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Wintertime on the links, and the sledding is easy

'Burbs may frown, but not courses here

It's winter, so get out your sled and head to the nearest golf course with its inviting open space and rolling terrain.

If you live in the city, that is. And if you are willing to assume liability should your sled take a wrong turn.

While it is becoming increasingly common for suburban golf greens, fearful of costly lawsuits, to post ''No Trespassing" signs, teeing off sledders, Frequent Flyers are not banned in Boston. Or on Cambridge and Brookline courses, either.

The difference is that the urban greens are publicly owned and have greater protection from liability. This is one area, it seems, where it doesn't pay to privatize.

''If they sled, they sled," said Robert Carey, director of Cambridge's city-owned Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Golf Course at Fresh Pond. ''Some places are totally against sledding. But we allow it."

The 55-acre, nine-hole course, however, is not particularly hilly and plays host to more cross-country skiers than sledders, said Carey.

''We have more dogs and skiers in the winter," said Carey, ''than golfers in the summer."

Sledders are also allowed at Boston's two public courses, the William J. Devine Franklin Park Golf Course in Dorchester and the George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park.

''At the present time, it's 'at your own risk' and it is allowed," said Katherine Higgins, spokeswoman for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. ''We encourage people to do it safely and we encourage parents to supervise their kids," Higgins said.

Brookline's Putterham Meadows Golf Course allows sledders, although it tends not to attract many. The town's 64-acre Larz Anderson Park, which also boasts an open-air skating rink, is the local sledding mecca.

Skyrocketing insurance rates are cited by suburban course owners as a major reason for their ban.

The Merrimack Golf Course in Methuen is one of those courses.

''It's a shame, we don't want to do it, but the insurance rates have gotten too high," said George Kattar, who bought the Merrimack Course in Methuen with his brothers 30 years ago and planted a ''No Trespassing" sign on the course for the first time last month. ''It's not like we want to be Scrooge, but we have to do this."

Litigation costs for insurance companies nearly doubled in the past 12 years from $130 billion in 1990 to $233 billion in 2002, according to The Insurance Institute of America in New York. A single exorbitant jury award can echo across an industry, said attorney Michael Kraker, a Minnesota attorney, who specializes in golf-course litigation.

''It can have a huge effect across the board," Kraker said.

The paradox, however, is the numbers of sledding-related accidents are not increasing, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Last year 30,300 sledding-related accidents were treated in emergency rooms across the country. In 2000 that number was 38,500; in 2002 it was 25,000. ''It depends on how much snow there was that year," said Mark Ross, a spokesman for the commission.

For municipalities that operate public golf courses the liability is limited. The courses are considered public parks and the onus is on the sledder.

The Town of Brookline, according to the policy stated on the Recreation Department's Web page, does not ''assume responsibility for injuries or accidents occurring at programs, activities, parks and facilities. This includes sledding, skiing, and coasting at any park or playground."

Boston officials cited Massachusetts state law. Muncipalities that allow people to use land recreationally without charge are not liable for injuries that occur on that property unless there is ''willful, wanton or reckless conduct by such owner."

Boston does impose minor restrictions on sledders and skiers in some parks. ''We keep an eye on the parks," Higgins, the Parks Department's spokeswoman, said.

The Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, which has open, hilly terrain and spectacular scenic views, is a prime sledding area. Sledders are allowed as long as they don't run over plants. (The arboretum's famous lilac bushes are roped off for their protection.) Nearby Pinebank in JP is also a popular sledding destination.

Park rangers keep watch on Boston Common, steering winter athletes away from pedestrian pathways, Higgins said.

The Franklin Park course, with its open spaces, attracts its share of sledders. The hilly areas pose no danger from ponds, where youngsters playing in the snow can fall in.

The pond at George Wright has been fenced off since 1995, when a 7-year-old died after plunging through the ice to retrieve his sled. The pond is at the bottom of ''Suicide Hill," a winter gathering spot for generations of local children.

Suburban course owners have also cited damage to the fairways as an added disincentive to inviting sledders, but not Cambridge's Carey.

''At this time of year, it's frozen and there's no harm to the golf course," he said. ''Anyone can use it," he said of the Fresh Pond course. ''It's an extremely friendly place."

Staff writer Doug Belkin contributed to this report.

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