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Where Tee Time Is Like Rush Hour : Golfers Will Do Almost Anything to Get a Round in at Busy South Bay Courses

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Golf, a sport designed primarily for recreation, is turning into anything but a relaxing experience at South Bay public courses.

The problem simply is too many golfers and too few courses.

“You’re taking a chance trying to get a tee time,” said Don Provine, L.A. County Parks and Recreation assistant golf director. “It’s really rough out there.”

Provine is referring to tee-off slots at public golf courses such as Harbor, Los Verdes and Westchester--courses bearing the brunt of a growing golf frenzy in Los Angeles.

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“Los Angeles city public courses are the busiest in the United States. There are more rounds played on our courses that any other city in America,” says Al Goldfarb, public relations director for the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department.

The national average for U.S. public courses last year was 38,019 rounds played, according to the National Golf Foundation. L.A.'s 13 public courses averaged about 115,000 rounds.

And a sizeable amount were teed up in the South Bay where outdoor recreation rates high on the lists of active residents.

The hassle involved in getting playing time on a course, however, reminds some of another Southern California headache.

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“Playing here is just like being on the freeway,” said Ed Ronderas, a starter at Los Verdes Golf Course in Rancho Palos Verdes. “When I send people out (onto the course), there are always others right behind. They start jamming up.”

Chimes in Eugene Hardy, the head pro at Carson’s Victoria Golf Course: “It’s like the freeway. It was designed for just so many people to use at once and there’s just a certain amount of tee times available.”

The choice Thursday through Sunday slots that are up for grabs--a packed day for a course is a foursome every seven minutes for 12 hours, or 432 golfers--are gobbled up quickly.

As with most courses, those in the South Bay have little traffic during the week, but then the weekend throngs arrive and most facilities are forced to send out flights of five players instead of the standard quartet.

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Reservations are usually taken one week in advance, thereby prompting long morning lines for those signing up to play the following week. Most of those golfers spend the night at the course to assure their slots.

“I’ve come here at 3:30 in the morning (to get in line), and I’ve seen wives, kids in pajamas and campers out in the parking lot,” said Torrance golfer Ron Newman, who has made many midnight excursions to line up.

A sheet is posted on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at most of the courses. Golfers sign their names and have to stay overnight to retain their spot once the starter’s window opens at 5 a.m. Some courses deploy patrols to ensure that people aren’t signing their names and then going home to a snuggly bed until morning.

“They have guys who have flashlights who go out there and check your license plate number, which you have to write down, and also check to see if you’re in the car,” said Bill Sparkman, a frequenter of a few parking lot slumber parties at Los Verdes.

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Provine says some golfers trying to get tee times are “like 16-year-olds at a rock concert. I can put it in the same class. One guy even tried putting a dummy in his car so he didn’t have to wait. I’ve seen guys try to bribe the starters for $100. Some of them will do anything (to ensure teeing off).”

The overcrowding may come from the fact that there are so many golfers in the South Bay, which has only five public golfing facilities: 18-hole courses Victoria (in Carson), Alondra (Torrance), Los Verdes (Rancho Palos Verdes) and Westchester, and Wilmington’s Harbor Golf Course, a nine-hole park.

On most public courses, a large percentage of the players are either beginners or “whim” players.

“I call ‘em ‘tank tops,’ ” said Hardy. “They’re guys wearing shorts, tennis shoes and tank tops shirts. Some show up without clubs and without much knowledge of the game.”

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Ronderas says many high school and college-age youths looking for leisure squeeze in for tee times quite often at Los Verdes.

Another source tapping into the golfing craze is L.A.'s huge Asian population.

“Oriental people are fond of good golf courses,” said Takahara Takahisa, who recently moved from Japan to Westwood. “We are mostly businessmen, and businessmen like to play golf. They need to play good golf in order to do better with their business, because there are lots of business deals made on the golf course.”

The game, says Long Beach golfer Gary Kanda, helps reveal what a potential business partner is made of. “We can find out the character of the person we’re playing with. He might not be the kind of guy to make deals with,” he said.

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The cost of golfing also makes it attractive to people from the Orient. Whereas a round of 18 holes in the U.S. costs about $10, golfers in Japan shell out $150-$200. A $4 bucket of range balls can run you $50 in Tokyo.

Says Kanda: “Playing here is like playing free, really, compared to Japan. It’s a free luxury here.”

But that privilege is beginning to run aground in the South Bay because of a saturation of players. Some of the courses resemble mini free-for-alls, with little elbow room on the practice putting greens and driving ranges, as well as the fairways.

The obvious answer would be for the city to build more courses, but land prices and red tape, says Provine, are obstacles nearly impossible to overcome.

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Some people think the crowding can be sifted by making newer players aware of the nuances of the game.

“There are a lot of golfers here, and 50% don’t know golf etiquette. If they did, they could get through the courses a lot faster,” said Ronderas, who has played in Europe where golfers get through a round about one hour quicker than their American counterparts.

“They spend needless time here practice-putting, taking their time on swings and searching for balls and not letting groups play through.”

Says Mike Buroza, an assistant pro at Los Verdes: “Some of them take their time like it’s the U.S. Open.”

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But course managers surely don’t mind the flow of money from the constant barrage of golfers for greens fees, cart and club rentals and food. Some of them revel in the city’s billing as the national busybody of golfing.

Says Bob Collins, a starter at Westchester Golf Course: “We are, with very little argument, the busiest golf course in the world.”

There are no official records, but with over 150,000 rounds played last year at Westchester, it is certainly among the country’s five most-frequented courses. Harbor and Los Verdes are close behind, each having more than 130,000 players last year.

“Those are outrageous numbers,” said Leonard Jones, head pro at Cedar Crest Golf Course in golf-crazed Dallas. “Here there is a thirst for golfing, but we’re not overly crowded and we very seldom turn people away.” Cedar Crest, one of the busier courses in Dallas, averages about 80,000 rounds each year.

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Speedier play and a loosening of the weekend tee times will lighten the crowding. Those may be the best solutions, for golf is fast growing out of the fad stage for most sporting folks, and the fight to get on the course will probably never be short of willing participants.


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