8/9/20

The State of the Mega Muni

On TPC Harding Park and the optimistic model of city golf it represents

by

TPC Harding Park, where the final round of the 2020 PGA Championship is unfolding right now, is many things: a people’s country club, a storied city-championship venue, a stout test of golf, and a hub of the First Tee, to name a few. We’ve heard a lot about those aspects of the course’s character this week, and rightfully so.

But TPC Harding Park also represents a specific model of government-owned golf facility—a model that’s relatively new and still rare. It’s what I call the “mega muni.”

Mega munis are big, well-maintained courses. They collect steep green fees from visitors but offer discounted rates to residents. The courses are difficult enough, and the properties robust enough, to host major championships. In fact, mega munis actively court the USGA and the PGA of America. So their purpose is not only to serve the local community but also to bring money to town.

The 3rd hole at Torrey Pines South. Photo credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

These are virtuous goals, especially in our era of declining public services. If mega munis do their jobs well, their owners—city, county, or state governments—can do their jobs better. But the model isn’t easy to pull off, and today its future is as uncertain as ever.

A brief history

By my count, there are currently four mega munis in America: Bethpage Black, owned by the state of New York; Torrey Pines South Course, owned by the city of San Diego, California; Chambers Bay Golf Course, owned by Pierce County, Washington; and TPC Harding Park, owned by the city of San Francisco.

The trend started in the late 1990s, when USGA executive director David Fay decided to turn Bethpage Black into a U.S. Open host. Rees Jones, in the midst of his reign as “Open Doctor,” renovated the course, scrubbing off layers of grit that had accumulated in the second half of the 20th century. The 2002 U.S. Open was a success—a “People’s Open,” won by the people’s champion, Tiger Woods.

The 4th hole at Bethpage Black. Photo credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

By then, Rees Jones had already overhauled Torrey South in preparation for a U.S. Open, and former USGA president Sandy Tatum was spearheading a movement to revitalize Harding Park. Meanwhile, Pierce County executive John Ladenburg was in touch with Rees’s brother, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., about building the “Bethpage Black of the West” on an abandoned mine next to Puget Sound.

In 2008, Tiger Woods won another memorable U.S. Open, this one at new-look Torrey Pines. Chambers Bay had opened the year before and had already been awarded the 2015 U.S. Open. Bethpage Black was on tap for the 2009 U.S. Open, and Harding Park for the 2009 Presidents Cup. The mega-muni era was in full swing.

A hazy future

Then a couple of things happened around the same time: the U.S. housing bubble burst, setting off the Great Recession, and the prime of Tiger Woods’s career crashed into a fire hydrant in Isleworth, Florida. But even before then, golf simply hadn’t become as popular as people in the late 90s and early 00s had hoped. It no longer seemed like the sport of the future.

In retrospect, the creation of America’s mega munis may have been a tad over-optimistic. Sean Elsbernd, a former San Francisco city supervisor who supported Sandy Tatum’s quest, told me that Harding Park hasn’t paid back the cost of the 2002 renovation as quickly as expected.

“Truth is,” he said, “we’ve had some challenges, just like all municipal golf courses have. The Tiger Woods phenomenon grew, and then it plateaued and dropped.”

It’s hard to discern the exact financial condition of the mega munis, but Bethpage and Torrey appear to be reliably profitable. Chambers, on the other hand, has struggled, becoming a bone of contention in Pierce County. It doesn’t help that Covid-19 has put a planned Chambers Bay Resort on hold.

Of course, these facilities offer benefits that don’t show up in tax documents. They attract wealthy out-of-towners, who spend their money not only at pro shops but also at local stores and restaurants. Plus, when the courses host televised events, they function as huge, free billboards for tourism.

TPC Harding Park and the city of San Francisco. Photo credit: Ben Peters @thegolfhawk

Yet it’s telling that no mega munis have opened in the U.S. since Chambers. For the past four years, a well-connected group in Chicago has been pushing for a Tiger Woods-led renovation of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses, but the funding hasn’t materialized. If this were 2005, the project would have already happened.

In the meantime, another trend in municipal golf has emerged. A handful of cities—Hobbs, New Mexico; Winter Park, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia—have upgraded their courses in smaller, less expensive, more creative ways. These facilities have no pretensions of hosting major championships. They just want average golfers to come and have fun. I call them “mini munis,” and I believe they are the actual future of government-owned golf.

Still, I have a soft spot for the mega munis. Their vision is just so grand and innocent; I can’t help but root for them. So that’s what I’ll be doing today as DJ, Brooks, and Champ charge down the closing stretch along Lake Merced: rooting for Harding Park, and for the crazy idea that a golf course can be the lifeblood of a city.


Header photo credit: Ben Peters @thegolfhawk