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Golf Courses: DC's Next Big Sports Project?

For far too long, the National Park Service has managed Washington's three public golf courses with a mixture of neglect and disdain. The historic Langston course in Northeast near RFK Stadium has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that it was shut down for at least two periods that stretched on for years. And the courses in Rock Creek and East Potomac parks aren't anybody's idea of a world-class golf venues.

Now, with the District having rediscovered sports as an engine of economic development, the city and the feds are talking about a deal in which control of the three courses would shift from the Park Service, which has neither the staffing nor the interest in making the courses remotely what they ought to be, to the city government, which has dreams of sprucing up the facilities and turning them into attractions for tourists and residents that might even make the District some money.

The Park Service wouldn't mind making the poorly maintained golf courses someone else's headache. In the past couple of decades, the feds tried farming the courses out to private operators, but that hasn't made the courses much more appealing to players. Most recently, a contractor ruined the grass at the Hains Point course, mistakenly using a herbicide instead of a fertilizer to treat the turf.

Now, says D.C. council member Jack Evans, a plan is moving through Congress to hand the courses over to the District, which would in turn assign the task of fixing the courses to the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission--the city's new golden agency, having kept the baseball stadium project on time and on budget up to this point.

"Imagine a championship 18-hole golf course at Hains Point," Evans says. The plan would be to seek bids from the nation's most important golf course developers, hire a private firm to remake the courses, work out some price arrangement that protects lower-income players' access to the courses, and try to bring in higher-end players and tournaments to create tax revenues for the city.

Naturally, city officials hope to lure Tiger Woods to extend his Washington connection beyond the National tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda to perhaps attaching a Woods Learning Center to the Langston course, which has a long and fascinating history as part of a majority-black neighborhood.

A pipe dream for now, of course, but the successes of the Abe Pollin Center downtown and the Nationals ballpark in Southeast have emboldened District officials to look for other sports projects. It's hard to imagine Washington becoming a golf center of any significance, but strange things do have a way of happening in this city.

By Marc Fisher |  July 31, 2007; 9:55 AM ET
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Jack Evans has served the city well in his councilman for life position but to think that a major tournament (or even a minor) would consider any of the 3 public courses in Washington D.C. is laughable. I agree the Park Service has done it's best to preserve the worst of conditions at these courses but what would be the sense in having DC take on this headache with the pipe dream of increasing tax revenues in the future...leave it to the true course professionals and the private clubs in the Washington area to host such tournaments. Wash. D.C. can't and shouldn't compete.

Posted by: DSC in WDC | July 31, 2007 11:25 AM

While I think the idea is "neat" I believe someone really does misunderstand what it takes to create a world-class golf course for a major tournament. I can't imagine the city has the space to do it or the will to use that space for this end or the expertise to do this beyond half-assed. And I'm no golf snob, I don't play the game at all, but I stared in awe at Avenel before and know how lame, lets say, a Kenwood Country Club or Sligo Creek Golf Course or Army Navy Club golf course was in comparison. Those three courses do not cut it like Avenel. I think someone really misunderstands how golf works if they think there's political will to open a $100 per round public golf course with serious landscaping.

Posted by: DCer | July 31, 2007 11:48 AM

I play all of these courses regularly, and many other area courses. East Potomac's Blue 18-hole course has, in the last 7 years, grown in nicely and I regularly see wildlife like red fox and eagles there. I hope the private guys don't ruin that. Rock Creek is a true gem that's tarnished: a little bit of love and care, this course would be truly awesome. Langston's back 9, if shaped up, would be much better, but it's front 9 are usually well maintained. The biggest problem with the management, in addition to killing the greens (did they do that at Rock Creek too?) is not adhering to t-time policies well, sliding 4-somes out between t-times and slowing pace of play, and other poor-management debacles. I would love to see these courses, all with great potential, just maintained like a course should be. Better yet, maintain a relationship with NPS and make these environmentally-friendly, enjoyable, and well-run.

Posted by: DJ Monet | July 31, 2007 12:13 PM

Tiger (well, his rep) has publicly said that he was looking for space inside the beltway to build/redesign a golf course. I bet he would jump at the chance to redesign Langston, considering it's history. Let's just hope that DC can pull it off.

Holding a professional tournament there is another story altogether. Only 5-10 years after the redesign would you first be able to judge whether it would be a possibility.

Posted by: js | July 31, 2007 12:14 PM

Avenel! You have got to be kidding me! Anyway, I love the Red Course (Par-3) down at Haines Point but the huge flies and mosquitoes down there must be a part of the Gambino Crime Family, the place stays too wet and is prone to flood (completely), but I do like playing down there during the week and wouldn't even think of going there on Saturday or Sunday...too crowded. As for upscale and affordable, you can't have both.

Posted by: Wrap2tyt | July 31, 2007 12:36 PM

The only course with enough real estate to host a PGA Tour championship would be East Potomac, provided that you did away with the Red and White courses and completely redesigned the Blue course. However, let's be realistic: DC can't manage it's public school system, the roads are in shambles, and other public services are laughable at best. What makes you think that "home rule" will do a better job than the Parks Service? Besides, in order to do the job properly will require greens fees in the $80-100+ range...and if you're paying that much, why not venture into VA or MD instead? It's a good dream, but that's all it is, a dream.

Posted by: WildBill1 | July 31, 2007 1:34 PM

I know little about Golf, but I do know that Jack Evans must be smoking that good stuff if he thinks someone can turn Hains Point into a "championship" course for less than a fortune. Even mighty Avenel is totally shunned by the top players today. We should settle for having three well maintained public courses worthy of their history and great locations.

Posted by: hoos30 | July 31, 2007 1:42 PM

I played the Rock Creek course a few years ago, and it was the worst course I've ever played. The fairways were dirt. No grass, just dirt.

Posted by: davechen | July 31, 2007 1:44 PM

An agressive redesign of East Potomac could yield a beautiful public-access links-style course, something that this area could use. Rock Creek is in desperate need of tree removal and trimming of the canopy in order to improve playability. Langston has a wonderful history and would certainly benefit from a makeover. All of this would help make public golf in DC worth a second look from those who only play in MD or VA. A Nationwide or some other "futures" tour event could certainly be accomodated at a redesigned DC course.

Posted by: happiabbi | July 31, 2007 1:56 PM

For all its problems, Hains point provides an affordable golfing outing for a large number of players with widely varing skill levels. Keep in mind, it has 3 separate courses in a relatively small plot of land. To carve out a championship course (problematic at best) would require combining the three courses into one. Less people would be served at a higher price.

If you want a "championship" experience, go to Avenel. If a beginner wants a place to learn the game in a relatively cheap and low pressure environment, go to Hain's Point.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | July 31, 2007 2:48 PM

For all its problems, Hains point provides an affordable golfing outing for a large number of players with widely varing skill levels. Keep in mind, it has 3 separate courses in a relatively small plot of land. To carve out a championship course (problematic at best) would require combining the three courses into one. Less people would be served at a higher price.

If you want a "championship" experience, go to Avenel. If a beginner wants a place to learn the game in a relatively cheap and low pressure environment, go to Hain's Point.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | July 31, 2007 2:49 PM

I grew up playing at rock creek and sligo golf courses. I would love to see someone who cares about golf and the environment work to improve the courses and make the surrounding environment a sanctuary for plants and animals in our increasingly urbanized environment. Green space is rare and green space you can enjoy with a round of golf even rarer in the city. I built and grew in 5 new golf courses in my career as a golf course superintendent. I would love the opportunity to work withthe city to make the dc golf courses what they used to be and what they should be!

Posted by: Gregg | July 31, 2007 3:04 PM

DCU's stadium at Poplar Point was supposed to be the next big project. It is in the process of getting killed by Fenty. Killing a proven project that would bring jobs to Ward 8, while supporting golf courses in Northwest is a sure-fire way to commit political suicide with most district residents.

Posted by: DC United Fan | July 31, 2007 3:08 PM

Marc: don't you think calling the Nationals ballpark a success is somewhat premature?

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 31, 2007 3:09 PM

I think a redesign of Hains Point does not have to leave it unaffordable and unplayable for most golfers. Fees at very nice public courses in VA and MD are quite reasonable. Furthermore, clever tee placements and strategic positioning of bunkers and landing areas can make just about any course fun for both novice and advanced golfers. Oh, and most golfers in this area have little affection for, nor any opportunity to play, Avenal. It's very private, very expensive and is not a particularly remarkable layout. Maybe you mean Congressional, its prestigious neighbor and host of Tiger's AT&T National? Even more private, but a truly beautiful, challenging and historic layout.

Posted by: happiabbi | July 31, 2007 3:14 PM

I don't think that trying to make the DC courses world-class is the right goal. Why not just try to improve them so that they are affordable but well-kept public courses? The Park Service should not be managing golf courses, clearly; that should be handled by someone with the right experience. There have to be more people (including me) who live or work in DC who would use a nice executive-type course if they were assured that it would be well-run and properly maintained.

And Rock Creek needs a driving range.

Posted by: Katya2 | July 31, 2007 3:14 PM

Let's not get out of control here (PGA events, etc.) It would be nice if RC, Langston, HP merely met the OK standards of munis across the country which are perfectly nice, playable, and affordable. The conditions of all three right now are appalling and I have always wondered why. HP is packed every weekend. Where does all the money go?

Posted by: Mark | July 31, 2007 3:15 PM

I agree with WildBill1: If the libraries are any indication...

Posted by: criss | July 31, 2007 3:18 PM

DC running golf courses? Well, I suppose that it is possible. However, they will run them either like the DC public schools or like the parking enforcement. In the case of the former, players would shun the courses in favor of private courses because of the lack of working bathrooms, the lack of practice balls on the driving range, and the quicksand in the bunkers. In the case of the latter, players would routinely get fined $100 for finishing a round in less than four hours, even though slow play in front of them delayed their round and the starter's clock was running fast. Also, Marc, anyone who considers Avendale to be the standard knows nothing about serious golf. That ho-hum course killed PGA golf in the capital region until Tiger Woods brought it back to Congressional.

Posted by: Not Marc Fisher | July 31, 2007 3:56 PM

Correction to above: for not finishing a round in less than four hours. (Sorry. I was laughing so hard at the mental image of a DC-managed golf course that I had tears in my eyes.)

Posted by: Not Marc Fisher | July 31, 2007 4:02 PM

Here's an even better idea: put DC Parks & Recreation in charge of the Washington Monument. Within a few years it would be crumbling from the lack of maintenance. But you wouldn't be able to see it because of all the uncut weeds growing up around it.

Posted by: Not Marc Fisher | July 31, 2007 4:08 PM

High-end courses are only feasible (meaning self-sustaining) with high-priced club memberships or scads of adjacent, developable real estate--neither of which are in the cards here. These courses are like municipal courses everywhere. Could they be made more attractive or operated more effectively? Sure, but let's be realistic about the economics. Fisher makes the point: the "success" of the arena and ballpark is about their impact on adjacent real estate, not the facilities themselves.

Posted by: plp | July 31, 2007 4:33 PM

I grew up in DC and learned to play at RC, EP,(there was also a course at Ft. Dupont in those days)and Langston in the mid-sixties. They were all great little munis and were used by a broad cross section of citizens. They allowed a middle class black kid who lived in the heart of the city to get on a city bus, and go learn a game I've now played for about 45 years. I've had ocassion to play all three tracks recently, mostly Rock Creek with lifelong friends who have just taken up the game and the condition of these courses is a disgrace. The city can and should do much better.

They should have the attention money and expertise to return them to what they were, good muncipal golf courses. This talk about making them sites for USGA, PGA or other events is delusional and shows how little the speakers know about the game or for that matter golf tourism. Anyone who thinks Avenel belongs in the discussion as a benchmark of anything needs to stay out of the conversation, it like so many residental courses around the country isn't much more than a sort of conservation easement to protect the view of very high end houses. When USGA events come to Pinehurst No. 2 they close a course better than anything in the DC area except Congressional and the track in VA that hosts the President's Cup to set up Corporate tents and Port-a-Johns. There are more than enough mediocre courses serving up $100 plus rounds. Sadly I rather see the continued slow destruction happening now rather than the nearly certain and just as devastating type of expensive destruction Jack Evans is proposing.

Posted by: CW | July 31, 2007 4:35 PM

I'm sadly not confident that Jack really wants world class golf rather than some "public/private" partnerships for the land.

But, if we do get them, please Please PLEASE do not let DPR touch them. I'll take NPS's neglect due to lack of funding over DPR's incompetence any day.

Oh, and please, DC, don't evict the family of red foxes that live on the Hains Point course.

Posted by: Anon | July 31, 2007 4:52 PM

Cheerleader Jack Evans is so clueless he doesn't even know when he is making a fool of himself.

Haines Point is regularly UNDER WATER.

Of course, the merchandize shop could clean up selling snorkels to the visiting pros...

Posted by: gitarre | July 31, 2007 6:39 PM

While Golf is just a game, please recall the consequences when the Federal Government gave St. Elizabeth Hospital to DC.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 31, 2007 7:06 PM

A DC operated golf course. Hmmmm, I guess it could be used as a golf course during the day and at night it could be an open-air drug market, crack den, hootchie-chasing night club, and Marion Barry could be the night manager. I'm sure this golf course would be well-watered.

Posted by: Bad Idea | July 31, 2007 8:19 PM

3 cheers for CW! I agree with you 100%. I am interested, though, in the prospect of getting the Tiger Woods Foundation or one of the PGA's outreach programs involved, to see if they would subsidize some of the cost of maintaining, say, Langston or Hains Point to keep greens fees affordable, and running golf education programs for kids.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 1, 2007 9:58 AM

We have a threesome who typically play 9 holes at Rock Creek at the crack of dawn on Mondays - the greens there were killed in the same way as the ones at Haines Point. The last few weeks we have played at Jefferson in Fairfax county - they have upgraded it so much it is hard to believe is is just a public course - the greens are fantastic - it is too bad DC can't learn from Fairfax County. We love the RC setting - you get to share it with the deer in the early morning - but it is in such bad shape right now.

Posted by: Dean Kauffman | August 1, 2007 10:24 AM

Golf courses put a terrible strain on public water supplies, add innumerable tons of fertilizers and chemicals into our streams and creeks, and a bourgeois status symbol of waste and destruction. 'nough said.

Posted by: ScoutOut | August 2, 2007 4:18 PM

Golf courses put a terrible strain on public water supplies, add innumerable tons of fertilizers and chemicals into our streams and creeks, and are a bourgeois status symbol of waste and destruction. 'nough said.

Posted by: ScoutOut | August 2, 2007 4:19 PM

This idea has potential. Anybody who knows about how the National Park Service works knows that they don't allow investment in their properties. They have no business running golf courses, which require constant investment. People complain about Rock Creek's fairways, but what do you expect when the Park Service won't put in IRRIGATION? People complain about Hains Point's conditions, but what do you expect when the course is literally under water for several days per year?

The only risk here is that the core players at these courses have to find another place to play after greens fees skyrocket. That would be a real shame. Hang out on the Hains Point porch for a few hours on a weekday afternoon and you will see more kids, more women and more minorities playing golf than any other course in the country. To ruin that in favor of another over-priced daily fee course would be a crime. DC should take the courses, fix them up with reasonable investment and operate them at more-or-less the same fees that they charge today.

Posted by: Arlington | August 4, 2007 7:29 PM

I 'played' at Rock Creek yesterday for the first time in several years and was shocked by its awful condition. I've never have and never would expect anything more than 'decent' conditions at DC public courses, but this is tragic.

I agree with Katya2 and CW-- the first (and probably, only) goal for these courses should be decent, accessible, affordable golf for all residents and visitors. Environmental stewardship should also be part of the conversation, to the extent possible.

With the explosion in the popularity of golf and the Tiger Woods-inspired phenomena of minority participation, NPS and DC need to recognize the value and importance of these golf course assets and the benefits and opportunities they can provide the public.

I am hoping that efforts by the current operator to repair its recent mistakes are successful, but more generally, I am hoping that the Post continues to pay attention to this. I too am skeptical of a DC takeover, but it seems that all options should be on the table. Can anyone provide more info about the 'plan' that is moving through Congress or generally provide links to more information/discussions that are taking place on the topic of public golf in DC? I would like to know how the public has been and can continue to participate in this discussion.

Posted by: jlapan | August 20, 2007 12:11 PM

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