Every day, people can be seen strolling the fairways of the Presidio Golf Course in San Francisco.
No, they're not golfers. There are no clubs involved. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bay Area's shelter in place mandate - said to be extending this week through the end of May - makes sure of that.
The course, located in the Presidio, a national park that is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, has been converted into a public park during this tumultuous time, allowing non-golfing city residents to enjoy the beautiful rolling hills for the first time. Some are savoring the privilege, and going a step further to boldly question why this precious green space doesn't open up to the public for good.
It was intoxicating to be there and consider the possibility of this remaining a park forever. It would be an instant classic, an immense open space in America’s second densest city.— Zach Klein (@zachklein) April 26, 2020
Malcom Gladwell, the host of the Revisionist History podcast, which aired "A Good Walk Spoiled" episode in 2017 that was critical of golf, piled on with an anti-golf tweet as well, making the game out to be the villain again.
Editor's Note: The course is set to reopen for golfers May 4, a week after this article first published.
Presidio as a park
Klein's series of tweets set off an age-old debate: Why are municipal golf courses in crowded urban areas serving the recreational needs of a relative few instead of many?
In a succession of tweets, he called out all the land taken up by golf on the peninsula, notably the six courses of the San Francisco Recreation & Parks, highlighted by TPC Harding Park (2020 PGA Championship host) and Dr. Alister MacKenzie's Sharp Park in Pacifica. One of them, Gleneagles at McLauren Park, has launched a GoFundMe page to try and keep its temporary COVID-19 closure from becoming a permanent one. There's also a famous foursome of nearby private clubs: The Olympic Club, Cal Club, San Francisco Golf Club and Lake Merced.
It's a misconception to lump Presidio with some of the struggling local munis. The course did 59,000 rounds last year, earning $8.7 million in revenue, according to the park's annual report. The park's hospitality program, which includes golf, two new lodging properties built since 2012, venues and food offerings, made $30.8 million in gross revenue with $5.6 million net income.
I don't blame Klein for wanting more access. It's often an eye-opening experience for a non-golfer to see a course in its natural splendor for the first time. They probably experience some of the same "Oh wow" moments with Mother Nature that attracts golfers to the game - the surprise sighting of a deer, the sheer majesty of the trees, the soft turf, the warming of the soul when the sun pops out from behind the clouds.
But the Presidio is already brimming with open space away from the course to experience those feelings - a 24-mile trail system for hiking and walking, a 25-mile bikeway for cycling and camping and picnic areas. To anyone who insinuates the course - one of the oldest on the West Coast, dating to 1895 - is only available to golfers, isn't considering what that national park already provides.
Is Klein willing to pay $75-$125 for half a day to use the golf course as a park, much like the green fees golfers pay to use the land? I'm guessing that won't fly when there are other free parks nearby.
Golf 'parks' in a pandemic
There is precedent for the debate. The Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland becomes a public park on Sundays, allowing anyone to walk on golf's sacred ground. The issue is Europe's land-use laws, especially in coastal areas involving links courses. They are significantly different than those in America, skewing toward community access over private use. For example, Scotland has laws for the "Right to roam." A change.org petition to open up U.K. courses as parks during the pandemic has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures.
Liability concerns and property laws make it harder for U.S. courses to follow a similar path. Plus, which of America's urban courses could afford to give back a weekend day of green fees to become a free, accessible park to the general public? For most, it's just not viable.
Could it make sense for the time being, though? It's an issue raised by this Quartz article and gaining steam on social media. Some urban courses currently closed temporarily during the COVID-19 crisis could follow the Presidio's lead by unlocking their gates and let locals enjoy the land. Empty fairways could welcome dog walkers, runners and those looking to "social distance" further away from overrun trails in other popular parks. Maybe the goodwill of the gesture would be appreciated by the new users and possibly pique their interest in the sport that normally takes place there.
The problem is people who don't appreciate the grounds. Several courses overseas are reporting vandalism and abuse while their courses are closed, none worse than this joyriding crew of motorbikes at Walton Heath, a former Ryder Cup venue in England.
Unfortunately, as you may have seen, Sunday at around 18.45, we were subjected to vandalism by motorcyclists on the course. This has been taken to the police who are investigating but if anyone has any info, please contact the club or @SurreyPolice. We thank you for your support pic.twitter.com/rRXumDsBRT— Walton Heath Golf Club (@waltonheath_gc) April 27, 2020
At courses in Scotland, football is being played on the greens by people ignorant to the delicacy of the turf and high cost of maintaining them.
What non-golfers needs to realize, pandemic or not, is there's a reason golf courses look so pristine. They're manicured daily by hundreds of hours from superintendents and their staff. That costs money, lots of it. If I were a member of a golf course, I wouldn't want strangers trashing the place as a park. Go play park somewhere else.
Should some courses be used as parkland while temporarily closed to golf during the pandemic? Let us know in the comments below.