After a state of New York publicly owned course hosts this year’s
PGA Championship followed in five years by the Ryder Cup, a distinct era in American golf will come to a close. Following the biennial team matches on Long Island in the fall of 2024, there are no traditional American municipal courses on the major championship or Ryder Cup schedule.
Yes, the PGA of America’s new facility in Frisco, Texas, could be considered a city course in 2027, when it hosts the PGA Championship. And anyone can play Pinehurst No. 2 or Pebble Beach – resort courses – if they are wealthy enough.
But genuine municipal courses? No longer desired in the world of major championship golf. But do not fret, it’s been a fantastic, if sometimes embarrassingly expensive experiment for several facilities.
The end of munis on the major schedule is hardly an indictment on the experiment that brought golf’s biggest events to such places as Bethpage, Torrey Pines and next year’s PGA Championship to TPC Harding Park after significant renovation work. Past tournaments were financial successes and enjoyed way more energetic celebrations of the sport when played at the people’s courses. The tournaments generally have left facilities in a much better place than the USGA or PGA of America found them. But gouging golf course contractors, excessive bureaucratic demands and irrational expectations for one week of tournament golf drove up costs at times.
For all of the embarrassing excesses spent to make these places play up to the standards of country clubs, majors at munis opened our eyes to the many publicly owned venues with the potential to inspire. Some of these historic places merely needed an excuse in the form of a tournament to turn things around, and in doing so gave the golfing public access to an inspiring but difficult course.
As awareness of historically significant architecture has grown over the last two decades and a younger generation has become more interested in a fun day at a centrally located course over the lavish theatrics of upscale daily-fee “experiences,” we are on the cusp of a municipal-course renaissance.
Restorations and fierce battles to save important courses are happening all over the United States. It’s a pure grass-roots effort fueled in part by these championships, especially the Bethpage Black experiment that debuted at the 2002 U.S. Open.
A new organization called the National Links Trust has formed in a battle to resurrect endangered and neglected Washington D.C.-area courses. The trust has an eye on helping others around the country looking to protect and improve munis with the potential to be community centerpieces without tournaments in mind.
Will Smith, co-founder of the highly successful Outpost Club, is part of the movement and acknowledges the help of the Bethpage era. But he does not want to mimic what goes along with trying to attract majors.
“Restoring munis with the goal being to host a major tournament often ends in a course that is too difficult for the local golfer and too expensive to maintain for the municipality,” Smith said. “It can adversely affect the affordability and accessibility of the course and ultimately not serve the role it was meant to play within a community.”
Smith says Bethpage worked in part because the complex has other courses of varying difficulty to offset the Black’s legendary difficulty. It never hurt that the course had a magnificently talented early caretaker in Craig Currier. At Torrey Pines, Smith notes, golfers simply gravitated to the more-enjoyable-to-play North Course.
A new generation of golfer unencumbered by strange elitist peccadillos – as changing shoes in the parking lot or believing that low green fees equal bad golf – also understands many cities, counties and states have quality facilities by famous architects often commissioned during the Works Progress. Administration of the 1930s and ’40s. They are usually centrally located, too. The idea of fighting to save and improve something close to home versus going to far-away places for golf is proving more attractive, even if the bureaucratic fight can be maddening.
While it is disappointing that the “grow the game” crowd has not put more of its resources to use restoring munis instead of launching glossy ad campaigns, the USGA and PGA of America efforts to bring majors to publicly owned venues has worked. Just not the way they imagined. But if the end result is a golf nation finally coalescing around the venues it should be protecting instead of clamoring for something new, then taking majors to munis will be viewed as an even greater success than anyone ever could have imagined. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the May 2019 issue of Golfweek.)