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Stuck in the economic rough

The Baltimore Sun

One Saturday in the near future, amateur golfer Mike Ford will tee it up for the first time this spring. If all goes according to plan, he will arrive at the course early, stretch, take a few practice swings and, when it's his turn, try to smack one down the middle of the fairway.

The only difference is this year, for the first time since 1997, Ford won't be doing it at the Hillendale Country Club. Instead, having recently surrendered his membership, he'll be playing at one of the 120-plus Maryland golf courses open to the public.

Ford is just one example of the sluggish economy's effect on golf in Maryland, where country clubs are losing members, public courses are closing or being sold, equipment sales are lagging, and golfers at all levels are forced to cut back their playing or forgo it altogether because they've been hurt by the recession.

"I used to play all the time, even during the winter," said Ford, a 50-year-old stockbroker from Jacksonville. "But with my job, the way it is now, I don't play as much as I used to."

During the early part of this decade, when the stock market was rising to unprecedented levels, Ford enjoyed the benefits of his work. Chief among them was a country club membership for himself and his wife, Susan. They would regularly enjoy a leisurely round on one of the finest courses in the state, with all the luxurious amenities one could imagine to go along with it.

But when the market began to shrink, so did Ford's discretionary budget, and with a daughter in college and a teenage son, he chose to stop paying the $12,000 a year it was costing him to maintain the couple's membership. Soon after, he experienced the differences between belonging to a private club and playing a public course.

"We were very active members," said Ford, who lives less than a mile from his former club. "But it became more work to play" on public courses.

In stepped Lou Taylor, founder of the Poor Boys Golf Club, a group composed of ex-country club members and others who wanted a happy medium between the benefits of belonging to a private club and the affordability of playing on a public course, minus the presence of first-timers, slow players and rule-breakers.

Conceived as a quintet in 2002, the group now boasts 55 paid members, including Ford, with new applications arriving every week.

"Our membership has steadily increased, [but] this year it's exploded," said Taylor, who left Hillendale in 2000.

To keep things interesting, the group offers a "tour" that consists of 22 weekly events, including three "majors," held at different courses with a FedEx Cup-style points system to determine a champion. The competition is friendly, but you won't find "gimmes" or "mulligans" or any of the other popular tools used by the average duffer. The $60 membership fee allows the Poor Boys to be officially recognized by the USGA and play under its rules and handicap system.

"We're like a golf course without real estate," said Taylor, who added that many of his newest applicants work in industries hit hardest by the recession, such as banking, real estate and auto sales.

Some country club directors have taken notice of this trend and are aggressively trying to repopulate their ranks, offering deals to attract new members.

On Hillendale's Web site is a special that slices the initiation fee in half, a savings of more than $11,000 for its most expensive golf membership. In addition, the club is waiving all monthly dues and related fees through May for new members.

And for the second consecutive year, the Towson Golf and Country Club is waiving its initiation fee, a discount of up to $10,000.

"I think we are preparing for a little bit of a downturn" in memberships, said Terre Lawrence, Towson's secretary of membership. "A lot of our members lost money in the stock market."

Not every club is losing members. Mountain Branch has added 41 new members year-to-date, a number head golf pro Damon Klepczynski said could be attributed to its lower membership fees and the fact that it has no cart fees or food and beverage minimums tacked on, making it a better value for those who still want the country club experience.

"People are going to still play golf," Klepczynski said.

The economy's influence on golf in Maryland has affected public courses, as well, to varying degrees. Beechtree, Upland and Gunpowder Falls closed their doors this past year, while others, like Brantwood, are under new ownership. Many courses have already reduced prices for the coming season, and others are still trying to figure out what their seasonal rates are going to be, unsure of how much to charge in what has become a mad scramble for the fewer discretionary dollars out there.

For those in a financial position to still play golf, there isn't a better time to stock up on new equipment. Pro shops and sporting-goods stores throughout Maryland are holding near-fire sales as they try to generate cash flow and/or make room for new equipment gathering dust in a warehouse.

Meanwhile, lower-priced courses such as Rocky Point and Clifton Park are gearing up for a banner season as they expect a significant increase in business from golfers who previously played at more expensive public courses but can no longer afford to do so.

"Guys are put out of work, and they have to spend wisely," said Mark Paolini, the head golf pro at Clifton Park. "We're there for them."

Even the Maryland State Golf Association is reacting to the situation, expanding its popular passport program to include select courses in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Golf, a sport once called elitist and played mostly by the wealthy, has never been so accessible to so many. According to a recent study by the World Golf Foundation of the 2005 fiscal year, the sport is a $76 billion-a-year industry with more than 40 million participants in the United States alone.

But like most other industries, golf is also feeling the pain of the economic storm the country is trying to weather, and Maryland is no exception. And while the long-term effects remain to be seen, the immediate impact will continue to be felt throughout the state as golfers everywhere take stock of when, where and how much they can afford to play.

"It is a discretionary item," Ford said. "With the economy slow, you have to make a choice."

Inside: Mapping 104 courses in the region, with prices and information for each PG 9

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