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COURSE CRUNCH; NOT ENOUGH FAIRWAY SPACE TO ACCOMMODATE NUMEROUS GOLFERS IN THE VALLEY.

Byline: Howard Beck and Dave Shelburne Daily News Staff Writers

The sign over the starter's window at the Encino-Balboa golf complex says it all: ``Attention Early Golfers: You must maintain a 3-1/2-hour pace.'' A cartoon snail protests, ``But I'm not good enough to play 18 holes in 3-1/2 hours!'' The sign answers back, coldly, ``This excuse is not acceptable.''

There's a zero-tolerance policy on the San Fernando Valley's links these days, a reflection of a citywide fairway space crunch.

Try reserving a weekend starting time on a municipal golf course in the Valley. Try doing it without pulling your hair out.

``Weekends? Forget about it. I don't even try on the weekends,'' said Ron Lawrence of Altadena on a recent afternoon at Encino-Balboa.

``It's a nightmare,'' said golf pro Mario Fusco.

In fact, Los Angeles as a whole ranks next to last among U.S. cities in golf courses per capita, according to the National Golf Foundation. Among major cities, L.A. is 308th of 309. Last place belongs to Manhattan.

Last year, 1.1 million rounds were played on Los Angeles' public courses, 435,000 among just three Valley sites - Encino-Balboa, Woodley Lakes and Hansen Dam, according to Jackie Tatum of the city's parks and recreation department.

``We are just packed to the gills,'' said Woodley Lakes head pro Larry Atlas.

The problem, Atlas said, is beyond fixing - even with fast-play rules, altered starting intervals, more marshals or even the new automated phone-reservation system installed for Los Angeles muni courses.

``The supply definitely isn't meeting the demand,'' Atlas said. ``We need more courses.''

Stretching the Valley to its geographical limits, area golfers can choose from just nine 18-hole public courses: Woodley Lakes, Encino and Balboa; Wilson and Harding in Griffith Park; El Cariso in Sylmar; Hansen Dam in Pacoima; De Bell in Burbank, and Knollwood in Granada Hills. Van Nuys GC, located adjacent to the Sepulveda Basin, offers an 18-hole three-par course and a nine-hole executive course.

It's not enough in an area so populous that if the Valley were its own city, it would be one of the nation's 10 largest.

Some relief is on the way, though it will not be nearly enough. Two privately built public courses could be open within the next two years, said Mark Armbruster, a land-use attorney representing the two courses' developers.

The first, Cascades, will be an 18-hole course in Sylmar. It's under construction and should be open by May or June of 1998. The second is a proposed 18-hole course in Tujunga Wash, which is under consideration by the City Council but could be approved this summer and open for play by 1999, Armbruster said.

Past that, forget it. For all practical purposes, L.A. has about as much available land as, well, Manhattan.

``After these two golf course developments, I don't foresee any other golf course developments in the city of Los Angeles, for the indefinite future,'' said Armbruster. ``There's either no land, or no suitable land, that is appropriate for it.''

The Valley's weekend golfers who endure the hopeful-waiting game or the six-hour-round game might be surprised to learn that, statistically, the game is actually becoming less popular both nationwide and in greater Los Angeles.

According to the National Golf Foundation, based in Jupiter, Fla., golf peaked nationally in 1990, when 27.8 million golfers played the game - three million more than last year.

Down, also, are the numbers in the megalopolis.

``When the decade opened, Los Angeles County owned 16 golf course systems, the largest singly-held municipal operation in the world,'' said Craig Kessler, public affairs chairman for Southern California Public Links. ``We posted just shy of two million rounds of golf that year. The last three fiscal years, it's been between 1.675 milion and 1.75 million for the entire county.''

That bigger picture of declining numbers might not be much comfort for Valley weekend golfers enduring long waits to get a starting time or finish a round.

Kessler, who teamed with the late Marty Tregnan for years to champion the cause of public golf, is not unaware of the irony in the crowded situation.

``The philosophy of public golf is to get as many people playing as possible,'' he said, crediting public-course golfers for much of the popularity the game enjoys today.

``I would hope some of the big players in the industry realize golf became big because there were generations of golfers fed into the system because public golf was available and inexpensive.''

Public-course managers in the Valley do what they can to handle the crush, speeding up play when possible while trying to keep the game an enjoyable experience for everyone.

``Pace of play is really dictated by the amount of people you have on the course and when they play,'' said Phil Scozzola, head professional at De Bell for 27 years. ``Play at 7 a.m. and you'll get around in 3.5 hours. Start at noon and its 5.5 hours. The more people, the more of a slowdown.''

Scozzola said there is only so much that can be done to keep play moving at a reasonable pace. On weekends at his course, flagsticks are placed in the easiest locations and tee boxes are moved back on the par-five holes to give most players a second shot without waiting for the preceding group to clear the green. Scozzola's marshals also use a color-coded flag system to let golfers know if they are on pace or lagging.

Knollwood has attempted to handle the crowds by using fivesomes and spreading out starting times to nine-minute intervals on weekends.

The concept of fivesomes isn't always popular for reasons of tradition and pace of play. But Knollwood head pro Gary Finneran says they do keep the waiting list moving faster. His club also has groups met on the first tee by a marshal who will offer tips on how to maintain a steady pace of play.

Valley golfers might also be able to seek refuge with an hour's drive up Highway 101. Eleven golf courses have been approved or proposed in Ventura County. The first two, in Moorpark, could be open for play in spring 1998.

Until then, the best advice is avoid weekends, early weekday mornings and weekday afternoons. That leaves a nice, hot four- to five-hour span in the late mornings to early afternoons Monday through Friday.

``About 1 or 2 (p.m.), nobody's out there,'' says Lawrence. ``That's when it's hottest.''

Otherwise, be prepared to wait. And wait they will.

``They want to play,'' says golf pro Fusco, ``they'll put up with it.''

How to cope with crowded courses

Golfers hoping to beat the crowds on the San Fernando Valley's public courses are not without resources.

Avoiding weekend play is the best solution, and while that's not always possible for those with Monday-through-Friday daytime work schedules, it's much easier to get on a course and play a faster round on weekdays.

Rising before dawn - either to make a phone reservation for a weekend starting time or to arrive at the course early enough to get one of the top spots on the waiting list - is another option.

Showing up at the course as a single, or even as a twosome, is generally a better bet for getting out for players without reservations. This is more the case at courses that send out fivesomes, but weekend starting times are routinely harder to secure than on weekdays no matter where you play locally.

Mondays are generally the easiest days to get a starting time, reserved or unreserved. Play increases toward weekends and peaks on Saturdays and Sundays.

Another option is more costly, in terms of time and money, but can be an extremely enjoyable golf experience: Get in the car and drive awhile. North San Diego County and the Palm Springs area are loaded with excellent courses and some have unlimited-play packages with overnight lodging.

Playing in the desert in summertime might not seem the most-sensible way to scratch the golf itch, but early starting times, carts, plenty of water and readily available golf discount books can make this approach satisfying. Generally, the rates with discount books are so good that one golf trip pays for the purchase of the book.

Golf Passbook discount books are priced at $20 each and benefit Boys and Girls Clubs of Palm Springs and Desert Golf Association. For information on where to purchase the books in this area, phone (800) 950-GOLF.

Another valuable course-searching aide is the Southern California Directory of Golf, published annually by the Southern California Golf Association and listing nearly 400 public, private and resort courses from San Diego to Paso Robles. The SCGA Directory, priced at $15, is available by mail from Golf House West, 3740 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood, 91604.

Those who find themselves toughing it out through a long weekend round in the Valley can appreciate the fact that even a long round is a problem rooted mostly in perspective in almost endless perfect golf climate of Southern California.

Plenty of golfers living east of the Rockies would leap at the chance for a ``long'' or winter round.

A young Jack Nicklaus discovered that quickly enough as soon as he got hooked on golf at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. He thought he'd solved the problem when he convinced Scioto teaching professional Jack Grout to have the club install an open-ended Quonset hut, from which the teen-aged Nicklaus would happily drive practice ball after practice ball onto the snow-covered range.

His bliss ended soon enough when he ran out of balls and learned retrieval would have to wait until the snow melted. Now that's a long wait on a golf course.

CAPTION(S):

Drawing, Box

Drawing: (color) no caption (Golfers in line)

Box: HOW TO COPE WITH CROWDED COURSES (see text)
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 3, 1997
Words:1643
Previous Article:UP & COMING.
Next Article:UCLA: O FOR OMAHA; LOUSY DEFENSE LEADS TO SECOND COLLEGE WORLD SERIES DEFEAT : MISS ST. 7, UCLA 5.


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