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America's Melting Pot Moves to the Public Links


Everyone at Tenison Park public golf course has a story.

Montie Norvell, a Dallas firefighter, once spent an afternoon here "verbally abusing" his ball, only to learn that one of his playing partners was a pastor.

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Jacob Morales, a painting contractor, once shot a round with a dentist who bought him a burger at the clubhouse and taught him a Swedish knock-knock joke.

On sunny afternoons, it's not uncommon for Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk to ditch his cell phone, drive himself to the links here, and tee off with total strangers.

For years now, scholars have been warning that Americans no longer like each other. From the rise of gated communities to the decline of bowling leagues, they say, little remains of the associative nation Alexis de Tocqueville so admired.

But here at Dallas's Tenison, the perspective is different. Anyone with $13 and a bag of sticks can play, and just about every type of person does. Indeed, the emerging melting pot of players at many municipal courses across the nation defies the stereotype that golf is a game played only by rich white men in plaid pants.

Not only do public courses nurture the sport's soaring popularity among women, minorities, and blue-collar workers, observers say, but they also force Americans from all walks of life to spend five hours together playing a game that punishes arrogance.

"What's so great about golf is that it goes across all boundaries and gives people something in common," says Jere Mills, golf superintendent of the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department. "All the walking and talking makes it a social game, and there's an emphasis on good manners.... You can really get to know somebody."

On a balmy June Thursday at Tenison, course officials have, as usual, grouped players into foursomes to speed the pace of play. At the 18th green, after these ad hoc groups make their final putts, there are often warm handshakes and laughter. Business cards change hands and family photos emerge from wallets.

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A Japanese couple teaches a pair of nurses from Arlington, Texas, how to bow in respect. A Dallas accountant and his son, both outfitted like tour professionals, sit on a bench with a mechanic in cut-off shorts, trading gulps of ice water. In the parking lot, some people pop their clubs in the trunk of a Lexus. Others toss them in the beds of battered pickups.

"Golf used to be a white-male-dominated sport," David Price, chairman and CEO of American Golf Corp., told the Los Angeles Times. "Now we see kids in baggy pants in the gallery. Women and minorities who weren't welcome 30 years ago are feeling more comfortable."

Mr. Mills estimates that about 25 percent of Tenison's golfers are female, and 20 percent are minorities. In addition, 70 percent of all rounds of golf played in the US take place on daily-fee courses open to the public. And although golfers have slightly higher median incomes than most Americans, surveys show that 40 percent describe themselves as blue-collar workers.

According to industry observers, a boom in construction of golf courses nationwide, and the dramatic early success of golfer Tiger Woods, have helped fuel the transformation of this game from an exclusive sport to a more democratic pastime.

The sport's new populist bent has engendered a grass-roots movement of sorts led by "public golfers" - President Clinton included - who welcome diversity and advocate opening some of the game's most storied private courses to the public.

In the June issue of Golfing, publisher James Max Lane says golf is at "a critical time in its history," when it is turning from the exclusivity of this past century toward its roots as "a public experience."

Throughout the nation, golf merchandise companies and city recreation departments have been holding "swing clinics" in urban neighborhoods and initiating club drives in hopes of offsetting the game's often prohibitive difficulty and cost.

"Golf isn't like baseball or basketball," says Bill Dickey, president of the National Minority Golf Foundation in Phoenix. "The equipment is expensive to begin with, and you have to pay every time you play. I think more needs to be done to reduce the cost, or we'll see a lot of these new golfers giving up."

In the meantime, though, America's municipal courses continue to be places where people from wildly different backgrounds compliment each other's shots, help one another search for lost balls, and every now and then, forge lasting friendships.

"I thought in this country the idea was just to earn money, and friendship didn't mean too much," says Mr. Morales, who recently took up golf. "But everybody is always in a good mood when they come to play golf, and I've met some of the nicest people."

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