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GREENER GRASS Festival and a new course: will these persuade golfers to tee off in Ocean City?


Ocean City -- Richard Marts is dreaming of the day people will come to Ocean City to avoid the sand, not just to play on it.

"There needs to be something for people to do here in the off-season," he says, "and I can't think of anything better than golf. In the last year, we've doubled the amount of holes available."

Mr. Marts is a member of the Greater Ocean City Golf Association, a public-private partnership that hopes to turn the boom in golf course development here into a boost for the town's off-season tourism industry. Today the group launched Golf Fest, an eight-day celebration to coincide with the opening of four new courses in the area.

Headlined by grand slam golf champ Gary Player, Golf Fest features demonstrations and clinics at both the new and the established courses around Ocean City. In qualifying matches held at a different course each day of the festival, players can compete for the opportunity to win big prizes in the concluding grand tournament, scheduled for June 21 at the Ocean City Golf and Yacht Club.

The biggest prize for area golf fanatics, however, may be the chance to take their first swings through the new courses.

River Run and the Beach Club Golf Links in Berlin, Eagle's Landing in West Ocean City and Nutter's Crossing in nearby Salisbury all are opening to the public for the first time. They bring to 11 the number of courses within a 30-minute drive of the beach.

"Ocean City is not going to be Myrtle Beach," Mr. Marts admits, comparing the Eastern Shore's growing golf industry to the South Carolina golf mecca has more than 70 golf courses. "But we can go from a four-month season to an eight-month season."

Allyn Preston of New Bern, N.C., agrees. "With all the golf courses plus all the other amenities of the Ocean City area, people here won't ever lack for something to do," he said. He and his wife Blanche recently returned to Ocean Pines, where theylived for eight years, to visit friends and play at the Ocean Pines Golf Club. Mr. Preston said golf was "specifically on the agenda" when they planned the trip.

Mr. Marts' company is one reason local officials feel ready to capitalize on the golfing boom. Affiliated with a local travel agency that now arranges Ocean City golf vacations, the Ocean City Golf Network is a computerized golf reservation service that is the first of its kind in the industry, offering golfers access to a variety of courses.

Golfers can call (800) 462-4653 and reserve guaranteed tee times, golfing equipment and golf vacation packages for any of the area's courses. The new hot line soon will operate 24 hours a day.

The telephone reservation system is part of a Greater Ocean City Golf Association initiative to lure spring and fall vacationers from the more established golf resorts to the south. But it is the courses themselves that will make the difference.

"The variety is going to be absolutely the best," promises Mr. Marts, who was a golf pro in Baltimore and in Hilton Head, S.C., before hitching his fate to that of Maryland's seaside golfing industry.

"River Run is a links-style course," he explains. "It will have lots of pot bunkers, rolling scenery and deep sand traps. The Beach Club is probably going to be the longest course in the area; if you're a big hitter, you want to play there.

"Eagle's Landing is a wetlands-style course on the Sinepuxent Bay," he continues. "It will have Bermuda fairways, and water on 16 of its 18 holes."

Owned and operated by Ocean City, Eagle's Landing is slated to open June 25. It will be right down Route 611 from the 36-hole Ocean City Yacht and Golf Course, a municipal operation that, at 31 years, is the area's oldest course.

The new course cost Ocean City $2.9 million and was two years in the planning. Town officials hope it soon will rank among the nation's premiere public courses.

"Ranking in the top 75 public courses would give us some much-needed exposure in the golfing community," says Ocean City Recreation & Parks director Tom Perlozzo, who also is president of the Greater O.C. Golf Association.

Private developers also are banking big on Ocean City's golf resort potential, and they're enlisting some of the sport's big names in the cause.

River Run, which opens Tuesday, is a Gary Player Signature course, with design and development input from one of the game's champions. Developer Lew Meltzer has more than $13 million on the line at River Run, a substantial part of which went to designing a course that would earn Mr. Player's approval.

Mr. Player, who will golf with local qualifiers at River Run Monday and conduct a clinic there on Tuesday, also is a big draw for Golf Fest. And though golfers want to meet the South African star, not everyone who's tried his championship course will be there to congratulate him.

"Oh, I want to chew him out," joked Tom Beatty of West Fenwick, Del., after he and his wife, Carol, finished a tough round on the front nine at River Run recently.

The Beattys say they appreciate the variety available now that more golf courses are opening up around Ocean City.

Though other courses are on the drawing boards, their realization depends on many factors, including the health of the real estate market and the success of this season's new courses. In any case, members of the Greater Ocean City Golf Association say Golf Fest is here to stay.

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