Gritty golf picture mirrors Baltimore's city life
BALTIMORE - This city carries a well-deserved reputation for grittiness. It's the town of choice for East Coast inner city crime dramas, from "Homicide" to HBO's "The Wire." Carmelo Anthony, the NBA marketing machine's second-year star, is one of the many who can tell you it's no Hollywood mumbo jumbo either.
Anthony grew up in the drug infested neighborhood that serves as the background for The Wire's stories. And even as Baltimore touts a revitalization in its Inner Harbor area the worthy of the East Coast urban legend transformations of Manhattan and Philadelphia, it's true character is never far from the surface.
Anyone who's been to the Inner Harbor lately can attest to the aggressiveness and persistence of its street con artists. A favorite ruse involves pleading for gas money for a broken down car that's just down the road. Pay up and the guy will probably come back and ask again for that same nonexistent car 20 minutes later.
Some of the street peddlers who practice near the tourist-filled Inner Harbor think they've invented this trick and get particularly upset if you dare turn them down.
Make no mistake, large parts of downtown Baltimore are still not for the faint of heart. Attitude is part of its character, the kind of attitude you'd expect in a John Waters movie, not the kind of attitude usually associated with golf. Tiger Woods' tough guy caddy Steve Williams would be just another chump here.
Which may be why even as Camden Yards went up, the NFL's Ravens moved in, and bars and high-end restaurants followed, Baltimore County retained its reputation as a golf wasteland.
Fantastic crab claws on the waterfront? Sure. One of the best retro ballparks in the major leagues? Definitely. Wonderful golf? Where!
"There's just not enough courses to play," said Gary Bussenius, a 40-something golfer from nearby Perry Hill. "And that leaves all the decent courses packed. It's hard to get in anything less than a five-hour round anywhere around Baltimore, especially on the weekends.
"It's gotten to the point where my dad and I will drive a few hours just to find someplace that's not so busy."
That's the golfer's perspective.
It's a whole different view from the clubhouse. Chris Hanson, the head pro at (Greystone Golf Course), believes a late 90's building boom brought too many courses competing for the same dollars.
"For the upscale courses, I think we've almost reached the point of saturation," Hanson said.
There is your dilemma in Baltimore golf. There's not enough high-quality courses to handle all the golfers without massive congestion. Yet there's also not enough golfers to make those higher-end courses profitable even with the tee gridlock. Joseph Heller's Yossarian could relate.
Consider that neither Greystone nor the Woodlands Golf Course -- two of the six courses run by the Baltimore County Revenue Authority -- have yet to turn a profit. Greystone opened in 1997, Woodlands in 1998.
As the courses struggle, golf nuts like Mike Warfel struggle to find worthy places to play.
"The Baltimore area definitely needs more golf options," Warfel said. "You end up playing the same courses over and over again and it gets boring."
Bussenius believes it is largely the courses' own fault. The theory being that many of the new upscale courses are pricing themselves out of the average golfer's range, leaving the few courses with reasonable rates flooded with grumpy golfers.
"It seems like every new course that open up around here is 100 bucks plus for 18," Bussenius said. "Who can afford to pay that regularly? This isn't Vegas. It's Baltimore County. This is a working town."
The heavily-hyped, Pete Dye-designed Bulle Rock is credited by many with starting the upscale, high green fee trend in the area with its $145 rounds. Newer courses like Mountain Branch followed with fees of their own approaching three figures.
Yet Baltimore also features a series of municipal courses with green fees ranging from $18-29 (including cart) run by the nonprofit Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation, a program that's drawn national praise. Included in these are the Carroll Park and Clifton Park courses where Senior Tour standout Jim Thorpe -- the first African-American to ever lead the U.S. Open (in 1981) -- learned the game. Baltimore is proud of its largely unknown golf history, boasting about hosting "one of the first" pro tournament wins of both Arnold Palmer (1956 at Mount Pleasant Golf Course) and Nancy Lopez (1978 at Pine Ridge Golf Course).
When you're known for grit you'll take any golf link you can get.
"I don't really know that many guys around here who golf," said Frank Murmur, a gray-haired first-timer taking his swings at the beginner-friendly Gunpowder Falls Golf Course. "It's not really a Baltimore thing, man. But I guess it can catch on anywhere. Jesus, I'm out here making a fool of myself, so I guess you do never know."
Bulle Rock - It's the Baltimore golfer's equivalent of a $300 meal for two. Some foodies treasure every high-priced morsel, other souls can only see the money sucking out of their wallets. If you are the former, the challenge of this Pete Dye course is hard to beat, even at $145 per round.
Greystone - A mid-priced option without much hype, this course offers some well-thought-out challenges. Especially when the wind's howling in the fall and early spring.
Waverly Woods Golf Club - Designed by in-vogue architect Arthur Hills, this facility offers wide fairways and small greens for fees almost a third less than Bulle Rocke.
Mount Pleasant Golf Club - An antidote to all the new upscale courses that sprang up in the late 1990s, this North Baltimore institution's been around since 1934. An unpretentious course that takes advantage of its natural terrain.
Off the course
The Inner Harbor is Baltimore's showcase spot with its water views, museums, restaurants and sports stadiums. If you are at all interested in baseball, catching a game at cozy Camden Yards with its warehouse backdrop is a must. Yet the National Aquarium with its eye-catching, five-level-tall glass pyramids draws even more attention than the Orioles, especially now that Camden's turned into the home of a losing team. The Aquarium holds more than 5,000 creatures including a variety of sharks and dolphins in huge tanks surrounded by the world's largest acrylic windows.
Munching on fresh crab at a restaurant overlooking the bay is another quintessential Baltimore harbor experience. Yet if you're used to a big city, Baltimore's version of it can get old pretty fast. Hanging out in the Inner Harbor is great for a day, maybe two. Stretch it out any longer than that and you'll quickly run out of things to do. How times can you go to ESPN Zone or the Hard Rock Cafe? Those are two of the many theme restaurants that loom over the Harbor.
This also isn't a place to walk alone at night, no matter how touristy it seems.
Places to eat
The usual "higher end" chains like The Cheesecake Factory, Legal Seafoods, Morton's and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse draw huge crowds in the Inner Harbor area. To avoid the waits and to get food that's usually better and often cheaper, try Charleston (410) 332-7373, the Rusty Scupper (410) 727-3678 or the wonderfully named English pub, the Wharf Rat (410) 244-8900.
Avoid Obrycki's Crab House (410) 732-6399, an overrated, overpriced, underserviced place that somehow became an institution.
Places to stay
The Tremont Plaza Hotel provides a welcome alternative to the Hyatts and Marriotts downtown that have the nerve to charge $300 a night. In Baltimore! Even more affordable is the Mount Vernon Hotel, which offers a passable European atmosphere for the same price as a Day's Inn.
Avoid the Embassy Suites near the harbor and its steep prices for worn down rooms.
October 11, 2004