The Neighborhood Babe Built

Pursuing the spirit of Babe Zaharias

click to enlarge BUMPY RIDE: Buck and Sara Gilbert have lived on -  - the Babe in good times and bad. - Bud Lee
Bud Lee
BUMPY RIDE: Buck and Sara Gilbert have lived on

the Babe in good times and bad.

The ghost of Mildred Ella 'Babe" Didrikson Zaharias has been popping up all over the place lately, thanks to Annika Sorenstam. She's the first woman to compete in a PGA Tour event since the Babe did it in 1945. People are once again toasting the Babe's brash wit and extolling her incredible athleticism. But there's one neighborhood in north Tampa where the Babe's spirit lives every day, Annika or no Annika.

The Babe Zaharias Golf Course in Forest Hills bears more than the stamp of her name. The neighborhood that surrounds the course is there pretty much because of her.

With its low-slung block and rock ranch houses, slightly primeval-looking landscape and little carts carrying potbellied men, the Babe bears a charming resemblance to Bedrock, the town in that 1950s television tribute to leopard print and suburban life, The Flintstones. The first time I saw the place, I fell in love with it, and I moved there four years ago.

I used to think golf was a gentleman's game played by aristocratic Scots on the heath and rich old white farts at the country club.

The Babe is so not like that.

For one thing, it's a golf course named after a woman — odd enough for a sport that still doesn't want to let women into the club.

For another, the people who play the Babe aren't rich — and many of them are not gentlemen. The publicly owned course is affordable and easy to sneak onto, so anyone who can pick up a club and steal a few balls from the neighbors' yards can play there. That means plenty of kids and duffers stumble through nine holes, especially on the weekends.

On Saturday afternoons the greens roil with guys who aren't so much golfing as partying while driving nifty little carts with a cooler full of beer and a cigar stuffed in their puss. They swear and beat the ground with their clubs when they flub a shot. And they'll do anything to retrieve a $2 ball — climb fences, drive their carts all over peoples' yards and wade into mucky ponds. When it storms, they stand under trees, waiting to be incinerated by lightning.

Weekday mornings are the most civilized time on the Babe. That's when the real golfers are out: men and women in their 60s and 70s, who walk all 18 holes pulling wheeled golf bags. They look fit and focused as they concentrate on a shot, elegant in their attention to form.

Evenings bring out real golfers too, quiet lone figures working on their game in the last light of day. It's those times when the spirit of the Babe is most present, when you can almost imagine what it might have been like more than 50 years ago, when a cocky, vivacious woman brought this place to life.

Malcolm "Buck" Gilbert, who lives in the neighborhood in a house he and his wife Sara built in 1956, is the unofficial historian of the Babe. He can tell you all about what it used to be like. As a teenager, he used to ride his bike from Lowry Park up North Boulevard to the golf course, where he worked as a caddy in the 1940s. Of course, it wasn't the Babe then and Boulevard was a dirt road. The course was so remote that Buck had to cut through the woods to reach it.

A lot of people think Zaharias built the course in 1950, but it was actually built in the last days of the wild and wooly 1920s Florida land boom. Developer B.L Hamner bought 2,000 acres of woods with lakes and underground springs in the countryside north of Tampa. He built riding stables and a golf course, and started selling lots in typical frenetic land boom style, at one point even bringing in boxer Jack Dempsey for a free exhibition.

Hamner took in more than $2.5-million in sales, but his timing was bad. The great Florida land boom went bust before he could finish the development. Construction came to a stop after only a few houses had been built. The course remained open, surrounded by woods threaded with sidewalks meant to border houses. Buck can show you remnants of those sidewalks as well as the grand gateway and the handful of little Tudor houses that were part of the original development.

He can also tell you exactly where he was on the course when he heard Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The golf course, like many other leisure facilities, closed shortly after the United States entered the war, and soon it was overgrown with weeds.

It wasn't until Babe and her husband George Zaharias came along in 1950 that the golf course was revived and the development finished. With the postwar boom in full swing and the prestige of a real live celebrity in residence, the course was reopened, lots were sold, houses were built and the good times returned.

For a while.

When Babe succumbed to cancer and went home to Texas to die in 1955, the golf course was again closed and this time sold to investors in Miami, says Buck. The land lay empty for years, and the neighborhood began to slide. The abandoned course provided easy access and cover for burglars, who broke into the Gilberts' home four times. Developers floated a plan to demolish the course and build condominiums.

Buck credits a young, first-term mayor named Dick Greco with acquiring the land for the city and reopening the course in the 1970s.

Since then, the Babe's stock has begun to rise again. People are rehabbing the houses and stoking up the grills. In the evenings, they walk dogs, ride bikes and run through the golf course's industrial-strength sprinklers.

It's almost like the Babe is back.

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 122.

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