Nearly a century old, Rock Creek Golf Course is a D.C. landmark. Generations of golfers, many of them African American, learned to love the game at Rock Creek, which was designed by a famous architect and is one of three public courses in the nation’s capital.
But rounds these days are quick — the back nine holes at the 18-hole course have been closed since March. They are in such poor condition, they pose a safety hazard.
It is just the latest trouble at Rock Creek, which has struggled amid neglect and disinvestment for decades.
Like the two other public courses, Langston and East Potomac, Rock Creek Golf Course sits on federal land controlled by the National Park Service.
Golfers began to complain about conditions at Rock Creek in the 1960s, according to an inventory written by the Park Service. By the 1970s, maintenance was suspended on the back nine holes. A 1977 memo among National Capital Parks administrators called the first impression of Rock Creek one “of neglect,” with deteriorated fairways and poorly managed vegetation, according to the inventory.
Golf Course Specialists, which has operated Rock Creek under a series of contracts with the Park Service, initially restored the back nine holes after it assumed daily operations in 1982.
But neither the operator nor the Park Service has addressed the current backlog of maintenance.
The Park Service has blocked Golf Course Specialists from making capital improvements because it held short-term contracts, despite the fact that those contracts, strung together, mean the same company has been managing the course for nearly four decades.
“We didn’t allow them to do the improvements because we didn’t know how long they were going to be there,” said Chad Tinney, chief of commercial services for the Park Service’s National Capital Region.
Designed by William Flynn and opened in 1923, the course sits on about 100 acres within Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. Originally nine holes, it was expanded three years later to 18. The back nine are designed to mimic the neighboring woodlands, with narrow shots through borders of trees and steep hills. They offer dramatic vistas and challenging tees.
But conditions in that area have disintegrated so much, with broken asphalt on the cart paths, weedy fairways and bare greens, that it is unsafe for golfers, Tinney said.
And the front nine holes are in tough shape, too. Park Service spokeswoman Katie Liming said all three public courses need “significant repairs and capital improvements” throughout.
She said her agency has no estimate for what it would cost to return all three to good condition.
Don Collins, 88, a D.C. resident who has played at Rock Creek for a quarter-century, called the conditions “ridiculous.”
A lifelong golfer who lives a three-minute drive away, Collins used to play daily. While he still hits the links there a few times a week, he said, he would play more often if the back nine were open.
“It’s a damn shame,” Collins said. “Old guys like me love to have a course like this.”
The Park Service is seeking a new long-term operator for all three public courses, and part of that proposal would require the operator to address the maintenance backlog and capital needs. The agency issued a request for proposals in July and aims to award a contract by October 2020.
Far more players golf at East Potomac, compared with Langston or Rock Creek. But traffic has recently fallen at all three. The rounds of golf played at East Potomac dropped from 80,674 in 2016 to 60,001 in 2018, according to the Park Service. During the same period, rounds fell from 15,728 to 12,864 at Rock Creek and from 18,391 to 12,889 at Langston.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in the U.S. House, wants to transform East Potomac into a tournament-quality public course — with equivalent facilities and fees — and invest the profits in Rock Creek and Langston. But her idea has failed to gain traction in Congress, which would have to approve a public-private partnership.
In 2017, the Park Service entered talks with the Federal City Council, a private nonprofit business group, which wanted to revitalize the three golf courses, as well as a tennis center that abuts the East Potomac course. Those negotiations were unsuccessful.
The Park Service’s current plan to contract with a new operator is the only “viable course” for the future, Norton said.
When 27-year-old Jordan Hagans, who grew up playing at Rock Creek and the other two public courses, learned the back nine were closed, he was not surprised. Mud is an issue at all three public golf courses, he said. Sometimes at East Potomac, he said, there were holes he couldn’t hit at all because they were covered in mud.
Hagans said he likes the challenge the wooded Rock Creek course presents, despite how easy it is to lose golf balls. At least two balls lay partially hidden on the border of the rough and fairway of closed Hole 10 during one recent morning.
“I think the history’s really great. I think the guys who work there are really cool and laid-back,” said Hagans, who said his father told him the story behind the D.C. golf courses.
They were built during a “Golden Age” of golf course construction in the early 20th century, when thousands of courses were created across the country.
Initially, East Potomac and Rock Creek excluded black players. In 1920, East Potomac allowed African Americans to play only on Mondays after 4:30 p.m., according to a history compiled by the Park Service. After lobbying by black golf clubs in the city, the federal government opened Langston Golf Course in 1939 as a segregated course for African Americans.
All three courses were integrated in 1941 and are now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“Now, to see African Americans flourish in the game, you know, that’s one of the things I really admire” about the Rock Creek course, said Lester Perrin, the course’s general manager.
Perrin, 66, started at Rock Creek in 2008 as a cashier before working his way up to general manager in 2017.
Perrin has seen generations of players at the course. He built a bench in front of the clubhouse with plaques to honor those who have died, some his close friends. They loved the place as he does, he said.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Hagans stood talking with his brother near Rock Creek’s clubhouse. They just finished a round of golf. Introduced to the game by their father and uncle, the brothers rotate among the three public courses.
Rock Creek and the two other public golf courses tend to be more affordable than other public or private golf courses in the area.
Collins called Rock Creek “this wonderful little course that’s reasonable for the average middle class.” The disrepair and shutdown of half the course should never have happened, he said.
Rob Ward, 55, and Alfred Schandlbauer, 53, started golfing at Rock Creek when they were in high school, though they say they are terrible.
Both recently retired men live in Arlington, and they agreed that Rock Creek is their favorite course. East Potomac course is flat and boring, Ward said. But Rock Creek is hilly, wooded and challenging, they said.
“It’s beautiful, it’s convenient, you’re right in the middle of the city, and you have these vistas and you see deer running around,” Schandlbauer said as he prepared to tee off one recent morning.
But when asked about the closure of the back nine, Ward said, “Good grief.”
Still, the longtime golfers keep coming back.
On a recent afternoon at Rock Creek, Ward lined up his shot for the first hole, swung and watched the golf ball soar — a little too far to the left.