30 May How to wake a sleeping lion
Once upon a time in Austin
For better or for worse, the game of golf in America gets a rap of being an exclusive, mainly white, expensive rarified atmosphere of the ruling class. And that’s not completely out of line.
But for those of us who grew up playing public golf and played that way most of our whole lives, we know a different story is also true.
We know golf as a game of almost pure democracy. You can drive up to your local publinx, pay your fee, wait your turn, get matched up with three other people you’ve never met and end the day with three new friends. Return often enough and you’ll end up with a kind of family of regulars all rooted in their own stories of the game. And you’ll never want to give it up.
At the municipal course, you can be all alone and still pick up a game. So for some of us, golf has sometimes been a refuge from the world, from problems and from other people.
But public golf is not immune to the same curses that threaten private golf. Demand and supply are inextricably linked and when the market is down for golf, courses get sold and close. Which brings us to the Public Service Announcement portion of this post.
In Austin, TX, Muny is under imminent threat. Of losing its lease. Of redevelopment. Of losing its space in history and plowing under precious green space. And it is up to those of us who know and love and care about the amateur, public game to say something and do something about it.
Lions Municipal Golf Course, as it is formally known, was founded as a 9-hole course in 1924 by members of the city’s Lions Club as the first public golf facility in Austin. It was soon expanded to its current 18-hole layout and in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, the property lease from the University of Texas was transferred from the Lions Club to the City where it has remained a city golf facility ever since.
Muny has a long, proud and storied history. Set in the historically African American Community of Clarksville, from its inception, the course was a source of work and jobs from construction to caddies for the men of that neighborhood.
More importantly, Muny became the first desegregated golf facility in the South. In 1950, two young black men forced the city’s decision on the matter when they began playing the course one day. Authorities on site decided to let them complete their game and public golf in Austin was forever desegregated quietly and peacefully. As it should be.
Today, Muny remains a popular golf escape for Austinians with more than 70,000 rounds completed every year by golfers of every stripe.
But the threat remains.
For the better part of the past decade, Muny has been under one kind of threat or another. In 2011, the University of Texas Board of Regents originally voted to let the lease with the city expire in 2019 presumably paving a path for redevelopment of the site.
Today, an ongoing and passionate debate continues in an effort to determine the fate of the Clarksville acreage known as Muny.
A SISTER COURSE
I’m not from Austin and I’ve never played Lions. But it does remind me of a place near where I grew up in New Jersey with a similar history. Scotch Hills Country Club in Scotch Plains is a 9-hole public facility owned by the city since 1964.
It’s a little rough around the edges, but it has enormous character and a wonderful personality.
But the thing that reminds me of Muny’s story is that in 1921, long before it became Scotch Hills, the Progressive Realty Company, a group of prominent black investors in the area, banded together to purchase the property and colonial era home that would become Shady Rest Golf & Country Club—the oldest African American golf club in America. John Shippen, the first American golf professional to ever play in the U.S. Open served as club professional. Music royalty from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Count Basie played sessions in the clubhouse that some of the locals still talk about today. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra sang with the Basie Band there numerous times. Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis was a member.
The key to this story, however, is the ongoing commitment to preserve the place and its history for future generations to enjoy. There is an ongoing effort to gain landmark status, restore the clubhouse, create a museum, learning center and more.
Lions Municipal Golf Course is no less deserving of such an effort.
In fact, a community in Austin, TX, has banded together to take on that noble cause. This unique and enthusiastic community of concerned citizens, businesses, sporting legends and enthusiasts is called Save Muny and it deserves the support of everyone who loves and supports the game of golf and its history.
Two-time Masters champion, course architect and golf legend Ben Crenshaw has been fighting the good fight for Muny for years. Crenshaw grew up within walking distance of Lions and has offered to donate his and his partner Bill Coore’s work effort to restore the course to its former glory (possibly better than it’s former glory).
But there is an ongoing question of the lease and eventually ownership of the land. While many people on all sides of the issue are civil in the way they talk about the challenge, the University of Texas wants, not unsurprisingly, to realize the market value of the property.
As the fastest growing city in America, Austin developers are undoubtedly chomping at the bit to get a chance at developing the property.
And golfers, public golfers, historians and open-space advocates are fighting hard to keep Lions as a place of public enjoyment.
There is a bill making its way through the Texas State House as we speak designed to enshrine Muny’s fate with the State Parks Department. But that solution is far from a foregone conclusion.
So what’s missing?
A CALL TO ARMS
The threat to redevelop Muny is not fair. It’s not just. But if you’ve ever hit a massive drive right on the screws that hit a knob in the center of the fairway only to end up in a pot bunker or old sand-filled divot, you understand everything you need to know about justice in the game of golf.
It’s no secret that the golf industry has been struggling for the past decade.
The United States Golf Association (USGA) is the governing body of the sport in America. It lists its mission as follows:
The USGA promotes and conserves the true spirit of the game of golf as embodied in its ancient and honorable traditions. It acts in the best interests of the game for the continued enjoyment of those who love and play it.
It seems that an organization that established the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1895, created the Golf House museum preserving the history and traditions of the American game and sits sentry over the rules of the game we love should get involved when a historic space like Lions comes under threat.
While the USGA provided a written letter of support in Muny’s effort to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, to date, there is no public statement from that august institution to save Muny from being plowed under. Why not?
Call USGA President Mark Newall. Or Call CEO Mike Reid at his office in Far Hills, NJ. Call them. Tweet them. Make your voice heard. Remind them of what their mission says. Remind them they have a responsibility to the game they love and a mission to protect it. Demand that they take a stand on this issue. Demand that they step up and protect the game for all of us. Because when they do – just like they say they do in their credo and bylaws – they make the game better and stronger for all of us.
And remind them that supporting real players who play the game on public courses is good for the USGA, too. They are a not for profit. They are a renowned amateur institution. They fight for the rights of all players – they become David rather than Goliath.
Sure, he has a local interest, but Ben Crenshaw put his money where his mouth is on the issue. He’s got a historical heart and understands what Lions Municipal means to the Austin community and the golf community across the country and around the world.
And the USGA is not the only organization like this. It seems like every golf organization that claims to value the history of the game should get behind an effort like Save Muny. They all have presidents and CEOs sho should speak out on the issue. I’ll list them out – and feel free to suggest additional organizations you’d think would be proud to mark their names to a list defending the first desegregated golf course in the South:
- The PGA of America
- The LPGA
- The PGA Tour
- Every state golf association in the country
- Every professional golfer who believes access is good for the game
- Every sports hero who plays and loves golf as much as we do
And while we’re at it, how about:
All of these organizations should should put their weight behind a story like this one. Because what’s good for one sport is good for all sports. What’s good for one sportsperson is good for all sportspeople.
I would even call on the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A), golf’s governing body for the rest of the world, to make its voice heard on the issue.
In Britain, the public has always had access to the game. Of course there has been an evolution in thinking about many things the same way we’ve had here. But many of the great courses in the world reside on public land. The links, they always believed, belonged to everyone.
We don’t have a direct corollary here in America, but we do have places like Muny. Like Scotch Hills in NJ. Like Van Cortland Park in the Bronx of NYC.
Pebble Beach likes to be called the best public course in America. And at a $500 greens fee, while it’s open to the public, it’s not really a “public course” in the true sense. The Pebble Beach Corporation would do well to speak out for it’s public brethren.
There is a reason for the European winning trend in the Ryder cup over the past generation. They develop the game for everyone over there. We focus more on the country club kids. And that’s to our own misfortune.
Muny is a historic place as much as Augusta is. As much as Shinnecock Hills and Oakmont and Pebble Beach. I would make a case that places like Muny are MORE important.
And the voice of the game’s leaders needs to be heard on this issue.
They need to devote time, energy and, yes, money to saving places like this. Because it makes the game better. It makes us better.
Money shouldn’t really be an obstacle. Even through the downturn, there’s still money in golf. Just look at the enormous purses tour players compete for every week. And there are good ideas in the works. There is a core, grass roots constituency.
They say where there’s a will, there’s a way. In the case of Muny, there’s seems to be a way. I only wonder if there’s a will, too.
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