WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Golf is bigger than just a bag of sticks, isn’t it?”
This was a rhetorical question posed by National Links Trust CEO Sinclair Eaddy, Jr. It summed up three days of excited, varied discussions about the future of community-oriented golf in just eleven words.
Bigness permeates golf. Millions of people play it across the planet, in all different settings. The global golf industry generates more than $80 billion annually. Making one’s way through a golf course tends to make a person feel small against the scale of the landscape.
And on an emotional level, the widespread nature of the game – its capacity to link people of disparate backgrounds and generations – also makes it feel bigger than any individual.
Golf is a big tent, a community, a family. And its most passionate advocates are working harder than ever to persuade society that golf can be for everyone.
Golf is wonderful. How can we make sure it is as easy to fall in love with as possible?
This was the overarching sentiment of the first-ever National Links Trust (NLT) Symposium on Municipal Golf, held this past Monday through Wednesday.
Formed in 2019 by golf course shapers Mike McCartin and Will Smith, the non-profit NLT’s mission is “protecting and promoting accessible, affordable and engaging municipal golf courses to positively impact local communities across the United States of America.”
That project is underway in Washington, where in 2020 the NLT began operating three golf courses that are part of the National Park Service: Rock Creek Golf Course, Langston Golf Course and East Potomac Park. Popular for decades among area golfers, all three facilities enjoy unique settings and history, as well as years of deferred maintenance.
McCartin, Smith, Eaddy and a committed and well-connected network of partners, volunteers and benefactors seek to transform all three sites in the coming years with the help of some of the game’s foremost architects: Gil Hanse at Rock Creek, Beau Welling at Langston and Tom Doak at East Potomac Park.
Architecture is at the heart of not just the NLT’s mission, but that of several of the most successful projects that have characterized the municipal golf “Munaissance” of recent years. Because better-quality architecture is no more expensive than mediocre architecture, the introduction of the former to several low-cost, widely-inviting facilities has had a disrupting effect. Concepts that top architects had been reintroducing to private clubs for decades via renovation and restoration are finally trickling down to the nearly 3,000 municipal facilities across the country.
Another of these improvements took center-stage during a panel on architecture that kicked off the symposium. In a wide-ranging discussion, panelists Doak, Welling and Jay Blasi spent considerable time discussing bunkers, and their evolving place on golf courses, and especially munis.
Bunkers are sexy but problematic. First, they are extremely maintenance-intensive, especially in parts of the country prone to drenching rains. Second, they are adversaries of the prevailing view of golf course playability: that courses should not be too punishing for high handicappers while still remaining engaging for the avid and low-handicap set.
Bunkers run against this dynamic. High-skilled players are seldom intimidated by them, while they tend to extract maximum punishment from less adept golfers.
So what is an alternative to acres and acres of bunkering? “There are all sorts of interesting things you can do with ground contour,” said Welling. He’s right, of course - the uneven lies and strategic conundrums posed by interesting contours, both in fairways and on and around greens, are challenging to even the best players in the world while still giving the rank and file a sporting chance.
Doak agrees. When he redesigned Houston’s municipal Memorial Park Golf Course, which hosts the PGA Tour for the second time this week, he reduced its bunker complement to less than 20 on the advice of player/consultant Brooks Koepka, who persuaded him that pros do not fear bunkers. Not only does slimming down the sand strike a better playability balance at Memorial Park, it makes maintenance easier.
National Links Trust Symposium on Municipal Golf delves into other important topics
Architecture was the first of five pillars from which formal presentations at the NLT Symposium on Municipal Golf stemmed. The others: Growing the Game, Sustainability, Alternative Programming and Community Impact. These panels included a roster of speakers that showcase the increasingly diverse and thoughtful perspectives driving the golf industry forward.
Directors of First Tee chapters around Lake Erie and Richmond, Va., respectively, detailed how their facilities have evolved in recent years to serve more golf-interested youth, and serve them better. Lake Erie’s First Tee facility is the first to be built entirely from scratch with kid-friendly amenities in mind, and the Richmond chapter has the re-envisioned Belmont Golf Course – with a 12-hole “big” course, 6-hole par-3 loop and a big community putting green – to help serve its participants.
In a panel about sustainability, Parker Anderson, who heads up Greener Golf and is likely the industry’s only PGA professional/beekeeper double-threat, detailed how courses like Goat Hill Park in California are introducing apiaries to help grow the numbers of pollinators, which he calls “the trojan horse of sustainability” for the ways in which healthy bee populations augur other environmental improvements.
In that same discussion, Pam Smith, chief agronomist for the City of Denver’s golf courses, called municipal golf “the last vestige of greenspace in an urban jungle.” And Andrew Szunyog, an assistant coach for the George Washington University golf team who leads golf course sustainability consultancy Driving the Green, spoke of golf’s capacity to be an “industry leader in the social and environmental revolution.”
When big thinkers and bold claims collide, the energy is infectious. “Don’t underestimate the power of golf,” said Erick Mitchell, a management consultant with an extensive background in both golf diversity and inclusion initiatives. Mitchell said that at a time of deep division, “golf is a common link [that] can change a world that oftentimes feels hopeless.”
In his closing keynote speech, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh echoed in his own direct way what Sinclair Eaddy had alluded to earlier. “I believe it’s the biggest engine for good on Earth,” Waugh said.
Slight hyperbole? Perhaps. But as good as it feels to be in a room – or on a golf course – full of people who want to give back to a game that has given generously to them, one can be forgiven for thinking that no aspirations seem too lofty. On the right people’s shoulders, a humble bag of sticks becomes a set of magic wands.