By Tony Dear
What’s going on with municipal golf? One minute you read there are now more city-owned courses in the U.S. than ever—2,497, according to the National Golf Foundation (as of 2017–2018)—and that many are being given multi-million-dollar renovations. But then you see a story lamenting the terrible drain municipals are on city resources, and that more are likely to close than open in the coming years. (Wrote the Washington Examiner last fall, they are an “anachronism that enjoyed their heyday in the mid-20th century.”)
Given this contradiction, it’s hard to know what city-owned courses are: unsustainable extravagances or treasured open spaces that offer all citizens a desirable recreational opportunity? And without knowing what they are and what impact they may or may not have on a city’s well-being, it’s hard to say for certain what their future might be.
The rise in the number of municipals in recent years can be attributed to cities purchasing underperforming private or corporately owned public courses under threat of redevelopment. But elsewhere, existing munis are ripe for bulldozing because cities have run out of patience, claiming the courses cost more to operate than they earn and the land on which they sit could be of greater value in another form.
The NGF counters this, saying 67 percent of munis more than cover their operating expenses. However, once capital expenditure, debt, interest, depreciation, and so on are accounted for, they invariably slip into the red. Some examples.
Seattle operates four municipal facilities (three 18-hole courses, one nine-holer) that collectively made a net profit every year between 2013 and 2017. But the city demands its golf facilities pay five percent of their income to the Seattle Parks fund, and after debt service on capital improvements, the result was a loss of $1.8 million.
“I think it’s time to take the next step and do an analysis of other ways we can meet the demands of people who want to play golf, and what other functions those courses might do for the city of Seattle now and in the future,” said Seattle’s Mayor Jenny Durkan last March after paying $104,000 for a report on the financial history and future viability of its courses. Durkan is understandably concerned with the cost of living in Seattle and the resulting affordable housing problem. And she knows how precious land is.
In Portland, Ore., City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is similarly dubious about the worth of city golf. She’s not only questioned the financial health of five city courses, but suggested using them as temporary tent cities for the homeless. “I still don’t know why we own golf courses,” she added.
It’s unlikely you could convince some politicians of golf’s value—municipal or otherwise—and unlikelier still they’d ever invest in the game. But what if they were to hear some success stories?
Such as the 2003 rebirth of San Francisco’s Harding Park, now TPC Harding Park and the venue for this year’s PGA Championship? Surely if they were shown what the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation helped realize at that Atlanta course, which had sat decaying for decades, they could be persuaded municipal golf can work.
What about regular PGA Tour stop and U.S. Open venue Torrey Pines, soon to get a renovation as part of a $15 million grant from the San Diego City Council, or New York’s Bethpage Black, which has held two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship this century?
How about cities that haven’t hosted major championships? Spokane, Wash., surveyed golfers in 2017 to discover what might be lacking, then borrowed $7.5 million from the city’s investment pool to address the issues and increased rates on the city’s four courses by $1 to $4 to pay for it. By summer 2022, all four city courses will have new irrigation systems, each capable of cutting water use by up to 16 million gallons a year. “To say our citizens are proud of Spokane golf courses is the understatement of the century,” says the city’s Golf Manager, Mark Poirier.
Last October, Charleston announced a $3 million renovation to Charleston Municipal Golf Course, with half the money coming from the city, the other half from community donations and private sources. Then there are the highly acclaimed changes made to Winter Park Golf Course outside Orlando, Fla.; the Rees Jones-redesigned Corica Park in Alameda, Calif.; Baylands Golf Links in Palo Alto, Calif.; and Keney Park in Hartford, Conn. Each has received considerable media coverage and stands to make money.
There’s a plan on the table for Chicago’s Jackson Park and South Shore courses, merging them into one Tour-worthy venue designed by Tiger Woods and Beau Welling. And the National Links Trust (NLT) has a proposal pending to revitalize three Washington, D.C. munis—East Potomac, Langston, and Rock Creek—all of which lie on National Park Service land.
Sadly, every bit of good news has been tempered by bad as more munis have shut than opened of late, a trend that is likely to persist as the value of urban land continues to soar.
“A lot of city courses aren’t optimizing their potential,” says course designer Mike McCartin, who co-founded the NLT last April with the aim of “promoting and protecting affordability, accessibility, and engaging golf course architecture at municipal golf courses throughout the U.S.”
“Anyone can play them, but they may not be particularly welcoming places or hold much appeal for non-golfers,” explains McCartin. “Cities need to work on making their facilities more interesting to more people so they can add revenue streams.” That includes off-course amenities like clubhouses that would generate income by attracting non-golfers.
McCartin also says courses with interesting architecture tend to be more engaging. “They may not think about it, but players instinctively enjoy holes with strategy and interesting features. And good architecture needn’t cost more than bad.” For his Master’s thesis, McCartin studied the history and design of Walter Travis’s reversible nine-hole/10-green course (now the Blue) at East Potomac, which opened in May 1919.
“Travis’s course was hugely popular, and prompted the construction of two more courses on the park that may have been designed by William Flynn,” McCartin explains. “But today it isn’t anywhere near as good as it could be.” If the NLT does get the D.C. job, it will launch a privately funded restoration (Mike Keiser has agreed to back it) carried out by Tom Doak, who will do the work on the East Potomac course pro bono. Gil Hanse has said he’ll do the same on Rock Creek.
Yet, according to Doak, muni success has little to do with architecture. “It’s more dependent on the culture of the people running it,” he says. “The vast majority are run either by local bureaucrats who cater to key constituents or management companies who focus on the bottom line and leave much deferred maintenance at the end of their lease. Both have awful results. A muni should be run by a volunteer group that loves golf. The Colorado Golf Association or the St. Andrews Links Trust are good examples.”
While advocacy groups can have a significant impact, municipals should actually be run like businesses if they are to succeed, says Richard Singer, the NGF’s Senior Director of Consulting Services.
“There are too many government restrictions that bog municipals down,” Singer says. “And though retaining green space is always desirable, losing nine holes and selling the land to developers might make sense. Cities could halve their inputs and upgrade the remaining holes to a world-class standard, which would attract golfers from outside the city. And they could save space for better practice ranges, a First Tee facility, or community center.”
Consolidation also might be an option, “though that doesn’t apply to many as there are only 40 cities in the U.S. with four or more municipals,” says Singer. Portland and Seattle aren’t alone in considering selling golf course land: Duluth, Minn.; Modesto, Calif.; Detroit; and Louisville have looked (or are looking) at selling.
So the future of America’s munis is up in the air. For every Spokane, San Diego, or Charleston, there’s an Indianapolis (which closed its Riverside at the end of 2019) or Little Rock (Hindman closed last June; War Memorial in July) or Stockton (Van Buskirk closed in August). And it’s not just a U.S. issue. South Ayrshire Council and Glasgow City Council in Scotland are currently deciding the fate of 11 municipal courses.
There is no magic formula. Facilities that appeal to golfers and non-golfers, better course architecture, and more welcoming signage, people, and entrances may all play a part in enhancing a course’s chances of survival. But ultimately the future of city-owned courses boils down to the value a city puts on municipal golf: Is it worth the expense or simply too expensive?
“All golf is local,” Singer stresses. “What works for one city might not for another. Cities have very different cultures, histories, and objectives. Yes, they all have an obligation to provide open space and recreational opportunities, but, in many cases, the temptation to sell the land in order to improve other services may be too great for a city to resist. They all have their tipping point.”