9/27/19

The Uncertain Future of Municipal Golf in Louisville

A beloved neighborhood course vs. a city budget shortfall

by

Six-hundred and eighty yards from my back porch is the middle of the 1st green of one of the quirkiest municipal courses you’ll ever play.

Built on the site of a former quarry, this nine-hole layout tests shot-making skills through elevation changes. A 200-yard par 3 over a nearly 100-foot chasm between tee and green? Check. A par 5 where your tee shot lands over 100 feet below before crossing a stream and bounding up a hill to a green that’s higher than tee box? Check. A 140-yard par 3 that’s so uphill you can barely make out the top of the flagstick, and where any tee shot that hits utility wires crossing between you and the hole allows for a mulligan? Check.

If you like par 5s, you’re in luck: there are three. If you’re a great ball striker and adore par 3s, there are three of those as well. It adds up to a typical par of 36, but the path to get there is anything but conventional. With neither water nor bunkers, the course is well suited to beginners who want to learn the game without getting harshly penalized for hitting a good but not great shot. It’s perfectly imperfect—everything a muni should be.

As fun and quirky as it might be, however, Crescent Hill Golf Course is in danger. Its very existence is in doubt as the City of Louisville weighs whether to close or privatize some of its ten municipal courses by the end of the summer.

Golf in Louisville

Louisville has a rich golf history. Valhalla, the city’s best-known course, has seen several memorable moments. Tiger Woods, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, and Rory McIlroy have all stood in triumph on the 18th green after winning major championships. There was also the United States’ convincing victory over the European team in the 2008 Ryder Cup. A photo of the players leaning over the balcony celebrating is displayed prominently in the clubhouse.

While Louisville boasts famous courses like Valhalla, the city also operates municipal golf facilities to make the game accessible to players who can’t afford to join one of the clubs in the area. The munis are as diverse as the Louisville itself. They range from nine to 27 holes and occupy many different kinds of neighborhoods in the city.

There are also well-run junior programs, dedicated short courses, and special tee boxes set up to help get kids into the game. As Louisville has few privately held public-access courses, the munis are the lifeblood of golf in the city.

But politics and government dysfunction are currently threatening their existence. Louisville, a liberal bastion in generally conservative Kentucky, has been at odds with the state for some time. Right now the city faces a $35-million deficit in 2020, and that deficit is expected to grow an additional $10 million each year through 2023.

Mayor Greg Fischer has suggested that closing four of Louisville’s ten municipal courses and laying off 13 employees would help make a dent in the shortfall. He has shortlisted six courses that could be on the chopping block. Since 2020 is just the beginning of the budget issues, however, any of the ten courses could be at risk in the near future. Cherokee (nine holes), Charlie Vettiner (18), Bobby Nichols (nine), Iroquois (18), Sun Valley (18), Crescent Hill are the courses most likely to be affected.

Robust financial analyses have been conducted, and people in favor of and opposing the shuttering of the courses have made their opinions known. In 2018, none of the city-owned courses turned a profit, though some have had profitable years recently. Regardless, the long-term future of golf in the city is in question.

Photo credit: Jeff Long

What we stand to lose

The best part about Crescent Hill is the people. The course is rarely crowded, and a fast player can get around nine holes in under an hour during the week and under 90 minutes on the weekend. With players of all types and abilities on the course, “playing through” isn’t a dirty word. People are happy to share a hole with you if their pace isn’t quite as blistering as yours. Recently a couple letting me play through shouted as my tee shot on the par-3 6th landed and rolled within two feet of the hole. (I missed the putt.)

The very next hole I played with two juniors who lamented the difficulty of shooting a sub-40 round at Crescent Hill if you don’t birdie the par-5 1st. As they walked down the fairways, their clubs chattering as their bags bounced slightly with each step, I remembered my own early days, when my friends and I often opted to walk over taking a cart.

A few weeks before, I played the final hole with a gentleman, Dale, who ran his own business. Dale hit beautifully straight drives and managed to impart some serious career advice during the 10 minutes we played together. “Never take on more clients than you can service at the quality you want to be known for,” he said.

Crescent Hill’s unusual combination of location (in one of the nicer neighborhoods in the city) and condition (a quirky nine-holer that’s not always in the best of shape) results in an eclectic clientele. It makes for wonderfully engaging tee-to-green conversations.

Behind the 9th green at Crescent Hill. Photo credit: Jeff Long

The outlook for Louisville golf

The city government faces some difficult questions about the budget shortfall, and its answers could have broad implications for the future of golf in Louisville.

While tee sheets at some of the courses are sparsely populated, others are packed day-in and day-out, even for five-hour rounds. Cutting back the number of affordable courses in the area will likely cause the busy courses to become more hectic and less accessible to the average golfer. An even bigger concern, however, is the city’s junior programs. While junior golf here is strong, it is inherently tied to municipal courses.

There are some reasons for hope. Shawnee Golf Course’s short course was recently renamed after Justin Thomas in recognition of the PGA Tour star’s support for the First Tee of Louisville. The announcement coincided with Thomas’s launch of the Justin Thomas Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to “positively impact children in need, junior golf and military families with the intent of helping all achieve their full potential.” The foundation will help The First Tee of Louisville and the Kentucky Golf Foundation along with other organizations in the area.

While Thomas’s support is bright spot, the future of Louisville golf in general remains up in the air. The sport has gotten more expensive over time, with many privately owned public courses folding or becoming more exclusive in order to find a more tenable financial reality.

That is why it’s important to pay attention to situations like Louisville’s current one. In 2020, it’s likely that the city will divest itself of some of its municipal courses. Perhaps the courses will persist under private ownership and charge higher green fees. It’s possible that the junior golf programs will continue, though one can’t say for certain what a private owner that prioritizes profit will do. Maybe some of the courses will be reclaimed as parks, as happened when the Old River Road Country Club in Louisville became Champions Park. Or perhaps the land will be sold to housing developers to help meet future budget shortfalls.

Whatever happens in Louisville, the basic message for everyone should be clear: the future of golf depends on the future of municipal courses like Crescent Hill. So go out and play the burnt-out, scruffy, wild, or downright eccentric muni near you. It might be the cheapest round of golf you’ve played in a while, and it helps support a meaningful cause.

Yes, accessible courses for those just learning the sport are different from premium clubs that protect and foster architecturally important designs. But both can foster the camaraderie, relationships, and discovery that make golf so special. You can appreciate the work of Gil Hanse or Coore & Crenshaw or Jack Nicklaus while also enjoying municipal courses designed by architects or even amateurs whose names almost no one knows.

Justin Thomas’s commitment to golf in Louisville is a huge step in the right direction, but not every city in America has a Justin Thomas. Louisville is just one example of the realities that face the sport moving forward. Future golfers are relying on us to commit to municipal golf, even if it might be too late for Louisville.


Jeff Long is a passionate golfer and fried chicken salesman living in Louisville, KY, with his fiancé Sarah and their two dogs. He formerly wrote a column for Baseball Prospectus but had to stop when he started working for an MLB team as a consultant.

To find out more about supporting affordable golf in municipalities across the United States, check out the National Links Trust.

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