Taking a swing at retirement

PGA: After 36 years as a pro golfer in Howard County, Gene Ward is calling it quits.

Howard At Play

October 19, 2003|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

He's shaken legend Lee Trevino's hand, remembers the late John Denver fondly, enjoyed Willie Nelson's multiple visits and found zany rocker Alice Cooper to be "a real down-to-earth person" - all while at work at Hobbit's Glen Golf Course in Columbia.

But get Gene Ward talking about those and other nice times during his 36 years as a professional golfer in Howard County, and his opinion of the very best time is this:

"It was raising my daughters while I was at Allview," he said, referring to the years he, Diana and Susan lived in the ancient clubhouse of the tough, old course that development devoured and regurgitated as today's Fairway Hills Golf Course. "I fixed up the third floor as an apartment for us."

Susan, who went to McDonogh, now lives in Los Angeles, where she is a producer on the Emmy Award-winning TV cartoon series Rugrats. Diana, a Wilde Lake High alumna, is a housewife in Toms River, N.J. And dad's career is quickly, if somewhat uncertainly, turning now into retirement, at age 72.

"The time has gone so fast," Ward said last week in a room overlooking the practice green being renovated at Hobbit's Glen, where he has presided as PGA pro for 19 years. He also spent 17 years at Allview. "I look back, and it seems like it happened overnight."

His tenure in Howard County spans visits by a number of celebrities in town to perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion, as well as a veritable sea change in the game of golf.

He began just out of Gettysburg College when woods - clubs used to slam the ball as far as you can - were really made of wood, not exotic metals and alloys. Irons - always metal clubs many say are the ones you really use to score with - were a lot less forgiving then than those made today.

Those who govern golf need to rein in technology, though, Ward said. "All of the changes in clubs and balls is good. It's normal evolution, but only up to a point. Distance isn't everything in golf."

Still, many courses are longer today, and there are lots more of them. That has changed golf as a business, too, making it more competitive than it once was, particularly in Maryland, he said.

Ward's retirement coincides with Hobbit's Glen being shuttered about nine months for $679,000 worth of refurbishment, which was brought about in a noisy tug-of-wills between some club members, management and directors of the Columbia Park and Recreation Association, which owns Hobbit's and Fairway Hills.

Ward said he is not unhappy about retiring now, explaining: "Thank God, no more meetings, and no more paperwork."

Besides, renovation "was really needed," said Ward, adding that work done just since August to rebuild most of the course's greens has revealed that many were never built correctly to begin with.

That, combined with the wear and tear of 30 years of heavy play and a couple of recent summers of severe drought, made Hobbit's well-publicized shortcomings painfully obvious, to the point of some members leaving.

"With rebuilding the greens, this can be a great golf course," Ward said. "People will come back to it, I'm sure, because it's a beautiful course, and it has a little bit of everything to challenge golfers."

Ward retires as one of many Professional Golfers Association members whose careers have been spent managing clubs and teaching the game, not playing on the tour where the best players can earn millions today. In recent years, he said, the demands of administering outings and tournaments was time-consuming.

"I've made a point of playing once a week," he said. "But I've never been one of the better playing pros. I started in the game when I was an adult, and I had to work and study a lot to become a fair player."

That "fair" player regularly shoots between 78 and 82 now, Ward said, "although I always think I can shoot 72."

That's a goal for retirement, shooting his age - an accomplishment many golfers savor. He would like to add that memory to his only hole-in-one - a 2-iron shot on the par-3, 16th hole at Hobbit's Glen that bounced into the cup after a couple of hops 12 years ago.

The Columbia resident will be able to teach at Hobbit's in retirement, a prospect Ward said he is thinking about a lot. After all, he figures he has taught, say, maybe about 2,000 people in his career.

But first, he wants to visit his daughters and three grandchildren, with whom he maintains contact mainly by telephone, he said.

"I'm still trying to get used to the idea of retiring," he said. "I mean, for 50 years I've been used to going to work every morning. I'm not a guy with a lot of other interests.

"But, you know, I've always felt that when you head down the fairway after teeing off with some friends, and it's a beautiful day, life doesn't come any better than that."

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