This week, the U.S. Open returns to the Torrey Pines South Course. It's cause for celebration for a few reasons. Even though pro golf fans get to see it every year as the host of the PGA Tour's Farmers Insurance Open, its turns in the major championship rota - in this case, the U.S. Open - earn it a particularly warm, bright spotlight.
Part of the fanfare this week will revolve around Torrey's unusual status among major championship hosts: that of a municipal golf course. Owned by the City of San Diego, it and venues like Bethpage Black and TPC Harding Park prove that not only exclusive private clubs or expensive resorts have the wherewithal to set the stage for golf's most watched tournaments.
Unfortunately, the 2021 U.S. Open represents the last American major championship scheduled to be played at a muni at the moment. The PGA is booked at private and resort venues through 2031 and the U.S. Open is scheduled out through 2027. Perhaps Torrey Pines or fellow west-coast muni Chambers Bay will be tapped for the 2028 edition.
Even if this is the last hurrah for majors in muni-land for a while, the sustained effort across the United States to rehab local, affordable golf courses that cater to millions of blue-collar golfers continues apace. Recent years have been marked by some total transformations - Keney Park in Hartford, Conn.; Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, N.M.; Charleston (S.C.) Municipal Golf Course and others - but the prevailing current trend is more about modest, fiscally sensible but nevertheless crucial improvements meant to polish up existing local haunts.
Still, there are some big splashes to be aware of in 2021. In Memphis, the red-hot design duo of Rob Collins and Tad King are in the midst of a redesign of the 9-hole Overton Park Golf Course, which dates back 115 years. Despite a modest length of just over 2,200 yards, Overton Park figures to be a beloved community asset on a similar level as Orlando's quaint, adored Winter Park 9 when it reopens in September.
Richmond, Va.'s Belmont Golf Course finally reopened on May 24 after a year-long renovation effort by Davis Love III's design firm that turned a long-neglected, compact 18-hole layout originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast (it hosted the 1949 PGA Championship) into a regulation 12-hole course, plus a 6-hole short layout and a 34,000-square-foot putting course. The local First Tee chapter has been instrumental in leading the project.
While American municipal courses tend to take the most attention, two significant happenings in publicly owned golf are worth noting as well. The first is Cleeve Hill Golf Club, an Old Tom Morris gem in the midst of England's scenic, hilly Cotswolds region. Opened in the late 1800s, Cleeve Hill is draped across a thousand-foot-high hill in Gloucestershire, affording some of the most incredible views of any inland course in the British Isles. With the land overseen by the Tewkesbury Borough Council, Cleeve Hill's future as an affordable amenity (weekend green fees: £30) was in serious doubt. Earlier this year, the council struck a deal with a third-party on a 125-year lease to operate the course.
Some credit for Cleeve Hill's salvation goes to Cookie Jar Golf, a UK-based outfit of traveling videographers who produced a beautiful tribute to the course in 2020 that generated widespread awareness of its plight.
Up in Scotland, the R&A is partnering in the reimagination of Lethamhill Golf Course. Set beside Hogganfield Loch on the east side of the city, Lethamhill is set to be converted into a 9-hole course, large practice facility and a short course, promising much more variety than the shortish 18-holer and undersized driving range currently on the site. Groups involved have engaged New Zealand-born architect Scott MacPherson, whose original designs include Millbrook Resort in his native country and the courses of Close House Estate in England. MacPherson currently lives in Edinburgh, putting him close at hand to the Lethamhill project, which could be finished as soon as summer 2022.
7 other municipal golf renovation projects to be aware of
Tamarack Golf Course (East) - Middlesex, N.J.
Mark Mungeam, who trained under legendary architect Geoffrey Cornish, continues to produce quality golf, both in his original designs and his renovation work, including at Boston's Donald Ross gem, George Wright Golf Course. At the 36-hole Tamarack, Mungeam is overhauling the bunkering and green complexes, starting with the East Course, with similar work on the West Course to follow next year. He has also overseen the removal of more than 1,000 trees, which will help conditions considerably.
Hendricks Field Golf Course - Belleville, N.J.
Owned by Essex County and located just north of Newark, Hendricks Field boasts special architectural heritage, as it was originally laid out in 1929 by Charles Banks, who worked with Golden Age greats Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor. Architect Stephen Kay, who made some restorative improvements in 2009 with money left over from an irrigation project, is back to do a more thorough renovation, which includes the repositioning and rerouting of a couple holes to accommodate a brand-new First Tee facility at the northern end of the course property. When it reopens later this summer, Hendricks Field will serve more people than ever before.
Community Golf Club - Dayton, Ohio
This 36-hole facility dates to 1918, with both of its courses designed by underrated, Ohio-based Golden Age architect Alex "Nipper" Campbell. The city has asked architect Chris Wilczynski to create a Master Plan for the 6,300-yard Hills and 5,300-yard Dales courses. Wilczynski's first order of business: renovate both courses' bunkers, starting this fall.
Mallard Golf Club - Lake Charles, La.
Lake Charles has been beset by hurricanes and horrific flooding over the better part of the last two years. Nevertheless, architect Jeff Blume has managed to shepherd the city's new-look, repositioned municipal golf course to completion. Opening is targeted for the fall, with fingers crossed that hurricane season 2021 will spare the area of any major hits. Blume has raised the greens so that they will be spared in the event of future deluges.
Olmos Basin Golf Course - San Antonio, Texas
Mallard Golf Club isn't Blume's only ongoing muni renovation. After updating San Pedro, the city's beloved par-3 course, he's currently overhauling the tees and green complexes at Olmos Basin, which hosts San Antonio's city amateur golf tournaments. Work is proceeding toward an anticipated fall reopening.
Blue Cypress Golf Course - Jacksonville, Fla.
This course in the Charter Point neighborhood of Jacksonville has undergone a significant transformation in the past year. What used to be an 18-hole private course built in the 1960s was taken over by the city in 2003 and reduced to nine holes, ultimately closing in 2016. But amid golf's recent resurgence, a cash infusion of $450,000 spearheaded by city councilwoman Joyce Morgan has helped get Blue Cypress up and running again, serving not just local adults but nearby Jacksonville University and the local First Tee chapter.
Coming Soon: West Palm (Fla.) Golf Park
New name, new concept for the former West Palm Beach Golf Club. The PGA of America is working with the city to redevelop its well-located but disused golf course, aiming to turn it into a jewel of a facility with a Gil Hanse-designed 18-hole course, plus a 9-hole short course and brand-new practice facility. This project is more in the mold of "super-munis" like Bethpage Black and New Orleans' City Park, but stakeholders insist it will be affordable, especially for locals.