By By Roman Kuebler (with additional reporting by Amy Datsko Kuebler)
May 19, 2015 at 4:14 PM
After an impossible 6-iron into the green on the par-5 18th, I nervously miss a straight ten-footer for birdie, but it’s a kick-in par. The putt drops. Seventy-one! That’s par for the course at Clifton Park and the best round of golf—maybe even the best day—of my life.
My playing partners that day, my friend Dave, a local music mogul, and Willie, a die-hard Steelers fan, congratulate me with genuine enthusiasm as we make the short walk to the clubhouse. Somehow, word of the low round has spread through my golf group, the Thirsty Boyz, and though I'm new and don't know most of these people, they file up one by one to recognize the effort, good fortune, or whatever the hell it was that just happened.
I remember them vividly as I knew them at the time, like the cast of a sports comedy from the '80s: the Polish guy Krzysztof; my best friend from high school's dad, Joe, and his best friend, also Joe; Tommy Winkler, the older white-haired guy who dresses like the flashy PGA Tour pro Rickie Fowler; and Billy, the younger Bahamian guy who also dresses like Rickie Fowler. There's the quiet guy who was in a couple of Spike Lee joints and Garland, the loud guy who was the first one at the course to remember my name. A Hispanic guy named Roman and an African-American guy also named Roman (I'm the third Roman, the white one). Big Tony, the bigger Tony, and Smaller Tony, which no one calls him unless he's next to Big Tony.
A bunch of guys I don't even remember bothered to shake my hand, and finally, though I had never met him before, the top dog and resident loudmouth of the Thirsty Boyz, Kenny Dotter, chimed in, "If I were you, I'd go buy a lottery ticket!"
Started as a weekly outing by a few Clifton Park Golf Course employees, the Thirsty Boyz Golf League has grown over the past five years to more than 60 members, including three women—and though that isn't a high number, it's unique.
As Lawrence Moses, a PGA apprentice at Clifton Park and founder of the Thirsty Boyz, points out, golf leagues are usually created by first defining the restrictions. Senior, men's, and women's leagues are anchors to any course's competitive schedule, but the goal of the Thirsty Boyz is to create a format that allows for competition between golfers of all skill levels.
"The only exclusion we have is that you must be an adult," he says, laughing, "because we like to have a beverage once in a while."
Stumbling in from all corners of the city and beyond, no common thread unites the Thirsty Boyz except that, hooked by the game, each manages to free themselves on Tuesday afternoons to play golf.
Now in its 100th year as a public course, Clifton Park's golf course has endured as the city grew around it and then crumbled as blue-collar jobs left the city and middle-class families fled to the suburbs. Through youth programs and groups like the Thirsty Boyz, the course caters to a diversity of patrons, golfers of various ethnicities, ages, economic backgrounds, and skill-levels.
"We make them part of our family and everyone that plays here becomes part of the Clifton Park family," says Dotter, a commercial crabber who became a fixture at the club before he started helping out with the Clifton Park junior program. "It's been going on for 100 years and it will go on for another hundred years. It will last that long."
Originally conceived as a private nine-hole course in 1898, which promised to "develop this healthy outdoor game in the northeastern section of the city," the 18-hole Clifton Park Golf Course was built in 1915 and went public in 1916, the first public golf course in the city. In 1948, after a six-years-long legal battle, a court ruling opened Clifton Park to black golfers, who were formerly restricted to a nine-hole course at Carroll Park.
Ian Smith, an African-American employee at Clifton Park, sees pictures of the course from the early 1900s and reflects on the changes that have occurred in its century-long existence.
"You realize the history of it and think, 100 years ago I wouldn't be able to play this course," he says. "When you look at it now, and how diverse it is, it's not an African-American course, it's not a white course, it's a golfer's course."
The course brings value to the Belair-Edison neighborhood and its residents in ways that transcend metrics such as property value and green space, offering education and recreation options for local families.
Maggie Gross, a junior at Loyola University, works at the course cleaning carts after school, but she started playing golf at the age of 7 when her dad would bring her and her siblings to the Clifton Park junior program.
"[People] are surprised when they see how good this program is," she says. "I've just had a great experience over the years with Lawrence and Harold Madison [of Clifton's Junior Golf program]. Lawrence gave me this job cleaning carts once a week for a little extra cash. He's just always been a great mentor and a good role model ever since I've been 6 or 7 trying to hit golf balls."
The junior program has joined with The First Tee of Baltimore, giving it more resources to promote the program to local families.
Introducing both a golf and a life-skills curriculum, The First Tee has about 600 students in the program, says director Matthew Bassler, with 70 percent of students from Baltimore City and 30-40 participating families close enough to walk to the course. Operating spring, summer, and fall sessions with a tuition of $10 per session, The First Tee participants pay $7 per round at Clifton Park.
Of the handful of students who have completed the course since it started in 2008, 100 percent have graduated high school and gone on to college, Bassler noted. He hopes to keep up that success rate as many current students, now in middle school, go on to high school.
Though golf is struggling nationwide to get young kids to play the game, there's a sense of optimism about Clifton Park's prospects in the area.
"The other day, I was leaving from work and I saw three kids walking up from the neighborhood towards the course with golf bags," says Smith, the course employee. "And I thought, Oh man, that's awesome!"
He continues: "I think that this course, with the guys that are running it, is perfect for the area. Perfect."
A few Tuesdays ago, I played a disheartening round at Clifton Park—a game that started well but went off the rails and refused to get back on. I don’t know why the 71 came so easy, and this time I struggled to an 88. I left Clifton Park soured and exiled my clubs to the basement closet. Later that night, I got a text from my friend’s dad, Joe “Bunky” Ryan, a fellow Thirsty Boy who played a similarly trying round: “See you next week.” I was back at it just a few days later.