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Columbia retiree hones his golf game on backyard range

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Bob Hedgebeth recently approached a police officer catching speeders with a radar gun and asked if he would follow him home in his patrol car and measure the speed of an airborne golf ball.

While the officer politely explained that his apparatus wasn't designed to detect the movement of an object that small, he had a question of his own: How does the Columbia retiree drive balls in his backyard?

The answer is simple: Hedgebeth, 73, practices on "The Range," his nickname for golf features he has built under the 100-foot loblolly pines on his 1-acre lot off Route 108 in Beaverbrook.

"Now, anytime I have the desire and will, I can come out here and practice," said Hedgebeth, surveying his handiwork.

There are two 16-foot-by-16-foot mesh nets to catch balls driven from distances of 30 and 48 feet, with a choice of grass or artificial turf pads, and a 12-foot-by-17-foot putting green with four holes. Drain tiles keep everything from becoming "squishy" after it rains.

The former Baltimore County schools transportation director said he'll also be installing a better sand trap soon. His first attempt, he said, was "an eyesore" and he let grass reclaim it.

"This is a work in progress," said Hedgebeth of the features that consume the rear third of his lot. "I don't see an end in sight."

A self-described golf fanatic who plays at Hobbit's Glen and Fairway Hills five days a week, he said his ball has been clocked at 93 mph, a speed he referred to as "not bad."

"Actually, that's very good," interjected W.C. Shannon, 89, a longtime friend who plays nine holes Monday through Friday with Hedgebeth and whom Hedgebeth affectionately calls "The Godfather" for his sage advice.

"Golf keeps you young," said Shannon, who also lives in Columbia. "I'm pretty agile yet. I still get up on the roof of my house to clean my gutters, and I enjoy riding a bike."

But it is Hedgebeth's creativity and workmanship that Shannon, a retired psychologist, wants to keep in the limelight.

"This place just keeps evolving, and we just keep spending more time back here," he said. "Bob can build anything — he's the builder, architect and superintendent. He's made it really pleasant to be out here under the trees."

The range is fenced in and locked for privacy and to keep neighborhood children and animals from investigating, Hedgebeth said. But the fencing also provides a backdrop for the various flags of his golfing buddies' home states as well as amusing signs like "No carts beyond this point." The flag of the Marine Corps, in which Hedgebeth served for six years, also waves.

Aside from the street lamp-style light he installed for after-dark practice, he added a bonus feature to his setup on Monday in the form of a propane patio heater that throws heat 9 feet in every direction. Now the approaching winter weather won't curtail golf practice, either.

But golf isn't the only feature of the backyard of his home, where he's lived since 1970.

To keep himself in shape to play his best on the golf courses he frequents, both operated by the Columbia Association, Hedgebeth installed an outdoor gym.

Using logs, a small boulder, old tires, two-by-fours and heavy-duty springs, he's managed to design and build a Flintstone-esque setup for strength, weight and resistance training.

"I have my little routine," he said. He rises at 5:30 a.m. every day and spends 20 minutes going from station to station, and then repeats the regimen at 5:30 p.m.

Hedgebeth starts by raising and lowering a 30-pound boulder that's suspended from a tree by a pulley and connected to a spring. He moves on to lifting a 25-pound log by two wooden handles that he's nailed on, and then tilts up and pushes a four-tire contraption end-over-end across his lawn. He repeats each exercise in sets of 30, twisting from the waist, stretching over his head or bending at the knee to exercise as many muscles as possible.

"Golf is all about making a proper turn," he said, "and these movements help me [stay limber enough] to rotate my body when I swing."

Hedgebeth said he "came up as a caddy" in North Carolina at age 13, at a time when African-Americans were permitted to play only when the course was closed to others on Mondays. He has loved golfing ever since.

"I've known Bob for over 20 years, so it's not surprising that he's doing this," said Joan Lovelace, head pro and general manager at Hobbit's Glen and Fairway Hills golf courses.

"Bob is a very consistent player and a very cheerful person," she said. "He's the kind of person you look forward to seeing. These folks become like your family after a while."

Don Wheeler, who's been in Hedgebeth's foursome four days a week for the past decade but has known him for 25 years, said he admires his friend's skills and called his backyard golf setup and gym a "marvelous invention."

Mark Ellicott, another foursome member, called Hedgebeth's backyard "ideal for practice."

"Golf is good exercise," he said, "but mainly it keeps friends together."

Lovelace echoed that sentiment.

"Even though golf is a lot of physics, it's such a social game. It gets the heart rate going, while providing the exercise and camaraderie people need," she said. "And this group doesn't care if it's drizzling rain or if it's cold. There's not much that can stop them."

Hedgebeth said he isn't ready to quit augmenting his backyard retreat.

"I frequently come out here and say, 'I think I need something over there,'" said Hedgebeth, who's always on the lookout for additional features or improvements.

"The sign on the entrance gate reads 'Welcome to Paradise,'" he said. "That says it all."

jholzberg76@msn.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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