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Golf Courses

Houston's revitalization of Gus Wortham municipal course is a model for other cities to follow

October 25, 2018

Houston’s Gus Wortham Municipal Course has roots dating back to 1908, when the original Houston Country Club was routed on the site. It’s the rare piece of property in the sprawling Texas metropolis with elevation changes that make for a scenic, rolling layout. Yet when Steve Timms, president and CEO of the Houston Golf Association, walked the city-owned course in the early 2010s, scenic was hardly the word he’d use to describe what he saw. The amount of trash dumped by city residents, not to mention the homesteads set up by displaced citizens, many tucked beneath ravines along the fairways and overgrown wooded areas, wasn't the type of place parents would be keen to drop their kids off to spend the day.

That image remains in Timms' mind, but it’s fading, replaced by what he saw last week when the historic course re-opened after four years of planning, restoration and upkeep. Timms worked as the starter on the first tee on the opening Saturday and Sunday, and loved interacting with excited golfers seeing the revitalized facility.

“To see the excitement of Houston folks who have played ‘Gus’ before, and how excited they were about the re-opening, it was extremely gratifying,” Timms says. “To hear the feedback after they played, how we had preserved the historical significance of the golf course and how much fun it was to play, that’s the real reward. We’ve had a busy tee sheet since we opened, and for the foreseeable future we will, too—that’s the core of it all.”

The cleaned-up bunkering and green surrounds is a vast improvement from the existing Gus Wortham.

Municipal golf, that is. Accessible, affordable entry points that introduce so many golfers to this sport, are not always embraced by cities, especially when the prospect of real-estate developments with large cash deals entice government leaders. Another Houston course, Glenbrook Golf Course, was turned into a botanical garden this spring when a group raised $20 million to convert the golf course into a different green space. Of course, golf-course closures are not uncommon headlines these days, but closing public golf courses means shutting the door on possible venues to introduce beginners or juniors to golf.

The future of Gus Wortham was grim as well until the HGA—the same organization that ran the Shell Houston Open for decades until the PGA Tour shifted its schedule to not account for the annual tournament—became convinced it needed to do something. Knowing it was the oldest continually operated course in Texas, and the tradition of the place with legends of the game such as Harry Vardon, Ted Ray and Bobby Jones playing exhibitions over the years, the HGA became interested in saving this muny. After years of talks with city officials, the association finally earning the contract to oversee the revitalization of Gus Wortham in 2014, entering a 30-year lease and operating agreement.

So far, the HGA has raised $7.7 million, which allowed them to move forward on recommendations gleaned from environmental impact studies and engineering reviews. Restoration work by architect Baxter Spann started in January 2017 to rebuild greens, bunkers and reshape contouring, reconfigure the irrigation system for better water conservation, and the re-building of a new irrigation lake for storm water retention, all ways to modernize the course. The reopening of the course on Oct. 13 marked the completion of Phase 1 of this project, which also includes a rebuilt driving range. Phase 2 will include a new clubhouse and educational space for The First Tee of Greater Houston, HGA’s wholly-owned subsidiary.

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Timms says the inspiration for the HGA work put in by the Baltimore Municipal Golf Association in the 1980s that helped it upgrade five city-owned golf courses in Maryland. At that time, civic leaders met and decided a first-of-its-kind, private, 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation should be established to oversee the golf courses, which had previously been run by the city and parks department, at a deficit of $400,000 per year. The founding of BMGA created the opportunity to fund the restoration through private fundraising.

It’s rare for a regional golf association to take over the operations for a golf course, but using the Baltimore project as a model, the HGA has successfully turned Gus Wortham around.

“It’s essentially a non-profit model that has the benefit of lifting the burden of government, outsourcing a non-core business from the city to a non-profit that’s focused on golf,” Timms says. “It becomes an economic stimulus and a revitalization effort and maintains affordability. Because we’re operating as a non-profit, any funds we raise from the operation of the facility can be reinvested back in, so we have a sustainable business model.”

Community volunteers clean up trash dumped by city residents from the course’s ravines at Gus Wortham.

Four other city-owned courses are also part of the HGA’s master plan as it aims to continue giving back to the community. The HGA first took over F.M. Law Park, a nine-hole city-owned course, and has turned that into a success story, too, with more than 14,500 youth visits to play or practice at the facility in 2018 alone. The HGA has had more than 700 participants this year in the Like Skills Experience program, a green-grass program at the facility, which is also part of the First Tee of Greater Houston efforts.

Among the participants are Christian Cargile, who plans to play Division I women’s golf next year and volunteers at F.M. Law every Saturday to mentor and teach children’s classes, and Christian Rodriguez, who got to travel to Pebble Beach to play in the PGA Tour Champions’ Pure Insurance Championship pro-am. Their development, says Timms, speaks to the benefits the HGA has seem from its efforts.

F.M. Law is part of the Houston Golf Association’s success in revitalizing existing public golf courses.

“We also learned how supportive the industry is on projects like this,” Simms says. “Because it’s important: We have to protect municipal golf. It’s truly the grassroots core of the game.”

Following Baltimore’s lead in getting this program off the ground, it’s possible Houston becomes the model for revitalizing municipal golf in other cities around the country. If the early returns are any indicator, it very well should be.

“Municipal golf has had tough times with cities not having the resources to devote to golf courses,” Timms says. “So this is a different way of approaching saving a golf course. We need places for people who are new to the game and want to feel comfortable, but also affordable places to play that are junior-friendly and family-friendly, in some areas that need some economic stimulus.”

Gus Wortham is a welcome transformation to the East End neighborhood of Houston.