Golf Courses & Resorts

Is Municipal Golf The Best Way To Grow The Game?

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This week is the annual PGA Merchandise Show, when a huge portion of the golf industry descends on Orlando, Florida for its annual trade exposition.

And ever since the mid-2000s American real-estate crisis and subsequent economic downturn that sent hundreds of golf courses out of existence and ground new course construction practically to a halt, one question has dominated the Show on the floor and in the nearby bars and restaurants:

How can we get golf back on its feet? How can we get more people to play more rounds and fill up tee sheets?

Twelve-hole courses have been proposed. So have basketball hoop-sized holes. FootGolf, where players kick a soccer ball towards a bucket-sized target, has sprouted up in some places. Companies have come out with alternatives to golf carts in order to make golf seem more “hip” and “cool.” TopGolf, which blends driving range practice with Skee-Ball and adds food and alcohol to the mix, has been heralded by some as savior for the game.

Everyone seemingly has an “innovative” idea to get golf back on its feet. But I think we already have the ideal feeder system:

It’s municipal golf courses.

Municipal golf courses are a vital part of the game, and have a key role to play in its future. Sure, many golfers grew up playing private country clubs, but it’s likely most — even pros from Rickie Fowler and Billy Horschel to Phil Mickelson and Nancy Lopez — got their start at humble muni layouts.

Overseas, publicly-owned courses are the lifeblood of the game. You’ve probably heard of The Old Course at St. Andrews. It’s publicly-owned. Not only do locals account for thousands of the rounds played over the world’s foremost ancient links, but they pay what amounts to a fraction of what visiting golf pilgrims lay out for the privilege.

Municipal courses serve as proof that wealth is not required to take to the game of golf from an early age. So, if the quality of municipal golf – meaning not just conditioning, but design – rises, while remaining affordable, it stands to reason that golfers will be more likely to want to play more. And for beginners, sparks will fly that much faster.

Numerous towns, cities and counties have reached that exact conclusion. In fact, something of a municipal golf revolution is underway.

Across the United States, long-neglected city- or county-owned and -run courses – many with surprising architectural pedigrees – have received loving renovation and restoration work that has restored and enhanced their playability and fun for beginners and accomplished players alike.

In Dallas, which boasts a huge number of avid golfers, architect John Colligan led a comprehensive renovation effort that breathed new life into the run-down Stevens Park Golf Course. Set on a mere 112 acres, the course measures 6,300 yards from the back tees but provides enough challenge for lower-handicappers while still keeping beginners from getting discouraged. It’s also highly walkable, making for a great source of exercise as well as golfing challenge. What was something of an embarrassment to Dallas is now a charming, extremely popular course where tee times can sometimes be nearly impossible to come by.

John Fought has brought the Donald Ross-designed Wilmington Municipal Golf Course back to its glory days. (City of Wilmington, N.C.)

John Fought has brought the Donald Ross-designed Wilmington Municipal Golf Course back to its glory days. (City of Wilmington, N.C.)

Many other municipal golf success stories have been decades in the making. Take for instance Wilmington Municipal Golf Course in North Carolina. It has a design pedigree most golf courses would kill for, having been laid out in 1926 by the great Donald Ross, whose courses at Pinehurst, French Lick and the Sagamore represent just a fraction of his storied output. At a cost of just $1.5 million, in 2013 the City of Wilmington restored its historic course to Ross’ original design under the supervision of modern architect John Fought. Now, the course is an absolute must-play for anyone visiting the area. Even for non-residents, green fees top out at $42.

In the Northeast, another Ross gem, Ponkapoag Golf Course in the Boston suburb of Canton, Massachusetts, reopened in late 2015. A year-long renovation effort has lifted the facility’s No. 1 course, one of the oldest American public layouts, to a new level of glory.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, either. In Hartford, Connecticut, work is well underway to restore the city’s Keney Park Golf Course to its own classic roots. Long neglected and mis-managed, the half of the course originally designed by Devereux Emmet will be resurrected, and the remaining holes have been redesigned with Emmet’s sensibilities in mind, resulting in a cohesive whole.

The modest nine-hole Winter Park Country Club is about to get a radical facelift, courtesy of Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns. But it will remain a resource for all, rather than a refuge for few. (Integrative Golf Co.)

The quaint nine-hole Winter Park Country Club is about to get a radical facelift, courtesy of Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns. But it will remain a public good, rather than a private retreat. (Integrative Golf Co.)

This movement is also providing valuable opportunities for up-and-coming architects to showcase their talents. In the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, young architects Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns will be renovating the century-old local nine-hole municipal course. Rhebb has worked for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on many of their world-renowned courses, and Johns, a Canadian native, has worked for the equally respected Tom Doak and his Renaissance Golf Design company.

Many other municipal layouts across the United States are in the midst of resurrections of their own. The aforementioned John Colligan is currently reworking Ft. Worth, Texas’ Rockwood Golf Course. The Baylands course in Palo Alto, California is expected to begin a renovation of its own this year. Rees Jones, whose renovations of both Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines turned them into viable multiple-U.S. Open hosts, is overhauling City Park’s North Course in New Orleans, with an eye on major-championship golf down the road.

What all this means is this: even though few 100%-new courses are being built, the strong trend in renovation and restoration means that with each passing year, the average quality of golf is rising, slowly but surely. Millions of new golfers won’t flood the game overnight, but with so many people working hard to make an already-great product even better, golf is in good hands.

What do you think? Should we place a greater emphasis on municipal golf courses to grow the game?

38 Comments

  1. Scott

    January 26, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Excellent plan as long as the green fees remain affordable and conditions/greens are a priority. Thus movement plus a Golf in Schools grassroots initiative will eventually lead to sustained growth.

  2. Mark Eckhardt

    January 26, 2016 at 11:09 am

    This is such a great trend. In St. Louis, the muni course in Forest Park (the jewel of the City) was renovated and tuned into a must play. There are other 9 hole tracts that have been restored.

  3. Mark Kavanaugh, Pebble Beach Ca.

    January 26, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Yes, but as important incentives must be made for speed of play and 9 hole rates. The bottom line is that the middle class has shrunk significantly with the outflow of jobs to the 3rd world. Those in the next class up don’t have time as they work 60 hrs week to stay out of that mess and the next class down has no money. So there you go,inexpensive and fast is what remains. Unfortunately its a loss to most and a tough muni expense to justify when trash pick up cutbacks are the alternative. Its called the cumulative impact “corporate greed” and its wiped out a generation of Americana.

  4. TomY

    January 26, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Affordability is the key to growing the game along with course layouts that don’t require you to play 18 holes. Clover Leaf designs that bring you back to the clubhouse/parking lot after six holes…more opportunities to play fewer holes and family friendly. Courses also need to be designed and built for the average golfer not the 5% that are accomplished golfers. I am not saying they should all be made easy but the player should be given multiple ways to play a hole and at lengths that fit there game. More tees that don’t attack the ego.

  5. Bill Lockie

    January 26, 2016 at 11:43 am

    Great to hear of this trend,did not realise this was happening accross the US
    I was brought up playing the 3 municipal courses in Troon, Scotland,and although we have the world famous Royal Troon, venue for this years Open,the 3 “muni” course are always busy and at an affordable price.

    They were built over 100years ago by people worth foresight,who wanted to let the people of Troon and district participate in the game for health and fun reasons at an AFFORDABLE cost for all walks of life
    This concept has stood firm all down the years
    Good luck to all the new or renovated municipal venues accross the world

  6. joe

    January 26, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Great idea. But it has consequences for privately owned public courses. The muni courses get tax breaks (none), use bonds to fund course repairs, charge lower rates. All this is unfair competition for privately held public courses trying to make a buck

  7. Putmedownfora6

    January 26, 2016 at 12:08 pm

  8. Gerald (Par3man)

    January 26, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    I think golfers should be encouraged to play more scrambles instead of regular 4somes. It will not be as frustrating to high handicappers, and it will make the round go by in a reasonable amount of time.

    As golfers become better gofers, they can then play more regular stroke play and keep pace with the group ahead.

  9. PJ Thompson

    January 26, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Far be it for me to object if municipalities want to invest in renovation of existing tracts or subsidize green fees but I don’t see this as a ‘solution’ to ‘growing the game’. Such a strategy assumes high green fees and access are the primary deterrent to growth when there is ample evidence there are many other factors at work- time commitment, equipment cost, pace of play, etc.

    The cynic in me would view this strategy as primarily interested in committing taxpayers to subsidizing the economic risk of golf course investment in a period of stagnant growth.

  10. paul from albany

    January 26, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    Agreed 100%. However, that is not all we need to do. We need to encourage faster play and yet still encourage walking. Many people cannot afford 5 or 6 hours on a weekend day to play a round of golf. When we build courses, we need to insure that the tees are not a million yards away from the greens. So what if the cart revue for the local pro goes down! PGA officials also need to remind beginners to learn the game the way Harvey Penick taught it: from the greens back to the tees and not the other way around. Golf is a game of getting the ball in the hole. It is not about who can hit the longest drive. Par 3 courses and other executive course should be encouraged by The PGA of America. However, I have never seen the PGA do a commercial on the value of short courses!

  11. Jim Lynch

    January 26, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Many Public golf courses are gems but don’t have the money to upgrade. The course design is outstanding but without the resources to improve tee boxes, fairways and greens, the course has very little character. As golfers, we need to apply the rules of the game and have a greater appreciation for the course. Fix your divots and ball marks. Not only fix your ball mark but two more. Rack traps and have more respect for the course and all golfers. It’s the greatest game around.

  12. Jeff Cornish

    January 26, 2016 at 1:36 pm

    This all makes sense (re-investing in upgrading local muni course) except, many of these muni courses are now being operated by management companies under contract by the cities/counties that own the courses. These management companies are for profit; not really interested in reduced rates for beginners or youth. Also, how many cities/counties have an extra couple million to invest in their property upgrades ….. most are already losing money on the courses they own and receiving some push-back from tax payers about that.

  13. Michael Scanlon

    January 26, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    My sense of expanding the game comes into focus with the PGA and Golf Industry giving something back to the communities in the form of 10 golf courses every year to deserving communities! These 10 courses would be held in a non profit trust and supported by the PGA and Golf Industry. Every year, the top tem professionals would get a new course named after them and they in turn would support the course with personal appearances and commitments. In ten years time, we would have 100 new courses in our communities that would provide training grounds for a host of people from golf professionals, management and maintenance personnel that would expand the golf industry and at the same time the general public would be enriched with a golf experience that would be affordable to a broader spectrum of the population! It is no secret that golf has an elitist perception with private golf courses and million dollar purses, now is the time to share the wealth and bring this exciting sport to the forefront of the general population-the more involvement by the masses, the better the chance of survival for this game-don’t make the same mistakes that the tennis industry has made!

  14. Szepo

    January 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    Courses try and trick up the course which makes 20 plus handicap say forget it.

  15. Denis

    January 26, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    It’s fabulous to see that Municipalities have woken up to bring golf back into the spotlight and generate more interest for golfers who had hung up their clubs because of the cost of playing new layouts. Up until now, the mindset of those with deep pockets has been to build golf courses that may attract a PGA Tournament, and charge outrageous green fees. The non-professional golfers which constitute 90% of the golfers in the U.S. and Canada, simply can’t afford $200 a round or even $100 a round. It’s wonderful to see that someone is finally getting the message.

  16. Neema

    January 26, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    I love playing golf. I am a double boggy player plus senior. For me to play $50 and up courses is not worth . I think I am wasting my money. $20 to $25 is ok to spend and get that excercise and be outdoor is fun. I tell you how golf courses will make money is to offer golf with free food and alcohol drinks will get lots of attentions.

  17. Robert Laird

    January 26, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Great article. You should check out what O.C. Welch is doing with Bacon Park Municiple in Savannah, GA, renovation an old Donald Ross design back to it’s original state. Beautiful work and a labor of love!

  18. Steve Hollander

    January 26, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Absolutely we should put more emphasis on munis to grow the game. As stated, the game is much more egalitarian in the UK because of the munis.Would love to see the game become more accessible in US.

  19. clem s

    January 26, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    Look what the Black course at Bethpage did for the game, some like tiger had a great go at it while others walked off because they felt is was to hard.So many of us from Long Island realy got into that weekend because we all had our tough rounds on the Black course but keep trying.Can not wait till the PGA returns and sure many across the country feel the same about their local course.

  20. Papa Lee of Arlington Heights, IL

    January 26, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    An expensive renovation was just completed last year at Mt Prospect GC, Park District owned. A second expensive renovation is completed and the course will be opening this July at Arlington Lakes, in Arl Hgts, IL (also Park District owned). The ALGC course reversed its nines in order to allow for 3, 6, 9, or 18 holes. Paved cart paths will allow golf in inclement weather. And, the course has gone from 108 sand traps down to 50. Finally, they have added 4th tees (Forward tees) to allow juniors and seniors to have more fun.

  21. Pete

    January 26, 2016 at 11:31 pm

    The cost of playing 18 holes whilst visiting clubs is the single most important factor in stopping participation especially for seniors, families and youngsters. As a retiree, if I could afford it I would play golf 7 days a week but alas I don’t have the cash. To walk 18 with my two grand daughters is sadly a once a month experience rather than once a week. Who says it costs $175 to play a round at the same course that forty-five years ago cost $4. The pin positions are still in the same spot each Sunday and I still struggle to make a birdie on the long uphill par 5. Nothing much has changed except for the height of the trees and the green fee. Additionally, at a recent regiment reunion in the UK I was staggered at the price of 18 holes at some of their most famous tracks as a visitor. The USPGA and Royal&Ancient must develop stratagem going forward to decrease the cost implication of a round of golf.

  22. Kevin

    January 27, 2016 at 7:45 am

    Government saving golf now! At least it’s something I like to do. Why shouldn’t golfers get a piece of the pie.

  23. Swordfish

    January 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    Absolutely. I live in a higher income suburb of Nashville, and the country clubs are just priced out of reach of the typical golfer. Affordable, decent, munis, even if just 9 holes are vital to the health of the game.

  24. Adam

    January 27, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    There are virtually no municipal courses that I need to play again. I’ve played Torrey Pines and Chambers Bay, and neither are worth what they are charging out-of-state visitors today. The rest of the municipals I have played are mostly below average tracks with below average maintenance, (slightly) below average cost and slower than average pace of play—although Bethpage might be worth a trip someday.
    One of my biggest complaints about many of the municipal courses is that their prices for juniors are too restrictive (e.g. must me a resident of the County) and are still too expensive. I can get better deals at good privately-owned courses in the area.
    The dollar cost for a round of golf is only a small part of the problem. The cost of equipment is exorbitant, and the cost of instruction is getting ridiculous.
    And no course that can sell an 18-hole round is going to want to fill that slot with a 9-hole round, and no course that can fill a 9-hole round will want to fill that slot with a 6-hole round.

  25. Adam

    January 27, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Scrambles are not the answer. The slowest rounds of golf I have ever played have been scrambles. Guaranteed at least 5 1/2 hours–often 6+.

  26. Garen

    January 29, 2016 at 11:24 am

    The comment from Adam that there aren’t any munis he Needs to play , I would love to play the 9 hole muni that my son and I started playing on but it’s gone fallow -I find that munis whatever condition have subtle things that you should remember , I’ve played many Great courses and enjoyed them but the most fun I had was playing with my buddies when we were just able to pay for a round with a little cash and not big $$$. Two friends of my youth started playing at least one public course each week and had more fun that is describable . I belong to a private club but enjoy the time with my buds so much I may drop my private membership this year . Love the muni tracks including the ones that left things on your mind less than thrills but those are the ones we talk about everytime we play so maybe they had a greater purpose !

  27. ALAN P

    January 29, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    CHECK OUT GEORGE WRIGHT IN HYDE PARK (BOSTON), MA. ITS A DONALD ROSS DESIGN AND HAS UNDERGONE IMPROVEMENTS OVER THE YEARS TO BRING IT BACK TO ITS ROOTS. NOW IF THEY COULD ONLY FIND THE $$ TO RENOVATE THE HISTORIC CLUBHOUSE.

  28. J Silva

    February 2, 2016 at 12:03 pm

    Municipal golf courses are the backbone of American golf. Most municipal golf courses are practically empty in the afternoon. If you want to grow golf, let kids play free or at a very small charge when the course is not being played. Also, when the course is empty charge less money for a round. There’s no need to make the holes bigger or have surfboard type transportation, those are just gimmicks. The game of golf is perfect as it is. The challenge of the game is what makes the game magic! It takes a little while, but once someone gets the golf bug, as they say “it’s over Johnny”. Municipal golf is golf’s past, present and future!

  29. Chuck

    February 2, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    I like the story, I play several muni courses in the San Francisco bay area which are affordable and challenging. However I was very disappointed when the city of San Francisco, sold out to the pga tour . They took a municipal public recreational golf course, Harding park renovated it ,let the pga get there hands on it,and its no longer affordable to play.keep the rich business guys and stupid politicians away from muni courses, they are the reason why the game is shrinking

  30. Jimmy D

    February 2, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I enjoy muni golf in my area we can still golf for under 25& for 18 holes at the local muni. Other courses have higher prices and do not get the amount of play. If private or semiprivate courses would lower prices the would get more play and make money. When the price of golf goes to high I will stop playing and pick some other sport. I am 62 years old and in good shape I hope golf courses will lower prices so we all can enjoy the sport

  31. Michael

    February 2, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Thoughtful comments, basically golf is too expensive. Many of our great athletes started playing sand lot baseball, asphalt basketball courts and city park football, with standard and inexpensive equipment. Golf is the only game I know where you bring your own ball to the contest. Wouldn’t one standard ball be more cost effective. Same for clubs, the cost of a “quality set of clubs is over $1000. You do not need a course if the clubs and balls are so expensive you cannot afford to play. Many of our great courses are being made obsolete by the distances the combination of balls and clubs yield. Longer courses equal more expense. This would require the USGA think about the game in same way that other more successful sports have. The pressure would be great as golf manufactures would scramble to be the best at producing a standard ball and golf club manufacturers profits decline. Will it be about money only, or will people that want the game to grow do what needs to be done? I fear that money will win and golf will continue to decline.

  32. Steve McGee

    February 2, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Surprised Sharp Park, designed by A. MacKenzie, was not mentioned. We’ve had years of legal battles in San Francisco trying to keep this place open. Currently undergoing renovations. Another development is that two cities are working out a transfer of ownership to maintain its funding.

    I completely agree with the article except for one point. I don’t think the game needs to ‘grow’. I think it needs to shrink, or stay level. Players don’t need more players, only equipment manufacturers do. The game does not serve the purpose of manufacturers, it serves the purpose of the players.

  33. Steve McGee

    February 2, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    Another point I’d like to make – 6000 yard courses are cheaper than 7200 yard courses.

    Why have we changed the focus to distance and away from accuracy?

  34. Dave

    February 3, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Muni golf courses would be fine if they targeted the beginning golfer, but they spend lots of tax payer money building and updating courses to target golfers already in the market(not new golfers) competing with the private operations. The muni’s in our market are subsidized, pay no taxes. Even management companies running muni’s are subsidized because these management company are paid a guaranteed management fee no matter of the results, there is not the same risk as private operator. They force the privately owned courses to sell or out of business by providing more of a product then the are charging for. The beginning golfer does not need lavish clubhouses, course layouts or finely conditioned courses. Just like getting your first car, golfers should expect courses and conditions based on the fee they pay.

  35. Joe

    February 5, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Management companies on the whole pay municipalities a percentage of their gross profits and keep the rest. So they are very much interested in getting more play and having a quality course as well. As for the gentleman who suggested that more scrambles be played to speed up play, he obviously has not played that format very often. Scrambles are a guaranteed 5-hour round and very often more than that. Golf instruction needs to be less expensive. Even the least expensive pros charge $50/hour. Reduce that and increase the quality of play and speed up play as well as the fun of being able to play the game reasonably well.

  36. Steve

    February 6, 2016 at 12:22 am

    Just been reading all the comments about regrowing the game. Believe me we have the same problem down here in Australia…and we are paying nowhere near what you guys are paying to play on Public or Municipal course. If you guys are paying up around $175 to $200, you could come here fora golfing holiday, play some great courses and over say 15 rounds (probably less with the current exchange rate) you could save your airfare and probably some of your accommodation costs. Public (or Council owned) courses here range from $30 to $50 per round plus cart hire if you don’t want to walk. As cheap as this is( and admittedly we don’t have to population you guys have) the game is still struggling with numbers. Most courses struggle to break even and it would seem golfing participation is shrinking. Like some of the others who have commented here I think our national governing body should be focusing on getting into schools and getting kids at an early age. Despite the fact there is a constant debate in this country about health and obesity issues with our children, schools seem to minimising sporting activity and competition. Young kids need to be challenged and golf will do that..and golf needs more young players coming through..could be a win win arrangement.

  37. Wayne

    February 7, 2016 at 11:47 am

    I’ve enjoyed golfing at Winter Park Orlando, and would like to add that it’s a combination of the convenience and play-a-bility of the course, price point, and customer service skills that made it enjoyable.
    The impressive local architecture of the surrounding neighbourhoods is a bonus at that particular course. At home here in Ontario, the same general principles apply to our golfing preferences.

  38. Ian

    February 10, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    To speed the game an 18 inch hole is too radical and would chase away skilled players , I suggest 8 inch with a 24 inch circe around . Balls within circle automatic given, saving much time . This would still reward a good putter. More municipal courses is a good way to go with very low fees for school children to get them into the game. Once in most kids stick with it for life

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