On a recent Thursday, it is not yet 8:30 a.m. and the nine-hole Carroll Park Golf Course in Pigtown is packed with women of all skill levels putting, chipping and chatting.
It's no coincidence that more than a dozen women dressed in green and white golf attire happened to pick today to load up the clubs and head to the course.
It's the regular time to get together for members of the Carroll Park Ladies' Golf Association.
"We're like family," said Ronnie Schwarzkopf, a lifetime Catonsville resident who has been a member of the all-female group for more than 10 years.
The golf association was founded 35 years ago, said current league president Rosemary Nussear. The women, of all ages and backgrounds, meet at 8:15 a.m. every Thursday, from April to October at the public course on Washington Boulevard.
In groups of three or four, they play the course's nine holes. Those who have the time then head to lunch nearby after and, if they're feeling lucky, head back to the course for another nine. Though the recent recession undoubtedly hurt the golf industry — courses have been closing at an increased rate around the country and interest among young people, a recent National Golf Foundation study says, is at an alarming low — the league has prevailed. According to Nussear, the group even gained about four new members this season.
"The most important thing for us is where we're going to lunch," joked one member as the group passed a painting of a flag marking the 19th hole on their way from the clubhouse, where they meet up, to the course.
"And wear cute golf clothes!" added another.
Though she had been interested in the sport all her life, Schwarzkopf said it wasn't until retirement that she found the time to really give it a try. Immediately, she said, she loved the sport, but there was one problem.
"When I first retired, I didn't have anybody to play with," she said.
She joined a league at Diamond Ridge Golf Course in Windsor Mill and, through that, heard about the Carroll Park league.
After spending years working and caring for her family, the former Baltimore Gas and Electric employee said, for her, the Thursday morning round isn't about her score. It's about being active and spending time outdoors. "This is my time," she said.
Schwarzkopf's story isn't unique to the group, which has more than 30 members. Many of the women, some with flexible work schedules, like nurses and teachers, and many retired, come to Carroll Park every Thursday morning for both the game and the camaraderie.
Catonsville resident Nancy Long joined the league 12 years ago on the recommendation of a coworker. She had only played a few times and knew no one in the league, but she could tell immediately that the $50 annual fee was worth it, she said.
"The group of ladies there are all levels, so they're very encouraging and they're very patient," she said. "It's a great group."
Joining the golf association ignited a passion for golf in her, she said. Although she's recovering from knee surgery unrelated to golf right now, she normally works her nursing shifts at the University of Maryland Medical Center around the league's Thursday schedule, she said.
"When I first started, I kind of got the bug," she said, adding that she's been stopping by on some Thursdays to catch up with the women during her recovery, even though she can't play.
The mix of women helped to teach her the rules and skills of the game a dozen years ago, she said. Even in the off season, between November and March, some of the women get together and play on mild days or host holiday parties.
"I learned a lot playing with this group," she said. "It's a fun sport."
For league president Nussear, who lives in Relay, the ladies' golf association was a way to get away from her worries. When her husband was diagnosed with cancer almost 10 years ago, she said she knew she needed an outlet for her stress. She remembered seeing a notice on a bulletin board about a women's league in the clubhouse at one of her and her husband's favorite courses, Carroll Park, and decided to sign up.
"When you're out here playing golf, you have to focus on golf," she said.
And when her mother passed away last winter, the women were there by her side, she said.
"Everybody just has been so supportive," she said. "These ladies just couldn't have done enough."
The support and friendship of the women is what has kept Halethorpe resident Melanie Hauck coming back too, she said. When she moved to Halethorpe from California in 2005, she was worried about leaving behind all of her friends on the west coast. A regular golfer back in California, she decided to give the women's league a try.
"It was where I got to meet all these ladies," she said, adding that the group become her instant group of friends. "It was really nice after moving."
Later this summer, she will host the league's annual crab feast at her home.
For Vondel Hamilton, who has worked at the Carroll Park course for more than eight years, Thursday mornings are a highlight in her week.
"They acknowledge me as one of the ladies," she said. They even encourage her to pick up some clubs herself, she said, but she always declines.
"I just don't have the patience or the time right now," she said.
As the only league that operates out of the park on weekdays, Hamilton said the women are an integral part of Carroll Park. Like clockwork, she said, they are there every week the park is open.
Fellow Carroll Park employee Jerry Werner, who patrols the course during the day to make sure golfers don't run into any trouble in the park, said he has gotten to know the women well over the years too. Having been working at the course for more than 20 years, he said he may have to cut his twice-a-week work schedule down to just one day next year, but he's going to be sure the one day he does work is Thursday.
"They're nice," he said as he steered a cart around the course. "When I was in the hospital, they all sent me cards."
Halethorpe resident Nancy Gentry has been a member of the league for more than 30 years. She got into golf when she started dating a man interested in the sport, she said. A resident of Baltimore's Riverside neighborhood at the time, she said, Carroll Park was a convenient course to practice her skills. One day, while she was playing, a group of women approached her about joining their league.
"I didn't know what I was getting into," she joked.
At first, she said, she went because she had paid the fee and signed the paperwork. But, some 30 years later, it's more than a sense of obligation that keeps Gentry coming back. The women of the league have become her friends, she said and her golf game has improved too.
"It was fun," said Gentry, who is now retired from jobs in marketing. "You could forget all your worries and cares. It's two hours of just worrying about your ball and where your ball is."
Even after giving some other leagues a try, she kept coming back to Carroll Park, she said.
Although she doesn't live in the city anymore, Thursday mornings with the league are still a priority, she said.
Her golf game, she said, is "a work in progress." But the fun she has playing with the group has is guaranteed.
"It's just always laughs," she said. "We have a ball."