Everything historic is old, but not everything old is historic.
If something is old, especially if it is damaged, I tend to throw it out, making room for something new and better. But if something is old and of value - i.e. historic - I keep it, care for it and hope it can last forever.
This matter of semantics is monumental when debating the worth of some of America's classic golf courses. Many "old" courses with deep ties to their communities, sometimes more than a century, are on the verge of closing. In one sense, it's a tragedy, but on the other hand, maybe it's time to let them go. It's a tricky situation with no easy answers.
Often, the infrastructure of these facilities - on the course and in the clubhouse - is aging and in need of expensive and extensive repairs or updates. Over the years, development has often sprung up around these courses, rendering them unable to expand to accomodate the needs of the modern game and taking away their connection to nature, which was probably a big draw when they first opened. This has made them ripe for redevelopment as well. Should they stay or should they go is a question being asked all around the country.
Failing founding fathers
It's one thing to lose a housing development course built in the 1990s, but another thing entirely to lose community icons. Losing courses from the 1800s really stings, no matter how slow the greens or how scruffy the conditions. These are courses that founded the game in our nation. In that sense, they are definitely "historic." Shouldn't we be holding onto this history instead of casually building another parking lot or condo complex? Managing Editor Brandon Tucker enjoyed his rounds on a pair of 19th-century courses last year. Our Golf Advisor course database lists about 300 North American courses - more than half of them private - with opening dates prior to 1900. That number is dwindling.
Mare Island Golf Club in Vallejo, Calif., closed earlier this year when its 170 acres were purchased by a developer in June, according to the Vallejo Times-Herald. The club's original nine dates back to 1892 (a second nine was added in 2000-01), making it possibly the oldest course west of the Mississippi.
Our country's military courses, operated by the Morale, Welfare and Recreation arm of the Department of Defense, are steadily closing. And one of its oldest is on the brink of closing.
Arsenal Island Golf Club in Rock Island, Ill., dating to 1897, closed last fall as the U.S. Army continues to search for a company to bring it back to life. It's a rare course located on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. A statement at the club website reads: "While stepping away from the active management of the course, the U.S. Army is committed to the preservation and enhancement of this historical landmark for future generations." But military-base courses come with unique challenges. Green fees are typically low and they have obstacles to entry like requiring civilians to obtain permission to enter the base.
Dozens of courses more than a century old are struggling, too. The Indianapolis Business Journal has reported that the city's oldest municipal course, Riverside Golf Course, dating back to 1900 and the fourth-oldest municipal course in the country, will close at the end of this year, with the South Grove Golf Course (dating to 1901) following suit in the next couple of years. Both courses are roughly 6,200 yards and get mixed reviews on Golf Advisor.
In Henderson, Ky., although just a nine-hole executive course, Henderson Municipal Golf Course closed its doors earlier this summer, no longer helping young golfers learn the game, its purpose since 1909.
New public play this year has raised the number of four- and five-star reviews of the Joliet Country Club, a former private club in a tony Chicago suburb. The positive mojo might be short-lived. It faces a "significant redevelopment opportunity" of its 1905 Tom Bendelow course, according to a quote from its owner in Crain's Chicago Business.
Mississippi's oldest golf course, Great Southern Golf Club in Gulfport, Miss., has filed for bankruptcy, according to the Biloxi Sun Herald, and faces an uncertain future. The original nine holes were designed by Donald Ross in 1908 and the club later expanded to 18 holes at roughly 6,300 yards. The semi-private club built a new clubhouse after Hurricane Katrina destroyed its previous one. A recent Golf Advisor review from RDJohnsonSr1 echoes the issues in play here. On one hand, he wanted to honor its pedigree by playing and enjoying the course, but maybe the past is already long gone.
"I understand it was a historical course," he writes. "BUT being that, the upkeep on it is not one of such. Tee boxes were terrible and some holes, you couldn't tell the fairway from the rough. Also there is no driving range or real warm up area."
A legend to the rescue
There is hope, however, for at least one historic country club in New England. Metacomet Golf Club in East Providence, R.I., has found its golden parachute. Former PGA Tour player and current TV analyst Brad Faxon, who became a putting whiz on the Ross greens, recruited some friends to help purchase the club earlier this year and is preparing a restoration. It's already solid with our Tim Gavrich giving the 1901 layout four stars in a review in June.
While most of us don't have the pocketbook like Faxon to save a historic course in jeopardy, we do have a collective say in what happens to these properties. Do we start playing these courses and supporting the cause or do we let them fade away like so much of our country's history?
Should golfers pay more attention to saving historic courses or is it time to just move on? Let us know in the comments below.