the tournament was good for the locals. With the pressure to look good for a week or so gone now, the businessman was saying, the place could begin to sag.
And don't look for the players to circulate any petitions.
At Hobbits Glen the consumer seems to feel he or she has no choice. It's the way you might have felt about the community center at a company town: You're grateful the boss came up with something to keep the kids off the street. The alternative is not something better. It's nothing.
Hobbits drifts along on the strength of its wonderful geography. And here's what's striking. If you play at any of the courses run now by the Baltimore Golf Corporation you can play for half the price.
One example: On a week-day at Hobbits, the fee is $18 for nine holes, no cart. At Mount Pleasant, the fee (recently increased)is $19 for 18 holes with a cart on a weekend. The weekend 18-hole rate at Hobbits is over $50.
At Mount Pleasant the carts are equipped with satellite systems that show the player how far he or she is from the green. Not necessary. A little over-teched, maybe. But here's the point: Somebody's thinking. Somebody's trying to make things better.
When the players don't like something there they can sometimes get change.
Not always so in Columbia, which may imagine Baltimore to be largely incapable of running anything well. There's irony there, of course. Why wouldn't the Columbia Association send a delegation to Baltimore to find out how they do it?
If it wants one, Columbia deserves a functioning council. It deserves an electoral system that allows each voting-age person to vote. It deserves open meetings. It deserves a well-kept golf course run by attentive personnel who recognize that the patrons are paying their salaries. Most of the workers at Hobbits, no doubt, realize that fact fully.
Columbians could have better if they demanded it. But if they aren't willing to demand . . . what're you going to do?