AUSTIN, Texas -- Ben Crenshaw wants his next golf course design job to be in his backyard. He unveiled his plans Wednesday in his hometown to restore Lions Municipal Golf Course, or "Muny," back to its heyday.
Crenshaw, who makes up one half of the famed architecture firm with Bill Coore, has plenty of experience turning back the clock on historic courses, most notably the Donald Ross-designed Pinehurst No. 2, which they restored before the 2014 U.S. Open.
At Lions, one of the courses he played most while growing up in Austin and attending the University of Texas, Crenshaw wants to restore the routing that was intact from 1951-1974.
1951 was also the year in which Lions become the first desegregated golf course in the south.
"It's amazing some people do not know this routing," said Crenshaw. "When you go out [on the property]," said Crenshaw. "You remember how things were, and how things can be."
The $10-12 million that is estimated for this proposal hasn't been secured from private sources yet, and none of this matters if the property owners, the University of Texas, would rather close up Muny and develop this highly coveted piece of property west of downtown Austin when the lease with the City of Austin expires in 2019.
But if we needed any reminder from Crenshaw on his passion in saving and restoring one of his boyhood haunts, we now know that one of golf's pre-eminent designers is ready to go to work.
Crenshaw's plan for Lions: Old routing, restored greens, new clubhouse
Crenshaw split his time growing up playing the public Lions and private Austin Country Club (now a public course, Riverside Golf Course), and said Lions was every bit the course as the more prestigious ACC.
"ACC was a little wider," recalled Crenshaw. "[At Lions], you couldn't get away with too many shots. It was tight. Many times if you hooked the ball off the fairway you had to chip out."
Crenshaw, who has multiple design credits of both resort and private courses in various Top 100 rankings, wants Lions to remain affordable and playable, and the hope is that all of the money needed for the renovation comes from private funding. Under Crenshaw's plan, the existing playing corridors would remain largely the same. The biggest difference is that the nines would be flipped, and many holes' directions will be reversed back to their original direction and new green sites would be created.
Crenshaw isn't a fan of the current opening hole, a nearly 90-degree dogleg right with a very difficult green. In fact, his mere suggestion the first was "not an ideal starting hole" (which is about as contentious as "Gentle Ben" will get these days) drew uproarious laughter and applause from the room full of local media and golfers. Apparently I'm not the only one to get my rounds here off to a rocky start more often than not.
The routing on the current back nine would be altered the most. Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 15 would all change directions. The famous "Hogan's Hole," wouldn't change much except to bring some personality back to the green and improve the playability in the fairway, which can unfairly punish drives, in part due to a cart path next to the fairway that can send balls deep into the trees.
The biggest change on the front nine (which would become the back) would be the opening hole would be straighter, and the change in direction of the par-3 4th hole (which would become the 11th) that would play downhill instead of uphill.
But Crenshaw appears most eager to return the greens back to what he remembers. Many greens these days have shrunk and lack the detail they once had. Looking at past aerials reveal how these greens looked and where bunkers once were.
"The shapes of the greens and how they were built, it formed the personality of the golf course," Crenshaw said. "They were different, they were medium-sized greens, they had shape to them, and that's why it made them so much fun to play."
Perhaps the biggest change to the property is that Crenshaw proposes building a new entrance and off Lake Austin Boulevard and a clubhouse that is just down the hill from the current clubhouse. Doing so would enable more space to be freed up for a larger practice facility (it's currently a very small, irons-only range). The existing clubhouse, built by distinguished Austin architect Edwin Kreisle, would become a historical and instruction center.
The future of Lions: What's next
There is still plenty of uncertainty as to the future of Lions, but there have been encouraging signs in the past year. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its involvement in the civil rights movement. Recently, Ralph Horowitz of the Austin American-Statesman reported that UT reached out to the City of Austin about extending the lease but at a higher, undisclosed cost. More recently, State Senator Craig Estes introduced a bill in the Texas Legislature to transfer ownership of this acreage from the University to Texas Parks & Wildlife. The bill has received some preliminary support in the government thus far, but has a long ways to go.
But Crenshaw and local golfers seem less concerned with who will manage and operate the course than if the course can finally be given a stable future, so investment can be made into the property for the first time in a long while.
"My wish is if we get to do this," said Crenshaw. "I want to enlist all the help I can from the guys I grew up with. We're going to get this right and we're going to have fun doing it."