San Clemente's Municipal Golf Course is a big source of local pride.
The ocean is visible from nearly every green. The fairways are so wide that even rank amateurs seldom lose golf balls. Best of all, the greens fee for city residents is a mere $5--less than half the going rate at most public golf courses.
But the very charm of this golf course--where former President Richard M. Nixon played during sojourns at his Western White House--is also a big source of controversy.
The San Clemente course has become so popular that it is now ranked by the Southern California Golf Assn. as second-busiest among both public and private courses throughout the state.
Frustrated by the crowds and increasingly long waits, some local players have asked the city to impose a strict new policy that would allocate almost all the prime starting times to those making reservations in advance, effectively locking out non-residents, who pay $9 a round, and even local working residents.
The current policy allows three walk-on groups of golfers for every five groups who make reservations. The course is able to start an average of eight groups per hour.
Under a plan proposed by the San Clemente Golf Committee--a five-member panel appointed by the City Council--only one walk-on group would be allowed per hour and the remaining seven starting times would be set aside for those with reservations. This policy would be in effect from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., the prime golfing hours.
The committee submitted the plan to the City Council on behalf of at least 200 members of the San Clemente Golf Course Men's Club, said Joe Crispino, 68, a men's club board member. The club has 900 members, many of whom oppose any change.
The City Council considered the plan at its Jan. 18 meeting. After several golfers protested the plan, the council delayed a final vote until March 15. In the meantime, the council adopted an interim compromise allowing six reservations per hour and two walk-ons.
Following the January meeting, golfers opposed to a starting-time change formed a group called Golfers for Fairway Fairness, and came up with a counterproposal that would make the walk-on policy even more lenient than it is now.
They claim that since reservations have to be made a week in advance, local retirees who already dominate the reservation-making process would lock up the course.
"We don't feel it's fair to lock up all reserved times when there are people who have to work and cannot get up early to get a tee time," said Brian Ruff, an insurance agent who helped form the committee. "This is a public golf course and the only way to be fair is to keep it open to the public."
Walt Kallenberger, 69, who was playing 18 holes last Friday agreed: "I'm a senior citizen, but I really think they're trying to make a private country club for seniors."
However, Crispino, who played just ahead of Kallenberger on the course, complained that he and other golfers have to get up as early as 3 a.m. to put their names on the reservation list, then often must wait for people who saunter onto the course during a walk-on time.
"The real trouble is (that) the course is full, (and) the prime consideration ought to be given people who make true efforts to get a starting time," Crispino said.
The Municipal Golf Course opened in 1929 after San Clemente's founder, Ole Hanson, deeded the land to the city for $10. Under terms of the land transaction, the course was to be operated as a nonprofit facility.
Walk-on times became an issue only in recent years, as the population of both San Clemente and surrounding south Orange County communities has soared.
In the last decade, the number of golfers using the course has more than doubled, said Golf Committee member Tom Dunn. In the same period, the city has grown from about 15,000 residents to more than 35,000.
And the Southland's overall population growth has far outpaced the number of golf courses, putting the squeeze on every golfing facility in the region, said Bob Thomas, spokesman for the Southern California Golf Assn.
Thomas said that Southern California ranks as second worst in the country, behind New Jersey, in terms of golf courses per capita.
Consequently, courses like San Clemente's, which is popular because of its low green fees, are drawing golfers from as far away as 50 miles, Thomas said. San Clemente has only one municipal golf course, although there are two other privately owned courses in the city that are open to the public.
'Deed Says San Clemente'
As recently as 2 years ago, some members of the San Clemente Golf Course Men's Club feared they were being squeezed out of their own golf course and began signing petitions seeking to restrict walk-on times, Dunn said.
"The people of San Clemente want to play on their own course," said Dunn, 70, a retired fire captain. "We're not trying to restrict people from outside, but the deed for this course says a golf course for San Clemente."
Dunn said the golf committee came up with its reservation proposal after analyzing the starting time policies at 20 golf courses in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. The committee concluded that almost all the courses limited starting times largely to those who made reservations.
Southern California Golf Assn. spokesman Thomas concurred that most golf courses try to operate on a reservation-only basis.
"Most places take as many reservations as they can," Thomas said. "Walk-ons generally don't have any priority."
Although he conceded that San Clemente's walk-on policy has worked very well for many years, Crispino said it has become too cumbersome because of the growing number of golfers there.
"One of the reasons there are so many walk-ons here is that there are no walk-ons anywhere else," Crispino said.
Crispino and members of the "fivesome" he plays with every week take turns getting in line as early as 3 a.m. for a place on San Clemente's reservation list, with tee times starting at 6 a.m. Reservations are also taken over the telephone at that time, but Crispino said the line almost always is too busy to get through.
After going to so much trouble to get a starting time, Crispino and other golfers who make reservations say, it rankles them to see someone allowed to walk on ahead of them.
Some of them also feel that the course's starters--employees who determine when golfers can begin their game--show favoritism toward their friends who show up without a reservation and let them on before anyone else.
Starter Backs Fairness Group
But Sal Russo, the course's head starter, denies it. Russo said that he has few problems accommodating all golfers, local and non-local, under the current walk-on policy, and that he sides with the Golfers for Fairway Fairness.
"We sure should not have a policy that caters to only a small segment of the population of San Clemente," Russo said.
Larry Poncino, a National League baseball umpire who lives in San Clemente, explained the problem he would experience if the city adopts the proposed reservation system.
"How am I going to get a starting time a week in advance when I'm in some place like Houston, Tex., for a game?" asked Poncino, 32, who has played at the San Clemente course since he was 10.
"The prior system has worked fine all these years," he added.
Jerry Velasco, 60, an actor and musician who said he has played the San Clemente course for 24 years, also supported keeping the walk-on policy the way it is.
"It's a great place to play golf. It's scenic. And the prices are best in Southern California," Velasco said as he practiced his putt. "And naturally some people would like to keep this to themselves."