The Columbia Association's showcase golf course, Hobbit's Glen, has such serious problems that officials have postponed an annual tournament, asked a turf expert to make an "emergency" visit and suggested in letters of apology sent to members that the course might need to be rebuilt.
Six of the 18 greens are marred by patches of bare dirt, defects that association officials attribute to heavy rain and extreme heat early last month.
After repeated reseedings and coddling with fertilizers and electric fans in the past two weeks, the greens are sprouting back to life, said Robert D. Bellamy, operations director for the association's sport and fitness division.
That might not end recurring problems for the course, which was host of the State Farm Senior Classic for three years until this summer, when the PGA held it at Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley.
"The long-term solution to this problem may be to reconstruct all of the greens over the next few years," Bellamy wrote to members Aug. 16. "This possibility will be carefully explored this fall and, if appropriate, funds will be requested in the next Columbia Association budget."
It costs about $25,000 to rebuild a green, which means $500,000 for the course's 18 holes and two practice greens, said Rob Goldman, the Columbia Association's vice president for sport and fitness.
Goldman expressed hope that a less expensive alternative, such as installing a drainage system recommended by the turf expert, can be found. He said that he did not know how much such a drainage system would cost but that it would be considerably less costly than rebuilding.
The golf club operated at a deficit of $356,000 in the fiscal year that ended April 30.
Golfers can still play the course, although guest fees at the club are being lowered "until the greens are in better condition," Bellamy said.
That has not satisfied golfer Don Wheeler of Columbia, who thinks poor management, not the weather, is to blame.
"If every course around here were having that problem, or even some of them were having that problem, you could buy it," said Wheeler, 70, who because of his age and because he is a longtime member pays about $1,700 a year for a joint membership at Hobbit's and Fairway Hills, the association's other golf course. He is demanding a refund.
The weather has not had the same effect on Fairway Hills, which was completed in 1995. Columbia Association officials say 30-year- old Hobbit's Glen is more vulnerable to such stresses because it was built in a hurry and at a time when golf course construction practices were less sophisticated.
Bellamy said Hobbit's Glen members are being given free playing privileges at Fairway Hills, which is less expensive, easier and not as plush. The Columbia Association charges $1,836 for an annual Hobbit's Glen membership, not including cart rental.
Poor turf on greens makes putting, the most delicate shot, difficult and thus affects scores. In addition, golfers prefer consistent turf from green to green.
A 35-day schedule of September and October tournaments just published by the association will not be affected, head PGA pro Gene Ward said, except for the member-guest event. Originally scheduled for next weekend, it has been postponed until Oct. 12-14.
"It's playable, but it's minimally playable for what we would consider a good golf course, for those six holes," said Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search, a Columbia Council member and golfer.
Two weeks ago, a United States Golf Association turf consultant made what Bellamy's letter described as an "emergency" visit to the course to diagnose its problems and recommend treatment.
The Hobbit's Glen problems stem from what the consultant and association managers agree is historically poor drainage on some holes and grass disease.
Two such diseases - fairy ring, a fungus-caused malady, and summer patch, an ailment described by the consultant as "very expensive and difficult to control" - are in evidence at Hobbit's Glen.
Darin S. Bevard, a staff agronomist for the USGA in West Chester, Pa., examined Hobbit's Glen on Aug. 20. He described the fairy ring on a number of Hobbit's Glen's greens as "the worst case this agronomist has seen." He has a master's degree in his subject and has been on USGA's staff for five years. Before that, he was a course superintendent.
The problem with fairy ring, he said, is that it is caused by "hundreds of fungi ... and sometimes fungicides do not provide complete control."
Bellamy, who agreed to tour the greens with a reporter last week, said the greens on holes 2, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 are "certainly not what we want them to be."
"Two weeks ago, most of the greens out there were in pretty crummy condition, but they're already better," Goldman said. "It was a freak occurrence. We reacted quickly."