An upscale future pondered for D.C.’s proletarian public golf courses


Golfers enjoy pleasant weather while playing the greens at East Potomac Park Golf Course on Monday May 19, 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

For more than 60 years, Conrad Deskins has patronized the East Potomac Park Golf Course, the 36-hole complex on Hains Point, just a few blocks from downtown Washington.

On a warm Tuesday afternoon, he follows up a chip-and-putt session with a sandwich outside the course’s modest clubhouse. On many days like this, Deskins joins a regular group for a low-stakes afternoon skins game — even though, he says, at 82 his swing is starting to fade.

“That won’t stop my enthusiasm,” he said. “Eleanor might. But that won’t.”

That’s a nod to House Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who last month renewed a bid to transform one of the city’s three federally owned golf courses — most likely East Potomac, she says — into a “world-class, tournament-quality public course, with playing fees commensurate with such courses.”

East Potomac, along with Langston Golf Course on Benning Road NE and the Rock Creek course off 16th Street NW, for decades have been havens of proletarian golf, affordable and accessible to those without the means or will to pay country-club dues or near-triple-digit greens fees.

But some District politicians see other possibilities. Norton’s bid to study such an upgrade, with profits from the operation used to support improvements to the other two courses, is one of two proposals now being floated to upgrade the city’s public links.

Another plan, introduced to the D.C. Council by member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), would transform Langston into a “PGA Championship course” complete with museum, wine bar and a “Four-Diamond AAA rated restaurant.”

The golfers who use the courses recognize the need for modernizing, particularly at Langston and Rock Creek. But they are almost universally wary of any plan that would turn their beloved courses into more expensive, more exclusive places.

“We’ve got plenty of upscale in Washington as it is,” said Joe Metzler, a 66-year-old Alexandria retiree who visits East Potomac at least once a week. “Most people who play here know the course isn’t going to be fancy. It’s just a lot of fun. . . . This is our country club.”

While the politicians float ambitious redevelopment schemes, the National Park Service is beginning to contemplate improvements to the courses. Starting in 2016, all three are expected to be managed under a single contract for the first time — one that could include many of the upgrades that courses’ patrons have long pined for.

The courses have been operated under contract since the early 1980s by Golf Course Specialists Inc., during which time significant improvements have been made — including a new all-weather driving range at East Potomac and reopening the back nine at Langston after decades of neglect.

Paul Killebrew, a company vice president, said the firm is committed to a philosophy of providing accessible, low-cost golf in the city and expects to work with the Park Service to make significant upgrades should it win the new contract.

“We view East Potomac as the model of what a municipal golf course should be,” Killebrew said. That course is the most played and most profitable of the three, he said, and can help subsidize upgrades at the others.

Making nice still affordable

Rock Creek, with the least traffic of the three, is perhaps most in need of help. The narrow, tightly wooded holes on the back nine offer dramatic vistas and challenging tee shots but suffer from a lack of sunlight, leading to weedy greens and bare fairways. On the more wide-open front nine, a lack of fairway irrigation typically leaves the grass sunburned by midsummer.

Langston is perhaps the most gracious of the three courses — mostly open but with challenging water features and elevation changes. But the fairway turf is in spotty condition, with the seeming constant fertilization by goose excrement. To reach the signature third hole, golfers last month had to cross a jury-rigged plywood plank before teeing off on the long par 5, toward the famous Joe Louis Tree.

Orange’s proposal is part of a grand scheme to redevelop the area around RFK Stadium, including a new football stadium, an indoor water park, a movie soundstage and a new hotel district. He said that Langston’s longtime patrons would be welcome under any redevelopment scenario, perhaps through “discounts and incentives” for city residents or senior citizens.

“I have a record of being very inclusive,” Orange said.

At Langston, a designated historic landmark renowned as a mecca for African American golfers, a hardy group of regulars agitates for basic upgrades but also jawbones about the rising prices at the clubhouse restaurant. Many of those patrons — some of whom have been gathering at the course on a near-daily basis for decades — see the drive toward a more elite facility as inevitable, part of a wave of gentrification that has swept eastward across the city.

In the early 1960s, some of the longest-standing patrons recall, greens fees for an 18-hole round were $1.25, and a hedge stretching along Benning Road separated the course from traffic.

These days, an 18-hole round costs $31 on the weekend — lower than many comparable suburban public courses — and the hedge is gone, offering a clear view from the clubhouse of the seemingly never-ending streetcar construction.

The clubhouse is renowned for its hearty breakfasts and lively conversation, but the concrete-block structure is showing its age. Ike Brown, 73, looks out from the patio toward the streetcar tracks and says it’s only a matter of time before the course is turned into a more elite, less egalitarian facility. “You can’t stop it,” he said.

Like many of the regulars, Brown sees the need for upgrades — a new clubhouse, paved cart paths, new sand in the bunkers, better-tended turf. But he doesn’t like the idea of a championship-level, country-club-like facility, with rates to match.

“They need to make it accessible to people who can afford it,” he said. “Everything is so inflated now,” including, he notes, the $2 fountain drinks inside the clubhouse.

Visions of a mini-Augusta National

Norton said in an interview she believes an intervention more dramatic than a new contract is necessary. She says the courses are “wasted assets” and the time has come to transform them — at least one of them, anyway — into a miniature Augusta National, the famous Georgia course that plays host to the annual Masters tournament.

Legislation she introduced last month calls for the Interior Department to study the feasibility of entering into a public-private partnership to establish a championship-level course. The fees generated could allow the other two courses to reverse their deterioration while keeping greens fees low, she has suggested.

“They are worth a great deal,” she said. “And the Congress, from the moment they were built, did not treat them the way they must be treated.”

In Norton’s mind, a mini-Augusta National would make the most sense on Hains Point — blessed with views of the Washington Monument and downtown landmarks. “You’ve got a bloc of lobbyists and other rich corporate types who come from across the country to this city every year,” she said. “I think we would build a golf course and a clubhouse fit for those people used to world-class golf courses. I think it would pay for the others.”

The legislation, she said, is unlikely to proceed as a stand-alone bill. But she said she is looking for another bill to which to attach it — such as budget legislation expected to move through Congress this summer.

The Park Service is agnostic on Norton’s legislation, spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles said, and its own plans for the courses are largely up in the air, although officials have promised that upgrades are in the works.

GCSI’s current contracts — one for East Potomac, one for Langston and Rock Creek — expire at the end of 2015, and the Park Service expects to start the process of awarding a single new contract sometime next year, Anzelmo-Sarles said.

“Substantial and significant capital improvements are going to be a big part of this next contract,” she said.

The weekday patrons of East Potomac — retirees, college students, office workers stealing a midday break — universally said they would appreciate facilities upgrades but not upgraded costs.

“Every time they want to upgrade something, they want to put a price on it,” Deskins says, picking at his french fries. “When is enough money enough?”

Jenya Scott, a 40-year-old fitness instructor, chats nearby with Sherwood Lewis, 54, a course employee who worked his way from a part-time job clearing trash to a job as a staff professional.

Lewis talks about the time he gave pointers to Joe Biden, who has been known to stop by the driving range from time to time. “A great gentleman,” he said of the vice president, with “a pretty good swing.”

At least twice a week, Scott rides her mountain bike, clubs and all, from her home in Logan Circle down to Hains Point.

“You can’t take this away,” she said. “If I don’t have East Potomac, I’m not playing golf.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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