The New Year always brings with it time for reflection. Since starting The Fried Egg, one course visit has plagued me. I think about this experience often, in part because I neglected to write about it…until now.
A few years ago I visited a municipal course that had spent tens of millions of dollars on a renovation. The work necessitated a shutdown of the facility and the large budget created the opportunity to do something great. Shortly after its completion, I returned to see the finished project and couldn’t have been more let down. The course was boring, lacked playability and touted higher rates than its predecessor for a product that was arguably worse. Granted, it had new infrastructure which would help with conditions. But for the money, time and effort put in by all parties it was a disappointment. Community leaders had done the hard work – they raised the money and sold their neighbors on the value of the game of golf, and the course. Where the project failed was in the execution. The community had a chance to do something special, but they missed the mark by a wide margin.
That day I learned something important: golf design at a municipal level is essentially final. Leaders at a country club can go back to their fellow members and say, “We screwed up, and we need a mulligan,” but that’s not the case for a municipality. Once a project is finished the money and momentum are gone for decades. That fact raises the stakes on these projects above those of any new resort development. For the game and its future, communities need to capitalize on these opportunities when they come along.
I ran into the architect a few months later and we discussed the course renovation. I was honest with my disappointment in the design. His rebuttal focused on the fact that because it was for the public, it needed to be that way – bland. He went on to talk about how he would have loved to build something I or him would think is really great, but he couldn’t because golfers wouldn’t understand it. This line of thinking is cancerous. It was the response that you would expect and could perhaps forgive from a local government employee who doesn’t understand the intricacies of golf. It was particularly appalling to hear it from a golf course architect who focuses on public golf design.
Public golf courses are responsible for welcoming the vast majority of golfers to the sport. It’s understandable why some courses were rudimentary 100 years ago, when the game was spreading quickly and the design profession was new. In those days, courses were built with the best available expertise, which was often nonexistent. Times have changed dramatically, and decision makers now have vast amounts of information and talented professionals at their fingertips.
In today’s golf course architecture landscape there is no excuse for a community that invests in golf to get anything in return that’s bland. Golf at the municipal level has to be functional and cost effective from a maintenance standpoint, but that should be balanced with building as much interest as possible. There is a surplus of young talented architects who are affordable and willing to take on this work. A growing list of thriving reimagined municipal courses, where a premium was placed on the design, bear this out. The notion that municipal golf needs to be bland is the biggest problem with today’s American public golf landscape. If anything, municipal golf should be the furthest thing from bland. It should strive to to capture the hearts and imaginations of beginners so that they come back.
As a parallel, if you were trying to convince a friend to drink coffee, you wouldn’t take them to a gas station, You’d take them to the best coffee shop in town. Today, the majority of new American golfers experience a golf course that’s reminiscent of the gas station coffee. That needs to change.
In our podcast with Gil Hanse he talked about municipal golf stating, “Good design doesn’t belong in a certain class, it’s not only for wealthy private clubs, it’s for everybody.” Hanse along with designers such as Tom Doak, Coore & Crenshaw, Mike DeVries and David McLay Kidd are a handful of today’s big names in architecture. While these superstars might not have the time to do the project or fit a municipality’s needs, they have proven themselves willing to pass along names of other talented architects. Decision makers need only reach out and ask, and they will likely be surprised by how much help they receive.
So in 2019, The Fried Egg’s resolution is to report on at least one potential municipal golf project from cradle to grave (no matter how long it takes). The hope is that in telling the story, others will learn and be inspired to deliver exciting golf to their communities – settling for bland is no longer necessary. The first project we cover will be the potential restoration/renovation of the Washington D.C. municipal courses East Potomac, Rock Creek and Langston.