The renaissance of community-oriented golf in America continues apace.
In June the National Park Service, the agency that controls the three federally owned golf courses in Washington D.C. – Langston, Rock Creek and East Potomac – awarded the right to negotiate a new lease on the properties to a recently established non-profit, the National Links Trust.
The NLT’s co-founders, Will Smith and Mike McCartin, are well-known in golf architecture circles. The pair met in the Landscape Architecture graduate program at the University of Georgia, and both served as shapers for Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf in the 2000s. Though they assembled a strong team of corporate and community leaders, partnered with Troon Golf on the management side and convinced star architects Doak (East Potomac), Gil Hanse (Rock Creek) and Beau Welling (Langston) to offer their restoration services pro bono, they still believed theirs was a dark horse bid.
When the National Park Service chose their proposal, McCartin said, “We went from the ‘This is so amazing and exciting’ phase to ‘Oh man, there’s so much to do.’ We have to put our heads down and make it all happen.”
It’s worth noting Smith and McCartin are both D.C. natives with a keen understanding of how the federal courses are woven into the fabric of the community. In the past, it was common to see urban golf projects that envision rewarding investment with a major championship windfall, sometimes at the expense of the clientele the course had previously served. Even if locals get a break on green fees, McCartin pointed out, “When you’re charging visitors $300, you have to cater to the $300 golfer, and it changes the welcoming, inclusive nature of the place.”
In contrast, the NLT centers affordability and accessibility at the heart of its plans.
“We look at these courses as gateways to golf for people who have never played,” McCartin said. “You hear it so often from people who grew up in the area – East Potomac, Langston and Rock Creek are the places where they first learned to play, where they explored golf and grew a love for the game. That’s such a key component of a healthy golf ecosystem. If you take that away, there’s a loss of culture and history that’s developed around these courses, but it’s also bad for the health of golf generally, to not have places that are natural starting points.”
Smith and McCartin concede that they face a significant fundraising challenge in the years to come—the three complexes need millions of dollars of repairs to overcome years of deferred maintenance. But they are confident the NLT’s nonprofit structure will prove attractive to donors.
“We believe that the greater golf community, both in D.C. and nationwide, will support us in this mission,” Smith said. “They’ll see that restoring these places, and the programming we want to surround these places with, will have such a great benefit to the community and the game of golf.”
The First Tee is already on board, as is “Golf. My Future. My Game.,” a nonprofit working to foster greater diversity in the golf industry. There’s a strong chance an Evans Scholars-style caddie program will emerge as a source of employment for local youths. Environmental groups, such as the Anacostia Watershed Society, are also on board.
The NLT’s plans for the architectural rejuvenation of the D.C. courses are catnip for golfers. Two of the three courses have serious pedigree: Rock Creek was laid out by William Flynn of Shinnecock Hills and Cherry Hills fame, while East Potomac, a reversible Walter Travis design on an island in the Potomac River, boasts vintage aerials to fire the imagination of any design aficionado. (It’s no surprise that Doak, designer of The Loop – the lauded reversible layout at Michigan’s Forest Dunes – was drawn to this latter project.)
It’s not yet clear in what sequence the renovations/restorations will take place. McCartin and Smith suspect the most bang for the initial buck might be found at Rock Creek, which boasts a prime location yet is the worst-performing of the three facilities and where the back nine has been closed since last summer.
East Potomac, for its part, has jaw-dropping potential, but its restoration would best be handled in concert with repairs to a damaged, century-old sea wall. As an engineering and environmental-mitigation task, East Potomac is likely to dwarf its sister courses in both expense and complexity.
Langston holds plenty of promise as well, as a portion of its back-nine routing tracks out onto an island in the Anacostia River where the clearing of invasive vegetation would unlock an array of appealing vistas.
McCartin said that regardless of how the projects unfold, though, “Our goal is to provide continued access to each of the properties at all times, to the extent that we can.”
Elevating the quality of golf without a corresponding rise in green fees is a proposition any golfer can get behind. But the D.C. courses always have held significance beyond the game itself. All three are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a reflection of the crucial part they played in the battle against Jim Crow. Black golfers fought for equal access to the D.C. facilities – East Potomac began its existence as a segregated, white-only course—from the beginning.
According to the National Park Service, “African American activism on the golf course had local and national impacts,” spurring Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to desegregate the entire national park system in 1945. PGA Tour star Lee Elder – the first Black man to play in the Masters – gave lessons at Langston as a young man and managed the course for a few years in the late 1970s. The NLT and NPS share the mission of preserving and educating the next generation on the immense cultural and historical influence of these facilities.
The NLT still needs to finalize the terms of its lease with the government, but after that happens, projects could begin as early as this fall.
Shortly after Barack Obama entered office in 2009, he compared the American ship of state to an ocean liner rather than a speedboat – “It doesn’t turn around immediately.” Change may happen slowly in the nation’s capital, and it may take as much as a decade for the golf community to see the full impact of the National Links Trust’s transformation of Rock Creek, Langston and East Potomac. In this case, patience is required.