This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
It is a common criticism of golf that it is a game for the wealthy. And, let us not beat the bush about it; through most of golf’s history, that has largely been the truth. The early Scottish clubs – consider the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – were posh because, in the days of the featherie ball, only the wealthy could afford the equipment. A skilled ballmaker could make only a small number of featheries in a day, so they cost between two and five shillings – ten to twenty US dollars each in modern money – and thus golf was largely confined to the elite. It was only after the invention of the much cheaper gutty ball in 1848 that golf became a true game of the people in Scotland. And it is not a coincidence that the second half of the nineteenth century saw the first great golf boom.
A lot of the oldest Scottish courses are located on common land, and are therefore essentially public – famously, all the way up to the Old course at St Andrews. But the nineteenth century golf boom was largely driven by private clubs, as would-be golfers banded together to create a venue for their sport. And, as golf began its spread around the world, that spread was a top-down rather than a bottom-up process. The first golfers, and the first clubs, in most new locations, were affluent and posh. It was only after golf had been established in a location for a time that less well off individuals discovered the game – largely, in the first instance, through caddying.
Municipal golf, which started to come along at the end of the nineteenth century, proved to be a success in both Britain and America. Many millions of golfers got their first taste of the game on a muni, and they were a cash cow for the local authorities that ran them. Unfortunately, the golf building boom of the late twentieth and very early twenty-first century, which added hugely to the course stock, mostly of proprietary courses, created such a flood of supply that the munis ceased to be the profit centres they had been, and became a liability.
It isn’t too hard for local government to justify the provision of municipal golf if it makes money, or at least breaks even. A popular recreation for local people that is also profitable? Bring it on. When the course is losing money, matters change rather. If the choice of ways to spend council money is schools, roads or golf, golf loses every time. And so, a lot of municipal courses have closed in the last ten years, and others have come perilously close. Tynedale, in Hexham in the north east of England, and Bowring Park in Liverpool, two of the country’s oldest munis, are good examples of this: Tynedale lost a grant from the county council and was on the edge of closure until club and council did a deal (to the club’s credit, it has rebounded from this and is now thriving), while Bowring, which like many munis, had been handed over to a management company, suddenly shuttered its doors last year when that management company went bust. Fortunately, the local authority, seeing the value of the course, took it back into public management, and has since launched a major renovation project of the park in which it is contained. But not all have been so lucky.
Read more: Mike McCartin describes the possible restoration of East Potomac Park
America, in the lead as it usually is in these matters, is seeing an interesting trend develop; the restoration of the historic muni. From coast to coast, the threat to old municipal courses has got local golfers thinking about the memories that were formed there, and wondering what could be done to help them continue to thrive. At Sharp Park in San Francisco, designed by Alister MacKenzie, a number of Macphiles have been working for years with architect Jay Blasi on a restoration project. Blasi reports: “Last year we were able to use a 1931 irrigation map to help us properly identify the original green boundaries. After flagging out about a half dozen greens to review, we settled on two greens, the current tenth and eighteenth, to have the maintenance team start to mow out. The transformation is amazing. The current eighteenth green was 6,042 square feet and is now 9,393 square feet. One of the wonderful things about Sharp Park is that not much work has been done over time, so the original contours are there and when you mow out to the original edges the character jumps out.”
At Cobb’s Creek in Philadelphia – other than Merion East, Hugh Wilson’s only design – a similar project, with Jim Wagner of Hanse Golf Design in charge, is getting ready to go. And in Washington DC, architect Mike McCartin is trying to rouse interest in a similarly-ambitious project at East Potomac Park, located on an island in the Potomac River (Walter Travis’s original design, heavily influenced by St Andrews, was reversible!).
Read more: Jim Wagner reveals what the chance to restore Cobbs Creek would mean to him
So the future for the muni is likely to vary. For those with a history sufficiently storied to rouse golfers’ interests, the possibility exists for a very grand future. For others, it may be more difficult. But one thing is certain, the muni will not be going away any time soon, and the gospel of municipal golf is spreading to some unlikely quarters. Who would have thought that a city in north-eastern Turkey would build a municipal golf course? But that’s what the city of Samsun has done over the past few years, with golf course architect Kevin Ramsey. Developed and owned by the Samsun municipality, the linksy Samsun Golf Club is located on reclaimed land at the edge of the Black Sea. Ramsey says: “The town has been very proactive in creating sporting activities along the entire waterfront. It has miles of pathway along the beach connecting all waterfront activities via bike, roller blade or jogging/walking. They have built many outdoor parks with soccer facilities, tracks and other indoor sports venues in this area as well. It seems to me that they want to be known as the sports city for the people. This is now the home of the Turkish Golf Federation, again adding a strong public flavour to the course as it is where the national team plays.”