Golfer banned, not silenced
By LOGAN D. MABE, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Bill Najmark had just four-putted the 14th hole at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course and was in a foul mood.
At the next hole, Najmark came upon two golf course maintenance workers, who asked how he was doing.
"How am I doing?" Najmark bellowed. "I just four-putted."
He complained that "the Babe's" greens were in miserable shape, all brown and balding and covered with green sand to make them more presentable. Then he began to vent about Jeff Henderson, the director of golf operations for the Tampa Sports Authority, which manages the course.
"If I were a golf terrorist, I would stick a gun up his a-- and blow his brains out for the way he keeps this golf course," Najmark said.
The tirade did not go unnoticed.
A little later, Najmark said, course assistant manager John Elliot rode out to where he was playing and told him to leave. He did.
But that was only the beginning. Najmark has since been banned from the Carrollwood course and from two others, an action he considers unfair and illegal. Now he is threatening a lawsuit.
"I still have a right to free speech," he says, "even if it's ugly speech.'
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Bill Najmark loves two things in life: pizza and golf. The pizza he makes at Brothers With PMS, his garage-sized store. He is passionate about pizzamaking, his business for 19 years. He builds them with great care for patrons to take home and bake in their own ovens.
He gives customers precise instructions on how his creations should be cooked and will not stand for improvisation. One day a man came in for a pie and said he was going to cook it that evening using his pizza stone. Najmark insisted that would ruin the pizza. The man persisted. Najmark refused to surrender the pie.
"We call him the Pizza Nazi," said Peg Moss, Najmark's business partner. "I had a sign on the door once that said 'The Pizza Nazi,' but he's also Jewish so I had to take it down."
Golf is a more recent passion.
"I've been playing golf religiously for four years," said Najmark, 50. He figures he has spent more than $10,000 playing at "the Babe," about a mile from his shop at Armenia and Linebaugh avenues.
He installed a shower in the back of his store so he can go straight from a morning round of golf, clean up at work and be at it by 11 a.m. Najmark says he occasionally plays at another course but that "the Babe" has stolen his heart.
That's why it pains Najmark when he sees the course suffer. He rages against the maintenance policies that he says ravage the greens.
"He feels that what's going on out there is ridiculous," Moss said.
Najmark lets people know his opinions, which can sometimes be heard a good wedge shot away. Most of the staff at the Babe are painfully familiar with Najmark's devotion to free speech. Ask them about the Pizzaman and they shake their heads and roll their eyes. They use terms such as "jerk" and "loudmouth."
But the gun comment Najmark aimed at Henderson was the last straw.
A week after being thrown off the course, Najmark received a letter from Henderson.
"It remains quite clear that you are and have been extremely unhappy with all aspects of the TSA- managed golf properties," Henderson wrote. "Over the last two years your continued verbal abuse of the employees has been borderline unacceptable behavior. It is my position that we have tolerated your abuse much too long."
Henderson banned Najmark from Babe Zaharias and TSA's other two city courses, Rogers Park and Rocky Point. Henderson declined comment for this story.
Najmark went to the top: TSA executive director Henry Saavedra. They set up a meeting to discuss the "allegations of verbal threats and abuse to our golf course employees and to see if we can come to a resolution of this matter," Saavedra wrote in a letter to Najmark.
Initially, Najmark was looking at a yearlong ban from the courses. But at the meeting, Saavedra decided to suspend Najmark's privileges for 90 days. If Najmark showed up at any of the courses, the staff was instructed to call the police and have him evicted, or arrested for trespassing.
At the end of the 90 days, Najmark could return if he wrote a formal letter of apology and agreed to behave in the future.
Najmark reacted to the sanction like he would to a soggy pizza crust.
He insists he did not make an actual threat against Henderson because he used the word "if," as in "If I was a golf terrorist."
"That disqualifies it as a threat," he said.
"Our employees considered it a threat," Saavedra said. "I thought at the very least it was disruptive verbal abuse. The employees also thought it was a verbal threat of abuse."
Saavedra pointed out that the TSA routinely has rowdy patrons removed from Raymond James Stadium, another public facility it manages. Banning a golfer isn't much different.
And Najmark isn't the first golfer to be shown the clubhouse door. Saavedra said other golfers, "two or three at the most in the 20 years I know of," have been banned from TSA courses.
It's rare, he said, because "most people are pretty civil and have fun out there."
Najmark, his feathers sufficiently ruffled, now is talking lawsuits. He is seeking an audience with prominent free speech attorney Luke Lirot, a regular defender of lap dancers and strip club owners.
"I'm going to file a lawsuit against them for slander and libel," Najmark said. "I'm going to file a lawsuit against the TSA for $100,000."
Until then, Najmark will continue to play golf, though not at "the Babe." He is checking out other affordable courses up and down the Suncoast while steering clear of the place he always considered his home course.
"I don't need to go to jail for a day for golf," he said.
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