Public Defenders

Three courses. Three different fates. As municipal golf courses around the country face the bulldozers, local communities are on the front lines
cutting greens
Photo: Milner

Before I began my journey to San Luis Rey Downs, an abandoned golf course in the sun-blasted lands northeast of San Diego, I’d imagined that finding a golf course left to go fallow would be simple. I was wrong. Weeks before, I’d been researching the alarming nationwide trend of public golf course closures when I came across an article about San Luis Rey Downs, a once-beloved course near the town of Bonsall. The course had been abandoned to the elements after financial trouble had claimed the business back in 2014—and it seemed nothing had been done to the grounds since. Fascinated by what a deserted golf course might look like, and wondering if it would serve as a metaphor for a dystopian take on the future of struggling public golf courses in the U.S., I had to walk around the place myself. I flew to San Diego, rented a car and drove north toward the arid hill country around Bonsall. 

Once there, however, I learned that finding a golf course that’s been reclaimed by nature is much harder than it seems. After driving in circles for half an hour, creeping through the exact space where Google Maps said the course should be, all I could see was a winding strip of blacktop ahead, crumbling cliffs rising above a tired suburban neighborhood on one side of the road and rolling hills carpeted in scrub brush on the other. I pulled to the shoulder and got out of the car, intending to glare at the buff-colored, baking-hot landscape in annoyance, only to step right onto an overgrown cart path snaking through the sandy soil. I’d been driving next to San Luis Rey Downs the whole time without realizing it. I’d expected it to be overgrown, but I had no idea that the earth could swallow a golf course in just two short years. 

For half a century, San Luis Rey Downs was a well-regarded, if quirky, course known mainly for a red caboose parked on the back nine that mustachioed television golf personality Gary McCord is rumored to have slept in when he was beginning his pro career. The course’s abrupt closure in 2014 was a surprise to many of its regulars, though the owners said the place had been losing money for a decade. The neighbors, understandably concerned about plummeting property values, wanted somebody else to take over and maintain the course, and the Save the Bonsall Golf Course community group was hastily assembled. But when that failed to gain enough traction, the property was sold to a conservation group, with a plan to let the land slip back to its native state.

Overgrown golf course
A course left to ruin. What was once a quirky, shotmaker’s track is now overrun by the elements.

The bones of the course were spookily beautiful, in a two-years-after-the-apocalypse kind of way. The landscape was primed for Mad Max to screech around the place in a fire-belching golf cart, and I could just make out the fairways, now almost totally dominated by waist-high native grasses and hardy desert sage. 

The greens were still visible as fractured irregular circles. As I looked around, it occurred to me that I could maybe make a buck here by peddling a survivalist-style Housman’s Wilderness Golf™. I’d have happily used a modified club to whack a big rubber ball around those sandy hills. Then again, it was a pretty good spot for a regular golf course too. I ambled down to the scrub-brush fairway to mentally play a hole, but visions of kicking scorpions out of my pant cuffs turned me back toward the chain-link-fence-enclosed clubhouse. 

A beautiful wasteland like San Luis Rey Downs is a particularly harsh illustration of what happens when a course struggles and its local community is unable to save it. But just because a course is threatened doesn’t mean it’s doomed. It takes passion, creativity and a little luck, but sometimes collections of golfers, community leaders and sympathetic local residents mount successful resistances and keep beloved courses alive.

San Luis Rey Downs

If recent trends are any indication, there is probably a San Luis Rey Downs in your area. Maybe the land is also being slowly consumed by the earth, or possibly replaced by a soul-numbing strip mall. More than 800 golf courses have closed nationwide over the past decade. Somewhere between 150 and 200 courses are now shutting their doors for good each year, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), a statistic the organization doesn’t expect to change anytime soon. And it’s happening everywhere, from California to New England, Texas to Michigan. Perhaps the most disturbing part of that trend is that nearly three quarters of those course closures will be the kinds of low-cost public and municipal courses that serve the majority of workaday golfers today. 

I figured that if any organization knew why golf courses like San Luis Rey Downs were closing it would be the United States Golf Association (USGA), so I contacted Rand Jerris, a USGA public-service executive, to ask him. Despite being a successful golf administrator, Jerris has a PhD in archaeology from Princeton, which is such an interesting career turn that it has to be mentioned. As I phoned Jerris, I began to fret about calling him to ask, basically, “So what’s the problem with golf courses—you know, the foundation of your entire industry?” I needn’t have worried. Jerris, kind-voiced and patient, had been doing plenty of thinking about why golf courses struggle and he wasn’t exactly pessimistic.

“Golf is really just going through a big period of readjustment,” Jerris said. He explained that a wave of golf course construction in the ’80s and ’90s had reached a crescendo with a rise in the national excitement for golf during the ascension of Tiger Woods’ star. But then, according to Jerris, the golf market began to enter a slump by the mid-’00s, with participation numbers starting to drop off and course closures following suit. (Bloomberg Businessweek reported that 97 percent of the golf courses that have shut their doors for good in recent years were open to the public.) More depressing stats from the NGF: Four hundred thousand more golfers hung up their clubs in 2013 than in 2012. Reports from the golf consulting firm Pellucid show that a quarter of all golfers have quit the game since 2002, the high-water mark of golf participation. 

A flood of studies and hand-wringing magazine articles in the years since have offered up plenty of reasons why: The game takes too long for busy adults; golf is too expensive and the financial crisis of ’08 didn’t exactly drive players toward an already pricey game; the housing crisis destroyed lots of subdivisions that featured golf courses as centerpieces; short-attention-spanned Millennials have no interest in golf. Jerris pointed me to a quote Jack Nicklaus gave to CNN about why the game was struggling to retain players back in 2015: “I’d like to play a game that can take place in three hours,” Nicklaus said. “I’d quite like to play a game that I can get some reasonable gratification out of very quickly and something that is not going to cost me an arm and a leg.” Yeah. 

Who wouldn’t? 

Public golf courses, unlike private clubs that can better absorb financial ebbs and flows with membership dues, are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the golf market. Greens fees can be raised only so high before people find something else to do with their Saturdays. And cramming more and more players on a course isn’t a solution to pace-of-play problems. When irrigation bills skyrocket, or city councils ramp up pressure to terminate the leases of muni courses, or wealthy developers start waving big checks around, it becomes easier and easier for owners and managers to throw up their hands and walk away. 

It’s strange to think of yourself as a statistic, but as I listened to Jerris explain the rise and fall of golf participation, I realized he was describing my golf history. I started playing in my early 20s in the late ’90s, right about when Tiger began dominating ESPN highlight reels. I bought a few sets of clubs, had multiple pairs of golf shoes and, God help me, I even owned several visors. But a decade later, three or four times a week had become three or four times a year. Greens fees were adding up, rounds were taking way too long and, most importantly, I was running out of friends to play with. Many of the people whom I used to meet up with on the course, some of whom were dedicated players who regularly shot in the low 80s, had left the game behind as adulthood made increasing demands on everybody’s time. I didn’t quite walk away from golf, but I didn’t replace my golf shoes when they wore out, and I’m still banging away with the same clubs I bought in 2001—basically a microcosm of the issues golf is facing.

But Jerris has an optimistic view of the current state of the golf market: Forget all about the unprecedented spike in golf interest in the ’90s and ignore the decline in the golf market as we move away from that outlier bump, and you’ve still got a long, slow increase in the number of people playing golf in the U.S. over the last, say, 50 years. The game’s current stumble is just golf tripping over that ’90s spike and skinning its knees a bit, but it’s about to get back on its feet and confidently stride off toward a prosperous, if slightly less robust, future. That future is probably going to have a hell of a lot fewer golf courses. Golf, as Jerris pointed out, was always a niche game, and the correction the industry is going through now is likely just a return to the mean. 

“So much talk about the decline of golf participation focuses on doom and gloom and problems with the game itself,” Jerris told me, a bit incredulous. “But really, the truth is we just overbuilt.”

Goat Hill Park

On a gorgeous summer afternoon, just 12 miles from the dystopian sandscape of San Luis Rey Downs, I watched as 10 or so teenage girls absolutely punished balls off the mats at the driving range of Goat Hill Park in Oceanside, California. The clubhouse—more of an outdoor bar/café, really—was playing music over outdoor speakers. A few guys in their early 30s sat at a trendily distressed raw-wood bar that opened out to the first tee and sipped San Diego–brewed IPAs while they compared scorecards. It looked like a small beer garden in a San Diego park that just happened to have a great little golf course right out front. I liked the place immediately. 

The city-owned course at Goat Hill opened in 1952—one of the first courses built in San Diego County—and was originally called Center City Golf Course. In 2010, after squabbling with the then-course-management team, which was struggling financially, the City of Oceanside terminated the golf course’s lease, and the already rough-around-the-edges grounds began to slide into decay. 

The city’s next step was to weigh potential suitors’ bids to remake the site into…well, anything, really. 

That attracted the attention of John Ashworth, of Ashworth Golf Apparel fame, who lives in nearby Carlsbad. He’d long had a soft spot in his heart for Center City—which locals referred to as “Goat Hill”—as well as a belief that short, fun and inexpensive courses like it are the lifeblood of the game. Ashworth assembled a potential management team, secured a bit of funding and submitted his own bid to take over the lease and assume control of the course. Locals supported Ashworth’s bid, routinely showing up in large numbers for meetings with public officials about the future of the space. 

Just when it seemed Ashworth’s group was on the verge of a deal with the city, Dell Loy Hansen, owner of the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake, swooped in with his own proposal. Hansen wanted to install soccer practice fields and a stadium at Goat Hill that he hoped would lure a professional soccer team as part of his vision of a San Diego soccer mecca that would radically reshape the character of Oceanside. Officials flirted with Hansen’s plan, but after a city council meeting saw dozens of Oceanside residents speak out in favor of preserving Goat Hill as a golf course, Ashworth’s group carried the day and they took over the lease in 2014.

“We didn’t really think we’d get it, to be honest,” Ashworth told me sitting at Goat Hill’s bar. A strong effort by the community to preserve the course as a bit of land still open to the public was instrumental in helping Ashworth’s plan. “If you look at a map of Oceanside, you’ll see that this is really the only green space left in town,” Ashworth said, now zipping me around in one of Goat Hill’s sparkling clean carts and waving his hand toward a magnificent view of a grove of trees perched in front of the ocean. It was difficult to imagine a soccer stadium or yet another blot of chain restaurants and condos gobbling up this welcome expanse of open country in an otherwise completely paved-over expanse of Southern California.

Once Goat Hill was under Ashworth’s stewardship, he began the hard work of transforming the course into a place that would continue to attract the regulars who always played there, but that would also draw in younger golfers in an effort to stave off the attendance problems that plagued the course. “We played here all the time and didn’t care that it wasn’t in great shape,” Ashworth said of his playing days at the old Center City. “It was cheap to play and the greens were good.” 

The cheap-to-play part was a great foundation for their revamped course, but Ashworth’s management group also needed to raise money to remedy the long-neglected fairways and greens and to rebuild the aging clubhouse. So they waded into the crowdfunding world looking for help. They built an Indiegogo campaign, and soon after, a “Save Goat Hill” wave crested in the San Diego area and surrounding golf scenes. Celebrity supporters like Bill Murray, Mark Wahlberg and surfing champion Kelly Slater began showing up on social media waving, smiling and wearing “Save Goat Hill” T-shirts.  

So far, the Save Goat Hill crowd has done an admirable job of saving. The hilly, compact 18-hole course has a unique feel reminiscent—in a good way, I swear—of the best parts of an amusement park. Even without a club in hand, just being on the course is a pleasant experience. Charmingly ornate yardage signs adorn the tee boxes, and impeccably maintained, colorful greens are juxtaposed with golden sections of fairways that are purposely left unirrigated to save on water costs. (They hope to soon tap into a reclaimed-water system that would save the course over 40 percent on water bills.) 

In a bid to attract the young people it needs to survive both financially and philosophically, Goat Hill also features a popular disc-golf course along with junior pitch-and-putt tee boxes called “Mini Goat.” Their efforts are beginning to pay off. 

“We’ve been in the black since we opened,” Ashworth said with what I detected to be a note of surprise in his voice. “It’s been so intimidating for lots of people to get into the game,” he continued. “We’re working hard to bring back the friendly feel, the camaraderie at the tee and the good-natured competition.” The course improvements that Ashworth’s team has made are also an attempt to eat into the dragging pace of play that’s plagued golf in recent years. Goat Hill is an intentionally easier place to golf than it was before the makeover, with fewer spots to lose balls and newly created catchment areas for misplaced shots. 

Back at the bar, as Ashworth talked and I sipped a beer, a teenager walked past with a set of clubs slung over his shoulder. Ashworth called out to him, asked about his grades, chatted good-naturedly about his golf game. Turns out, the kid was part of a group caught spraying graffiti on the clubhouse when Ashworth’s team first took on Goat Hill. Rather than calling the cops, they offered him a spot in the caddy program and got him playing golf every day. The kid was a natural. “He’d never swung a club before we’d opened,” Ashworth explained. “Now he’s out here all the time. He’s keeping his grades up. He loves the game. He loves that this course is here, too, so close to his home.”

Lions Municipal Golf Course

Halfway across the country, in Austin, Texas, Lions Municipal Golf Course—called “Muny” by locals—lies in a crook of the languid Colorado River as it bends southeast toward the state capital. From most of Lions’ holes, Austin’s nearby skyline can be seen glittering above the oak trees that line the narrow, twisting fairways. In fact, if one were so inclined, one could play a round at Muny and afterward shove off in a canoe down the Colorado to float toward downtown. Muny is a cherished part of Austin’s recreational landscape. 

Unfortunately for golfers and river-floating enthusiasts, Muny may not be a golf course in the near future. Unlike Goat Hill and San Luis Rey Downs, Muny isn’t in a major financial struggle. The University of Texas (UT) owns the 141-acre tract of land a few miles from campus where Muny is built, and it leases it to the city of Austin. Back in 2011, UT regents voted to let that lease run out in 2019 so that they could cash in on their pricey real estate by building condos, strip malls and chain restaurants on the land—cherished local golf course be damned. Though UT charges Austin about $500,000 annually for Muny’s lease, the regents are well aware that developing the course’s land would bring in a whole lot more than half a million dollars a year. 

UT has trotted this plan out every so often for the last four decades, each time the lease’s end draws near. And every time UT threatens to close the course, Muny’s most tireless defender, a practiced environmental and community activist, springs into action. And she doesn’t even play golf.

“This whole thing started back in 1972 when people were first getting used to the idea of being an ‘environmentalist,’” Mary Arnold recently told me. Arnold is a youthful 81 and speaks with the most elegant, comforting Texan twang I’ve ever heard. 

“I’m not even a golfer, mind you,” Arnold said about her relationship with Muny. “Wait—have you never played a round out there?” I asked, a little incredulous. “Well, I may have, back in the ’70s or ’80s,” she said. 

“I did recently ride around the course in a cart and it was just so nice to admire the trees and the beautiful views. It’s always been there, as traffic gets worse, providing some green space for people to enjoy. That’s what I’ve been working to preserve.”

Back in ’72, Arnold heard from a neighbor that UT was considering plowing the course to increase the size of the campus, and she grew incensed that the regents hadn’t announced their plans to city residents. Arnold didn’t particularly care about golf, but she loved the little bit of nature that the course made available to the public. Plenty of bird species, like yellow warblers, kingfishers and herons, make their homes in and around Muny’s trees. Arnold cherished Muny as a little green oasis in a growing, increasingly congested city.

In 2006, UT announced it was considering tearing up Muny’s lease when it ran out in 2019, to finally develop the land it long had plans for. But this time, Arnold and the Save Muny group discovered a new wrinkle in their fight against the UT regents. General Marshall, an avuncular man with a well-kept mustache, was a member of the city’s golf advisory board. He started sharing stories of young black kids sneaking on to play Muny in the early ’50s, well before the Brown v. Board of Education civil rights case, and long before Muny had desegregated. Other black golfers of Marshall’s age started sharing their own memories of seeing black golfers venturing onto the course to play a few holes, first under cover of darkness before becoming brazen enough to play the course in broad daylight. 

Marshall later told Golfweek that when Emma Long, a white, prominent city council member, heard that blacks were breaking the rules by crossing the color lines at Muny, she responded with a shrug. “Let them play,” she said. Without conflict or protest, it seemed that Marshall, and kids like him, were the crowbars that pried open the course for all comers, regardless of ethnicity. 

As you can imagine, this discovery was a big deal for the Save Muny community.

“Until General [Marshall] started telling the story of the course, I don’t think anybody realized how significant the history of Muny was,” Arnold explained. “When he began sharing his memories, it really opened people’s eyes about the importance of preserving this golf course.” It was an inspiring bit of history that became even more important when local historians, in part based on Marshall’s memories, realized that Muny may have been the first course below the Mason-Dixon Line to allow black golfers to play there and not just act as caddies, as Marshall and his fellow trailblazers were before they decided to play a few holes themselves. Just like that, the Save Muny campaign moved from a regional struggle to a national concern. 

It still remains to be seen if Muny’s powerful history will be enough to save it. Based on the course’s civil rights legacy, Save Muny organizers successfully lobbied to place Lions Municipal on the National Registry of Historic Places in the summer of 2016. The National Registry even went one step further and named the course one of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” in the U.S.

In April 2017, the Texas Senate easily passed a bill that would transfer ownership of Muny from UT to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which would seem to finally relieve the course of development danger. As of this writing, the bill (SB 822) awaits its fate in the Texas House of Representatives. The smooth sailing the bill enjoyed in the Senate makes it likely to pass the House. Even if the bill passes, however, it isn’t a permanent solution. If Muny struggles financially under control of its new owners, under the proposed law it would revert back to a UT property. 

These are major victories for the Save Muny campaign, but the designation as a National Historic Place does little to bind UT’s hands and, assuming the proposed bill passes, if UT ever assumes control of the course again, the regents have long made it clear that they wouldn’t necessarily be deterred from going through with development just because the course has historical significance. They effectively proposed having their historical cake and eating it too by arguing that they could always preserve portions of the course, including the clubhouse, while building over the fairways and greens. 

Muny’s defenders have balked at these proposals. “The clubhouse actually remained the last bastion of Jim Crow on the property for some time after the course became accessible to all,” Ken Tiemann, a spokesman for Save Muny, told me. “To solely preserve that Jim Crow structure while still claiming to respect the significant history that occurred on the course would be disingenuous. Gettysburg would be less of an experience if it only included a structure too. The teachable experience at Lions would be severely diminished without the historic landscape,” Tiemann explained. Arnold agrees. “If we lost that space, we’d also lose the ability to remember it,” she told me a bit wistfully. 

After four decades of fighting development there, Arnold is sanguine, though in a careful, measured sort of way, that Muny’s history will be what finally keeps the bulldozers and backhoes at bay. “Hopefully this time Muny will forever remain a municipal golf course,” she says. “No matter what happens, though, we’ll keep trying to save this place. Losing spaces like that affects the psyche of a community.”