With vacations growing daily less affordable, the upcoming season should be a banner year for local public golf courses.

Pro Jim Hightower, for instance, expects to gross $340,000 in greens fees alone at the 27-hole Northwest Park complex north of Wheaton. That would be 20 percent more than last year, which was up a fifth from the year before. Last season, 80,000 golfers played Northwest Park.

Hightower says there are widespread notions about public golf and public golfers that are not true.

One is that public courses are second-rate compared to country clubs. Hightower feels his Northwest Park jewel compares favorably to many area country clubs, and Eddie Ault, who designed it, asserts the layout meets the standards of the U.S. Open.

"I've heard an awful lot of comments from area golfers who belong to clubs, who say the maintenance and playability here is as good or better than their own courses," said Hightower. "I've got guys who have quit country clubs who are playing may golf course and are happier. It's a lot cheaper to pay as you play than to pay dues year around. We even keep handicaps out here. The only things we don't have are the locker rooms and the steaks."

Another myth Hightower would like to put to rest is that public golfers are crass, lacking in etiquette. "My golfers are the most courteous in the world," he said. "They are lawyers, bricklayers, doctors and truckdrivers; they all love each other and by and large, I don't have any problems."

Crowds are, however, an indisputable drawback of public golf courses, where one may wait two hours to tee off and spend five more getting around. "This is the worse fun I've ever had!" was the comment of one player sho had watched with growing aggravation while the group ahead fooled around for 15 minutes and then had stepped up and flubbed his shot.

When Hightower opened Northwest Park in 1964, he handled about 250 golfers a day on weekends. Now, on an extremely busy weekend day, 650 golfers pass through the pro shop.

He has some suggestions to speed up play. Etiquette calls for the golfer farthest from the hole to hit first. Forget it, says Hightower. When you reach your ball, look to see that it's safe, and hit.

On par three holes, tradition calls for players on the green to step aside and wave the group on the tee to play up. Hightower said that wastes 17 minutes per round.

Don't leave gold carts in front of the green. After chipping, park the cart to the rear of the green, toward the next tee.

The Washington area has several quality public courses: Northwest Park, Algonkian in Sterling, Virginia, PGA touring pro Lee Elder's Langston course in Washington, and picturesque Pine Ridge, north of Baltimore, which is seldom crowded.

To avaoid crowds, arrange a starting time in advance or call around to find the course with the shortest lines.