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Mild winter has customers of Baltimore County's public golf courses teeing off

As far as the landscape was concerned, Fox Hollow Golf Course in Timonium looked as you'd expect it to on the first day of February.

Bare, leafless trees lined the course's fairways, and the grass was a patchwork of green and brown.

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But scattered across the February landscape was a sight that would be expected on the first day of June: a good supply of actual golfers.

With the temperature rising into the mid-60s in a winter that has not yet left its true mark on the area, more than 100 golfers took advantage of the weather last Wednesday and got a round in before sunset.

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Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, Richard Shock, 22, of Towson, said it was an "absolutely beautiful day" for golf, regardless of the season.

"As for golfing in February, it was a little strange at first, but as the round went on and I started becoming frustrated with my play, all I had to do was stop, look around, and realize it was 65 degrees on Feb. 1," Shock said.

Lynnie Cook, chief executive of the Baltimore County Revenue Authority, said this winter's weather has been a boon for the county's courses.

The Revenue Authority, a quasi-government agency that operates the county's parking garages, also runs five county-owned golf courses, including Fox Hollow.

"It's the off season, and people will take advantage of little pieces of good weather," Cook said. "They come out of the woodwork if you have three days of good weather.

"This season has been relatively moderate," he said. "That's helped us."

Last January — which according to a National Weather Service report saw more than 10 inches of snow in Baltimore and an average temperature below 32 degrees — 968 rounds were played on the county's courses.

But this January, which has seen no appreciative snow and daytime temperatures in the 40s to the mid-60s, a total of 4,732 rounds were played, according to revenue authority figures.

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The first month of 2012 continued a trend that actually began in November. Since then, the authority has seen a 44 percent increase in rounds played over its projections, including nearly twice as many rounds in December than expected.

The weather not only plays a part in usage, but revenue as well. Rounds at county public courses run $42 to $58 on weekdays and $47 to $78 on weekends (depending on the course – also, each course has "twilight" rates that are lower). So with nearly five times as many golfers playing this January over last January, revenues have seen an early 2012 boost.

But Cook notes that weather also can adversely influence golf numbers.

In July 2011, a stretch of days in the high-90s and low-100s kept golfers off the course because weather was too hot, and in late August and September, a combination of Hurricane Irene and heavy rains in the middle of the month caused numbers at county courses to sink.

"The economy doesn't seem to have nearly the impact as extreme weather or the timing of the weather," Cook said.

Overall, the mild winter has had a ripple effect through the county's golf operation, all the way down to part-time employees like starters.

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Don Rodrick, who was working as the starter at Fox Hollow on Feb. 1, said part-time workers like himself usually stop working in November and pick up again in March.

"For us to work December, January, February — this is something different," he said.

Cook said it's always a concern of course professionals that there isn't a lot of part-time help budgeted into the off-season budget, but their "biggest hope is they'll be over budget in terms of part-time labor, because that will mean we're doing well in terms of rounds."

This year, he said, "I fully expect them to be over budget now for part-time labor."

Course maintenance is also a winter consideration. Joe Rahnis, director of golf operations for the Revenue Authority, a customer at one course urged them to change a pin location because the green was getting worn out, and he expects this to be the first winter they'll have to do that because of overuse.

Otherwise, though, Cook said golfers are forgiving of the conditions compared with summer.

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Shock said he expected the course to be in worse shape than it was.

"I assumed that the course would be in playable condition, but look as though it hadn't been taken care of," he said. "I was totally wrong."

And if the weather continues, the conditions were nice enough that he'll be back out again.

"These days are just too nice to pass up," Shock said.


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