Baltimore's Forest Park Golf Course An Oasis In Troubled Times
SI's Michael Bamberger talks to SI's Alan Shipnuck about Bamberger's new book and shares some great stories about living legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and secret legends like caddie Golf Ball Hall.
It was a spring day that felt like midsummer. The curfew had been lifted but the city was still hot. Forest Park Golf Course was not. It’s a public course, the historic epicenter of black golf in Baltimore, 18 rolling holes covered by lush grass, dotted with shallow bunkers and ending at simple stop-sign greens. The course, parts of which date back to 1934, is located on the city’s leafy western edge, a few miles from where the Freddie Gray rioting had stopped the city cold.
Black golfers in Baltimore have been playing Forest Park for generations. The head professional, the pro-shop manager, the starter and the caterer are all black. There are grits on the breakfast menu, stacks of golf magazines in the clubhouse and old-timey tractors in the maintenance shed. Sadena Parks, a black golfer and an LPGA rookie, got her start at Forest Park, and every black player you ever heard of (and his brother) has come through the city course, looking for easy pickings or to put on a clinic, a show. Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown, Calvin Peete. Jim Thorpe and his brother Chuck.
I pulled in on a recent, quiet weekday afternoon, paid my green fee and fell into a conversation with the pro, Tim Sanders. Mr. Tim, they call him. Mr. Tim has a salt-and-pepper walrus mustache and an easy manner. He was wearing a bright green polo shirt. His Titleist staff bag stood in the corner of his office. There are 28,000 members of the PGA of America, and only 104 of them are black. Mr. Tim, a 69-year-old Vietnam vet, cited the numbers for me with sorrowful awe. His day starts at 5:30 a.m. and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He asks himself: Why don’t more folks want this life?
He led me on a tour of his course. Trundling through the rough in a tired cart, Mr. Tim gave me a brief history of black golf in Baltimore. The heyday was in the 1970s, when Forest Park had a reputation for good play and good action. The low point was Day 2 of the rioting. “They made us close at five,” Mr. Tim said. “Nobody was coming anyway, but it was heartbreaking to close for that reason.”
We watched as two black men in their thirties played the fourth hole, a stout par 3. The first gent hit a stinger hole-high and the second a crazy push-shove. “Come follow us on the next hole!” the first guy said, pleased with himself, more pleased to see his opponent in trouble.
At 5 p.m., the old pro met his ladies on the practice green beside the modern clubhouse. About 20 women, most of them black and new to golf, had gathered for a clinic. The day’s subject was chipping.
“Here’s how you tell the difference between a 6-iron and a 9-iron,” Mr. Tim said. He explained how irons are stamped.
“Isn’t the 6-iron longer?” one of the women said.
Across the street, on a sloping field that is part of Forest Park, a young white man in khaki shorts named Matt Bassler, a former No. 1 player at Loyola in Baltimore, was running a First Tee clinic attended by about two dozen kids. “Today we’re going to work on getting the ball in the air,” he said. Some of the swings were beautiful, and every time you looked up there were two or three balls arcing through the warm, still air. Now and again, Matt will take some of the kids to a local country club. “Golf, tennis and a pool in one place,” he said. “That blows their minds.”
I drove from the course to the intersection of Pennsylvania Ave. and North Ave., where rioters had burned down a CVS. Something was going on. The streets were crawling with police officers and patrol cars, and the streets and sidewalks were, in places, teeming with people looking around. A helicopter circled overhead. You could feel the heat. Plastic bags swirled in the air. Men hailed rides from private cars with little below-the-waist finger flicks. A thin middle-aged man walked up North wearing a T-shirt stenciled with the words BLEED BALTIMORE.
I thought of the dusk scene on that field across from Forest Park. The kids would each hit five or 10 balls and then, in a group, chase after them, collecting the balls in their shirts as if they were gathering Easter eggs. Kennedy, Makaila, Adina, Jalil and many others, enjoying the game, each other, the night.