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Laurel Leader

Family’s golfing legacy continues at Rocky Gorge

Ellie Kubi, 8, left, and Rachel Kubi, 6, sisters from Ellicott City, work on their golf swing during a trip with their father to the driving range at Rocky Gorge 4 Seasons Golf Fairway.

On the east side of Route 29 in North Laurel, the landmark Rocky Gorge 4 Seasons Golf Fairway sprawls leisurely across more than 10 acres of protected pastureland.

A Laurel business that has drawn generations of sports enthusiasts for half a century, the recreational facility sits on ground leased from the Robinson family farm since 1964.

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A new seasonal golf range opened that summer, the vision of a golf lover and entrepreneur. The following spring, a miniature golf course popped up and the Rocky Gorge Fairway began operating year-round, adding batting cages in the late 1970s.

Today 56 golf tees (27 covered), a 19-hole miniature golf course and an open-field batting range call to sports lovers seven days a week, from morning until night.

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Entrepreneur and golf pro J. T. "Gus" Novotny designed and built the Rocky Gorge Fairway 52 years ago. According to general manager Carol Detwiler, Novotny's youngest daughter, the fairway grew from her father's passion for golf.

"When I was young, he played in local tournaments," Detwiler said. "I went out and watched him at Hobbits Glen in Columbia."

A member of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the Fairway continues to attract kindred swingers and hitters of all ages as it settles into middle age.

Detwiler and her husband, Butch, said that Baltimore Colt Lydell Mitchell, Oriole Al Bumbry, state Del. Frank Turner and WJLA-TV weather forecaster Doug Hill have been among the Fairway's patrons. The Howard County Department of Parks and Recreation brings campers, and the Forcey Christian School and First United Methodist Church of Laurel have held recent fundraisers there.

Lucy Kuhns of Columbia, leads a group of her friends while walking along the brick edge of a miniature golf hole, as she celebrates her 6th birthday with a party at Rocky Gorge 4 Seasons Golf Fairway in Laurel on Saturday, Oct. 15.

Countless Little Leaguers and local children, who know little about the Fairway's history, have grown up practicing at the batting cages and playing miniature golf there.

The green of the Fairway blends serenely with fields and a spring-fed pond, where nearby red and white farm buildings reflect a spot of idyllic rural atmosphere.

The Robinson farm has been protected by the Maryland Environmental Trust, which has held an easement on the property with the Howard County Conservancy since 2003.

Rocky Gorge Fairway pays rent to the trust now, Detwiler said. Should its doors ever close, the property cannot be developed as anything else, but will revert to protected farmland — a legacy to Laurel and Howard County.

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Fairway history

Laurel was still a small town when Novotny, then in his late twenties, began searching for land to convert to a golf range in the early 1960s.

A few miles north, the town of Columbia was just beginning to take shape. A parade of real estate agents and developers, including the Rouse Company, became interested in the open land that stretched along the Route 29 corridor near Rocky Gorge Reservoir.

The Robinson family, who had lived and farmed there since 1929, had no intention of selling their rural lifestyle to commercial ventures such as office parks, subdivisions and shopping centers.

But when Novotny approached father and daughter Howard and Frances Robinson with $1,000 and a dream, they listened.

The Robinsons agreed to lease a parcel of property at the corner of their farm, where Novotny could build his range, and helped him launch the sports business.

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Ty Grant, 11, of Fulton practices his swing in the batting cages at Rocky Gorge 4 Seasons Golf Fairway in Laurel on Saturday, Oct. 15.

Novotny and the late Fran Robinson began what would become a lifelong partnership between two families; forming Rocky Gorge Golf Fairway, Inc. in a 25 per cent ownership split with their fathers.

Detwiler said her dad was "the brains" of the operation and Robinson was "the landowner."

"My father designed the driving range from the ground up," she said.

Novotny took lessons in his teens from golf pro Irv Schloss at the Mount Pleasant Golf Course in Northeast Baltimore, close to Hampton where he grew up.

Schloss planted the idea that a commercial golf range — where people of all ages could come to learn the game or practice — could be a successful business venture.

Novotny graduated from Polytechnic Institute in 1956 and finished a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland in 1960.

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He married Charlotte Bober and the couple settled in Ellicott City where they raised five children: Karen Trask, Steve Novotny, Mike Novotny, Cindy Ackroyd and Carol Detwiler.

Early in his career, Novotny taught drafting at Bladensburg and Atholton high schools. In 1968, the Howard Vo-Tech Center opened and he became its first drafting instructor.

From about 1970 until 1977, Novotny also owned a miniature golf and batting range in Glen Burnie. When it was forced to close to make way for a shopping center, Detwiler said he added the batting range at Rocky Gorge.

During the 1980s, Novotny owned and operated a golf-range consulting business.

Detweiler said her father invented the industrial-style garage doors behind the driving range and the first double deck golf range, heated tees, automatic ball washer and open field batting range. A pioneer who was the first to open year round, she said he was also credited with helping to automate batting cages with devices inspired by grapefruit processing equipment.

A group of friends play a round of miniature golf at Rocky Gorge 4 Seasons Golf Fairway in Laurel on Saturday, Oct. 15.

Twenty years ago, Novotny modernized the miniature golf course. Detwiler said her father closed the original three holes and built four new ones that started at the batting cage entrance, making a 19-hole course, "the world's longest mini golf hole," according to the Fairway's web site.

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In 2012, Novotny was inducted into the Howard County Community Sports Hall of Fame. He died in 2013.

The 'Landowner'

South Laurel native Fran Robinson was a life-long environmentalist with a head for business who loved the land the she grew up on as much as Novotny loved golf.

She owned a farm on the Eastern Shore and worked as a secretary for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. In 1980 at age 55, she married Kenneth Novak.

In March 2003, a decade before she and Novotny died within months of each other, Robinson donated the development rights of the 69-acre Robinson family farm, estimated at $8.5 million, to the Maryland Environmental Trust.

In retirement, Robinson and her husband moved to Mildford, Del., where they converted an 18th-century mansion into the Causey Mansion Bed and Breakfast and opened Secondhand Prose bookstore.

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Detwiler began her career at the Fairway after finishing a degree in business administration and accounting.

Her brother, Michael Novotny, 54, has been a full-time employee for the past eight years, she said. Another brother, Steve Novotny, has worked there "pretty much his whole life," and Gus Novotny's granddaughter, Olivia Ackroyd, is also on staff.

On Robinson's side, her stepchildren Nancy Ferreira and Barry Novak, and step-grandson Joe Whitehair, all work at the Fairway.

Carol Detweiler owns Rocky Gorge 4 Seasons Golf Fairway, in North Laurel

Steve Novotny, a resident golf pro at Rocky Gorge, said he recommends kids wait until they are 10 or 11 years old to start taking golf lessons.

"I don't take money for 5- to 6-year-olds, although I'm happy to show them how to hold a club and let them hit balls," he said. "Kids can pick up golf by watching."

Novotny said he shares his father's philosophy about teaching golf.

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"He always said he felt like a doctor because he helped people with sick golf swings," Novotny said. "People with perfect swings don't come out to practice at a driving range."


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