There’s a game-changing golf project in Wisconsin that’s been spearheaded by Michael Keiser, the son of the visionary behind Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley.
No, we’re not talking about The Lido, although that does check the boxes.
Keiser is the benefactor behind the transformation, and salvation, of a 9-hole municipal course in his hometown of Madison, Wis., that just might be a blueprint for a public golf facility focused on playability, ecology, and perhaps most importantly, community. The nearly 100-year-old Glenway Golf Course has given way to The Glen Golf Park, a muni modeled after the vision of the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, with golf coexisting with other community activities.
After play finishes late in the day on summer Sundays, for example, The Glen’s fairways will welcome walkers, birders, ultimate frisbee, kite flying, yoga classes, soccer, music festivals, and movie nights.
“Adding non-golf programming was part of the mission,” explains Keiser, who several years ago was inspired to take action after reading an article about Madison’s financially strapped and run-down municipal golf courses. “We tried to make sure we increased the number of stakeholders that had something to gain from this project. It became very hard for anybody to object to the project when nobody was losing anything and a great number of new people were brought into the fold.”
Keiser points to golf apparel designer John Ashworth and Goat Hill Park outside San Diego as inspiration for community-minded golf. Keiser and his wife, Jocelyn, not only donated more than $750,000 to redesign and revamp the course, but with The Lido recreation project at Sand Valley (just under two hours north of Madison), had a team of experts already in Wisconsin who were eager to jump in and help. Craig Haltom, a Wisconsin native and hot name in golf design circles, dramatically reworked the course while Brian Schneider, who works for Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design, helped with shaping.
For the City of Madison’s Parks Division, the support—financial and otherwise—was instrumental.
“Some people have this idea that golf is prestigious, expensive, and about barriers—a stay-off-my-lawn mentality. That’s not what municipal golf is,” says Theran Steindl, the city’s golf operations supervisor. “Our idea was to incorporate the golf course more into the community, which is where the Golf Park name is derived. We also shouldn’t make the land strictly for one use. It’s kind of the Scottish idea: land for all.”
On the evening of the course’s recent grand reopening, kids kicked soccer balls, a dozen kites flew overhead, food trucks served BBQ, tacos, and ice cream, and locals walked and wandered. Families on blankets watched a Disney movie at the 9th hole—Haltom was asked to design the 9th as a Punchbowl that sits just below the facility’s new putting course, creating contours for stadium seating on movie nights and other events.
The course at The Glen Golf Park was overhauled throughout. Fairways were widened, the turf was changed, and thick rough eliminated in favor of grass that’s fairway height. All nine greens were rebuilt and many non-native trees were removed throughout; most notable were the Colorado Blue Spruces that were haphazardly planted in the 1970s as part of a forestry push and in some instances were killing the native majestic oaks, some over 150 years old.
But the main idea of the redesign was to make it more playable for the prime demographic: shorter-hitting seniors as well as the 55,000 college students in and around Madison during the school year.
And while it seems contradictory, the playable golf turf was increased while the overall managed turf was reduced. Natural prairieland was significantly restored, with 4- to 5-foot-tall grasses home to birds, bugs, beetles, butterflies, and more. The property will have birding tours and guided nature hikes, with professors from the local universities offering to lead.
Meanwhile, city officials anticipate that players from the local pro soccer team, Forward Madison FC, may soon be teaching kids how to play the game on the course’s 4th fairway.
Most importantly, from a golf standpoint, the course’s tee sheet has been full since The Glen Golf Park’s reopening. While it was closed in April, May and June, operators expect to meet their annual budget before the end of the summer. It’s both satisfaction and relief for Keiser, who is already planning his next municipal golf restoration and community effort.
“I’ve been nervous about the project,” acknowledges Keiser. “It’s a much-improved golf course and the architect did a wonderful job, but it’s not a ‘Dream Golf’ course (like Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, or Cabot Cape Breton). It’s not a perfect site. It’s not sand. I was just a little worried that people would expect Sand Valley and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. But this squashed all of those fears. It made everyone happy, so that’s really the only thing I care about.”
What do you think of the idea behind The Glen Golf Park?