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Military golfers defend right to pursue happiness.

If your tastes in golf are for courses that combine scenic charm, sporty but undemanding holes and exclusive membership, the place to tee it up is the layout at Fort McNair's National Defense University. The course -- a three wood and a few five irons from the U.S. Capitol in southwest Washington -- offers still another thrill: $6 green fee for unlimited play. Now for the catch. Unless you're a skilled crasher, your chances of strolling the fairways at the Fort McNair are about the same as gaining access to Augusta National. At Fort McNair, only the military are welcomed. All others -- meaning civilians whose taxes support the armed forces -- are blocked at the gate.

Similar exclusivity prevails at 230 other courses on military bases. These rarefied, manicured playgrounds for the troops are perks that have long gone unchallenged.

No more. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., has included military golf courses in the Senior Government Officer Benefit Limitation Act, a bill meant to cut the freeloading and freebies among public servants. The servants, it appears, have developed tastes for being served. They have access to 119 executive dining rooms, 351 private health clubs, 288 limousines and 230 golf courses. All in all, it's the comfort zone, plus the 19th bole.

When I was visiting Fort McNair the other afternoon, I noticed the fairways were empty, save for a lone twosome poking along in the springtime tranquillity. Across the Washington Channel, the public course at East Potomac Park was jammed with the civilian masses, with long waits for starting times. There, the weekend greens fee is $13, more than double McNair's. At many of the nation's 9,388 public courses, the fees routinely are $20 or more.

DeConcini's bill would end the luxurious pampering of the military by turning over its golf courses to private contractors to be opened to the public. The economic argument is that military golf courses, like the private dining rooms and limousines for elites, are money-losers.

According to Golf Digest magazine, military golf courses could net at least $110 million in income annually. That's more than five times the $20 million in golf courses earnings military officials estimate they took in during 1991. "There's little question," Golf Digest states, that military courses could be making money hand over fist."

The other question: Why can't soldiers play at public courses, or join private ones, like everyone else? Maybe it's that these are tough times to be in uniform. Women want to fly fighter planes and lead combat patrols. Gays and lesbians are on the other flank demanding their rights. There's to be no more fun at Tailhook. And now the golf courses are under attack. Gone are the days when it was only the commies to worry about.

In the war of the perks, the military's battle plan is to argue that whether or not the golf courses make money they are still needed for morale. Retired Gen. James Joy of the Marine Corps Morale, Welfare and Recreation Branch told Golf Digest: "If we don't provide our people with good quality-of-life programs, like good recreation facilities, they're not going to stay in."

Out at Gung Ho Country Club, things have gone soft. Marines will quit the corps because they've lost their golf courses?

Easy living is an epidemic in all branches of the military. DeConcini reports that 95 of the executive branch's 119 private dining facilities are in the Department of Defense. It has 87 chauffeured limousines 58 more than the next agency. Generals and admirals can live in princely hedonism: a limo at the door in the morning, breakfast and lunch in the private dining room, a limo to the golf course where there's no wait and a ride back to the base for a sauna at the health club.

To preserve the golfing portion of that, General Joy said ruefully:" We've got to put up a good battle' against the DeConcini bill.

Onward, golfing soldiers.
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Title Annotation:expensive military golf courses
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:May 14, 1993
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