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A real golf Babe when the wraps come off

A $1.8-million facelift is restoring pride to a public course in Forest Hills.

By JACKIE RIPLEY
Published October 22, 2004

FOREST HILLS - It's gone from a crown jewel to an eyesore to a pleasing amenity. Now neighbors are pushing to get it back to somewhere in between.

It's the Babe Zaharias Golf Course and Country Club, a landmark for the nearly 80-year-old Forest Hills community.

"It has a history," said Pat Austin-Dillon, who lives on the golf course and is leading a drive to renovate both the golf course and country club. "There's a lot of history for our family as well as a lot of older homeowners."

The Tampa Sports Authority closed the 18-hole golf course at 11412 Forest Hills Drive in May for renovations. It's scheduled to reopen at the end of November.

"The course is surrounded by city streets so we couldn't redesign. We renovated," said Kennie Sims, head golf pro at Babe Zaharias. "But the public will be especially surprised by how it turned out."

The public, par-70 course has been in decline, with dead brown grass on the greens, an antiquated irrigation system and falling revenues. It hadn't had a major renovation in three decades.

The $1.8-million facelift will include a new sprinkler system, new greens and new trees. Workers are making some improvements to the clubhouse. They're also installing concrete posts with split rails to keep trespassers off the course during renovations.

This is the growing season for the newly seeded greens "and we have people out there chipping on the course," said Austin-Dillon, who also is a member of the Tampa Sports Authority golf committee. "We need people to stay off until it's done."

The Tampa Sports Authority, which leases the golf course from the city, borrowed money from the city for the renovations.

Tampa City Council member Shawn Harrison said former Mayor Dick Greco's administration originally earmarked $500,000. But because that would have covered only part of the venture, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio agreed to fund the entire amount.

"I think it was a very great move on her part," Harrison said. "I know the importance to the community of an affordable course, especially for young people."

The golf course, constructed in the 1920s, was once owned by Mildred "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, a gold medal winner in the 1932 Olympics and a founder of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

After she died in 1956, her husband sold the course. It shut down after a series of owners and became an overgrown eyesore until Tampa bought it and reopened it in 1973.

The course has been nominated for historic landmark status. That designation could occur as early as next month, said Annie Hart, the city's historic preservation manager.

Once the overhaul of the course is complete, members of the Forest Hills Neighborhood Civic Association will turn their attention to renovating the clubhouse, which will cost more money.

Today's sprawling ranch-style building, constructed in the mid 1970s, bears little resemblance to the original clubhouse, which burned to the ground in 1966. Built in the 1920s, the once-stylish three-story mansion was home to elegant dinners and balls, but it fell into disrepair over the years.

The former mansion was replaced by a more utilitarian structure that houses a pro shop and snack bar with seating for 40.

"The community wants to rebuild the clubhouse to reflect some of the original architectural elements," Hart said. "It's not financially feasible to replicate it, but it would have some of the architectural elements in the design."

Homeowners want a new clubhouse big enough for social functions and catered dinners, Hart said.

Residents hope the city will continue to help them make it happen.

"It increases property values," Austin-Dillon said. "It would behoove the city to keep this course in good shape."

- Jackie Ripley can be reached at 813 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 21, 2004, 13:21:19]

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