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.
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.
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?