When someone dies, most times they're buried, covered by earth.
When a golf course dies, it's earth smothered by life.
Pine Shore Golf Course in Berlin, Md., is one of those courses. It sits, lying in ruin, closed since 2010. The signage is rotting away, but it clearly indicates there one stood a golf course. Now under a growing canopy of myriad weeds, trees and bushes, it sits dead.
One of 107 golf facilities to close in 2010, Pine Shore closed its doors a little over a year after the Great Recession ended.
The property was a 27-hole executive course built by Delaware-born Al Janis. Janis' father, James, built DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, the home to the LPGA Championship for many years.
Janis moved to Ocean City in the '70s, settling his family there. Pine Shore was born first with 18 holes on the originally purchased 75 acres in 1979, then the third nine two years later on a separately acquired, adjoining 24-acre piece of land. Janis constructed three nine-hole tracks -- Pine, Willow and Dogwood -- that could be combined in different ways to offer players an affordable experience. Even until the end, Janis and his family maintained and ran the course.
Despite its pint-sized nature, Pine Shore did great business. At one point, 35,000 rounds were played there per year. Janis believed it was because patrons found the courses more challenging than they expected.
"We have over 75 percent of your golf game here and very few people who play here are any nearer par than they are at their home courses. It's a challenge, that's why so many come back," he said to the Baltimore Sun in 1992.
The Janis family tried to make golf fun for everyone, hosting weekly nine- and 18-hole tournaments in a variety of formats. They tried to offer a little something for everyone.
Business was so good on the Eastern Shore that Janis decided to try his hand on the other side of the state. In 1991, he opened Willow Springs Golf Course in Sykesville. It's an 18-hole, par-62 course that is still billed on its website today as an "expansion of her sister course, Pine Shore Golf."
In the mid-80s, Janis was a hot commodity for a small-time architect. He was even commissioned to layout and build a third set of nine holes at Limekiln Golf Course, situated north of Philadelphia.
From the makings of the course's Facebook page, the decision to close Pine Shore's gates forever came rather quickly. On June 25, 2010, the last entry was posted, making it seem like Pine Shore was in the middle of another great season.
It read: "Our customers have been telling us that our greens this year are as good or better than many courses in the area, which is really saying something!"
Reading into that will tell you precisely what killed Pine Shore Golf Course: the competition.
The competition had come right to Pine Shore's doorstep. River Run Golf Club is located next door to Pine Shore. It's a Gary Player-designed track, built in 1991 to dovetail with a surrounding housing development. Today, a tee time in peak slots runs $70, but at twilight, the course can be played for as little as $40.
Just a few miles from both courses is the 18 holes of the Ocean Pines Golf & Country Club. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. design -- the only one on the Delmarva peninsula -- has endured its own problems in recent years, but is now under the eye of Billy Casper Golf management and has undergone a massive renovation in the last 18 months. It accepts members but is also open to the public, running about $5 more per round than River Run at every hour of the day.
That's three golf facilities within a couple of miles of one another. Nevermind places like the 36 holes at the Jim Furyk-influenced Glen Riddle, the lauded Lighthouse Sound, the Beach Club, Rum Pointe and the Bay Club. And that's just in Maryland. There's even more golf just over the border in Delaware. Almost all of these courses boast some vistas of the Assawoman Bay leading into Ocean City or, at a minimum, some canals that feed into her.
The green fees at none of these courses will break the bank. Even Lighthouse Sound can be played for a modest price at the right time of day. I played it years ago for $30.
Why, then, would anyone spend the money on a landlocked, value-priced course?
So Pine Shore Golf closed. And now it sits there, waiting in purgatory.
A "For Sale" sign greets passers-by at the front of the 95-acre property. Cecil Bank, Janis' lifeline, bought the land in proceedings with the architect-operator and, in 2012, charged developer Gene Parker with prepping the land to be turned into a high-end housing development.
“It’s a fantastic piece of land with a lot of potential,” Parker said in Feb. 2012.
“We’re the guys to come up with some type of hopefully ingenious plan to make the existing golf course into some type of upscale housing project."
Parker failed, or the bank changed its mind. The land was never developed. In fact, since it was cleaned up 18 months ago, the property has once again been abandoned. It now sits for sale, two parcels, in foreclosure. The land, clubhouse and maintenance building can be yours for $1.785 million. For another $1.65 million, Pine Shore Golf South can be yours as well. That's a separate 99-acre golf course Janis bought, re-designed and opened in 2002.
I parked my car at the gate. The sign bolted to it says "Pine Shore Golf Opens" almost suggesting that it could be resurrected any day now. It probably didn't refer to a date so much as a fact: the gate opens. Either way, it's ironic. Neither is happening any time soon.
In golf, when you can't go through or over something, your next best bet is to go around it. (Going backwards could have been an option were I afraid of trespassing.) Immediately through that gate, to the left and the right, are clear markings of what once was a bustling golf course.
To the left, what was once a tiny green, now overrun by tall grass. Looking back to the tee, it's more like a scene from a prairie in the mid-19th century than a golf course reclaimed by Mother Nature.
A few paces to the right, it's a small trek down a once well-worn path to a tee box. I stand on it, the grass longer than even Tom Meeks could have hoped for in a U.S. Open, as brittle, dry and tall as what lies just off the fairways of Muirfield -- or any Open rota course.
Down the line, however, is no clear shot. It's the most obscene of forced carries. Not only do weeds impede a hypothetical ball flight, but so, too, do once-nubile trees that are now beginning to rival those that line the erstwhile fairways for water and sunlight. Without a sherpa to go ahead with a machete and cut a path, golf is not happening at Pine Shore.
Other than the few remaining open courses he designed, Al Janis' legacy, then, lives on meekly in cyberspace.
Janis has a website and, like Pine Shore Golf, it is in need of sprucing up -- desperately. His once-modest empire deserves it.
The site boasts that Janis Golf has been offering "top-notch service" for 45 years in the industry. Pine Shore -- North and South -- are mentioned, as is Willow Springs. But it all uses the past tense: owned, designed, constructed. His original company, Golf by Janis, is no more either.
With this company, Janis aims to act as "advisor, impartial observer and teacher" to golf-course owners. For a man who clearly loves the game, he's hoping to prevent another story like his.
A golf ball can't be, but, for Janis' sake, hopefully an owner can be scared straight.