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Clifton Park's character, characters evident through a century of golf

On July 13, Clifton Park will celebrate its 100-year anniversary with a reunion outing -- replete with hickory-shafted clubs and replica turn-of-the-20th-century golf balls -- the first of three commemorative events over the next three months

When Ben Hogan was asked what helped shape his textbook-perfect swing, the golf legend often would say: "The secret is in the dirt."

Clifton Park Golf Course head professional Mike Dreyer and others who have played there might say the same thing about the longevity of what is considered Maryland's oldest public golf course.

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On July 13, Clifton Park will celebrate its 100-year anniversary with a reunion outing — replete with hickory-shafted clubs and replica turn-of-the-20th-century golf balls — the first of three commemorative events over the next three months.

"When people get there [to Clifton Park], they're astounded by the quality of the golf course if they've never seen it," said Jon Ladd, who as the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation's executive director oversees the operation of the city's five public golf courses. "It's really an oasis."

Said Pete Bonanno, 76, who has been playing the course for nearly five decades: "This golf course, to me, is like my second home."

Yet Dreyer and Ladd also talk about how increasingly difficult it is to maintain the quality of Clifton Park and Baltimore's other public courses, which operate almost solely on the revenue generated by greens fees and cart fees.

Once attracting up to 500 players on a Saturday or Sunday, traffic has dropped precipitously in recent years. According to Ladd, business is down "about 20 percent or more" as local golfers find other options.

"Three or four years ago, 350 people [on a Saturday or Sunday] was not that unusual," Dreyer said. "Now if we get close to 300 [on a weekend day], it's a good day. During the week, [action] is sparse. … It's hard to get people to come into the city when there are so many other venues in the county that are similarly priced."

Added Ladd, who has helped run the local courses since joining the staff of John Bass, a former Clifton Park head pro himself, in 1980: "I've seen it boom and I've seen it go the other way. …

"All of our golf courses' play has dropped, but Clifton survives."

Humble origins

Dreyer said the property where the course has operated since its official opening in May 1916 once was owned by local merchant and philanthropist Johns Hopkins, who constructed a mansion that he used as a summer retreat. He named it Clifton.

According to Dreyer, those who took care of the grounds for Hopkins used a product farmers called "mushroom soil." It has given Clifton Park a foundation that has helped keep the fairways more lush and the greens much smoother than most public courses.

The mushroom soil "was very prominent on this property, maybe because of the wealth of Johns Hopkins," said Dreyer, 67, who has been at Clifton Park for the past four years after also working at Mount Pleasant and Pine Ridge.

In 1915, two years after a 20-year-old amateur named Francis Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the world's best professionals, to win the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and spark an explosion of interest in the sport, Clifton Park was built.

There were few private country clubs in Maryland at the time. In 1894, Baltimore Golf Club was built on 29 acres south of Elkridge. The following year, the Elkridge Club's 2,000-yard course was built. In 1898, the clubs combined.

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Public courses already had started to sprout in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

"Golf was becoming more of a public sport rather than an elitist sport," Dreyer said.

On Dec. 8, 1915, The Sun reported that a new sport was coming to the masses in Baltimore: "Golf, the game so little understood by the proleteriat of any nation and at present confined locally to country clubs, will soon become a pastime for those can buy or borrow the necessary equipment."

With the help of B. Warren Corkran, a "well-known Baltimore golf expert," Clifton Park, along with Carroll Park, was found to be a suitable site. After the course opened in early May 1916, the first club championship game was held that August.

But over the years, newer courses came to overshadow Clifton Park.

Mount Pleasant, which opened in 1934, hosted the PGA Tour's Eastern Open from 1950 to 1958 and, in 1956, was the site of Arnold Palmer's first professional victory in the United States.

Pine Ridge, which opened in 1956, hosted a number of PGA and LPGA events, including one of nine Nancy Lopez won as a rookie in 1978.

"Those courses had a little more character," said longtime Chantilly (Va.) National Country Club head pro and director of golf Dick Canney, who served as an assistant pro at Clifton Park briefly in the early 1960s.

Clifton Park was known more for its characters — wise guys who tried the kind of trick shots later seen in the iconic golf movie "Tin Cup" — or for the hustles future PGA and Champions Tour star Jim Thorpe and his brother, Chuck, pulled off.

Then there is Jacob "Daddy" Logan, who was born five years after Clifton Park opened and was inspired to take up golf at age 73 after watching a teenager named Tiger Woods on television. Logan would use the course as the base of operations for his well-advertised golf-betting business.

"He once had a van that he would drive to all the city courses and had had written on the side of the van, 'If you want to play for money, call me and I'll come and pay your greens fees,'" Dreyer recalled of Logan, who recently turned 95 and still comes out to play a few holes occassionally.

Not that there were many who took up Logan on his offer.

"Nobody," he said Friday. "I think I scared 'em."

Great memories

Mary Alice Canney's life likely would have turned out much differently had it not been for Clifton Park.

When she was 10 and her last name was still Sawyer, Canney recalled that her mother didn't like that a younger sibling was swinging a hockey stick in the front yard of the family's home on 29th Street, near The Alameda.

"She told us to go over to Clifton Park and for me to watch my brother," said Canney, now 70.

It was there she watched a golf pro named Dick Tyson giving a lesson. He asked the young girl whether she wanted to try taking a few swings and gave her a club to take home.

"My mother was very upset. She said: 'I sent you there to watch your brother, and you come home with a golf club,'" Canney recalled.

Not only did Canney like her newfound sport, she also became quite good at it, winning club titles at Clifton Park before becoming one of the top amateurs in the region and winning the Maryland and Virginia state titles.

Joe Vaeth, an assistant who later would become Lake Clifton's head pro, "was instrumental in getting me involved and sending me to various tournaments," Canney said. She also met her future husband; they've been married 52 years.

Bonanno's introduction to the sport was not as flawless.

"This is the very first time I'm going to hit a tee shot with a driver, and I hit the ball between my legs," Bonanno recalled. "Joe [Vaeth] said to me, 'Pete, as long as I've been playing, I've never seen that shot before.' I hit the ball about 15 yards behind me."

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As his swing improved, Bonanno said, he would go on to make a hole-in-one and a double eagle.

Clifton Park was such a destination for golfers in those days that tickets for weekend foursomes would go on sale a week in advance. Much like more iconic public courses such as Bethpage Black, golfers would arrive at the crack of dawn on Saturdays and Sundays.

"They would start playing when it got light and they'd play until dark," said another former assistant pro, Paul Haviland, who grew up around prestigious Baltimore Country Club, where his father was the course superintendent.

Haviland, who shot his best-ever round (a 9-under-par 61) at Clifton Park, said PGA Tour pro Bill Collins, who grew up in Baltimore, occasionally came by with fellow pro Johnny Pott to sharpen his game. Haviland also would go out with a group of 10 playing from the same tee.

"You would find your ball and hit it," Haviland said.

The group of golfers, which came to be known as the "Slambang," grew to feature as many as 20 foursomes on a given weekend day. And now?

"If we're lucky, we get five," said longtime member Mike Apple, 68.

Going back to the future

Ladd, the BMGC's executive director, said he would like to get back some of Clifton Park's former regulars, and those who've played the course only a couple of times, to celebrate nearly a century of continuous golf July 13. The course also will host an event honoring police and firefighters Sept. 11 before an Oct. 9 fundraising event for BMGC's Junior Golf Program and handicap-accessible golf carts.

"We've been trying to put some things together to attract some attention," Ladd said. "We're trying to attract some folks who don't ever come back to Clifton. It seems like you always bump into people, and they say: 'I learned to play there.'"

Dreyer, who grew up near Pimlico Race Course, concedes that he "didn't even know this place existed" until he started high school at City.

A lacrosse player who won three varsity letters at Maryland before graduating in 1970, Dreyer was in the restaurant business for years before getting certified as a PGA teaching pro about 10 years ago. He takes pride in the condition of the course and the opportunities it provides through programs such as The First Tee, which gives playing opportunities to economically disadvantaged children.

Dreyer believes keeping Baltimore's public courses alive is important to the city's future.

"Just these golf courses and this land are important to this city to keep the neighborhoods together, to keep crime away," Dreyer said. "It would be a disaster if the city didn't help the golf courses stay alive for its own constituents."

In truth, the city's involvement comes only as a landowner. The rest is up to the BMGC, which recently spent about $35,000 to put a new roof on the clubhouse at Mount Pleasant but still has to work on the building's ceiling.

"Golfers don't see those things, they don't play those things, but we've got to maintain the buildings," Ladd said. Being short of golfers, and cash, "means the capital projects that you want to do get kicked down the road because you don't have any money," he added.

Still, golfers continue to rave about Clifton Park. As recently as three years ago, one online reviewer compared it to Augusta National Golf Club — a generous compliment for a course that, at nearly 100 years old, hides its wrinkles pretty well.

Driving up the 18th fairway to get a view of the course, as well as the city skyline and a glimpse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Dreyer acknowledged that Clifton Park might face the same doomed forecast as other public courses around the country in what has become a "flat" golf economy.

"I think the superintendents that we hire and the maintenance standards that we have here hold true throughout all of our courses," he said. "It's expensive to keep them maintained at this level. … It's just harder and harder to afford it with the green fees that we charge. It's harder and harder to get people to come to the city."

Even if it promises a golfing oasis.

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Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this story.
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