Municipal Golf Course Management

I’m on Twitter a fair amount, and the majority of people that I follow, and who follow me, play golf at a public golf course.  The great majority of people I’ve played golf with the past several years play on public courses.  Much of the Twitter discussion, in some form or fashion, seems to center on wanting to play, wishing to play, or getting to play some of the iconic courses that populate any “Top 100” list.

It’s a Different Animal

I’m like anyone else, you included, most likely.  I want to play Augusta National, and Pine Valley, and Cypress Point.  From time-to-time, I get the opportunity to play an iconic course such as The Ocean Course at Kiawah, or Kingsbarns in Scotland.  Sometime’s it’s easy to forget that those courses, or The Old Course, or Pebble Beach, are actually public courses.  If you have the cash, you can play.

But a public course is not a municipal course.

Municipal Golf Course Management

Municipal golf courses are those owned and managed, or at least contracted out for management, by a city or county government.  State park golf courses could arguably fall under this heading as well.

Municipally owned courses are fundamentally different from public courses.

I speak from experience in this area.  As a former Parks and Recreation Director in various cities and counties around the country, I had the opportunity, on two occasions, to have golf courses under my management authority.  These were courses that the city/county owned.  Currently, I am a consultant and work with city and county governments.  I’m working in concert with a large urban design firm now in a city north of Charlotte, responsible for the operational component:  administration, maintenance, cost recovery and fees/charges recommendations, recreation and special event program recommendations and how they should align with changing demographics, etc.

Why are municipal courses, which are open for public play, different from public courses, which are privately owned but open for public play?  One word…

Politics

Because municipal golf courses are under the ultimate supervision of the elected leaders in a jurisdiction, they are subject to the political whims of those who happen to be in power.

As I said, I was Director in two different departments that had municipal golf operations.  I’m not going to name names, because that’s that the point of this.  Rather, I want to point out the right way to manage a municipal golf operation, and the wrong way.

The Wrong Way

First of all, the type of government plays a large part in the management of any department.  In a city management style of government, the City Council hires a (hopefully) professional city manager, and that person runs the day-to-day operations of government.  There is a separation, mandated by the city charter, that prohibits the mayor and council members from inserting decision-making (read:  political-based decisions) into any department.

On the other hand, a strong mayor form of government is the most inefficient form.  The mayor, upon election, can and often does clean house of the leadership within the city.  The result is, on a four-or eight-year basis, all director levels and above, typically, can be replaced.  The police chief, fire chief, city engineer, anyone, in fact, can be gone regardless of experience or years in service, because a new mayor is elected.  The mayor’s direct reports can be, and often are, those who donated the most money.  Their experience in any particular area of management may have little-to-no bearing on the job they hold.

But even more inefficient is the fact that facilities, and people, can and are used as tools in a political environment.  And that is what happened in one of instances where I was a Director.

I worked for a Commissioner who made it clear he did not like golf.  He didn’t appreciate the golf courses, and one of the first things he said to me when I started was that “there are too many (city-owned) golf courses and we can sell one or two to developers and generate a lot of income for the city.”  He wanted to carve out a large part of the parking lot that supported one of the golf course operations(as well as an adjacent pool) and sell it to private businesses nearby.

But most of all, he would not, and did not, support funding requests for capital expenses to keep the courses in good shape.  Money to repair clubhouses, or take care of failing infrastructure.  He played tennis, and was a major supporter of the tennis complex and tennis courts, but not golf.  At the same time, he would not allow an increase in green fees or memberships, which were artificially low, because doing so might cost he and his mayor a few votes, even though this money would have helped go to repair those capital expenses.

The courses were a pawn and were subject to being shuffled based on the political winds.  But because in a strong mayor form of government employees are also pawns, any disagreement was seen as insubordination.  The Director of Golf was forced out.  I am no longer there, mostly because I had no real decision-making authority.  And the political game with golf is still played, with the result being the courses, and the people who play them, pay the political price.  But most of all the employees in that division, who love the game and work at their job because they love their job–not the political environment it happens to fall under– suffer most of all.

The Right Way

The other Department where I was Director had (still has to my knowledge) three golf courses:  a championship course, a nine-hole course, and a First Tee/practice facility that was transitioned from a par-3 course when I was Director.

Because this was a council-manager form of government, the operation of the department, and the golf courses within it, had a separation from politically-based decision-making.

The critical piece in place was a golf committee that was made up of educated and experienced citizens who wanted what was best for the golf operation.  We listened to what they recommended.  That committee had a track record of success, and when they spoke, I listened, and the city manager listened.  When they did the background work and recommended changing the par-3 course to a First Tee facility, the city agreed.

The golf courses there were subject to criticism from time-to-time, as all municipal park facilities are, but when the committee and the Director of Golf had a recommendation, it was seriously considered and usually accepted.  Contrast this with the Director of Golf in the first example, who was forced out partly due to his resistance to decisions based on politics, not what was best for the courses and the people who used them.

Why Does It Matter?

Most people just play golf at their course.  They don’t know, or care, the type of course it is.  Of course, you will know you belong to a private club if you belong to a private club.

But if you play at a public course, take an extra minute the next time you visit.  Ask the pro, or director of golf, what kind of public course it is.  Who owns it?  Who manages it?  What kind of professional (or otherwise) management and support does it get?  Even more fundamental, what type of government is your city or county?  During this political environment, I can’t think of a better time to know the answer to that most basic question.

If you love golf, and you love your course, do a little homework.  Ask how you can help.  Volunteering during a junior golf clinic is great.  Lending advice and expertise to help the course itself become better managed, and less politically influenced, would be even more valuable.

Because there is one thing I can guarantee:  Once that golf course becomes a housing development, it’s not coming back.

Thanks for reading and enjoy Shooting Your Age!

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