Golf's dawn patrol seeks early birdies

Pastime: On Baltimore's municipal courses, thousands of `dew sweepers' start off their day with a quick nine holes before they go to work.

May 01, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

There are other ways to enjoy the dawn. Sleeping in. Breakfast in bed. The morning news. Playing with the kids.

But for two friends who regularly play nine holes at Clifton Park against the pastel backdrop of sunrise, only golf will do.

"I like being the first one out here," says Dennis Koulatsos, 37.

"Golf without a lot of interruptions, that's what I'm here for," says Norman Dowdy, 53.

Koulatsos and Dowdy, colleagues at a Belair Road car dealership, are "dew sweepers," members of a swelling number of local golfers who squeeze the game into their before-work routine.

A decade ago, about 5,000 golfers woke before dawn to play on Baltimore's municipal courses, often in the dark, usually before the grass was cut. Last year, course officials said, twice as many played the back nine holes early enough to shower, grab breakfast and get to work on time.

"Some people go to the gym to exercise, and we've got golfers who want to play nine holes," says Lennie Cook, executive director of Baltimore Municipal Golf Corp., the private, nonprofit company that oversees Clifton Park, three other 18-hole, city-owned courses at Forest Park, Mount Pleasant and Pine Ridge, and the 12-hole Carroll Park golf course.

The corporation recognized a need for earlier playing time in 1988. That year, when city courses began opening the back nine holes (10 through 18) to early risers, 1,429 golfers took notice. The next year, twice as many teed off early for a quick nine holes. In 1990, the numbers doubled again, to 5,611 golfers. Over the past three years, the number has leveled off at an average of 10,615 each year.

Cook thinks the idea has caught on because it is practical.

On workdays for the past four years, Koulatsos and Dowdy have been among those whose first putts remain etched on the dewy green until the rising sun evaporates the moisture. They pull into the dark parking lot at Clifton Park Municipal Golf Course, mindless of snow or rain, numbing heat or humidity, allergies or inconvenience. With dawn and work hours away, they swing.

"Nice shot, Dennis," Dowdy says, whistling, as Koulatsos sends the ball soaring toward the 10th hole. It misses the rough by inches. Dowdy drops the ball into the cup on his third stroke, making par.

As he watches, Koulatsos says, "He could be on the senior tour."

"I don't know about all that," Dowdy responds.

Ritual keeps them coming back: the compliments, the company, the greens, the game.

This morning, the air smells sweetly of cut grass and clover. Jays twitter, and dew hangs on the putting greens like sweat. A single set of spikeless shoe prints, left by a mechanic who finished nine holes in an hour, marks a neat 20-foot putt to the 13th hole.

"Isn't this nice?" Koulatsos says as he surveys the undulating grass-covered mounds, back-lighted by dawn's first pink light. "You've got the birds chirping and the nice light and the little breeze. I just happen to be playing golf while enjoying nature."

Early-morning golf is nothing new. Retirees and others unconstrained by 9-to-5 jobs have long preferred beginning their 18-hole play at dawn to avoid crowded greens, waits at the tee box, higher fees and the afternoon's higher temperatures.

Sunrise dictates first tee

First tee is set weekly in relation to sunrise. On this clear morning, dew sweepers can begin as early as 6:14 a.m. Ten dollars buys the game, not much more than half the usual $17 cost of 18 holes of golf.

A typical 18-hole weekend round takes about five hours. On this morning, Koulatsos and Dowdy finish their nine holes in 78 minutes, leaving time for Dowdy, the top salesman at Al Packer Lincoln Mercury Jeep, to get a haircut nearby, slip home to White Marsh for a shower and arrive at work before 9:15.

Koulatsos, general sales manager at the dealership, savors a Western omelet and a cup of coffee at the course's 19th Hole cafe before showering, donning fresh clothes and heading south for an auto auction. He can barely inhale a lungful of air, despite five allergy medications.

"Sure, I can't smell a thing," he says. "I've got Nonase, Claritin, everything. But I get my fix this way. I love this game."

`It is popular'

The idea hasn't caught on at many public golf courses around the country, said Jeff Bolig, spokesman for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.

Santa Teresa Municipal Golf Course in suburban San Jose, Calif., is one of the relatively few that offer their back nines for early golf.

"It's not real prevalent," says golf pro Terry Sullivan, "but it is popular."

"Most of them are looking to get out and play the faster round," he says. Early golfers in San Jose and Baltimore do have to yield to maintenance workers riding lawn mowers - and to course locals, such as the occasional deer, rabbits and squirrels.

The rewards outweigh the inconveniences, says Dowdy.

"I do it to keep my game sharp," he says. He finishes with a 36, two over par. His last shot, an open-faced lob from the rough at 15 yards out hops a knoll, misses the sand trap and lands steps from the cup.

Koulatsos ends 11 over par, his usual score, and he's pleased. "We're having so much fun before work, it almost makes you feel guilty," he says.

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