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Tom Healy knows he’s not the best guy to argue that the Man is keeping him down. He owns golf courses.
But, says Healy, what’s right is right. And even a golf-course owner deserves better treatment than what he gets from the Montgomery County government. Besides, the county owns a lot more courses than he does.
“I’m really the only competition the county has for golfers,” he says, “and they don’t like that.”
Healy and partner Joe Hills run Blue Mash Golf Course, an award-winning 6,500-yard track near Laytonsville. The course, though privately owned, is open to the public. The county contains only one other privately owned course open to nonmembers, Trotters Glen in Olney, but Trotters Glen is regarded as more a hackers’ haven than a destination for the serious golfer.
There are, however, five well-moneyed, well-maintained courses owned and operated by the Montgomery County Revenue Authority (MCRA), a public corporation run by the county. The Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission, an alliance of the Montgomery and Prince George’s County governments, owns and operates another five courses in Montgomery.
In recent years the MCRA has pumped millions of dollars into the redesign and rejuvenation of its golf properties—Laytonsville and Falls Road have gotten new clubhouses, for example, and Poolesville has been upgraded to what the agency calls “championship level”—and into promoting its links to nonresidents. The county has bought time on local radio stations to hawk its renovated courses and to tout a program called the Montgomery County Golf Tour, which offers a free round of golf to anybody who plays all five county courses.
“Is this, promoting golf, really a role for government?” Healy asks. “To openly compete against a private enterprise, in golf? Is this the way the free market is supposed to work?”
Marc Atz, the MCRA’s executive director, admits that he works for what is clearly the most pro-golf county in the region, and he doesn’t apologize.
“We’ve been doing it this way in Montgomery County since 1960,” says Atz. “We have reworked the golf courses to the tunes of millions of dollars, so I guess you could call that aggressive. But why not provide the best service possible to the customer, whether or not you’re private or public?”
Golf’s image, historically, is as a country-club sport—Bushwood, the fictional course that provided the setting for 1980’s Caddyshack, promoted the stuffy, WASPy stereotype. And those types of private operations still exist: The dark side of golf reared up in Maryland recently when Gov. Bob Ehrlich threw a Republican fundraiser at the Elkridge Club in Baltimore, a country club without any black members.
But the recent history of golf is dominated by players who learned the game not at country clubs but on daily-fee courses open to the public. Tiger Woods was a product of municipal courses in Southern California. Michelle Wie, the biggest story in the game right now, learned the game at Olomana Golf Links, a public course in her native Hawaii. This week she’s trying to qualify for the 2006 Masters by winning the Public Links Championship in Lebanon, Ohio.
And the way Healy sees things, the days when the government needed to step in to provide a service that, for social or racial reasons, wasn’t being provided have long passed.
“Initially, the counties and municipalities were doing this for the regular guy to play golf. And that was noble,” says Healy, who lives in American University Park. “But the situation has changed. What’s happening in Montgomery County has nothing to do with providing the regular guy a place to play.” (A round at Hampshire Greens, the flagship of Montgomery County’s golf quintet, costs $65 for 18 holes at peak times. Blue Mash charges $69.)
Spear Lancaster, a tax activist from Crownsville, Md., who has roused a lot of rabble fighting the use of public money on golf projects across the state, seconds Healy’s emotion.
“I guarantee you the average citizen isn’t playing on Montgomery County’s better courses, because they cost too much,” says Lancaster. “These golf courses aren’t built for the working guy. They are only built so a county can have bragging rights over other counties.”
Healy got into course ownership through Hills, a college friend. Hills’ father, Arthur Hills, is a leading course architect—Golf Digest’s recently released list of the Top 100 public courses in the United States included six Arthur Hills designs. Healy and his partner opened Blue Mash in 2001, several years after their first attempt to start up a golf business in the county failed for reasons that still leave him peeved.
In 1995, they put a bid in on Rattlewood, a privately owned course in Mount Airy that was on the market. But the acquisition of Rattlewood was foiled by a bidder with much deeper pockets: the MCRA.
“Rattlewood was an existing club, and it wasn’t going to go anywhere,” he says. “We were going to continue to run it as a golf course, a cheap golf course. But Montgomery County swoops in and outbids us by over a million dollars.”
And, says Healy, the county hands itself competitive advantages over him whenever possible. Among the many issues Healy has with the county’s golf operation is the levying of an amusement tax, which puts a 7 percent surcharge on movie tickets and greens fees in the county.
Not all greens fees, however. County golf courses are exempt.
“You want to tell me that’s fair?” asks Healy. “That means right off the bat, I have to add 7 percent to my greens fees just to take in the same amount the county is getting from its greens fees at its courses. And, again, I’m basically the only guy in all of Montgomery County who is affected by this.” (Country-club memberships aren’t subject to the amusement tax.)
Healy has gone to Montgomery County Council meetings and lobbied for either an exemption from the amusement tax for Blue Mash or to have the 7 percent tax put in place at the county courses. But his lobbying has accomplished little: In fact, last year, the council approved raising the tax, for everybody but the county, to 10 percent. Luckily for Healy, County Executive Doug Duncan vetoed the increase measure.
One thing Healy has accomplished—unwittingly, he says—is to make an enemy out of Atz.
“Marc Atz followed me down the hallway after a meeting last year,” Healy says with a laugh, “and he’s yelling at me: ‘You’re ruining it for the rest of us! You’re not a team player!’ That guy can’t stand me. He thinks I’m [lobbying against the amusement tax] just to make more money. Well, I want them to recognize that what they’re doing isn’t fair. No other business in Montgomery County has to put up with my situation. Why doesn’t the county just open up a coffee shop? That’s where the money is. Why don’t they undercut a dry cleaner?”
When I ask Atz why the county doesn’t charge an amusement tax at its golf courses, his disdain for the topic, and for the one golf-course owner who has made it an issue, bubbles up.
“You seem like a smart guy,” he says. “We’re not in the private sector, and the law provides for that [tax], plain and simple. I don’t see his argument. Is there any correlation between [what Healy faces competing against the county] in any other business? I am sure that there are other situations. Maybe liquor sales. Of course, you’re asking the question backwards. If we started in 1960, and [Healy] started in , it’s not that the county is trying to compete with the private sector. It’s that we were providing things when the private sector came along. That’s the way I look at it. Maybe I’m loony.”
Healy says that, despite the troubles with the government, he likes being in the golf business and that he’s always looking for places to open up another club. Even in Montgomery County.
“The only advantage we have going for us over the county,” says Healy, “is they don’t build good golf courses.”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Phtograph by Charles Steck.