Public Gems

9 muny courses that deserve a facelift

November 05, 2020
Matty G. Key Biscayne

Jensen Larson

It’s something many of us have done on our favorite public courses—theorize as an armchair architect about how we’d redesign a hole or trim a tree if given the opportunity. That’s essentially what happened for golfers who play two municipal courses that have been in the spotlight in 2020: Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston, site of this week’s Vivint Houston Open, and TPC Harding Park, which hosted the 2020 PGA Championship. A restoration in the early 2000s to TPC Harding Park helped the San Francisco municipal course secure future events, and a significant renovation was completed to Memorial Park by Tom Doak in 2019 in an effort to bring the Houston Open to this historic city course.

All of this got us to thinking—which other notable munys around the country are worthy of similar treatment? Of course, all of our munys are deserving of some TLC, but these have the potential to be truly significant efforts.

COBBS CREEK GOLF COURSE

Philadelphia

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer/David Swanson

This list must start with Cobbs Creek—which is getting the facelift it deserves—as the course closed on Oct. 31 for a two-year, $20 million renovation being overseen by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, whose main offices are just a few miles down the road. The actual creek that runs through the golf course runs down and through Merion Golf Club, whose designer, Hugh Wilson, designed the muny just a few years after Merion. The course had fallen on hard times after years of flooding and soil erosion from the creek throughout the fairways.

The project, with funds raised by a non-profit, aims to bring Cobbs Creek back to its former glory, when golfers like Charlie Sifford and Charlie Barkley were regulars.

CRANDON GOLF AT KEY BISCAYNE

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla.

Matty G. Key Biscayne

Jensen Larson

This photo and the main image show the Crandon golf course along with the city skyline.

Crandon has always been one of Florida’s most intriguing courses since it opened in the early 1970s. The dashing Robert von Hagge/Bruce Devlin design twirls through the interior jungle of Key Biscayne with holes that bend around various saltwater lagoons. But the real allure of the location has always remained hidden because, for environmental reasons, golf course views across the bay toward Coconut Grove and downtown Miami remain closed off behind shoreline trees.

Permit-wise it may never be possible to open up the vistas across the water, and there’s plenty of allure to playing inland holes that sweep and bend dangerously around water features (the par-3 third plays across an inlet). Furthermore, Miami-Dade County does have in place a master plan for the course, with the primary line-item the removal of several dozen acres of turn to be replaced by crushed-stone waste areas (saving a significant amount of water). But until changes can be made that bring the golf holes in more direct communion with the Atlantic vistas, Crandon will remain one of Florida’s big “what ifs.”

SHARP PARK

PACIFICA, Calif.

Brad Knipstein

The battling between environmentalists and the golf course’s defenders has gone on for years at this historic San Francisco seaside muny, designed by Alister MacKenzie, he of Cypress Point and Augusta National. The course’s fate had not looked good at times, but in 2017, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors certified an environmental impact report favorable to the continuing operation of the linksy, 85-year-old layout set next to the Pacific Ocean, just 10 miles from downtown. Even still, the course is in need of some capital funding, and at one point there was a call for a Tom Doak restoration, like Memorial Park just got.

Hopefully the spotlight on San Francisco public golf that came from the 2020 PGA Championship can help Sharp Park’s case.

INDIAN CANYON

Spokane, Wash.

Indian-Canyon-Golf-Course.jpg

Designed in 1930 by H. Chandler Egan, the accomplished amateur golfer who helped in the remodeling of Pebble Beach two years prior, Indian Canyon has a championship pedigree, having hosted the now defunct U.S. Amateur Public Links (1941, 1984) and Women’s Publinx (1989). The heavily tree-lined muny was built on the wall of a canyon—with a 240-foot drop, making for some dramatic views, but the course could use funds to upgrade its drainage.

WEST PALM BEACH (Fla.) GOLF COURSE

A photo taken earlier this year by our Derek Duncan showcasing the overgrown Dick Wilson layout.

Many public and municipal courses merely need some TLC to bring them back to life. West Palm Beach Golf Course is well past that point—the course closed for business several years ago and is now overgrown with palmettos and wild Bermuda grass. But the core potential of the roughly 165-acre block of pure sand near Palm Beach International Airport remains captivating.

When Dick Wilson first developed the golf here in 1947—it was among his first major post-WWII designs—it became known as one of the finest public courses in the U.S. and remained a south Florida favorite through seven decades and several alterations. The good news is that the PGA of America is exploring partnerships with various private entities to fund a revival, including a new Gil Hanse-designed course that utilizes the site’s intriguing sand formations.

RIDGEWOOD GOLF COURSE

PARMA, Ohio

Courtesy of the golf course

Not every public course has to be dazzling architecturally or reverted to some former iteration of perceived greatness. In fact, the essence of any municipal course is to simply provide an enjoyable place of recreation and community for local golfers. But golf courses are living, growing things—especially those like Ridgewood near Cleveland, nearing 100 years in age—and to ensure future use and vitality there does come a time for comprehensive rehabilitation.

While beloved by many as is, Ridgewood does have pedigree, designed by a construction specialist who built Ohio-area courses for Donald Ross. But through time it’s lost a considerable amount of charm and, more importantly, playability. Tree encroachment has dramatically narrowed the course, suffocating both turf conditions and shot options. The course would greatly benefit at a minimum from new infrastructure (drainage and irrigation) and significant tree removal to open up fairways, while an architect-guided bunker and green renovation could recapture the character of this beautiful, historic property.

PAPAGO GOLF COURSE

PHOENIX

Papago-Municipal-Golf-Course-hole-17.jpg

©AGA/Tony Roberts

In a never-ending sea of courses in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, Papago is one of the most fun. Recently, $8 million was sunk into construction, mostly to the impressive new practice facilities for the Arizona State’s golf teams after the ASU Karsten course closed.

We hope the golf course at Papago also benefits from some renewed interest, as the bones of this muny course are there, it just appears a little tired at times and could benefit from a minor investment.

SANDPIPER GOLF CLUB

SANTA BARBARA, Calif.

Courtesy of Sandpiper Golf Club

Another glorious muny setting on bluffs above the Pacific Ocean with some interesting history. Sandpiper was an old oil production site back in the 30s and 40s and was shelled by the Japanese army at the start of World War II. The site was capped and Billy Bell—who designed Torrey Pines on a similar setting—routed this course. The course has struggled with conditioning and could use a bit of a reinvigoration to match the potential of this former Golf Digest 100 Greatest Public course. Good news: Tom Doak teased on his Instagram account last week that he is working on this great site—we'll have to see what's to come!

WILLIS CASE GOLF COURSE

DENVER, Colo.

Courtesy of the golf course

Architecture-lovers will say that among City of Denver public courses, Wellshire, originally designed by Donald Ross, is most worthy of a return to glory [Note: Denver recently re-opened City Park Golf Course after a substantial remodel.] But Willis Case, built between 1929 and 1934, has more potential for truly memorable holes. The property slopes westward from the high clubhouse perch, with numerous holes offering stately panoramic views of the Front Range and Rocky Mountains. The setting and location, however, deserve more architecturally, and a number of adjustments—expanded fairways, select removal of trees and enlargement and recontouring of the small, circular greens—could make it renowned beyond the local zip codes.

Denver’s public courses consistently earn high marks for good conditioning and affordability. And unlike so many other operations across the country, Denver’s eight city courses are profitable, with the earnings reinvested in the golf. Even better reason, then, to consider how much more attractive a course like Willis Case would be with enhanced design features.