“Golf is too expensive.”
“Golf is too difficult.”
“It takes too long to play.”
“It’s exclusive and elitist.”
We’ve heard naysayers rail for years against a game that gives joy to millions and a living to hundreds of thousands.
And while golf does have miles to go in solving certain structural and public relations problems, there is little doubt that things are improving, especially on the golf-for-the-masses front.
Though tony private clubs and highfalutin resorts receive most of the attention, the vast majority of American golf courses are more modest. The median green fee for 18 holes with a cart on a weekend – peak time, in other words – is just $44, according to Pellucid Corp., a golf industry consulting firm.
Most golf courses are open to the general public, and a large portion – around 2,500, per National Golf Foundation data – of them are owned by public entities: towns, cities, counties, states. These are the places where people learn the game and find their own communities within the greater golf family.
For years, “muni” was a pejorative term for a course that was cheap, not particularly well-maintained and likely poorly run. It was a synonym of "goat-track." It was also assumed that muni courses were rudimentary in design – functional but often dull; a place to hit the ball around but not necessarily fall in love with.
In recent years, that has started to change. We are in the midst of an American municipal golf renaissance. A Munaissance, if you will. And it might just be the game’s best chance at growth. Not the wishful-thinking, overnight kind, but something real, sustainable and, like the places where it figures to take place, modest.
Bethpage Black, the “People’s Open” and the seeds of the Munaissance
When it was awarded the 2002 U.S. Open, Bethpage Black more or less fit the dated definition of a “muni.” Opened in 1936 and designed by acclaimed classic architect A.W. Tillinghast, everyone familiar with the course knew it had solid bones. But decades of benign neglect had made it scruffy, and aesthetically a far cry from the types of manicured, lush and exclusively private courses that typically hosted the U.S. Open.
To get the course ready for what renovation architect Rees Jones dubbed “The People’s Open,” the U.S.G.A. committed $2.5 million for the project, and Jones donated his services, reconfiguring many of the green complexes and all of the bunkering in 1997. The result was a success, and a blueprint for latter-day municipal golf course turnarounds: an interesting course that people wanted to play that also happened to be playable by anyone willing to queue up.
Tiger Woods was the only player to break par for 72 holes at Bethpage Black in 2002, and while pure difficulty is less of an indicator of legitimacy than it used to be, the stoutness of a municipal course as a test for the world’s best golfers helped the world see that the egalitarian form of the game’s playing fields could potentially rival its private domains for greatness. No longer was it assumed that high green fees or dues were required to play someplace special. While Bethpage Black’s green fees have risen from the $25, pre-renovation level, its $75 tariff for New Yorkers ($150 for visitors) still makes it one of golf’s best values.
Bethpage Black’s potential was well-known for a long time, but in several other municipalities, it sent an important message: people will flock to an interesting golf course.
This proved true at a muni that most would consider the polar opposite of Bethpage Black: Winter Park Golf Course in suburban Orlando, Fla. Whereas Bethpage Black and its four sister courses sit on almost 1,500 acres, the 2,400-yard, nine-hole Winter Park course is on just 40. And yet this small-footprint course has made a big splash because it works for the same general reason Bethpage Black works, even without the megaphone that comes with periodically hosting a globally recognized event.
With a budget of just over $1 million, Winter Park architects Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb – hungry, talented assistants to some of the biggest names in contemporary course design – hand-crafted the quaint course into a public asset any community would love to have.
The secret to the success of “WP9” is that Johns and Rhebb did not dumb things down. Several lesser muni rehab jobs have been conducted under the mistaken assumption that the less moneyed golfer is either less worthy of or less receptive to interesting golf.
WP9's undulating greens and ball-gobbling bunkers require thoughtful play to negotiate. They would command respect in any context. Nods to classic golf course design – features that are as much fun to tackle today as they were in the early 20th century – are everywhere, ready to pique the curiosity of a player who may have previously only had fairly straightforward, formulaic golf course experience. Even though green fees top out around $20 per loop, the level of sophistication at Winter Park shatters stereotypes for the good of the game.
Two more standard (read: 18-holes but no majors in the future) facilities at opposite ends of the country serve as more mainstream examples of how exceptional municipal golf can thrill golfers.
Growing up near Hartford, Connecticut, the only thing of note I had heard about Keney Park Golf Club had nothing to do with its golfing virtues. A friend’s uncle played it once during the winter, when nowhere else was open, and to his horror noticed a dead German Shepherd near one of the greens.
After decades of neglect, culminating in active mismanagement by a company contracted to run it and fellow Hartford facility Goodwin Park, the city took action in 2013. Rather than close Keney, it embarked on a three-year, $6 million project to restore it in deference to both its historical value and its potential as a public asset. Keney Park was first laid out in 1927 by Golden Age architect Devereux Emmet, then brought from nine to 18 holes by Hartford city engineer Robert “Jack” Ross (no relation to Donald) in 1931. The unique combination of pedigree and local influence – not to mention its location inside an Olmsted-designed public park – make it a special place that, despite the rehabilitation expense, was seen as worth preserving.
Thanks to renovation architect Matt Dusenberry, what used to be an eyesore is now the best public golf course in the state, with zero weak holes and some of the more interesting green complexes anywhere – private, public, resort or muni. At peak times, non-residents can play for just $44 on a weekend ($62 with cart).
Though I moved to Florida a couple years before it reopened, I’ve had the opportunity to play Keney Park on several visits back to Connecticut. I adore it. And I’ve seen first-hand how putting effort into making a course as interesting as possible can inspire golfers, because that’s precisely what’s happened with my father, Larry, who has adopted it as his new home course.
"Keney is a great Phoenix-rising story," he told me. "I especially enjoy being paired with Hartford city residents who remember playing Keney in the ‘50s. We are in awe of what has happened after so many years of misuse."
A community blueprint
More than 1,700 miles away, an architect and a small city executed a municipal golf course transformation so thoroughly that their approach has been branded and trademarked.
Per creator, course architect Andy Staples, Community Links™ “creates a paradigm shift in the way a golf course is viewed within its community, and focuses on how a golf facility can be more utilized as a valuable asset.”
One of the biggest obstacles to community acceptance of municipal golf is the fact that no matter where you go, golfers comprise only a fraction of the population. It makes perfect sense that non-golfers are often skeptical of the use of public funding for golf course improvements, because they perceive that golf facilities only serve golfers.
Staples’ Community Links™ concept, applied to full effect in his 2015 renovation in Hobbs, New Mexico at Rockwind Community Links, seeks to challenge the notion that quality municipal golf only benefits entrenched golfers. One particular point on Staples’ site speaks to the importance of broad appeal:
“Non-golfers can be brought in by establishing versatile auxiliary areas/activities; walking trails, community open space, picnic areas, dog-park near concessions, corporate events, farmers' markets, concerts, weddings, etc.”
The golf course at Rockwind seeks to minimize water use and maximize playability for its players while simultaneously providing stimulating, sophisticated golfing features meant to bait the hook the way all great golf courses do. But in order to live up to the “Community” part of its name, the facility has a well-worn two-mile walking trail, space for weddings and other events and a restaurant that caters not just to golfers but the general public.
One key element: a nine-hole par-3 course called Li’l Rock, where up to three junior golfers play for free with an accompanying adult. Those adult fees? $6 for residents and $9 for non-residents, while on the “big” course, walking rates top out at $30.
“We needed to make some changes in the way the game was presented to the public,” said Hobbs mayor Sam Cobb of Rockwind’s run-down, underutilized former facility. The combination of a talented, visionary architect and a municipality willing to make the absolute most of a couple hundred acres has yielded an asset that even non-golfers should be glad is part of their community.
The Munaissance has been a huge boon to public awareness of the work of Donald Ross, who, like most Golden Age architects, was thought for years to be mostly inaccessible to public golfers who didn’t have the dough to play Pinehurst No. 2. But of Ross’ 400 courses, a surprising number have become publicly owned over time, and of these, a handful have been restored by their municipalities:
Shennecossett Golf Club – Groton, Conn.
The Connecticut shoreline is just mild enough in the winter so that upstaters can sometimes steal a couple extra rounds per year if they’re willing to drive. My friend Adam and I used to play Shennecossett frequently, as the facility typically keeps its greens open whenever possible, even when the ground is frosty. Ross redesigned an existing layout in 1926. In 1998, architect Mark Mungeam built three new holes on the site to account for a land swap between the town of Groton and Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant that has a plant nearby.
Jeffersonville Golf Club – Norristown, Penn.
Jeffersonville is the perfect counterargument to the notion that elaborate non-golf amenities are necessary to keep golfers happy. Its clubhouse is spartan and, in places, in need of refurbishment. But the town's wise investment in its circa-1931 Donald Ross-designed golf course - largely preserved and nurtured since 2000 courtesy of course restoration pioneer Ron Prichard - has made it as fine an example of sophisticated, affordable municipal golf as one can find. The scores of golfers enjoying the course on a daily basis don't seem overly bothered by the smallish pro shop or basic off-course infrastructure.
Wilmington Municipal Golf Course – Wilmington, N.C.
John Fought is best known for his golf course design work out west. But Fought, who won the 1977 U.S. Amateur at the Ross-designed Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia, came east to renovate the circa-1926 Wilmington Muni in 2014. With a relatively modest budget of $700,000, Fought expanded greens, reshaped bunkers and gave residents of and visitors to the “Port City” a renewed asset. To boot, the local First Tee has taken up residence, building a spiffy new practice area recently.
Bacon Park Golf Course – Savannah, Ga.
This course, originally designed by Ross in 1926 and renovated by Richard Mandell in 2014, was one of the pleasant-surprise courses I saw in 2018. The 2017 hurricane season and following winter had not been kind to the greens, but the broad fairways and gliding undulations on the greens give the impression that this is another outpost of the Munaissance. And with green fees of $22, the price is right.
Fort Myers Country Club – Fort Myers, Fla.
If every city had a course like “The Fort,” golf would be in the catbird seat. The rectangular property, split horizontally by a canal that comes into play on six holes, sits between residential and commercial sections of the city, which gives it an interesting sense of place. The pushed-up greens make for a great short-game challenge, and head pro Rich Lamb has overseen the place for more than four decades. The circa-1917 course has really hit its stride since Steve Smyers renovated it in 2014.
Ross courses make particularly good munis for several reasons. First off, Ross was a master of golf course routing, able to maneuver players around a property such that they are exposed to ever-changing wind directions and seldom have long walks from one green to the next tee (Ross worked before the advent of the golf cart). When golf is part of a municipality’s offerings, it should be a way to enable people to exercise. Walking 18 holes is great exercise, and Ross designs often make that walk a pleasure.
Ross’ courses also nail the concept of playability. Tee shots tend to be more strategic than penal in nature, and the challenge rises the closer one gets to the green. As a result, you may notice that even if you haven’t played your best at a Ross design, you haven’t lost a single golf ball. Less time spent looking for one’s golf ball means more time with a beer glass in hand in the bar after the round.
Several more Ross designs are waiting for their turn to brighten their own communities with savvy restorations like the courses above.
Important contemporary Munaissance figures
The Texas-based architect has designed and renovated several municipal facilities in the Lone Star State. He and associate Trey Kemp have a flair for classic design features (squared-off green edges appear at several of his designs). At Dallas muni Stevens Park, Colligan’s renovation vaulted rounds from 30,000 to 60,000 per year after its 2011 reopening. Fort Worth's Rockwood Park is another muni success story.
In addition to his work restoring Ross at Bacon Park, Mandell has become known as an excellent renovation architect, particularly for his work at the municipal Keller Golf Course in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Across the river in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, Mandell has just finished a comprehensive renovation of Braemar Golf Course, which includes a brand-new Academy 9 par-3 course. Back in his home state of North Carolina, he was responsible for recent touch-ups at Tanglewood Park near Winston-Salem, whose Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed Championship Course hosted the 1974 PGA Championship.
The High Munaissance
This movement seems to be gathering pace. In the last year, municipal course renovations have breathed new life into golf communities across the country. In Florida, Jacksonville Beach Golf Club’s Harrison Minchew-led renovation has updated a tired layout. Potentially transformative projects in both West Palm Beach and Boca Raton are set to get going this year as well.
In Texas, John Colligan isn't the only active figure on the muni renovation scene. Tom Doak and major champion Brooks Koepka are in the midst of renovating Houston's Memorial Park Golf Course with an eye on the PGA Tour's return next year. Across town, architect Baxter Spann's renovation at Gus Wortham Park Golf Course has been a revelation.
In California, experienced architect Forrest Richardson remade Palo Alto’s muni into Baylands Golf Links, which not only modernized the course but also reduced maintained turf by 40%, meaning a significant water savings. Just north, outside Oakland, Rees Jones’ renovation of Corica Park’s South Course has been a resounding success, and the City of Alameda is moving forward with updating its North Course in similar fashion.
Several more important such projects are on the horizon throughout the country. Tiger Woods-led renovation plans at Jackson Park in Chicago have caused some controversy and debate, but the prospect of a revitalized muni is exciting to many in the neighborhood. The City of Charleston, South Carolina recently announced a $3 million plan to update its spectacularly sited but long-neglected course. And in the nation’s capital, the National Links Trust has been formed with the goal of rehabbing the East Potomac Park courses, originally designed by Golden Age architect Walter Travis. In a metro area whose public golf options are on the weaker side, this would be a huge boon to local golfers.
Finally, there’s Cobbs Creek. Located practically in downtown Philadelphia, it may be the most finely pedigreed city course in the country, in part because unlike many old munis, which began life as private clubs, Cobbs has been open to all since day one in 1916.
With design influences from Hugh Wilson (Merion Golf Club’s East Course architect), George Crump (Pine Valley), George Thomas, Walter Travis and A.W. Tillinghast, it has the potential to be remade into one of America’s best overall courses. Local golf historians Dr. Joseph Bausch and Mike Cirba, founders of Friends of Cobbs Creek, an advocacy organization for the course, are working diligently to raise funding to restore it to its original glory while also catering to non-golfers who deserve to benefit from the surrounding Fairmount Park.
A successful restoration of Cobbs Creek could see it eclipse even the likes of Bethpage Black for muni golf supremacy. The bones and terrain are that good. Architect Gil Hanse, whose Philadelphia-area credits include original designs at Inniscrone Golf Club and French Creek Golf Club, has been connected to the prospective restoration effort.
Fully realized, Cobbs Creek would stand in proud opposition to golf’s naysayers. Like many predecessors, it would serve up inexpensive rounds on a storied course, meant for walking, open to all. Public access to a world-class course would do more to topple negative stereotypes about golf than any slogan or corporate-style PR campaign. It would give Philadelphians a reason to go out and play together while becoming a pilgrimage site for farther-flung visitors. New flocks of golfers might not pop up overnight, but in the midst of golf’s Munaissance, Cobbs Creek might turn out to be public golf's Yellowstone: something exquisite that we all can enjoy.
Editor's Note: Golf Advisor Senior Writer Bradley S. Klein consulted on the renovation of Keney Park.