The National Park Service granted the rights to spend the next decade or so completely restoring East Potomac, Langston and Rock Creek golf courses to something called National Links Trust. Why does that matter in the least? Over the past two decades, there have been plans put forth to revive the public courses, but most envisioned making East Potomac — which sits on a sliver of land between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel, with copious views of the Washington Monument — into an expensive, high-end facility that in turn helped prop up the other two. Such plans highlight inequity, not equality.
“If you do that, you have to cater to the people who you’re charging $300 a round,” said Mike McCartin, one of the co-founders of National Links Trust, “and it just becomes a different place.”
The goal of McCartin and Will Smith, his NLT partner, is to make them very much the same places — just better.
“I think that’s great,” said Tom Doak, who will work with NLT on East Potomac. “It’s something you so rarely hear about. … A new golf course is trying to make the money they invested to build it back, which makes it hard to charge $20.”
Doak would know. You might not know the name. In the golf world, he’s royalty. His Renaissance Golf Design has built some of the sport’s most renowned courses from Florida (Streamsong Blue) to New Zealand (Cape Kidnappers), from Oregon (Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald) to Scotland (Renaissance Club) and nearly everywhere in between. He knows about building the best golf courses for people who can afford them. So does Gil Hanse, another golf architect deity who will take on the restoration of Rock Creek.
“I feel like we have the heaviest hitters that we could possibly have,” McCartin said.
These heavy hitters are donating their time. Which matters to the end goal: keeping the courses affordable and accessible to the same cohort that plays them today. Walking 18 holes at East Potomac’s Blue Course, for instance, costs $37 on the weekend and $33 during the week right now. When this is all finished, McCartin said, the greens fees won’t be markedly different other than adjustments for inflation.
“We just really appreciate and have personal experience with the golfing culture and inclusivity at each of the golf courses, and that’s our top priority,” McCartin said. “The reason we started the National Links Trust is we believe that’s the type of thing that can be preserved at the same time you build really cool golf courses.”
The golf nerd in me loves this plan. The idea of Doak getting his hands on East Potomac — where I have played more rounds than anywhere in the area — makes me salivate. Hanse’s restoration credits included U.S. Open sites such as Winged Foot, Merion and the Country Club, so the notion of him building a par-3 course and augmenting the front nine at Rock Creek is tantalizing. Throw in Beau Welling, who has worked on Tiger Woods’s TGR Design team, helping bring back Langston and creating a course that takes better advantage of its site along the Anacostia River, and the whole idea is thrilling.
“Back when these courses were built, so much of the great architecture of the time went into municipal golf courses,” Hanse said. “As a business, golf got away from that. This is such a great opportunity to restore some of what was lost, but keep it accessible, keep it for the purpose that it was built for.”
Now, place this announcement in June 2020, and it’s positioned to be exciting not only to lifelong golfers. It also could fit into how we overcome the systemic racism that is exposed now as an open, hemorrhaging wound. Golf — so white, so wealthy — for so long has fit right into the old mores from which we now must distance ourselves. Improving tired facilities without passing on the costs to the communities that currently use them — pricing them out, widening the gap rather than closing it — is essential in that rebuild.
Think about what has happened elsewhere. Around the turn of this century, San Francisco’s Harding Park — which was so dilapidated it was used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open at nearby Olympic Club — was restored at a cost of around $16 million. Later this summer, the PGA Championship is scheduled to be held there. The cost for a San Francisco resident to play Harding Park: $80. For a nonresident: $300.
Thank goodness something similar isn’t happening here. According to the National Golf Foundation, of the 24 million Americans who play on-course golf per year, between 4 million and 5 million are nonwhite. (The foundation has more specific data on race demographics that it does not share publicly.) So roughly 80 percent of golfers are white. According to Census Bureau estimates from 2019, just more than 60 percent of the nation’s 328 million people identify only as white.
That’s skewed. For golf to become something that brings people together — all kinds of people — it must change.
“We would all agree — or most of us would agree — that the face of this game has to change if it’s going to grow,” Pete Bevacqua, then the president of the PGA of America, said almost two years go. “It needs to look more like the face of America.”
The project in the District is promising in that regard. McCartin, for one, grew up here — in Arlington — and his first golfing memories are watching his dad beat balls at East Potomac’s driving range. His grad school thesis was — get this — on redesigning the old course, which hosted the U.S. Amateur Public Links championship in 1923. He worked for Doak during and after grad school. But clearly improving public golf in the nation’s capital is his passion.
“We all think really highly of him,” Doak said.
“Don’t worry about taking too much of my time,” McCartin told me. “I could talk about this forever.”
It’s a perfect marriage at a perfect time. Let’s not get carried away with any role golf may have in pulling us back together as a nation, but let’s at least celebrate the idea that the sport could be a unifier rather than a divider. The golf dork in me loves this project for the architects involved and the potential to transform the courses I play the most. The optimist in me loves it for what it reveals about a sport that understands it hasn’t been inclusive and is working on it.