Is Municipal Golf The Best Way To Grow The Game?

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?

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
38 Comments
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Commented on

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

Commented on

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.

Commented on

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.

Commented on

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.

Commented on

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.

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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?

Commented on

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.

Commented on

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.

Commented on

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

Commented on

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

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