Innovator driven to succeed

Pioneer: The founder of a Howard driving range is credited with significant advances in his field.

Howard At Play

May 05, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

That junk car with its painted bulls-eye - if you've driven U.S. 29 from Washington, it's a safe bet you've noticed it out in the middle of a golf driving range just into Howard County, north of Rocky Gorge Reservoir.

About 150 yards from an arc of double-decker tees, that junker is marketing gimmick and teaching tool.

For as Gus Novotny, Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway's founder and majority owner, has taught literally thousands of beginners since the mid-1960s, golf is a game of trying to hit a target with a small, dimpled ball. So it's good - if you really meant it - to hit that car.

Customers plunk it often enough that a fender occasionally falls off, said Carol Wolfe, Rocky Gorge's general manager. Every two years or so, a replacement is towed in, with a couple donated by customers, said Wolfe, youngest of five Novotny sons and daughters, four in the business.

From 59 tees (27 covered), golfers young and old, beginners and 2-handicappers, male and female, will hit 102,000 golf balls over and over and over and over - who can even calculate the swings? - this year alone. And they've been swinging, dubbing, whiffing, slicing and duck-hooking from morning into late evening for 38 years.

Since 1981, baseball and softball customers have been able to perfect their swings in a dozen batting cages that, unlike those of many competitors, allow batters to hit to an open field with dead-center 300 feet away.

At 64, Novotny is semiretired. He commutes maybe monthly to Howard County from frequent rounds of golf in Palm Beach County, Fla., now that he has time to actually play the sport. Novotny, however, is regarded by peers as one of the driving-range business's pioneers.

He started in golf as a kid shagging practice balls at Northeast Baltimore's Mount Pleasant municipal course. The pro at the time, the late Irv Schloss, whom Novotny calls friend and mentor, eventually suggested to him that such a commercial range could make its owner a good living.

Many of Novotny's ideas at Rocky Gorge are now common at driving ranges around the world. See the industrial-type garage doors behind much of the driving range, which are raised in nice weather but kept down in gusty or wet weather? Novotny's customer-comfort innovation.

See the synthetic-turf hitting surface at each tee? Novotny was first to use them because of a friendship and business deal with golf innovator Clem Wittek. Plunk in a quarter for some heat in cold weather? Novotny's idea. Hit new balls? Seems logical, but in 1964, practice ranges at country clubs used only worn balls. Novotny bet new ones would go over big, and he was right, which is why each year, Rocky Gorge buys 8,500 dozen new balls, as well as 500 dozen baseballs and 600 dozen softballs.

A little secret: Rocky Gorge's used balls are sold to other driving ranges, even to some country clubs.

Think you can stick lights anyplace? Place them wrong, and golfers can't follow the white ball in the glare - but nights are big money-makers in the range business. Novotny helped General Electric calculate optimal distances and heights for lights. He even helped write a manual on the subject.

Most recently, Novotny has been credited with helping automate batting cages. Rocky Gorge's balls are sorted, washed, dried and distributed to a dozen pitching machines by devices inspired by grapefruit-processing equipment.

His business started in 1964 in the middle of nowhere, between Laurel and Fulton off then two-lane U.S. 29. With $1,000, he opened the golf range on a corner of farmland that partner Fran Robinson still owns. She is a now-retired federal employee and former real estate agent whose stepson occupies the farmhouse next door. Her family and the Novotny clan have spent endless hours helping build the sports business into what it is today.

What that is, is a year-round venue (closed only on Christmas and in extremely bad winter weather) that Sports Illustrated ranked a few years ago as one of America's 10 best driving ranges. One that on about 11 acres draws roughly 200,000 customers a year to hit golf balls for distance and accuracy, or to play 19 holes of miniature golf on a course Novotny designed, or to perfect baseball and softball swings with machine-flung balls hurtling homeward as fast as 70 mph.

You can learn or refine your golf skills in relative solitude, save for U.S. 29's traffic and the ceaseless clink and thwack of balls being hit at targets ranging from a few yards away to more than 250.

You can take group or individual lessons from four teachers - Steve Novotny, Chuck Scully, Joseph Chung, and Nancy Row. Chung is one of the nation's few Korean-born pros but Rocky Gorge's second, helping cater for two decades to a sizable Korean and other Asian clientele. Row, a part-timer who started at Rocky Gorge this spring, is the first female pro.

Novotny remains a talker, a people person of first order, usually wearing a bowler hat. He likens the golf-range business to a hospital, for example. Listen to what he's told many, including a golf-range trade magazine just two years ago:

"A golf range is like a hospital," he said. "Golfers are born there, and sick golfers come there. The pro is the doctor. No one goes when his swing is healthy.

"As long as you give them a good ball, a good place to hit, good lighting at night, a friendly atmosphere, make them comfortable while staying at your hospital, they'll feel a little cured.

"But they're not cured, because no one is ever cured in golf."

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