City could exchange parkland in public-private partnership
Austin is close to becoming a professional golf destination.
A proposal to build a pro-quality golf course at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in East Austin could gain City Council approval in late October. If an agreement is reached, construction could start by 2016 on a privately funded and maintained golf course within 735 acres of city-owned parkland long earmarked for golf use.
Decker Lake Golf LLC, a private group led in part by 15-year Austin resident and retired PGA Tour golfer Joe Ogilvie, has proposed building two "world-class, environmentally sensitive golf courses." The 36-hole facility could host pro golf's most significant tournaments, Ogilvie said, including The Ryder Cup, U.S. Open or other major events.
"College sports towns tend to support other sports as long as you're bringing the best that sport has to offer," said Ogilvie, comparing Austin to another large college town—Columbus, Ohio, which has successfully hosted numerous large-scale golf tournaments. "If you get the best in the world, I think Austin will respond favorably."
If awarded the job, the development team could include longtime golf pro Ben Crenshaw, a native Austinite who, alongside famed golf course architect Bill Coore, has developed many of pro golf's newest courses.
"In my opinion, they're the best at what they do in the world," Ogilvie said. "There's no two better."
The Decker Lake Golf LLC proposal was one of two submitted and the only to gain city staff support during a formal process started last spring. Depending on the outcome of a Sept. 23 Parks and Recreation board meeting, the group's proposal could be heard Oct. 2 by City Council.
The privately designed, constructed and maintained golf course project would cost approximately $18 million to $25 million. If construction starts by 2016, Ogilvie said the project's first phase could open for public play by 2018, and the first pro tournament could take place as early as 2019.
Obstacles still to overcome
Ogilvie and Kevin Gomillion, golf division manager for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, met Sept. 10 with United States Golf Association officials to discuss ways for developing a golf-course facility compatible with Austin's ongoing drought conditions.
"This project is going to look different than other major golf courses—it will not be wall-to-wall green like Augusta National [Golf Club]," said Ogilvie, who has proposed using native grasses that can turn brown and go dormant during drought conditions.
Environmentally friendly, water-conscious designs would also help keep the project sustainable, he said.
"This will be as green as you can get a golf course—not green from a color standpoint but environmentally," Ogilvie said.
The property was first pegged for golf use in 1968. For now, a large fence and power lines run through the area, Gomillion said.
"This was always envisioned in the long-range plans, so [a proposed golf course facility] truly does sort of fit what's available in there now," Gomillion said. "It's a perfect piece of beautiful land."
But there is also a perceived decline in golf's popularity that Ogilvie admits he will have to be overcome.
"Golf is struggling, no doubt, because it's expensive to build and play, but if you build it right and you build it with sustainability in mind, we think this will work in Austin," he said. "The main thing: get the golf right."
There must also be enough space to host thousands of spectators, said Kerry Haigh, PGA of America chief championships officer. Haigh oversees golf course setup and administration at PGA of America's biggest events. There is also a growing line of courses slated to host major tournaments, he said, with the PGA Championship booked through 2020, the Ryder Cup through 2024 and the Senior PGA Championship through 2018.
"A decision wouldn't be made until the golf course and infrastructure is built," Haigh said. "We need to look and see and feel it and understand everything about it first."
Haigh admits the proposed project in Austin does benefit from potentially having Crenshaw's and Coore's names attached.
"Their record speaks for itself," Haigh said. "Ben and Bill get widely acknowledged for building some of the best new courses there are and for restoring in a very positive way some older courses."
Expanding East Austin
The proposed golf facility could also be a catalyst for new development, Ogilvie said. The U.S. Open Championships this year drew an estimated 350,000 people throughout seven days, or more spectators than during the NCAA Final Four, Ogilvie said.
"Great things can happen east—and not just two blocks away from downtown," he said.
Also, the public course must remain accessible to all, Gomillion said.
"It'd be an amenity not only for PGA golf but for other uses as well," Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell told Community Impact Newspaper in April. He met the month prior with PGA Tour officials to gauge interest in bringing a pro event to Austin.
Local greens fees and other financial discounts would be offered to Austin residents. The proposal also gives the city another potential public golf course in the midst of uncertain futures of other municipal courses.
In addition, the city has already received interest about developing a nearby hotel, Gomillion said.
"It would be interesting to see what a world-class golf facility might drive in that way," he said.