For decades, the nine-hole golf course, tucked away on the grounds of the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home, has been one of the District’s hidden pleasures. It offers golfers low membership fees and beautiful views of the Capitol Dome, the Washington Monument and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
But the 128-acre oasis is losing money and senior Defense Department officials are debating whether to stop funding it, according to Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman.
Now, the golf course’s 200-plus members — a mix of city residents and military veterans who live in the retirement community — are scrambling to raise funds to keep it running. At a meeting in late August, a senior official at the retirement home told golfers that if they want to salvage their tee times for the 2017 season, they need to generate $250,000 in donations by Dec. 15.
Those determined to save the tattered but historical fairways have branded themselves the Golf Course Guardians and launched a website to lure corporate sponsors and other benefactors. In interviews, they said they’d be crestfallen if they had to take their clubs elsewhere: They love the diversity of the membership and the private club’s low-key vibe, which they say can’t be found at some of Washington’s other courses.
“It’s not a snooty facility. I’m African American, and it’s extremely diverse, a place where you can forget about color,” said Ed Galiber, a psychologist who lives in Northwest Washington. “It’s a speak-easy for regular people to play golf, an affordable small-community course that’s welcoming to the immediate community surrounding it.”
The mandate to raise funds for the military has rankled many of the members, who pay $700 a year to play at the course.
“I know a lot about submarines, but I don’t know a lot about raising money,” said Ken Faller, 75, a retired master chief engineman with the Navy who served in Vietnam and has lived at the retirement home for seven years. He’s also the volunteer chairman of the golf course committee. “Why is [the Defense Department] saying they can’t pay for the golf course anymore?”
He said he suspects that the Pentagon’s ultimate goal is to turn what’s known as the Old Soldiers’ Home into a privately run retirement community. “Then they can bring in anyone to live here, not just veterans,” Faller said.
The Washington Post requested interviews with Todd A. Weiler, an assistant secretary of defense, and Tim Kangas, who oversee the two Armed Forces Retirement Homes in Washington and Gulfport, Miss., but neither agreed. It’s not clear how much the Pentagon spends to maintain the golf course or the 272-acre retirement community.
The Old Soldiers’ Home has struggled over the years to generate stable streams of revenue. Although it can serve 557 residents and boasts that it offers “premier services parallel to those offered in the private sector,” only 412 people live there — a 74 percent occupancy rate.
Last year, to shore up its finances, the home began seeking a private partner to develop up to 80 acres of its campus, transforming the swath into housing, office space, medical facilities, shops and a hotel. But the plan wouldn’t touch the property’s biggest tourist attraction: President Lincoln’s summer cottage, where the president and his wife, Mary, sought respite after their son’s death and where he drafted his famous Emancipation Proclamation.
In a statement, Pahon, the Pentagon spokesman, said the retirement home’s golf course in Washington “cannot . . . continue to function at a loss and take money from [the Defense Department]” and that without the military funds, the course will close. He said the military is asking the golf course manager at Joint Base Andrews to determine whether the course at the Old Soldiers’ Home can be operated at a zero loss or even a profit.
“Providing the best services and care to our service members and, in this case, our veterans is of utmost importance to the Defense Department,” Pahon said. “That’s why we are taking a proactive approach toward examining these issues surrounding the golf course and hoping to develop a viable, sustainable business model for the future.”
The course, built in the 1930s, has oak trees that dot the undulating fairways, which are surrounded by Petworth and Park View.
But some elements that make the golf course so attractive — the comparatively low annual fee of $700 and the lack of any need to reserve a tee time — have also sped its spiral downward. The clubhouse doesn’t offer a restaurant, showers or a pro shop to buy clubs or balls — membership-boosting amenities at many other Washington courses. Perhaps even worse, the grass isn’t cut frequently enough, so golfers can have a hard time deciphering between the fairway and rough.
Roy Wheeler, 81, said he is frustrated with the conditions.
“When I came here 12 years ago, it was the most beautiful course in the city,” he said. “They’ve just trashed it.”
There are a total of 215 military golf courses at Defense Department installations around the world, according to Pahon, the Pentagon spokesman. Two years ago, Mother Jones magazine produced an article titled “Green Zones: A Map of the U.S. Military’s Golf Courses,” which showed the locations of the Pentagon’s fairways across the world, including in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia as well as a one-hole course just below the demilitarized zone in South Korea.
But the key difference is that the Old Soldiers’ Home course is the only one relying on government money to operate. The rest subsist off their members’ dues and other income generated by the courses.
To keep their greens alive, the Golf Course Guardians have set up a YouCaring crowdfunding Web page. As of Friday, they had raised $543 of the $250,000. But the effort may prove pointless. Pahon said the Defense Department didn’t ask the golf course members to solicit the money and declined to comment on whether the $250,000 would guarantee its opening for the 2017 season.
But Faller, the golf course committee’s chairman, said it was Kangas, the Armed Forces Retirement Home’s chief operating officer, who informed him in a meeting that if members raised $250,000 by Dec. 15, the course would open for its season next year. The money would enable the course to secure a contract for a groundskeeping crew.
“Dr. Kangas and [other Armed Forces Retirement Home officials] said if we raised the money by Dec. 15 for a maintenance contract, we could keep it open,” Faller said.
At the members’ meeting in late August, a senior official at the retirement home spelled out this fundraising challenge to the course’s loyal golfers. The official also told the members that if they fall short of the $250,000 goal, the course won’t open next year. Not only that, but the donors wouldn’t get their money back. The money would instead stay with the trust fund of the Old Soldiers’ Home, benefiting its residents.
“Nobody’s happy about this,” the official told members at that meeting. “All the political influence in the world is fine, but if you’re not influencing the Department of Defense, it does us no good.”
Dominique Manchak, 33, a member in her second year, said she is optimistic that she and her fellow Golf Course Guardians can raise the $250,000 and hopes the Pentagon would use that money to keep the course open.
But how mission-critical is a golf course? She sympathizes with the Defense Department.
“It’s frustrating the Defense Department is not able to dedicate this money for our veterans and for our community,” Manchak said. “But I understand the optics that operating a golf course doesn’t look good to them when they’re trying to fight wars and protect our country.”
Bonnie Jo Mount contributed to this report.