There are some 16,000 golf courses in the U.S. In the last decade, about 800 have closed. In 2009, about 30 million Americans played golf. In 2016, just 20 million did, a 30 percent decline in less than a decade. Americans are simply too busy to play 9 or 18 holes. And the demographics for golf and the culture surrounding the sport have fundamentally changed.
Since 2010, around 20 defunct golf courses have been transformed into public parks. According to Eric Bosman, an urban designer at Kimley-Horn and Associates, who organized a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in San Francisco, underused courses were once entirely converted into subdivisions. But now, more “communities want them to become nature parks or preserves.”
“In the 90s and 00s, there was the Tiger Woods effect. Golf became ‘every man’s sport.'” Despite Woods’ recent amazing win, that effect has dissipated. The average age of viewers of golf tournaments on TV is older than 55, and the audience is 87 percent white.
“The demographics for golf is fading away. Golf courses are no longer the place for business deals. This is because people have to practice or they will embarrass themselves” on the fairway — and not many people have time for that. For younger generations, “golf is now about social, interpersonal connections.” But they are less tied to the sport because “they didn’t grow up with it.”
So many communities suffer from a dearth of green space. The average golf course is 150 acres. Problem meets solution. And “where else are you going to find so much open space?,” Bosman rhetorically asked.
Recent projects have transformed links that either follow a traditional layout, which means they flow in a linear or L shape over 18 holes, or a modern layout, with “big rectangular blocks of land, where golfers play 9 holes up and then 9 holes back.” Whether traditional or modern, homes are often found on the edges or even middle of courses.
The 237-acre Orchard Hills Park in suburban Cleveland was transformed from a golf course into a park with a 3.6-mile walking trail and restored streams, meadows, and wetlands. “It’s picturesque and now a popular wedding destination” (see image at top).
In Belgium, Wisconsin, a 116-acre course was purchased by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and transformed into the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. Its club house became a community center. Trails through the habitat areas, which include five constructed wetland ponds, range from 0.25 miles to 1.5 miles.
The Highlands in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 121-acre course co-managed by the Land Conservancy of Western Michigan and Blandford Nature Center, offers hiking and cross-country skiing along with looped trails ranging from a half mile to 10 miles.
The focus of the rest of the panel was on the Milton Country Club in Milton, Georgia, a wealthy suburb of about 40,000 people with a strong equestrian culture. In 2017, the city purchased the bankrupt 137-acre club for $5 million, a major piece of the $25 million green space bond the city issued, which is also financing an expansive 52-mile-long trail network to connect schools and parks. Remodeling the former golf course, which will include removing golf cart trails and adding new amenities, will likely cost $17 million and take up to a decade.
Bosman and landscape architect Mack Cain at Clark Patterson Lee approached the challenge of remodeling the course by first working with community leaders to establish guiding principles: “honor the rural character, build off existing plans and studies, design safe and attractive spaces, and value all voices.”
Before hosting any public meetings, they met with the homeowners around the former course, who will now have a public park in their front yards; the equestrian community; and the green space and trails committee of the city government in order to identify primary “divergent opinions.”
Through a series of open houses and public workshops, they found the community was most concerned about increased pedestrian and vehicular traffic to the new park. Most of the residents around the course purchased their lots for the view. “Only about 35 percent of golf club homeowners typically play golf,” Bosman explained. These residents are concerned about finding the public in their yards. A draft plan calls for spending $960,000 on fences and planting walls of trees in other areas to protect privacy (and property values).
Cain said that beyond the increase in public and vehicular traffic, the community was focused on maintaining existing programs like the pool and tennis courts at the club house; celebrating and restoring nature; balancing trail, horse, and bicycle use in the new park through extra-wide paths; ensuring safety at the trail connections with roads; distributing access points and moving parking off-site; and building partnerships between the landowners and the city.
A draft master plan for the park, which was recently presented to the city council, will offer two loop trails far enough away from nearby homes, with one trail connecting to a nearby school. “People like loops — they don’t want to start and then have to go back.”
Trails will be designed for different purposes: a 2.2-mile-long trail made of porous granite will offer access for pedestrians, those in wheelchairs, and road bicyclists, while another trail for equestrians and mountain bicyclists will be made of soft, natural surfaces.
Wetlands and meadows will be restored. Cain said there will also be an environmental education component, using the landscape as a “lab for natural succession.” The tennis courts and pool are now open to all local residents, while the club house is being redeveloped as a community center and more sports amenities are added.
Jan Hancock — an expert on designing spaces for horses, and a primary author of the Federal Highway Administration-produced Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads, and Campgrounds — is also part of the planning and design team for the Milton Country Club.
She said former golf courses are an “equestrian’s dream come true,” but much work was done to make these trails friendly to horses and reduce conflicts with neighbors. Riders on horseback can look over most fences, so trails will be moved away from homes to maintain privacy. “Horses can slip and fall on paved surfaces and curbs,” so they are creating natural surface trails for them. Steep inclines will be regraded to reduce accidents.
Trails will be 8-feet-wide because that is the minimum width for two horseback riders to pass each other. Paths will curve because that gives visual cues to users. “They can see if a bike is coming up.” Bridges will have at least a 54-inch rail and be able to support over 1,000 pounds of weight.
Lastly, Hancock designed “poop zones” at the beginning of trail. “Horses mark their territory and use smell to figure out if they have come back to a spot.” Knowing this, horse parking and staging areas will be separate from where pedestrian and bicyclists enter the park.
Golf, and most analog activities, have challenges in today’s digitally distracted world. However, it’s not quite as severe as your opening paragraph suggests. The credit/housing bubble of 2005-08 paralleled Wood’s rise (which you correctly note inspired people to play). The game became monetized. Courses were built (typically around housing) and corporations like Nike got into the act. It was an un-natural bubble and the comment that there was a 30% decline is a bit cherry picked given the years chosen. The game is still recovering from that time of economic disruption. The demographic reference as to who watches is slightly off as well. Very, very few people who do have 4.5 hours to play also have another 4 hours to watch. Plenty of young people are on the courses.
As for the “bubble” courses now going belly up, parks are one option and housing another. It’s interesting that when you look at a Google satellite view of either Belgium, Wisconsin or Milton, Georgia neither looks short of green space.
Considering the recent concentration on the adverse effects of CO2 on our long term climate, seems that a good use for these defunct courses would be filling them with trees and use the sprinkler system to water and feed the new trees for the first few years. The trails could stay as they are and be used in an interpretation program extorting the benefits of tree planting to the climate.