These are strange days for municipal golf as we know it.
Two different truths paint a confusing picture about the state of muni golf.
On the one hand, newspaper headlines indicate that municipal courses are closing, or on the verge of closure, around the country. But on the other hand, research by the National Golf Foundation throws a curveball at this narrative. There have never been more municipal golf courses in America, according to NGF, as some cities are buying up floundering courses, taking up a proactive stance against redevelopment. But is that a good idea?
A tidal wave of troubles - the struggles of the golf industry, the insatiable need of developers looking for large swaths of land in prime locations and the constant budget crunching at the city and county level - has created an uncertain future for muni golf.
In just the past six months, the cities of Houston (Glenbrook Golf Course); Aurora, Colo. (Fitzsimons Golf Course); Johnson City, Tenn. (Buffalo Valley Golf Course); West St. Paul, Minn., (Thompson Oaks Golf Course, a nine-hole executive course) and Detroit (Palmer Park Golf Course) have closed underperforming courses. Richard Singer, the director of Consulting Services for the NGF who has been studying municipal facilities for nearly three decades, said two-thirds of municipal courses lose money every year.
The closing of municipal courses "is a trend. That is something we could see more of in the coming years," Singer said.
What does that mean for golf's long-term health? Munis tend to be incubators of the game, catering to all ages and skill levels. Like many golfers, Singer learned to play the game on a muni, the Spook Rock Golf Course in Suffern, N.Y.
It's one thing for a high-end private club or expensive daily fee like Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas to close. It's another issue entirely for a community course - maybe the only truly accessible course for juniors or beginners - to disappear. Think of the implications.
Many municipalities are willing to operate courses at a loss to maintain green space and provide affordable golf as a community service, but too many are stuck with aging infrastructure and staggering losses to their bottom line. The red ink becomes a bullseye for city officials and non-golfing residents. At some point, this death spiral becomes a point of no return.
Muni golf is growing, but many are in trouble
International Links Melreese Country Club in Miami has been targeted for development.
City councils and county boards around the country are wrangling with the same age-old question: Should tax dollars be supplementing golf?
The numbers recently released by the NGF indicate growth for muni golf. The number of municipal facilities - not total courses but single facilities owned and/or operated by a government entity - grew from an all-time high of 2,492 in 2016 to 2,497 in 2017. That accounts for roughly 17 percent of total U.S. golf facilities (out of 14,794, according to the NGF's latest report).
Milton, Ga., and Oviedo, Fla. outside Orlando, are two cities that have spent millions acquiring courses to preserve green space (Boca Raton, Fla. and Denver are other examples). It's unclear how long the Milton Country Club will be used as a golf course, but Golf Advisor reviews indicate the Twin Rivers Golf Course in Oviedo is doing better under the city's watch.
User cmjohnston1 wrote in his April 24 review: "I played here last year and it was just OK. Now the fairways are in good condition and the bunkers have new sand. I heard the city took it over and is pumping money into it. Definitely in better shape than other nearby courses."
The majority of communities, though, are looking to scale back their investments in golf. A recent article by the USA TODAY Network-Florida reported that the state's municipal golf courses have lost $100 million in just the last five years.
The Houston Parks & Recreation Department closed Glenbrook on April 1 to make way for the new Houston Botanical Garden. This move shifts the city's focus and funds to its remaining courses, including Memorial Park Golf Course, which has been rumored to be a potential future host of the PGA Tour's Houston Open.
Water uncertainty and rising costs have threatened golf courses throughout California. San Jose has been threatening to close at least one of its three courses since I moved to the city's south side in 2014, according to the Mercury News. Stockton (Calif.) Mayor Michael Tubbs has been vocal about wanting to close his city's two golf courses, but backlash from the general public has created a heated debate about the future of the city's Van Buskirk and Swenson courses.
In the Midwest, Madison, Wis., is considering closing one of its four courses, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. In Minneapolis, Hiawatha Golf Course was originally slated to close at the end of 2019, but a campaign to save the course has delayed the decision at least five years, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Michigan's Huron-Clinton Metroparks, a collection of 13 parks spanning more than 25,000 acres in metro Detroit, closed two courses in 2017 - a par-3 facility where my son and I first played golf together and an underutilized regulation course - while a third course, the Hudson Mills Metropark Golf Course, almost closed before a last-minute life line delayed the decision for five years, according to the Livingston Daily. The Metroparks, which attract seven million users annually, are funded, principally, by a property tax levy and by revenues from vehicle entry fees and other fees (such as green fees). Meanwhile, Detroit's three remaining municipal courses were recently saved when the city agreed to fund a two-year management contract to a private company, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In the Southwest, the four city courses of Albuquerque, N.M., landed a stay of execution when the city agreed earlier this month to cover the budget shortfall for the year, according to the New Mexico Golf News. One cost-saving scenario being considered calls for closing one or both of the nine-hole Puerto Del Sol Golf Course and the 18-hole Los Altos Golf Course with the land being re-purposed.
Talk of closing one or more of the municipal courses in Tucson, Ariz., dates back to 2012. Silverbell Municipal Golf Course has taken a proactive stance in the fight to preserve its future. The course's website hosts a page listing news stories on the topic, the dates and locations of city workshops discussing the future of the courses and key city officials to contact. One unique idea to save the historic Randolph Golf Course is to transform its 36 holes into a tournament-caliber 18-hole routing to lure the PGA Tour back to Tucson by 2021. The Tucson Conquistadores, a non-profit youth sports organization, are behind the plan, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Maybe the inspiration came from the Jackson Park plan in Chicago, where Tiger Woods hopes to turn 27 holes of muni golf along the shores of Lake Michigan into a venue worthy of major tournaments.
Even facilities reportedly breaking even financially are in danger because the urban land is so valuable. Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas, is another property in a prime location caught in a heated battle for redevelopment. In this case, the land was deeded to the University of Texas, and the city has a 100-year lease set to expire in 2019. The university has expressed interest in developing the course, whose land has been estimated to be valued in the nine figures. UT alum Ben Crenshaw is leading the charge at SaveMuny.com in hopes to save the historical green space for future generations.
The International Links Melreese Country Club, Miami's only city course, is being floated as a potential site for a new soccer stadium, according to the Miami Herald. Several LPGA Tour players, such as Christie Kerr, learned the game at Melreese and oppose the plan.
"Muni golf will always have a place, but there will always be challenges," Singer said. "Municipalities have to collect garbage and pay police. If they can't make the case (for golf), they have to strongly consider to live without it. At some places, it is the survival of the fittest. At some places (golf) is just a luxury they can't afford."
Investing in muni golf
Baylands Golf Links took seven years to be redesigned near San Francisco Bay. (Courtesy Dave Sansom/City of Palo Alto)
Palo Alto, Calif., is one city that can afford it. The city at the heart of Silicon Valley spent $12 million on a complete redesign of the old Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course adjacent to the airport, the San Francisquito Creek and the San Francisco Bay. The new Baylands Golf Links by Forrest Richardson that debuted May 24 is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable than the original course, although some residents are already concerned about the higher green fees that accompany such a project.
Rob De Geus, the deputy city manager, admits it was a "bold" move to spend so much money on golf. He said the city has made a commitment to a diversity of recreation and arts for its residents, and that includes golf. The project also shows the city's commitment to the Baylands Nature Preserve by creating new wetlands and grasslands and a golf facility that requires much less water. Carving out 10 new acres from the old routing for a future park/sports fields were another factor that made the project appealing. The course made $3.1 million in 2008, according to the San Jose Mercury News, so there is hope of a return to profitability.
"There are wins on a number of fronts," De Geus said of the Baylands project. "We think in terms of interest (to golfers) - it is a true links on the bay - it will be more competitive (with other courses in the Bay Area). ... If you can't play at Stanford (University's Golf Course), we have a muni that is unique and special."
Alameda, another Bay Area community near Oakland, is also betting big on a multi-million-dollar redesign of the Jack Clark South course at Corica Park. (I preview the late June opening of the municipal course here.) The Sharp Park Golf Course, an Alister Mackenzie design in Pacifica run by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, someday hopes to get a similar makeover to restore a neglected gem with great bones and a historic pedigree.
Muni golf done right
Recently renovated by Tom Weiskopf, Torrey Pines North is one of the busiest munis in the country.
Not all munis are the stereotypical budget courses with subpar conditioning and issues with slow play. Many get it right. After all, a third of municipal facilities DO make a profit.
It is worth noting that no two munis play by the same rules to balance their budgets. Some must hire city union workers at higher wages, while others use management companies to skirt the issue. Some must pay for their own administrative staff for duties such as accounting/human resources/marketing and public relations, Singer said, while others just use city staff without adding those expenses to their bottom line. Comparing profitable munis to ones that aren't isn't always a fair fight.
Even so, it probably won't surprise you which ones do well. Bethpage State Park, home to five courses on New York's Long Island, and Torrey Pines near San Diego regularly host major golf events. That has made them famous, creating demand and higher greens fees. Bethpage Black will host the 2019 PGA Championship, followed by the 2024 Ryder Cup. The South Course at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., shares hosting duties with the renovated North Course for the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open and will host the 2021 U.S. Open. Other famous munis include TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, host of 2020 PGA Championship and 2025 Presidents Cup, and Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., near Tacoma, host of the 2015 U.S. Open and owned by Pierce County.
The city-owned courses of SoCal's swanky Coachella Valley are flush with amenities you won't see at most munis. It's the only way to keep up with all the posh private clubs throughout the region. Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert and Indian Wells Golf Resort in Indian Wells offer free valet parking, nice clubhouses and high-end service. The SilverRock Resort in La Quinta held the PGA Tour’s Bob Hope Classic from 2008-2011.
One of my favorite courses of all time is a muni - the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash. Golf Advisor's Tim Gavrich swears by his local muni, the 36-hole Sandridge Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla., owned and operated by Indian River County.
Sacramento's municipal courses are creatively run by Morton Golf Management. Its centerpiece, the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex, has a rare public Alister Mackenzie golf course on site, but the real draw is everything else: a lighted, automated driving range that stays open 24 hours in summer, a nine-hole putt-putt course, an indoor/outdoor Player Performance Studio for club fitting and lessons and a Super Store stocked with fashions and gear. Haggin Oaks has led the charge in the growth of Footgolf, devoting its nine-hole Arcade Creek course to the game, as well as to beginners and juniors golfers.
Special events generate revenue that tee times can't. The Haggin Oaks Golf Expo, touted as "America's Largest Demo Days" for the past 43 years, attracts thousands of golfers every April. The sold-out 'Golf & Guitars' country music festival - paired with a golf outing that raises money for charity - was a big hit May 21.
Generally, the path to success for most munis is similar: Charge an affordable price and provide enough services so golfers feel like they're getting their money's worth. Whether the green fees are $40 or $60, golfers have the same expectations. Keep the course in decent condition, especially the greens, and make sure rounds don't turn into five-hour slogs.
The rebirth of the nine-hole Winter Park Golf Course near Orlando is a prime example. Golfers can overlook its lack of length (2,500 yards) because the $1.2-million redesign by Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns has made the layout fun, fast and still affordable, all buzz words in today's industry.
If they're run right, munis can provide value - both for the golfers playing them and for the communities they serve.
"What I've learned is all golf is local," Singer said. "Every municipal course has its own unique story. It has its own unique clientele. The ones that work best reflect the community that owns it."