Commentary: Facing stiff competition, Carroll courses need to step up game

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I happened to be playing in a charity golf tournament on the day the final installment of our "On Course in Carroll" series ran. At least a dozen golfers approached me to opine that I hadn't been nearly critical enough of one or more of the county courses.
Upon further review? Guilty.
In my defense, a bad day at the golf course beats even a good day at the office, so it's hard for me not to have a good time on the links. And talking to the those who run the courses probably colored my judgment, too, given their enthusiasm.
But recalling my six rounds at Carroll public courses - I'll leave Piney Branch out because it's a private club - it is amazing how few other players we saw. We let a few singles play through at one course. We were rudely played through by a single at another. And we got behind the world's slowest twosome at another.
But, generally speaking, we had the courses to ourselves.
In fairness, we played only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, traditionally the slowest days of the week. But I also played Lake Presidential in Upper Marlboro a few weeks ago on a Wednesday and tee times were booked solid all day long.
Carroll golf is not in dire shape. There are six public courses, plenty for the number of golfers in this area, and they each seem to fill their own niche.
But neither is Carroll golf particularly thriving. In 1995, when River Down became the most recently built public course in the county, players flocked to this area from Baltimore, Baltimore County, Frederick County and southern Pennsylvania.
That time is far into the past simply because there are better options for those players closer to home as the golf boom of the late-1990s produced numerous really good courses throughout Maryland.
Golfweek's 2012 listing of the top 10 public courses in Maryland includes nine courses built since 1998. Some, like the Links at Lighthouse Sound, are a good distance away. But most can be reached in an hour or so from Carroll, significantly less in some cases.
Whiskey Creek, Worthington Manor and Musket Ridge all make that list and are all close by in Frederick County. No. 1 Bulle Rock (Bel Air) and No. 3 Lake Presidential are a bit farther away, but not that much. And that doesn't even count nearby quality courses like Waverly Woods (Marriottsville) or Maryland National (Middletown).
All of the above courses are good layouts that are, generally speaking, kept in top-notch condition.
Yes, they all cost more than Carroll courses (although there are also less-expensive alternatives within an hour's drive). But the pricing - with the exception of Bulle Rock - isn't prohibitive enough to encourage players in those areas to venture to Carroll or to keep Carroll countians from heading out to those courses for a great experience.
I paid a weekday fee of $30-39 to play five of the six public courses in Carroll. I paid $42 to play Lake Presidential.
OK, that was with a discount, but for the experience of a really good layout in phenomenal condition, an excellent practice facility, and plenty of staff near the parking lot greeting us cordially, helping us with our bags, directing us to where we needed to be and going out on the course to sell us drinks and snacks I would gladly have paid more. A lot more.
Perhaps it's a little unfair to compare the local courses to deep-pocketed Lake Presidential, even though that course and the many others like it are absolutely a part of the competitive landscape for Carroll. So let's compare them to Quail Valley in Littlestown, Pa.
That's where I was playing the day of that aforementioned charity event. During the round, it occurred to me that Quail Valley's greens fees are essentially the same (actually, slightly less) than most of the Carroll courses, but the condition is superior. (That's probably due in large part to superintendent Gary Angell, who worked his magic at more than one Carroll course before landing at Quail.)
That's not to say Carroll courses weren't in pretty good shape. By and large they were. But pretty good can't compete with the country-club quality some of the above courses offer. And pretty good in May or June doesn't always translate to pretty good in July or August.
And it's not to say the Carroll courses are too expensive. Some charge less today than they did 10 years ago. But as a value proposition, generally speaking, they don't give a compelling reason for those outside of the area to make the drive. As for those in the area, membership is generally down. That's for numerous reasons, but one, clearly, is an abundance of really nice options within driving distance.
Also not saying the Carroll courses don't have cordial staff. They do. The people who took our greens fees were, without exception, friendly and helpful. Problem was, there were just too few people working.
Only at the Links at Challedon was someone out front to help us get our clubs out of our car and onto a cart and direct us to where we needed to go. On more than one occasion we couldn't figure out where to get our carts or how to get to the first tee, and on another occasion we had to direct a hopelessly lost foursome to the first hole.
It's also not a good sign when you play an entire 18-hole round and never have to wait to play a single shot because of a group in front of you, and never see a group behind you. Just like diners are prone to stay away from mostly empty restaurants I have to believe golfers take note when the parking lots look like ghost towns.
If I owned a course, I'd be all about the mid-week specials (and senior discounts) and I'd be encouraging nine-hole play, walkers, hosting fun tournaments, and just doing everything I could possibly do to get people out onto my course. But I'd understand that none of that will do much good unless those golfers thoroughly enjoy their experience and return with friends.
That means keeping the course in not "pretty good" but "really good" shape.
A lot of that has to do with proper equipment and care, yes, but it also means putting enough rakes in sand traps and keeping the carts stocked with divot mix. Most golfers will help take care of a course if they see that ownership cares about the course.
I also want to know how far I have to the green. In this day and age I'm amazed that not one of Carroll's public courses has in-cart GPS. Only Challedon does a good job of marking distances on sprinkler heads. Maybe all the courses assume every golfer now comes equipped with a SkyCaddie or a rangefinder. But most courses I play outside of Carroll don't make that assumption.
I would also sweat the little things. Every course is going to have some bad spots. I'll forgive them if they are marked as ground under repair. Hazards also need to be clearly marked. Tee boxes need to be pointed in the right direction. Greens have to be cut and pin positions changed daily. And signs of disrepair - like pothole-littered cart paths or broken-down bridges or missing tee markers - are major red flags.
I'd be sure every player understands that the color of the tees has nothing to do with age or gender. Play from the forward tees if your handicap is 30 or higher, move back one box if you are a 20-29, move back another if you're a 10-19, and play from the tips if you're a single-digit.
I'd have a player assistant (read: ranger) out on each nine keeping players moving. Fall behind, get a warning. Second warning, said assistant sits watching the group in a cart equipped with a huge clock. Third warning would not be a warning - the offenders get their money back and are sent on their way. I'd even shoot a photo of them being escorted out to be posted in the clubhouse to prove that slow play is not tolerated. Nothing ruins the experience of playing golf like a 5 1/2-hour round.
Finally, I would have at least one professional on site. Fewer and fewer courses seem to feel this is important. True, anyone can be friendly, talk golf and run tournaments. But I want someone who can do all of the above authoritatively, while also giving instruction (both for-fee lessons as well as free tips now and then) and heading up a junior program with an eye toward producing a future pipeline of players. (I recall seeing exactly one player under 35 or so during the six public-course rounds I played in Carroll this spring).
Most of the above, of course, costs money. Easy for me to suggest without a penny of my own at stake.
But a heck of a lot of courses have been built in the past 18 years and many of them are spending freely in an effort to keep local golfers close to home and entice out-of-town golfers to return after a great experience.