ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 10 -- Golf legend Jack Nicklaus came to Maryland looking for work today, and received a $1 million contract and a civics lesson in the separation of powers.
In the morning, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Board of Public Works approved the fee for Nicklaus to design a state-funded, "signature" golf course that Western Maryland officials hope will be part of the region's economic salvation.
But in the afternoon, legislators expressed resentment toward the governor for rushing through the contract and said he was exceeding his authority. The lawmakers told Nicklaus not to count on completing the job.
"We don't want a white elephant even if it's designed by the Golden Bear," said Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel), referring to Nicklaus' nickname.
But that didn't stop lawmakers from gawking. Nicklaus was trailed through the day by a gaggle of middle-aged, male groupies, and legislators thrust anything from golf shirts to baseball caps at Nicklaus for his autograph. Del. Nancy L. Murphy (D-Baltimore County) even pulled out her camera and took Nicklaus' picture while he was testifying before her committee.
To Western Maryland legislators, however, this was serious business. Officials in that area -- where the unemployment rate is more than double that for the rest of Maryland -- for years have wanted state government to build a golf course in Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland. They hope a course would attract a private developer to build a resort and convention center.
Tourism is what will replace the area's declining heavy industries, officials say, and they painted a rosy picture of avid golfers driving from Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh to play on a Nicklaus-designed course in Allegany County. "A lot of us have dreamed about this for a long time," said Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany). "This literally turns Western Maryland's history."
Nicklaus and his Florida-based company, Jack Nicklaus Golf Services Inc., have made designing golf courses a big business. He said he has 50 courses completed, a dozen or more under construction and 25 to 30 under contract. Nicklaus usually works with a private developer, and he said few of his courses are open to the public. This is the first time he has worked with a state.
Nicklaus said golf courses that carry his name are more successful than other courses. They receive "more press, more ink, more publicity," he said.
Legislators didn't dispute that, but some said they had not yet been convinced that building a golf course at Rocky Gap was the right thing to do. Schaefer last year wanted to begin construction, but legislators would not agree.
Instead, they said the state could spend no more than $300,000 on planning such a layout, and that no more money could be spent until the state entered into a contract with a private developer to build an adjoining conference center and hotel.
But the Department of Natural Resources has been unsuccessful in that goal. Negotiations between the state and a private developer broke down last summer, and Schaefer and the department now believe that the golf course would be enough of an attraction on its own. And a Nicklaus-designed course, they said, would be sure to interest a developer.
Legislators were skeptical of that claim and concerned that Schaefer had overstepped his authority by moving quickly on the Nicklaus contract.
"We're concerned the process is being circumvented," said Sen. Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County). Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's) said lawmakers are upset that Schaefer would rush to put the Nicklaus contract on the Board of Public Works agenda "while the legislature is debating the issue."
Department of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary John Griffin said the first phase of Nicklaus' contract is for $200,000, within the amount the legislature allocated. Nicklaus knows that the rest of the money is contingent upon legislative approval, he said.
Griffin and Nicklaus also said that at the end of the phase, it will be clear whether the site is right for a golf course, and how much it would cost to build one. The current estimate is about $7 million.
In answer to legislators' questions, Griffin said Nicklaus was awarded the contract without opening the process to other golf course designers because "we basically just decided . . .that Nicklaus was uniquely qualified." GOLF COURSE PROPOSAL
Estimated cost: $7 million for construction.
Jack Nicklaus' fee: $1 million. Board of Public Works approved paying him $200,000 for initial design.
Next step: Legislative approval of construction.