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Golfers get in one last round as the Airco Golf Course closes

LARGO

Before the sun came up Sunday, Larry Thomas hit the Airco Golf Course.

The 50-year-old course was closing to the public for good. Thomas, the golf course manager, made sure he was the first one to tee off on Airco's final day.

He was hired in 2000 to set up golf systems in Pinellas County, just as the county prepared to take over the course. It was previously leased to Airco Golf Inc.

Now Thomas, 55, is submitting his resume to golf properties throughout the Southeast, hoping he won't have to uproot his family.

After each hole Sunday, he told himself, "I'll never do that again."

After he took his final putt, he thought, "Okay. I'm done."

He made 18 straight pars.

In March, the County Commission voted 5-1 to prepare to shut down the course. Airco lost more than $200,000 last year, according to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, which runs the course.

On Sunday, 113 golfers played the course, which hugs the southeast side of the airport. Nineteen took part in the "last annual Airco Open," a charity event for Meals on Wheels. Usually, closer to 175 people play on Sundays. But many had already said their goodbyes, Thomas said.

"I love the fact that the airport is right there and when your game isn't going good, you can watch the planes and pretend you're going somewhere else," said Doug Bevis, vice mayor of Oldsmar, as a jet roared next door. He was prepping for the 3 p.m. charity event, hosted by Pinellas County Commissioners Neil Brickfield and Norm Roche. Roche had opposed closing the course.

Most who came out for the tournament were upbeat.

But not all patrons took Pinellas County's decision to close the park in stride.

"They're taking a piece of paradise out of Pinellas County," said Michael Pantel, 72, who played the course for about two decades.

The course was reasonable, friendly and convenient, he said. He thinks the county should have supported it more.

"Instead of looking at ways to improve it and promote it, they close it," Pantel said. "They look at the bottom line."

Steve Flanagan, a St. Petersburg High drivers ed teacher, feels pretty much the same way.

He popped by about 4 p.m. to play with his buddies, the school's librarian Les Burrows and retired teacher Dan Wagstaff.

"This thing will sit here five, 10 years, empty," said Flanagan, 62.

He was fond of the wide-open course.

"If you're not a great golfer you can still score," Flanagan said.

Inside the clubhouse, Pro Shop shelves were clear of golf supplies. Tables and chairs were stacked on the side of the room.

"Everyone who worked here loved their job," said Susan Craft, 54, the clerk/cashier behind the counter. "I don't even play golf and I love my job."

Craft says she'll file for unemployment. Sunday, she made sure she was the last customer at the Pro Shop. That was her way of saying goodbye.

She bought pink golf balls, a cap for her husband, Airco towels, a pair of socks and a package of tees.

"I'm going to start golfing now," she said.

Craft was one of about 25 full- and part-time workers, whose numbers dwindled over the past few months. Three were employed by the county. A dozen were employed by a staffing company. The rest worked for a food service company and a maintenance service.

Terry Miller, a cart attendant, wished he could have made it to 20 years with the county.

"They don't have any openings," said Miller, 60, who spent much of the day taking down battery chargers and cleaning up the cart barn.

He worked 16 years in the county's fleet management department, left town for a number of years and returned to work at the course about 3 1/2 years ago.

"You hate to lose your job," he said, "but you've got to be subject to change."

He returned to work Monday to help load up the carts.

A little before 1 p.m., he headed to the last hole. He tapped his final putt from 3 feet away.

"It was poetic justice," Miller said. "I got a par on it."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Golfers get in one last round as the Airco Golf Course closes 05/17/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 4:24pm]
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