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Municipal golf matters

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With another golf season quickly approaching, it’s time for many to consider the options for how and where they plan to play. Some have already started paying dues towards their club memberships, others are waiting to buy prepaid passes for their local course, and like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the opening of my local municipal golf course – my muni.

The gateway

Growing up, my friends and I were what you would call course rats: kids who would be there when the sun came up and there on the putting green as the sun went down. We would spend hours on the range, often times picking our own balls to avoid paying for another bucket since that meant an extra burger after we were burnt out from hitting balls. The golf course was the best “babysitter” our parents could have asked for – endless hours spent outside day after day and for the low price of just $350 for the season — plus $5 a day for that burger I was talking about. We all ended up loving the game and becoming pretty decent players along the way without much instruction, based on the simple truth that we were given the opportunity to play.

Living outside of the city in a smaller town, this was a “mom and pop” course that is still around today and busy, but I often wonder now as an adult if other kids that loved golf got to share in the same experience. Looking back, I don’t think I could have gotten a better education in being polite, responsible, honest, and confident, this was The First Tee before The First Tee even existed.

The memories from those summers are some of the fondest I have from growing up, and with so many young families living in cities, along with the high cost of organized sports, and the closing of golf courses, government-subsidized municipal golf is one of the last places where this type of opportunity is available to juniors and adults alike at an affordable price.

The modern muni dilemma

Municipal golf has been around for a long time, and recently for some cities, has become a lightning rod for budget cuts along with concerns about tax dollars being spent to fund an “elite” sport. The issue I have is cities spend a huge amount of money to subsidize other sports fields and recreation facilities including swimming pools, ice ricks, soccer and baseball fields yet none of these sports have the “elite” tag attached to them like golf.

This will sound like a blasphemous statement from a Canadian, but hockey, has become a much more elite and expensive sport as far as access and barrier to entry when you factor in equipment and cost of ice-time, yet a lot of non-hockey playing citizens would chain themselves to an arena to prevent it from closing its doors.

When recently, speaking to one of the golf professionals at a city-owned course near me, I was informed they are one of the few city recreational facilities that actually turn a profit thanks to the high traffic the course sees, along with the efficient use of the clubhouse facilities for events during the season, and in the offseason.

Municipal golf through history

What I love about “muni” golf is that it’s for the people. The Old Course along with the others in and around St Andrews Scotland, for example, are by definition public golf courses. The courses themselves and the “R & A Club” are separate entities, and if you can show a handicap card you can book a tee time to play one of the many courses located in the town.

The municipal courses I play the most are Kings Forest Golf Course and the Chedoke Civic Golf Courses in the city of Hamilton Ontario. The Chedoke courses are in no way a “Championship Test” with the shorter Martin Course topping out at just over 5,700 yards, but much like the Old Course at St. Andrews, it’s home to more than just golfers. Early morning and late afternoon you will find people strolling the paths, walking their dogs, and simply enjoying the green space — something that as cities continue to grow will be needed even more. It’s not closed on Sundays and doesn’t become a park like St Andrews, but even during winter, you will find dog walkers, cross country skiers, and people sledding down hills. That seems pretty multipurpose if you ask me.

As much as I pick on, and use my local Chedoke as my example, I do it out of love. The Martin course is an untouched Stanley Thompson design packed with interesting holes built into the Niagara Escarpment. It’s endless fun to play.

It’s about access

Municipal golf is accessible because it is affordable.

Understandably, the conditions might leave something to be desired on a day-to-day basis, but when a course only has 5-6 staff members on the grounds crew compared to more than a dozen like at high-end facilities, only so much can be done. At the end of the day, it’s 18 tees with 18 greens and the company you are with that makes a round of golf, not the height of the fairways or rough or the occasional bunker in need of a good raking.

For myself locally, junior memberships are priced around $500, allowing access to unlimited golf with no tee time restrictions. It’s a pretty nice deal if you ask me. What makes golf different from other individual activities and team sports is it can be played at any time, and you can be paired up with three other random people to play, regardless of gender, age, or skill. When you add in the fact that at the recreational level, there is no scheduled practice or game days like other sports, golf offers seven days a week access, which can’t be said for other activities.

If we look at the bigger picture and data from the National Golf Foundation (2017), there are just over 11,000 PUBLIC golf facilities in the United States with the average price paid for an 18 hole round of golf averaging out to only $34. If the “average” golfer plays 10 times a year, that’s only $340, and with the buyers’ market in the used equipment space, even if you need a full set up of clubs to get started it can easily be had for less than $400.

I may be an outlier but if given the opportunity to volunteer at my course for a few hours once a week to help fix a bunker, clean up fallen branches, or just help with general course maintenance in exchange for the ability to golf I would be first to sign up.

It’s a program like this that could also work for juniors (within a reasonable age obviously) to not only help grant more access to golf but teach about agronomy and respect for the course itself. I can only imagine this type of “education” and team environment would help foster more life-long golfers. **Please remember this would be 100 percent voluntary and open to both kids and adults alike. I’m not asking or suggesting free hard labor.**

Looking towards the future

With so much worry around the future, there are recent examples of municipal and small privately-owned golf courses making big comebacks thanks to passionate individuals and cities willing to appreciate the value a golf course has to the community.

The best two examples are Goat Hill Park and the Winter Park 9 – I’ll let Andy Johnson from The Fried Egg give you the rundown: The Fried Egg Profiles Winter Park. Two courses on opposite sides of the country achieving success by offering affordably priced, fun golf to boot. It’s the sense of community these places created that make them beacons in the landscape.

At this point, I think it’s important to state that I am NOT anti-country club; I love private courses too! Conditions are top-notch, the architecture is in most cases interesting, the pace of play is quick, I could go on and on. I have friends that are members at clubs, and thanks to working in golf, I know a lot of pros that are happy to grant the occasional access on slower days to “friends in the industry”.

I love playing golf one way or the other, but at heart, I’m a muni kid that has a huge amount of respect for the game on both sides of the fence. Regardless of where someone started, or where you choose to play now, we’re all playing golf, and that’s the most important thing.

Sure the pros on T.V. play at high-end and expensive private courses, which is great for entertainment and corporate hospitality, but municipal golf where you are going to find the golfers who are the real heart and soul of the game. If we want to #GrowTheGame – an overused hollow phrase, and maintain some semblance of accessibility for the next generation of golfers, having municipal golf is a critical part of that.

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Ryan Barath is a club-fitter & master club builder with more than 17 years of experience working with golfers of all skill levels, including PGA Tour players. He is the former Build Shop Manager & Social Media Coordinator for Modern Golf. He now works independently from his home shop and is a member of advisory panels to a select number of golf equipment manufacturers. You can find Ryan on Twitter and Instagram where he's always willing to chat golf, and share his passion for club building, course architecture and wedge grinding.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Terry morris

    Apr 19, 2019 at 4:31 pm

    This article is spot on I play at a local course and through the years I have gotten to see kids grow up to be young men and women with great attitudes and respect for one another you hit it out the park it’s all true.these ourthe kind of kids we want to carry on through this world

  2. Carol

    Apr 19, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    I love this article, we are blessed in Nashville, TN. to have 8 great, well maintained Metro Parks Courses, overseen by our city. We loved the article, well said and well written.

    It is great to see all of the comments, seems all of us love and appreciate our muni courses./

  3. Dave

    Apr 18, 2019 at 2:44 pm

    Most of the public and municipal courses around my area seem to have a “chosen few” mentality. Very few seem to encourage the kind of trade the author speaks, namely the lone golfer, whether young or old, or anyone who does not fit into the foursome mold,

    Prime tee times are tough to get, other than the ones in the know. This was always the case to some degree, even when I started golf, 50 years ago.

    Even the almost bankrupt course I frequent, has a base of 18-25 guys who “own” the course prime time. The general public has to work around it. Not good for business. The public player will just go elsewhere.

    For the most part, the public course has evolved into something private. Long gone are the days when someone could put a ball in a starters rack, and play accordingly.

    This is what is helping to kill golf in general.

  4. Anthony Parham

    Apr 18, 2019 at 10:05 am

    My father taught me golf ? at our local muni and many friendships were formed there. The golf was fun and I learned many lessons on life at our 18 holes that carried on today. Public golf courses are as important as any public recreation facility towns and cities have. Forever a muni.

  5. Jason Farrelly

    Apr 18, 2019 at 9:57 am

    Great article. Well written and needs to be celebrated/talked about more often. I grew up with a similar experience at Cambridge Golf course and will always appreciate what it/they did for me.

  6. hank church

    Apr 18, 2019 at 9:07 am

    OK BEEN AROUND PLAYING GOLF 50 YRS BEEN A MEMBER AT PRIVATE CLUBS AND BACK TO MY LOCAL MUNI WHERE I STARTED
    public GOLF COURSES the players friendship that goes with being with regular guys just does NOT get the respect in the golf industry eyes I know it and have seen it.
    watch the golf channel and they do very little talking about the PUBLIC GOLF COURSE PLAYER they actually act surprise when somebody comes from that background

  7. Hammer

    Apr 18, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Grew up playing Chedoke. Could not imagine growing up without a place like that to play everyday during the summer from morning to night.

  8. Simms

    Apr 17, 2019 at 11:36 pm

    The muni in California is on its last 18…any course that can be re-zoned for Housing is on the block or soon will be…we lost two public courses within 3 months of each other less then 10 miles apart last year alone, leaving a 3rd that is running under the gun to make money or close as I type. Even the best Public course in our Area is only open because it is run by a Tribe of Indians with a huge Casino, hotel just down the road…always roomers they would like to cut the 36 holes to 18 and build houses on the other 18. No need for junior golf out here unless it is at the Country Club level and in California even the Private Clubs are hurting big…after some 80 years one of the two local Country clubs sold and went public in my area….

  9. Robert Brombacher

    Apr 17, 2019 at 9:50 pm

    I’m completely on board with your story. Played Muni golf in my earlier years, played junior golf, high school and college golf. I’ve been playing for over 50 years. Lucky enough to to play country club golf and enjoy the the re-birth of Goat Hill in Oceanside, CA. (Such a cool place)

  10. Robert Flanders

    Apr 17, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    Would love to buy a season pass to a muni if there were any near me (inside 30 miles). Maybe in 10 years when a lot of these Fat Ass borderline/private clubs in north east start folding, the cities will buy and control them ????????

  11. Johnny Mike

    Apr 17, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    Well written, and I couldn’t agree more. I initially learned to play golf at Haines Point, East Potomac Golf Course in Washington, DC, which looks more like an artillery range than a golf course. It was maybe $6 to play 9 holes then, and there was standing water on every hole every day. Golf at munis is an everyman and everywoman’s sport. It is a diverse and camraderie filled community; we will lose a great deal if we let these courses wither away from lack of funding.

    • Mike Cleland

      Apr 17, 2019 at 7:35 pm

      Completely agree.

    • Tony Lynam

      Apr 22, 2019 at 12:39 pm

      Use to play East Potomac’s 9 hole at lunch when I was stationed at Headquarters Marine Corps in the old Navy Annex building that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery. Was able to get the 9 in about an hour and change at lunch time and drive back to the Annex, after shooting par most times out there. Fun course to play. Never played the 18 hole course there.

  12. A. Commoner

    Apr 17, 2019 at 3:35 pm

    Where,s the meat?

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