Wish List: 10 Municipal golf courses worth saving

Wish List: 10 Municipal golf courses worth saving

These aging munis have great bones or historic pedigrees and could be revived with a proper renovation and more TLC.
Ben Crenshaw goes over his proposal for restoring Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas.

Municipal golf courses tend to be affordable, accessible and accepting.

These courses don't discriminate. They don't care if you're new to the game. They don't care if you've never broken 100. They don't care if you're a doctor or lawyer. They just want you to play.

Unfortunately, many municipalities - whether it's cities or counties, or state park or metropark systems - are at a crossroads with their courses. Many of these facilities are aging and in need of renovation and modernization. But spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on golf is not the best way for politicians to get reelected these days. The perception that golf is a rich man's pursuit and harmful to the environment still exists among taxpayers who don't play.

The upcoming 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black will serve as a week-long commercial for municipal golf done right. The state of New York spent millions in the late 1990s for Rees Jones to redesign the Black Course, which is now hosting its third major championship after rousing U.S. Opens in 2002 and 2009.

Not every muni is good enough to host a major, but most have good enough routings and are important enough to their communities that they're worth saving and updating like Bethpage Black. It's happening around the country. Last year, two Bay Area cities - Palo Alto and Alameda - unveiled new courses - Baylands Golf Links and the South course at Corica Park, respectively - after multi-year, multi-million-dollar redesigns. Houston's Memorial Park will likely host future Houston Opens on the PGA Tour once its makeover by Tom Doak is complete later this year. Atlanta has transformed the tired Bobby Jones Golf Course into a nine-hole reversible course by the late Bob Cupp. Construction of the 23,000-square-foot Murray Golf House at the Bobby Jones GC will create a shared home for the Georgia State Golf Association, the Georgia Section of the PGA of America and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame.

Every muni is important, because they are breeding grounds for future generations of players, but some are more relevant than others. We've compiled a wish list of the 10 munis most worth saving, either because of their location, their historical significance or the simple fact that a renovation would unlock the vast potential of the course.

What muni near you would be worth saving with a renovation or upgrade? Let us know in the comments below.

  1. Sharp Park Golf Course, Pacifica, California

    Revitalizing Sharp Park near San Francisco has been an ongoing drama since 2007, when the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance was formed by Richard Harris and Bo Links, two local attorneys who successfully fought off a lawsuit from an environmental group that wanted to shutter the historic course designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie. In 2018, Sharp Park was finally able to move forward with slow but steady improvements. Architects Tom Doak and Jay Blasi, a Bay Area resident, gave recommendations to mow out the 10th and 18th greens to their original shapes created by MacKenzie in 1932. Last July, San Francisco Recreation & Parks hiked the green fees by $2 per nine holes to raise money for future improvement projects at both Sharp Park and Lincoln Park, which sports views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sharp Park, which is blessed with some very attractive forested holes and other greens near a walking path along the Pacific Ocean, aches for upgrades and better management to cure slow play issues.

    Golf Advisor user romeogolf didn't pull any punches in this recent review: "On the ocean, Mackenzie designed, muni owned. What else could you ask for? But my goodness, that literally may have been the worst course conditions I’ve ever played in. The grass on the fairways is literally longer than the rough. And, they apparently don’t believe in removing the cuttings from the last mow. Shameful for a city to lay waste to a beautiful property like that. Especially in the Bay Area, where the tax base is the highest in the USA. Pathetic. Staff was super, I feel for them."

  2. Lions Municipal Golf Course, Austin, Texas

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    Crenshaw’s efforts to save Lions Municipal

    The #SaveMuny movement pits two powerful forces at odds: Entrenched local opposition, including University of Texas alum Ben Crenshaw, who wants to return Lions Municipal to the routing used during his childhood from 1951-74, versus urbanist advocates who believe the course's landowner, the University of Texas, should collect the $100 million or more by leasing the land for redevelopment. Crenshaw's suggested routing changes, restored greens and new clubhouse would cost an estimated $10 million to $12 million. But the first step is convincing UT they should preserve this historically significant and highly popular course.

    As negotiations continue between the university, city and even state legislature, golfers continue to fill the tee sheets on this 6,000-yard course. Golf Advisor's Managing Editor Brandon Tucker, who regularly plays Austin's munis, responded to a three-star review in December 2018 by defending one of his home courses: "The layout isn't for everyone and it is in need of a facelift. It took me about 10 times playing it to become obsessed with it. As you say it isn't a cakewalk. Lots of local knowledge is needed and great course management."

  3. Miami International Links at the Melreese Country Club, Miami, Florida
    A view of a fairway from Melreese Golf Course at International Links

    Although Miami voters approved plans for a professional soccer stadium at the site, Melreese isn't dead yet. More government approvals must be secured before soccer legend David Beckham and his associates can turn the land into an MLS Stadium, a hotel with 750+ rooms, a 58-acre park, and roughly one million square feet of office, retail and commercial space. Melreese, the only muni owned by the city, is home to the First Tee Miami youth golf program, the University of Miami women's golf team, as well as the men's teams from Barry University and Johnson and Wales University. LPGA star Cristie Kerr learned the game here, while current Web.com Tour pro Erik Compton practices at Melreese. The last major upgrade for the 7,173-yard, par-71 Dick Wilson design was celebrated in the 1990s with a clinic by Tiger Woods at the grand reopening. Melreese's average star rating of 4.3 tops all the other courses in this list and includes many recent favorable reviews. That makes the pending closure all the more painful to stomach. User ctgolfer82 wrote his review using bullet points, noting "Enjoy The Course While it Lasts!
    -friendly staff
    -first tee program
    -conveniently located
    -good conditions of the traps and fairways
    -restaurant on site
    -practice green is great
    - slowish play
    - no rangers
    - course design has holes fairly close to each other
    -greens need to be cut better and repaired"

  4. Rackham Golf Club, Huntington Woods, Michigan
    A view of the 8th green at Rackham Golf Course

    In Detroit, the administrations of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and current Mayor Mike Duggan have tried to sell the 6,555-yard Rackham for redevelopment, but deed restrictions have thwarted the attempts. That has left Rackham, a Donald Ross course, in limbo when it comes to improvements. Golf Detroit, a division of Signet Golf Associates, a management company, is in the second season of a two-year lease to run Rackham. It would cost more than $4 million, according to the Detroit Free Press, to upgrade the facilities and course, money Detroit is unable to spend and an expense that has made potential buyers like the city of Huntington Woods nervous. Detroit's three other munis need re-investment as much as Rackham, maybe more, to be sustainable and profitable in a crowded public golf market in metro Detroit.

    Reviews at Rackham trended positive in 2018 under the new operator. Let's see what 2019 brings. User rjriceiii wrote last year: "The course was in great shape overall, except the greens needed a little help. They’re doing a great job with what they’ve been given. Besides the greens, my only other gripe would be the price. $45 for a Saturday morning is a little much for that course. Otherwise, a great course with some challenging, but accessible holes. I will be back."

  5. Cobbs Creek Golf Club, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
    A sunny day view from Cobb's Creek Golf Club

    Three local men - Chris Lange, Mike Cirba and Joe Bausch - have been the driving forces to put Cobbs Creek in position to move forward on a much-needed renovation of this 36-hole facility. Cirba and Bausch formed the Friends of Cobbs Creek a decade ago, pushing to return the Olde course, which hosted the the 1928 USGA Amateur Public Links as well as a 1955 PGA Tour event, to its original Hugh Wilson routing. That group has morphed into the Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, which has leased Cobbs Creek from the city for $1. Lange, the nonprofit's president, is hoping to raise up to $20 million, according to the Philadelphia Enquirer. The grand vision includes the restoration of the Olde course, turning the Karakung course into a nine-hole layout, and creating a new learning center/driving range that could be home to a chapter of the First Tee.

    The only review from 2019 is a harsh one, written as a comment by user 'Billma76' in April: "What a dump, won’t be back. If you do play here remember “byog”. Bring your own grass because there is very little on the course. Cart paths are shot, and the carts are very old and dirty. Steering the carts is an adventure. Should just close down."

  6. Bobby Jones Golf Club, Sarasota, Florida
    The great Bobby Jones dedicated this Sarasota municipal facility in 1927.

    The city of Sarasota has agreed to pay architect Richard Mandell $1 million to move forward with renovation plans for the 45-hole Bobby Jones Golf Club, a project estimated to cost $16.7 million, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Where the remaining money comes from to pay for an expanded driving range, updated clubhouse, new irrigation system and revamped course features is still a big question mark. The club was dedicated by its legendary namesake on Feb. 13, 1927. The 6,700-yard British Course, an original Donald Ross course, is older and longer than the 6,000-yard American Course.

    All the reviews of the British are three stars or lower, including this from our own Mike Bailey who hints at the course's potential: "First off, the layout is terrific. Lots of good holes, and the decision to go with zoysia on the greens is a good one (seen it work successfully on several courses this year). But the greens were rolling about 6 on the Stimpmeter, they were uneven and have a ways to go before they're really puttable. And I don't understand why the fairways were so hairy and the rough so deep and thick. It was difficult to find golf balls at times, much less play shots out of the rough, and considering the type of golfer that usually plays a muni, this certainly doesn't speed up play."

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    Municipal Madness: Renovations pay off for these American munis

  7. Randolph Golf Courses, Tucson, Arizona
    A view from the once-glorious North eighteen at Randolph Golf Course

    Tucson has been threatening to close one or more of its five municipal golf courses since 2012. That threat has spurred proposals on how to revive the glory days of the Randolph North Course, which has a long history of hosting professional tournaments. The 6,900-yard course, which opened in 1925, has seen its share of legends walk its fairways during the Seiko Tucson Senior Match Play Championship, the Joe Garagiola Tucson Open of the PGA Tour and the Welch’s/Fry's Championship on the LPGA Tour.

    Transforming Randolph's 36 holes into a tournament-caliber 18-hole routing could lure the PGA Tour back to Tucson, a plan being pushed by the Tucson Conquistadores, a non-profit youth sports organization, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Golf Advisor reviews of the course in 2019 are a mixed bag.

  8. East Potomac Golf Course, District of Columbia
    East Potomac Park is the most accessible option for public golf in Washington D.C.

    East Potomac actually consists of 36 holes in the heart of downtown Washington D.C. - Blue, a 6,600-yard regulation course with ties to Walter Travis, and two nine-hole loops, the executive Red course (1,100 yards) and the 2,400-yard, par-33 White course. Situated on an island within the Potomac River, and owned by the Federal Government, East Potomac suffers from generally soggy conditions and a lack of care. An influx of cash, a better drainage system and some vision could really turn this into an urban golf paradise. Golf Advisor users rave about the setting along the river and the views of the nearby monuments. One headline from a 2014 review by stevieyo expressed what we're all thinking: "Could be so much more ... "

    Up Next

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    Ask Golf Advisor: How to get your muni renovated

  9. Belmont Golf Course, Richmond, Virginia
    A view from a tee at Belmont Golf Course

    Can hosting a major championship buy enough nostalgia and goodwill to allow a struggling, downtrodden course to live forever? Apparently not in the case of Belmont, host of the 1949 PGA Championship. The historic course - one of just 32 public courses in the world to host a major - could be shut down by Henrico County, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. Developers want to spend $291 million for a mixed-use project on the 125-acre property that includes an indoor sports arena. A community group called Preserve Belmont and a go-fund-me page have been set up to save the 6,268-yard course, which has ties to two legendary architects, A.W. Tillinghast (1916) and Donald Ross (1927).

    Some capital investment could improve bad drainage and the conditioning issues that have led to poor star ratings (2.6) from Golf Advisor users. The most recent review by Kory7357495 from 2017 relays a theme that has stayed constant through the years: "Belmont is a Henrico County owned course, so its budget is probably the least of the counties worries and it reflects on the course, clubhouse, staff and amenities."

  10. Jackson Park Golf Course, Chicago, Illinois
    The most recent updated plans for Jackson Park.

    The path to new life at Jackson Park is being paved by Tiger Woods and the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance.

    NBC Sports sports announcer Mark Rolfing and Brian Hogan, a local attorney, formed this alliance in an effort to transform Jackson Park and the nearby nine-hole South Shore into an 18-hole routing by Woods worthy of hosting major events along Lake Michigan. The project, when paired with plans of the adjacent Obama Presidential Center, will transform the south side of Chicago into a hub of activity, including more natural areas and walking trails.

    Both Jackson Park, a par 70 of 5,444 yards dating to 1899, and South Shore, a par 33 of 2,733 yards dating to 1906, are historic courses run by the Chicago Parks District. Both get solid reviews on Golf Advisor, but upgrades are needed. If - or when - this plan ever comes to fruition, golf in Chicago will enter a new era.

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

Please help save The San Geronimo Valley Golf Course in West Marin
Designed by Robert Muir Graves
In San Geronimo, California

Commented on

Please take a look at the "Deer run golf course" ,in Casselberry ,florida . per. management it,is due to close on june/01/2019.Is a beautiful course ,and can be a grand course again ,if someone would purchase it and put some money into it .course is in a community of 3000 homes,is centrally located ,and very accessible to public,or could be a private course.The group owners bought 6 golf courses 6 years ago and used them for tax write offs .Once the 20% a year tax write off ran out after 5 years ,they let them run down ,and forced golfers to use other local courses instead The course is a sanctuary to lots of wildlife and use to attract many golf pro,s and corporate golf gatherings in the past. thank you ! jim lockhart.

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Muni courses are an important piece of golf heritage to be preserved. How many golf professionals learned to play and also began careers on muni courses?

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The comments on Sharp Park are all right on. But it is a beautiful layout, and affordable, which allows me to overlook its many issues. It draws an eclectic crowd from all walks of life, and all of us want this classic course to be saved from SF's neglect and marauding environmentalists. Without raising green fees. That's not too much to ask is it?

Commented on

It is way past time to save a lot of these courses. I think the muni courses, given a fair chance, and no need for ridiculous makeovers, could be money well spent by many communities. I have seen many courses go the way of The Dodo Bird during the great recession. When this happened, many daily fee courses, who had lowered their rates to a more realistic level, decided that once the competition was gone, they could jack their rates back up again. This along with the rebirth of $500 Drivers, and $1000+ sets of irons has really put a damper on the recovery. Sadly many a golf club and several ball makers went belly up during that time as well- not to mention the death of retailers such as Sports Authority, and Golfsmith. Those makers and vendors left standing after the debacle are also charging a hefty price for a ticket to the game.
It's high time we slam the brakes on this "profiteering" before golf wounds itself even deeper simply by pricing itself out of the market. We can start with decent courses and affordable green fees.

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Commented on

Brock Park golf course in Houston, TX. Doesn’t need too much and the course is a classic layout it challenged your entire game. I believe that if the group that’s working on Memorial Park would just look at Brock Park they would want to keep the course for the city and the growing communities surrounding it. Tabernacle

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I played my first round ever at Belmont. Hardest first hole in Richmond area. Tight fairway with trees left and road right. Great walking course. Played with Doctors, Bartenders, Stock Car drivers, beginners and semi pros. Please save it! Add Carroll Park Baltimore.

Commented on

University of Maryland Golf Course deserves some attention. It’s the only championship course inside the Capital Beltway. It has hosted a Nationwide Tour event but is now on the chopping block by the University. It’s a shame too really. It’s totally worth saving. This course has a rich history and is truly a part of the community.

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Commented on

Add Camarillo Springs Golf Course to your list of once great public courses. In the 80s you could spot Corey Pavin and Thea tor Bill Flynn. It is now a neglected smelly dump with sparse fairways, stinking ponds and dilapidated carts and clubhouse

Commented on

Jason---this article is right on point, and we need to save all of these gems. Your timing is perfect for those of us working hard preserve affordable, public golf for future generations.

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Wish List: 10 Municipal golf courses worth saving