How to Avoid Golf Courses Turning into Land Traps

Brian DolezalLand Development

I have never been a golfer — well, except for that six-week period when I took classes and determined I will never be a golfer. I know many people who rave (or vex) about the game, so I was surprised to learn the sport of Nicklaus, Woods and now Spieth is on a severe downhill slope.

6a0120a5464113970c01b7c7b00eb8970b-piAccording to the National Golf Association, golf course closings now far outpace openings, and 96 percent of the closings are public courses. Between 2006 and 2015, the game has lost approximately four million people. Last year, TaylorMade-Adidas reported a 28 percent loss in golf merchandise sales. And, the future doesn’t appear much brighter: the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports the number of people playing golf age 18 to 30 has dipped 35 percent in the past 10 years.

Why the decline? Blame it on Millennials who spend their money on hipper things, Baby Boomers who work longer or try to grow their retirement fund since the Great Recession, parents who want to entertain the entire family at places like Topgolf, or executives who can network and make deals in half the time of a round of 18.

Regardless the reasons behind golf’s great recession, the fact remains the courses themselves are often attractive pieces of land, ripe for redevelopment, especially given their hefty upkeep costs. The Urban Land Institute reports some 18-hole courses are being converted into nine-hole facilities with new community amenities taking over the other nine; some courses in winter-weather states are being repurposed into cross-country skiing tracks; and one enterprising developer is growing agricultural plants in the rough on which goats can graze.

Can we apply these same ideas to a city like Austin? In a city growing as rapidly as Austin, where density is a key component of the Imagine Austin plan and the annual budget often leaves scraps for the parks and recreation department, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about what could or should be done with our public courses:

  • What if we came to a compromise on the controversial plans at Lions Municipal, which the University of Texas landowner wants to have redeveloped, to improve nine of its holes and redevelop the rest?
  • Could we preserve Hancock Golf Course as open space for all the nearby residents, but convert the often-parched fairways into a well-designed practice golf center as well as some other public use desired by the community?
  • Imagine if we kept Riverside Golf Course as it is to maintain an 18-hole, public golf course for the city if Lions was redeveloped, or allow UT and the City to swap land to save all of the Lions course and allow UT to develop in a part of town already surrounded by high density.

I’m not advocating any of these golf courses be redeveloped with office towers, single-family homes or a basketball/concert arena (a crazy rumor swirling around Hancock). In the city’s race to catch up to rapid growth, preservation of open space is equally important.

However, just as developers across the country have to make hard decisions to shut down a beloved golf course to those who still play the game, perhaps it’s time to think about these larger land parcels with their potentially waning use and huge maintenance costs as new public assets worthy of the community’s new culture.