As part of a bid to restore and renovate the municipal golf courses of Washington, D.C., the National Links Trust has partnered with two prominent architectural firms: Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design and Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner’s Hanse Golf Course Design. If the NLT wins the contract, Doak will work on East Potomac Golf Course, while Hanse and Wagner will lend their services to Rock Creek Golf Course. The NLT has also teamed up with management company Troon and developer Mike Keiser.
The National Parks Service owns East Potomac and Rock Creek as well as the historically significant Langston Golf Course in D.C. For more than 30 years, these courses have been operated under short-term concession agreements. On July 1 of this year, the NPS put out a Request for Proposals for a long-term lease of all three properties. “We’re looking for an operator who’s committed to providing affordable and easy-to-access golfing, to improving facilities and courses, and to preserving the unique histories of each of these courses,” the NPS’s press release said.
Proposals are due on November 27, and the new lease will begin no later than October 1, 2020. The National Links Trust, an advocacy group founded earlier this year by Will Smith and Michael McCartin, hopes to make a strong pitch to the NPS.
The NLT’s partners have come aboard in the spirit of public service. Both Renaissance Golf Design and Hanse Golf Course Design have agreed to waive their fees. Mike Keiser has pledged to support the project with his pocketbook as well as the network of connections he has assembled in developing Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, and other golf destinations. Finally, according to Smith, Troon knows this will be different from a normal management contract. “They understand the importance to American golf of having these municipal courses in D.C. be thriving places where people learn the game, come back to the game, and stay engaged with the game at an affordable price,” Smith said.
A brief history of East Potomac and Rock Creek
As The Fried Egg detailed in a previous installment of our “ComMUNIty Project” series, East Potomac and Rock Creek both have distinguished architectural histories.
Located on an artificial island between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel, East Potomac Golf Course began in 1919 as a nine-hole reversible design by Walter Travis. Almost immediately it was hailed as one of the finest municipal courses in the country and the jewel of the D.C. golf scene. To meet increasing demand, East Potomac added two more reversible nines in 1921 and 1925. It is possible, though unconfirmed, that the 1925 nine was the work of William Flynn, the architect of Shinnecock Hills. (For more on the history and potential of East Potomac, check out Mike McCartin’s graduate dissertation.)
It is certain, however, that Flynn designed Rock Creek Golf Course in 1926. In contrast to East Potomac, which was built on flat terrain, Rock Creek occupied a rolling piece of land. Flynn used this dramatic topography to full advantage. He built few bunkers, instead relying on natural slopes to generate interest and challenge.
An aerial view of Rock Creek Golf Course in 1940. Credit: National Links Trust
East Potomac and Rock Creek were part of an ambitious plan by federal agencies in the early decades of the 20th century to create exemplary public spaces in Washington, D.C. In the case of these golf courses, they succeeded impressively.
The National Links Trust’s proposal (so far)
Today, both East Potomac and Rock Creek have lost much of their original architectural character. No longer reversible and missing its distinctive clusters of small bunkers, East Potomac is now a fairly pedestrian course. It does, however, generate plenty of revenue, especially through its driving range. The same cannot be said of Rock Creek, which is struggling to attract play and maintain acceptable conditions. But the National Links Trust believes that the combined forces of Doak, Hanse, Troon, and Keiser could revitalize both facilities.
At East Potomac, the group hopes to restore as many of Walter Travis’s original ideas as possible. Doak, as the designer of the reversible Loop course at Forest Dunes Golf Club, is particularly intrigued by East Potomac’s former reversibility. Bringing this feature back has always seemed unlikely—until recently. “If you had asked before the RFP came out,” Will Smith said, “I would have probably said it’s a wild dream. But the National Parks Service is on record as saying that the reversibility of the course is unique and historic, and whoever takes over the lease should explore it. So it’s no longer a small chance, but it’s far from sure.”
“Whatever happens there,” Smith added, “[East Potomac] should remain affordable and accessible. It’s a place that works right now. It’s a busy place. We just feel that the pedigree and the history of the Water Travis course is something that should be embraced, that it was built to be a jewel of municipal golf, and it should return to that. It’s right in the heart of our nation’s capital, adjacent to the Mall. Having that course really shine is important.”
The NLT’s proposed changes to Rock Creek would be more radical. Smith believes it would make sense to reduce the number of holes from 18 to nine, recover some of William Flynn’s best features, and use the rest of the land for other purposes—a driving range, perhaps, or a kids’ par-3 course. The goal would be to cultivate a community-friendly vibe. “It is a very bucolic and beautiful spot,” Smith said. “We can envision young families coming in that have nothing to do with golf, just to have a grilled cheese for the kids and a beer for the dad and hang out on the porch.”
For D.C.’s third municipal golf property, Langston Golf Course, the NLT is still working out its proposal. Recently in the news as the venue for Stephen Curry’s announcement of his sponsorship of a Howard University golf team, Langston has long been a national hub of African-American golf. It was founded in 1939 by black golfers who had been turned away from East Potomac and Rock Creek, and has served as a home base for many notable African-American players. Perched on a riverside property, Langston may need the least work of the D.C. trio—”some polish and maybe some creative thinking,” Smith said—but the NLT still hopes to bring in a well-regarded firm willing to consult at the course.
How much will all of this cost? The National Parks Service itself estimated that the three golf facilities have racked up a combined total of $30 million in deferred maintenance. All of the clubhouses have to be either repaired or replaced, and the irrigation and drainage systems need to be overhauled. With these financially volatile factors in play, the NLT is still working to come up with a price tag for its vision.
“It’s very early to know what the number would be, but it’s not small,” Smith said. “We’ve got a long road to hoe in terms of fundraising, but to have these two architecture firms come in, basically waving their fee—that’s well over $1 million to start right there, so that’s pretty cool.”
City on a hill
Reviving D.C.’s municipal courses would require a large investment, but the National Links Trust sees huge upside, both locally and nationally. “Golf courses like East Potomac, Rock Creek, and Langston are the gateway to golf for the majority of people,” said Mike McCartin, co-founder of the NLT. “And those courses should represent not only an entry point into the game but an entry point into the best architecture that the country can offer from architects past and present.”
From the founding of the National Mall to the construction of the Washington Monument and the Vietnam Memorial, the nation’s capital has aspired for over 200 years to exemplify the best in public art, architecture, and urban planning. The city’s golf facilities were built in the same spirit. “They are all part of national parks,” McCartin explained. “They are designed to be models for the rest of the country.” The NLT’s hope is that, under the right stewardship, the municipal golf courses of Washington, D.C., will become models once again.
If you are interested in the future of municipal golf not just in D.C. but across the U.S., check out the website of the National Links Trust. Want to voice your opinion about the future of D.C.’s public courses? Email the National Parks Service here.