The general malaise that has affected golf participation numbers over the last 10 years or so has made for particularly tough times for the municipal sector. The very nature of municipal golf is that it tends to be an entry route to the game for many new players, who, if hooked on golf, tend to trade up over time. The result of this is that municipals need a constant flow of new players to prosper, and hence will be in the front line of any downturn in the game.
Municipal golf has a long and proud history. Obviously, the St Andrews Links, the home of golf, has been publicly owned throughout the majority of its history. The Links was confirmed as common land belonging to the citizens of St Andrews by a charter granted by King David I of Scotland as far back as 1123, long before golf was ever thought of, and has remained so ever since, with the exception of the period between 1797, when the town council went bankrupt, and the Links was sold, and 1894, when the town regained proprietorship with the establishment of the Links Trust. But when golf started to spread in the nineteenth century, it did so mostly in the form of private clubs establishing their own courses, from which the public were excluded.
The return of publicly-owned golf would start in the late part of the nineteenth century, when golf had begun its progression from Scottish curiosity to global game. Oddly, the idea seems to have evolved almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. In Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, at the start of 1893, the town decided to create a new public park on land that had been gifted to it by the locally-important Meyrick family. The park was named after its benefactors, and as part of its creation, the council resolved to start the town’s first golf course – this was a time when golf was exploding across England and seaside towns in particular, whose income depended so much on visitors, feared being left behind if they did not cater for this new game. By the end of the year, the council had employed Tom Dunn to report on the suitability of the ground for golf, and early in 1894, Dunn was hired to lay out the new facility – the main 18-hole course, and shorter nine-hole ‘Ladies Links’ – which was formally opened for play on 28 November of the same year, the first, it would appear, specially created municipally-owned golf course in the world. There was water piped to every tee and green (very unusual at the time) and 95 men had been employed for three months in building the course.
To the west of the ocean, America was less than a year behind. In 1888, the city of New York had taken title to 4,000 acres of land in the Bronx. This acquisition led to the formation of Bronx, Claremont, Crotona, St Mary’s, Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay parks, and in 1895, a group of Riverdale businessmen, who had been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a site to build a private golf course, hit upon the Van Cortlandt site as their best opportunity. The group developed a nine-hole course, but the Board of Parks Commissioners concluded that it could not allow a municipally-owned asset to fall into private hands. Hence the group – by now known as the ‘Mosholu Golf Club’ – gained exclusive rights to use the course for two afternoons a week, but it remained publicly-owned, the first municipal golf course in the United States (with a finishing hole, the ninth, that was more than 700 yards long).
Since then, municipal golf has spread far and wide. Many well-known golfers learned the game on munis, and they have been crucial to introducing new players to golf. Figures from the US’s National Golf Federation (NGF) show that American muni numbers reached an all-time high of 2,515 courses in 2018 (out of, at the time, just under 15,000 courses, so munis represented not far from 20 per cent of all of American golf). But, around the world, local government has come under severe financial pressure in recent years – British figures, for example, show that local government’s ‘spending power’ has declined by 18 per cent since 2010, so it is hardly surprising that municipal golf provision has come under severe pressure too. Not long ago, before the great golf building boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, municipal courses were reliable cash-cows for their local government owners. With a huge increase in supply comes far greater competition, and often it was munis that were the fiercest targets of that competition. “We don’t believe that making money is always the primary motivation that drives a municipality to offer golf as recreation for its residents,” said the NGF in a 2019 report. It’s a long way from Meyrick Park in 1894, when the Bournemouth town council saw golf as an essential attribute for a town that wanted to be economically successful.
Now, though, the muni downturn is showing signs of slowing. Those signs may not be visible everywhere – though the boom in golf that has been seen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic lifts the municipal ship along with all the others – but around the golfing world, a number of localities are looking for new ways to operate their municipal golf courses and new models for them to follow.
The muni revival, such as it is, cannot be said to be across the board. But what does appear to be happening is that courses with an interesting heritage, or some particular architectural notoriety, are attracting more attention – and crucially, attracting funding from sources other than hard-pressed local authorities.
Take, for example, the long-established Cleeve Hill course, located outside Cheltenham in southern England. Golf has been played on Cleeve Hill, the highest point in the Cotswolds, since 1891, when the Cheltenham Golf Club was founded, playing over a course laid out by Old Tom Morris. That club was private, though the Hill was common land, and so the place remained until 1976, when the Cotswold Hills club (successor to the Cheltenham GC) moved to a new course at Ullenwood, on the south side of the town, after which the course passed into the care of Tewkesbury Borough Council.
Golfing on Cleeve Hill is a grand experience. The course – though lengthened from that laid out by Tom, which measured less than 5,000 yards, with a longest hole of 330 yards (the back tees now stretch to 6,400 yards) – feels like a living connection to the past of the game. Among its more remarkable old features is the thirteenth green, still located where Tom put it, among the earthworks of an Iron Age hillfort.
Last autumn, though, Cleeve was threatened with closure. In early September, the council revealed that the private company that leased the course had ended its tenancy early because it judged it to be financially unviable. After a review by an independent expert, the council echoed this view, saying that golf at Cleeve Hill “could not be financially sustainable without significant investment and an ongoing subsidy from the council”. It therefore resolved to revoke the licence for the use of Cleeve Common as a golf course from 31 March 2021.
Tewkesbury’s decision prompted a storm of outrage. Members of the golf club immediately started a petition, which attracted thousands of signatures, a ‘Save Cleeve Hill Golf Course’ Facebook group sprung up and created a lot of noise, and generally the golf community made it known that it did not believe the course should be allowed to die. It soon became clear that the council’s decision might be overturned. The group started private discussions with councillors and other local movers and shakers, and the council fairly rapidly started an about-turn, issuing a statement that it was clear there was still an appetite for golf on the Hill, and inviting new bidders to come forward to operate the golf course. In late January, the council announced that a group of local investors calling themselves the Cotswold Hub Company had been appointed and would take over the course on 1 April. The new operators are preparing (at the time of writing) to take over, and it appears that golf on Cleeve Hill has indeed been saved.
Further north, in Derby, a similar campaign is still being waged in an attempt to save the municipal Allestree Park golf course. Opened in 1930 and designed by Harry Colt, Allestree sits within the largest open space in Derby, a 130-hectare park surrounding Allestree Hall. The council, which owns both the land and the hall, is seeking to sell the latter, with a view to it becoming a wedding and event venue.
As at Cleeve, local golfers, with golf writer Andrew Picken prominent among them, have mounted a strong campaign to save the course, including a petition with almost 26,000 signatures. Despite this, the council closed the course at the end of 2020, citing a cost saving of £69,000 a year, though campaigners point out that maintaining the park is estimated to cost £32,000, with no prospect of making any compensating revenue. Campaigners say that the council’s pre-closure consultation stated 75 per cent support to keep the course open, and that four bidders wanted to take it over – and that at least three more have emerged since the story broke. They also claim that opposition parties have agreed to revoke the closure if they take control of the (closely fought) council at forthcoming local election. This campaign appears still to have further to run.
Across the Atlantic too, the muni revival is gathering pace. Americans trying to revive munis have one key advantage: the sheer number of such courses with an interesting architectural heritage. While it is true that pioneer American architects such as Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor worked almost exclusively for rather elite private clubs, that isn’t true of some of the great names that followed them. Donald Ross, for example (the man who, more than anyone else, brought great golf to the masses of America), designed around 400 courses through his long career – and almost fifty of them are or were munis. There are a number of projects afoot to regenerate Ross, or Ross-linked munis, especially some of those located in areas that are now relatively economically disadvantaged: this is because a number of people in the golf business have realised what a powerful engine a golf course can be to regenerate an area.
The story of the Cobbs Creek municipal course in Philadelphia is well-known, but deserves to be repeated. Cobbs Creek opened in 1916, built by a lot of the same men that created American golf legends such as Pine Valley and Merion, including Hugh Wilson, principal designer of Merion East, and George Crump, founder, developer and the brains behind Pine Valley. It was viewed by many in its early years as the best public course in America. Cobbs was home to some of America’s pioneering black and female golfers, including Charlie Sifford, the first black member of the PGA Tour.
Like so many old publics, Cobbs fell on hard times, but for years now a group of local golf enthusiasts have been agitating and fundraising with the aim of restoring the course. And now, they are on the verge of achieving their aim: currently in the final permitting stage, the project, to be led by Jim Wagner of Hanse Golf Course Design, could break ground as early as May of this year, starting with the restoration of the eponymous creek, by some distance the most difficult and costly partly of the project.
Cobbs is far from being the grand old muni tagged for restoration in the US. In Washington DC, Walter Travis’s East Potomac Park, on an island in the Potomac River, is slated for a restoration: an organisation called the National Links Trust, founded by golf architect Mike McCartin, has taken on the management of the course (and two other DC munis, Langston and Rock Creek Park) and has grand, multi-million dollar plans to restore them to their former glory – but critically, still to operate as Everyman municipal golf courses, not to turn them into some kind of ritzy country club.
In San Francisco, the scheme to restore Alister MacKenzie’s Sharp Park continues apace: architects Tom Doak and Jay Blasi have already returned the tenth and eighteenth greens to something like what MacKenzie intended.
And in Orlando, what is in many ways the guiding light for many of these muni projects continues to operate happily with a full tee sheet. The Winter Park nine holer, in what is Orlando’s toniest suburb, might not have quite so grand an architectural heritage as many of our other examples. But, founded in 1914, its 2016 renovation by architects Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns was so acclaimed that the course has never looked back. The Winter Park course feels like a true part of its community: there are no fences separating the course from the rest of its neighbourhood, railway lines run along one side of it, so passengers get a clear view of golfers enjoying their games. And, though the site is pancake flat, the clever design work of Johns and Rhebb, focused almost entirely on creating interest by way of contoured greens, means that Winter Park has become famous, with golf writers around the world trumpeting its values.
What links all these projects is that there is something a little bit special about the golf course, its design, heritage or location. Whether it is Cleeve Hill, with views for many miles over the Cotswolds and a Tom Morris heritage, Cobbs Creek, designed by Hugh Wilson of Merion fame, Sharp Park, designed by Alister MacKenzie, or Winter Park, located slap bang in the middle of the nicest part of Orlando, these are not just workaday munis. It is, if you like, proof of something that GCA has been wittering on about throughout its lifetime: it is the golf course, its design and sense of place above all else that makes people want to play golf. That might seem to be a bleak assessment for anyone trying to revitalise a ‘Joe Sixpack’ muni, but the truth is that virtually every golf course has something special about it. Find it, focus on it, and live it.
This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.