Not your old-school munis

Municipal golf courses coast-to-coast offer extras once only be available at resorts and private clubs.
A golfer warms up on the putting green at Corica Park, a large municipal golf complex in Alameda, Calif.

Turn back the clock to your father's heyday on the golf course.

If he didn't have a country club membership, chances are he played on a hard-scrabble municipal golf course. The concept of the"country club for a day" daily fee golf course didn't take off until the golf boom of the 1990s, so that just wasn't an option.

This era is where the stereotype of the muni was born: A bare bones facility owned by a government entity where conditions could be spotty and the clientele ran the gamut from the working stiff to the stiff who didn't work. There are still plenty of munis that continue to live up to that image, but this is a new age for many city-, county- and state-owned courses.

In order to keep up with the private sector, muni golf courses have stepped up their game, offering better service, improved course conditions and more amenities. Today's muni golfer is downright spoiled compared to a generation ago. Here are five examples of just how far muni golf has come, delivering amenities and service to rival the best private clubs and resorts around:

  1. Hip and high-end restaurants
    Toro at the TPC Scottsdale and Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort is among the top golf course clubhouse restaurants in the country.

    Sometimes, municipal golf courses in high-end golf destinations deliver bonafide luxury. Only the rarest, high-end munis house a world-class restaurant, too.

    The two that come to mind immediately are the Vue Grille and Bar at Indian Wells and the Toro Restaurant & Rum Bar at TPC Scottsdale. In both cases, their respective municipalities leased city property to savvy operators to create an experience adjacent to five-star resorts for both tourists and residents alike. These are modern eateries where craft cocktails and extensive wine lists complement signature dishes and creative plates. Toro, a collaboration with celebrity chef Richard Sandoval, favors flavors from South and Central America. Sunday brunch, music on weekends and 150 different types of rum amp up the fun factor. 

    Sometimes, though, the ambiance of the food-and-beverage operation is just as important, if not more, than the menu. A place like Dobson Ranch is good for the hang - at its two pool tables in the restaurant, the outdoor patio or the picnic area near the food truck that was added for tasty grab-and-go selections for golfers on and off the course.

    All these spots encourage people to stay a while, which is the ultimate goal. The more golfers feel comfortable, the more they'll come back with friends. A muni doesn't have to be a private club to feel like a home club.

    Do you wish your muni would upgrade its facility to offer some of these modern amenities and services? Let us know in the comments below.

  2. Top technology
    The patio at Dobson Ranch is a good spot to hangout after golf.

    With the golf industry generally so slow to adopt to change, it's really an impressive leap of faith when a muni embraces new technology.

    Places like TPC Harding Park and two local favorites in Mesa, Ariz. - the Longbow Golf Club and Dobson Ranch - have installed Toptracer Range technology on their practice ranges. Through an app, players can receive instant shot data or play entertaining virtual games, while hitting off of real grass turf. The data - such as carry distance, swing speed and more - can help players improve while practicing or playing contests, such as long-drive competitions, against friends.

    What about Topgolf at a muni? Plans for the first one connected to an actual golf course, the municipal Ala Wai Golf Course on Oahu, are on hold, leaving that intriguing project in limbo. California's City of El Segundo has proposed similar plans for their small muni.

    The "Shots in the Night" at Indian Wells takes tech next level with the potential to generate additional revenue after dark, all while growing the game for the next generation of young players who might find traditional golf during the day too slow.

    "Shots in the Night" opens a half-hour after sunset Thursday through Saturday during high season in the desert. Families or groups rent hitting bays by the hour to hit shots and play games at the Glow Golf Range. The Putting Experience, powered by Nextlinks, turns the putting green into a laser-guided flat-stick adventure with all sorts of games and competitions. Music, a food truck and adult beverages make it a social scene.

    What's next? It's probably only a matter of time before munis in cold-weather climates add indoor amenities like a golf simulator or a TopGolf Swing Suite for winter leagues.

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  3. Short courses
    The par-3 course at Rockwind Community Links is a perfect warm-up for the Championship Course and a great place to hone your skills.

    Often, what's successful at private clubs and resorts eventually trickles down to munis. That's certainly the case with the trend of resorts building short courses. They're ideal for practice, beginners and families, teaching or even a quick round for good players.

    Perhaps the muni version of the movement started with the 2015 redesign of the forward-thinking Rockwind Community Links in Hobbs, N.M. That project by Andy Staples included building the Li'l Rock Par-3 Course; extensive practice facilities with a double-sided driving range and short-game area; and a new clubhouse, all reborn from the city's old Ocotillo Park Golf Course.

    In 2018, Tulsa-based Randy Heckenkemper redid the executive course he grew up playing at LaFortune Park in Oklahoma, creating a fun 18-hole, par-3 course that's lit at night.

    Each of the past two years, an aging muni has been repurposed into a more versatile space that includes a regulation course and at least one par-3 course: Braemar Golf Course and its Academy 9 in Edina, Minn., in 2019 and last October when the former East Bay muni in Provo, Utah, became the new Timpanogos Championship Course, in addition to the Timpanogos Pasture Par 3 course, the first night-lit course in the state, and the seven-hole Legacy Trail Short Course that can be played with S.N.A.G. (Starting New At Golf) equipment such as tennis balls and oversized clubs.

    On the horizon in south Florida, the shuttered West Palm Beach Municipal Golf Course could eventually debut a new regulation and short course by 2023, according to the Palm Beach Post.

    Other larger facilities such as Tanglewood, The Courses at Watters Creek outside Dallas, the J.F. Kennedy Golf Center in Aurora, Colo., and California's high-profile twosome of Haggin Oaks (Sacramento) and Corica Park (Alameda) provide a framework for how versatile municipal facilities should be. At Watters Creek, there's the six-hole Futures Course that's lighted for night play, the nine-hole Players Course that's a medium-sized par 30 and the 18-hole Traditions Course. The 54-hole Tanglewood Golf Club, set in a former estate that's now a public park managed by Forsyth County, N.C., is the only one with a full 18-hole par 3 home to its own separate driving range as well.

    Corica Park has been under the knife for years, first renovating its Mif Albright Par-3 Course in 2014, then debuting the new South Course by Rees Jones in 2018. The improved and renovated North course will open at least nine new holes this year.

    Haggin Oaks is the 'Super Club' that every public facility aspires to be, an amusement park for golfers with every toy imaginable: A superstore for buying and fitting, a lighted range, an original Alister MacKenzie design, a putt-putt course for families and the extra Arcade Creek nine for spillover play that also houses the nation's largest Footgolf program.

    My neighborhood Santa Clara County-owned muni, Santa Teresa Golf Club in San Jose, has used its nine-hole short course to build a thriving junior program and to add Footgolf. It's been so busy during California's lock down that tee times are now required. I love it when a buddy texts me at 4 p.m. on a weekday asking if I want a quick nine after work. It's great to get outside, dial in three short clubs and relieve some stress in an hour and 15 minutes.

    Even TPC Harding Park, a tournament-tested venue, offers such flexibility. The nine-hole Fleming Course sports a nice mix of six par 3s and three par 4s, totaling 2,165 yards, for cheaper, faster, easier rounds.

  4. Premier service
    A view of a hole from Firecliff at Desert Willow Golf Resort.

    Some high-end munis go beyond the traditional bag-drop boys and post-round club cleaners.

    When there isn't a pandemic, munis in California's Coachella Valley like the 36-hole Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert and the 36-hole Indian Wells Golf Resort in Indian Wells offer free valet parking.

    Both Bethpage Black, the walking-only highlight of a five-course complex owned by the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and Torrey Pines South offer caddies.

    Other facilities might not have the bells and whistles, but they're just good at keeping customers happy with a little charm and hard work. Two state park courses from Kentucky - Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park and Dale Hollow Lake Golf Course - made our 2021 Golfers' Choice Top 25 for Friendliest Staff, as did Spring Creek Golf Club in Kansas.

  5. Major tournaments
    The par-5 ninth hole on the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain Golf Club ends dramatically.

    Some of the country's best munis have a tournament pedigree as good as anywhere.

    When TPC Harding Park in San Francisco hosted the 2020 PGA Championship won by Collin Morikawa, it joined the fraternity of mega munis that have hosted modern majors, including U.S. Open hosts Torrey Pines South (2008, 2021), Bethpage Black (2002, 2009) and Chambers Bay (2015).

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    Bethpage Black (2019) has also hosted a PGA Championship, as have three other munis: Tangelwood Golf Club's Championship Course (1974) in Clemmons, N.C.; the Keller Golf Course (1932, 1954) in Maplewood, Minn.; and the Belmont Golf Course (1949) in Richmond, Va. Belmont will reopen later this year as a new 12-hole facility thanks to Davis Love III.

    Hosting the PGA Tour is almost as prestigious because the TV coverage returns year after year, giving viewers the chance to get to intimately know the routing and holes. The TPC Scottsdale's Stadium Course is a long-time gathering place of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Every golfer worth their range finder should recognize every hole at Torrey Pines South, which will host both The Farmers Insurance Open and the U.S. Open in 2021.

    The Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston made a triumphant return as host of the Houston Open after Tom Doak's re-imagination of the course. It previously held the event first in 1947 and from 1951-1963. Milwaukee's Brown Deer Park (1994-2009 Milwaukee Greater Open), L.A.'s Rancho Park (Los Angeles Open host 18 times between 1956-1983) and La Quinta's SilverRock Resort (2008-11 Bob Hope Classic) are past Tour venues that still serve their communities as munis.

    Of the 11 munis that have hosted the PGA Tour Champions over the years, only Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne near Miami (1987-2004), the Grizzly course at the City of Mason Golf Center in Ohio (1990-2001) and Tanglewood (1987-2000 and 2002) lasted longer than a decade.

    Holding a U.S. Junior Amateur might not sound like much until you consider that the Olympic Course at Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash., is one of only three munis to host a USGA championship (excluding the men's/women's U.S. Amateur Public Links that were held exclusively on public courses). Crowning Jordan Speith the champion only furthers the club's legacy.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Commented on

I live outside of Augusta, Ga. I have played most of the courses in the Augusta area, but one thing I wished we had, a par-3 course. I played one in Smyrna, north Atlanta, and thoroughly enjoyed it. For being the Home of the Masters, you would think a par-3 would be something for a different type of challenge especially in the short game. I like the idea of playing at night also.

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Not your old-school munis