San Clemente Residents Teed Off at Bad Golfers

Like most people living across the street from the 12th hole at the San Clemente Municipal Golf Course, Jim Morgan walks out of his front door ready to duck.

For years, Avenida Santa Margarita residents have endured a hailstorm of golf balls that smash windows and score direct hits on unsuspecting visitors, joggers and pets.

"It's like living in a shooting gallery," Morgan said. "The city should issue us a suit of armor."

Attracted by inexpensive green fees and spectacular ocean views, golfers play 122,000 rounds at the public course annually, making it the second-busiest golf course in the Southland, according to the Southern California Golf Assn.

But for homeowners living within 200 yards of the 12th tee, that popularity has translated into trouble.

Fed up with "the more amateur players who slice balls that continue to pelt our home" Herman and Vilma Hagemann have handed City Hall a $500,000 claim for damages and stress caused by the assault.

The legal claim filed by the Hagemanns last October helped escalate a sometimes ugly conflict between golfers and residents, who accuse the golfers of scrawling obscene graffiti near the 12th tee that encourages others to take aim at the homes across the street.

Such disputes are hardly uncommon in golfing communities across the country.

"People who chose to live alongside a golf course that has been there long before they moved in take a risk," said Lorna Hendricks, an avid golfer who serves on a city-appointed committee studying possible changes to the course.

But the residents of Avenida Santa Margarita disagree.

"Hell, yes, I knew there would be some errant shots when I moved in," said Morgan, a 76-year-old retiree. "But not to the extent we've seen it come to over the last few years. I mean, you have to wear a hard hat to go out into your front yard now."

Most everyone living on the street has his own war story.

Dolly Brunson said it isn't uncommon to see people ducking behind trees and cars to avoid golf balls. But she was caught by surprise leaving for work one day to find a woman crouching behind a hedge in her front yard.

"It took me a second to realize that she was hiding from somebody's golf shot," Brunson said.

Herman Hagemann and his wife don't feel any safer indoors.

One evening, he recalls, just after the couple had finished eating, a ball crashed through a front window, covering the dinner table with shards.

"It sent glass 25 feet into the house," he said. In their complaint to the city, the Hagemanns said such errant shots have made them "afraid to live in two-thirds of our home."

Hagemann said he isn't interested in collecting money from the city: "All I am looking for is a solution to all of this."

The problem lies in the chronic tendency of a right-handed golfer, particularly a bad right-handed golfer, to slice tee and fairway shots to the right, golf experts say.

The 16 homes along Avenida Santa Margarita parallel the entire length of the 12th fairway--on the right side of the hole.

"I sure wouldn't want to live there," said Jim Stubbs, a weekend golfer from West Covina. "Any kind of slice at all is going to wind up in someone's soup."

Several Orange County golf course directors said in interviews that the layout of the 12th hole is unusual.

For a course to be lacking "even a small fence between the course and the street is unique," said Paul Linden, the city's golf manager. "I don't know why it was laid out that way."

For more than two years, the homeowners have pushed the City Council to follow the recommendation of a golf course architect hired by the city to change the direction of play on the 12th hole.

After much controversy, the council in January ordered groundskeepers to switch the tees on the 11th and 12th holes to the opposite end of the fairways.

Although residents say the bombardment ended for them, they admit that the change merely redirected wild shots over to three houses near the end of the street.

More than 700 golfers, complaining that the altered holes were more difficult to play, signed a petition asking the council to end the experiment.

During the 30-day trial period, some golfers did more than complain. Residents say obscene graffiti was repeatedly scrawled near the 12th tee, exhorting golfers to aim at homes belonging to Hagemann and others backing the change.

"Some of it was pretty profane," admitted Lorna Hendricks, who opposes the tee reversal. "We don't know who those people (who scrawled the graffiti) are. The local group is far too genteel for that kind of thing."

The tension on the golf course was still visible last week when a Times photographer on assignment focused his camera on two golfers walking down the 12th fairway, drawing an obscene gesture from one of the men.

"There's a lot of emotionalism coming from both the homeowners and many of the golfers," said Councilman Scott Diehl.

The City Council will decide how to protect the homes on March 21, after the golf committee reports on the effectiveness of the hole reversal.

"This is a real tough problem," said Diehl, who called the 30-day trial "a failed experiment."

The city now plans to plant trees along the road, he said.

"I'm told that psychologically, (the trees) will deter golfers into aiming at the other side of the fairway," Diehl said. "If that doesn't work, I'm not sure what the ultimate solution will be."

Residents say that adding a dogleg to the reversed hole would keep the balls away from residents' front yards. But Eldin opposes their suggestion, saying the sharp bend in the fairway would waste space on the course and dramatically cut the length of holes 11 and 12.

The only permanent fix would be to build a large screen around the course, "but nobody wants that to ruin their views," Hendricks said.

Avenida Santa Margarita homeowners, who have a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from their front yards, firmly oppose any fencing.

"It would be like living in a cage," said resident Thomas Youngerman.

But erecting a net might be the city's only alternative to avoiding a major lawsuit in the future, said Mark Miles, a Costa Mesa insurance broker who covers some 30 clubs in Southern California.

"Being unfenced is unique these days," he said. "It's becoming a definite liability."

And in this lawsuit-happy society, more people than ever are going to court over errant golf balls. Miles said he has seen a doubling in litigation involving golf courses in the past four years.

People hit by golf balls "aren't brushing it off any more," Miles said. "They're rushing to the nearest attorney."

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