Innovative Novotny found his home on the range

To the casual observer, the strip of land was nothing special.

Howard County in the early 1960s featured abundant amounts of farmland, and this particular plot nestled next to Route 29 on the outskirts of the county fit the mold.

For Gus Novotny, though, it was perfect.

A struggling golf pro with an engineering degree from the University of Maryland, Novotny had set his mind on getting into the golf range business and part of that meant finding a workable piece of land.

"I was looking all over the place. Something around Howard County, midway between Baltimore and Washington, was my first choice, but I was open to Philadelphia or even Atlanta as possibilities," Novotny said. "Luckily, I stumbled across this spot (just north of the Rocky Gorge Reservoir)."

Novotny partnered up with Fran Robinson, a part-time realtor who lived on the land at the time, and came to an agreement to lease a portion of the property.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"My dad's always been full of innovative ideas … he just needed someone to give him a chance," said Novotny's daughter Carol Wolfe, who currently manages the Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway business that began with 27 tee-off spots in 1964.

The original plan was for the range to be open spring through fall. But that first winter, as Novotny was on site working on laying out early plans for a miniature golf course, it became obvious he needed to reassess his business model.

"After the first of the year, people were driving by and stopping in to see if we were open," Novotny said. "We weren't covered or protected from the elements, but people were still anxious to get going."

So Novotny began construction on covered and heated tee areas that were ready to go by the following winter. It was a first anywhere and, with the distinction of being open regardless of the weather conditions, people came from all over.

"At the time, we were the only show in town," Novotny said.

With each innovation came the need for new innovations. With the range open during the rain, Novotny had to put high-flotation tires on the Massey-Ferguson tractor used to pick up the balls. He also created an efficient way to transport and clean them, with the mechanical ball conveyer he came up with being the first of its kind.

In the winter, front-end loaders were used to clear the snow so that the balls could be picked up. "There would be some times where we would be working 24 hours a day to pick up enough balls to stay open," he said. "If they were coming, though, we were going to do it."

Novotny also was on the cutting edge when it came to the kind of mats, balls and, later, the kind of lighting used on the range. He grew with the demand, expanding to the 60 tees you see today.

But of all his ideas, it was one he made in 1978 that made the most noise. Parking his 1973 Oldsmobile convertible roughly 160 yards from the tee off area, he gave customers a unique target to shoot for.

"When you run your tractor to pick balls, everybody aims for it," Novotny said. "So I figured, why not give them something to aim at when the tractor wasn't running."

As time has gone on, the car has been replaced countless times, with a bull's-eye sometimes painted on the side. The concept, though, is a fixture.

"It's amazing what his innovative mind has done and almost all of it before anyone else was doing it," said Wolfe, who started working alongside her four brothers and sisters picking up balls when she was 10.

Wolfe later served as a cashier and assistant manager before taking over the business when her dad moved to Florida. Over the years, each member of the family has helped out in different ways.

It's not just about the range, either. The miniature golf course has been a fixture since 1965, undergoing a few face-lifts along the way and providing the facility with plenty of family fun.

Then there's the baseball and softball batting cages, which are innovative in their own right. Opened in 1971, the open-field style hitting was the first of its kind and to this day there are no others in the state of Maryland. Like the range, the cages are covered and heated. Balls are collected using a specially designed picker.

For all the advances in the past 48 years, though, everything comes back to one common theme — making the customer happy.

Rocky Gorge served as the first facility to sponsor Howard County Recreation and Parks golf lessons, discounting its services and providing space starting in 1969. It also served as the home for area high schools, community colleges and universities over the years.

Novotny, himself, has done over 10,000 instructional golf lessons during his career. Now semi-retired, he hasn't lost sight of what got him to this point.

"Everything I've ever done has been about the customer. When the customer comes back, you know you're a success and they've been coming back now for 48 years," Novotny said. "The customer is why I got into this business and they are the ones that have made me."

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