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Critics say Rogers Park is neglected

A former golf pro argues that race is an issue. A Sports Authority official cites other problems at the course.

At 8:40 a.m. on a Friday morning, the maintenance crew is busy at Rocky Point Golf Course, a green expanse at the elbow of Memorial Drive and Independence Parkway in western Hillsborough County.

The loud buzz of a weed whacker is steady. A tractor pulls a set of blades over a patch of rough.

Golfers in hats, shorts and white shoes are already on the course.

Cars whiz by on Independence, and planes from nearby Tampa International Airport soar overhead, but there is a surprising calm on the course.

There has been no talk of having the Tampa-Hillsborough YMCA take over management of Rocky Point, and a visit to each of the three city-owned courses makes it clear why: Rocky Point is the best public course in the city.

Rogers Park, which has been the focus of a furious debate about its future since the city proposed turning over the course's management to the YMCA, does not fare well in comparison.

The Tampa Sports Authority, which manages the city's courses, borrowed $800,000 from the city five years ago to build a new Rocky Point clubhouse, which dwarfs the clubhouses at Rogers Park and Carrollwood's Babe Zaharias in size and quality.

There are few of the big dirt spots at Rocky Point easily seen on the fairways at Rogers Park and, to a lesser extent, Babe Zaharias.

The maintenance staff at Rocky Point enforces rules to protect damp greens and fairways, some golfers say, in a way that's not seen at Rogers Park.

Still, some black residents have a special attachment to Rogers Park. It was, after all, the one place they could play during segregation.

The course was once a park where black residents went for picnics and spent summer holidays. That park was named in honor of G.D. Rogers, a prominent black businessman.

Even today, with segregation an unpleasant memory, blacks are more often found at Rogers Park.

Some fear the YMCA will trample on the heritage of Rogers Park, and they want the city to fix the course and the sports authority to continue managing it.

Others just want the improvements, no matter who pays.

"My dad used to come out a lot," 22-year-old Carnell McCray said recently. "This is the only golf course I knew about. I didn't know there were any other golf courses around till I started playing."

McCray wants the city to do whatever it takes to upgrade Rogers Park, even if that means reaching an agreement with the YMCA, which has promised at least $1-million in much-needed repairs.

Charles Owens also would like the YMCA to assume management of the course. Owens, 67, said he played on the Professional Golfers Association tour for 30 years, leaving in 1977 to be the golf pro at Rogers Park.

He was forced out of that job after three years, he said, because he was told he did not know enough about how to run a golf course.

Owens still plays golf and does not mince words in describing the conditions at Rogers Park and explaining why it does not compare well with Rocky Point.

"I've been in golf for 58 years," he said. "I've played on some of the best courses in the world. Rogers Park is in horrible shape.

"The reason Rocky Point is in the shape that it is in is the volume of play is 99 percent white," said Owens, who is black. "And I'm sure the people who play over there have friends in city government."

Owens said the Sports Authority would not let Rocky Point deteriorate, lest it hear from white golfers and then from city officials.

"They don't care about Rogers Park," Owens said of the government officials who are in charge of the course. "Too many black people play there. It's home for us."

Henry Saavedra, the executive director of the Sports Authority, acknowledges that Rogers Park should be in better condition than it is. But he said the problems at the course stem from a faulty irrigation system, not from neglect.

Problems at the course have been made worse, Saavedra said, by the resignations of three or four maintenance staffers. They left when the YMCA deal, which is backed by Mayor Dick Greco but has not yet gained City Council approval, was first announced.

Those staff members thought they would be fired if the YMCA took over and decided to get out before being pushed, Saavedra said.

"Nobody was going to get fired," Saavedra said.

Also, some maintenance equipment can't navigate particular parts of the course because of standing water during the rainy season.

As for claims that Rogers Park has been neglected, they are not fully supported by budget figures from the Sports Authority.

Rogers Park, which has lost money in each of the past three years, has received $1.21-million in maintenance funding during that time. Babe Zaharias, which has generated $156,775 in revenue since 1996, received $1.32-million in maintenance funding. Rocky Point, which has generated $179,048 since 1996, received $1.15-million in maintenance funding.

Saavedra said each of the courses needs between $1-million to $1.5-million in upgrades.

Even with those improvements, Saavedra said, the city's courses should not be expected to be on par with private courses like the ones at Avila and Westchase.

"Our goal is to keep the courses as inexpensive as possible," he said.