How gentrification could hit DC's middle class golfers

Kelley Summers golfing the East Potomac Golf Course in Southwest D.C. He says he doesn't want the public course to become too elite.

Butch Duvall has been golfing East Potomac for decades. He learned to play at Langston, a historic mecca for African-American golfers.

It’s a fine line, the one between economic development and gentrification. A fine line and one that’s wrought with tension, even when it comes to the seemingly rarefied world of golf.

Washington, D.C. is home to three federally owned public golf courses: Langston Golf Course, East Potomac Golf Course, and Rock Creek Golf Course. They’re property of the National Park Service, but run on concessions contracts by a private company.

They’re also affordable, which is why men like Charlie Greene and John Gwinn have been coming to Langston for decades.

“I been playing here for, what, 50 or 60 years,” says Greene, one Friday morning.

Langston, with its long history of African-American golf, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The two men have a regular game here, and Gwinn has been winning lately.

“But that’s gonna change today,” Greene laughs.

The victor may change, but Greene wants everything else about this course to stay the same. Right now he can play 18 holes for 18 bucks.

Though he says he wouldn’t mind better cart paths. And maybe more sand in the sand traps. But that’s it.

“Cause if they make it Augusta,” he says, “they’re gonna price it out of my range.”

He’s talking about an idea proposed by some city councilmembers to study a redevelopment of Langston that would turn it into a PGA Championship Golf Course, with a AAA Four Diamond restaurant and adjoining wine bar. (Not to mention a nearby water park, domed stadium, multimedia soundstage, hotels, and so on.)

D.C.’s lone congresswoman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, thinks all the courses need work.

“It’s like seeing all these jewels on the ground and saying, ‘Why doesn’t someone pick ‘em up and do something with them? They’re valuable,” she says.

Her idea is to transform the East Potomac Course, with its monument views, into a world-class course, with fees to match. She’s introduced a House bill asking for a feasibility study.

“It probably could cater to the lobbyists and the other rich people who come here because the Congress is here,” she says.

They’d fly in. Lobby, lobby, lobby. And at the end of the day, they’d head out and fork out for a round of golf. Norton thinks higher fees at East Potomac could basically subsidize the other two courses, keeping them affordable for middle-class golfers. Right now, capital improvements are paid for by the contractor who runs the courses.

On the putting green at East Potomac, golfer Butch Duvall says he doesn’t think a world-class upgrade would physically work. But he definitely doesn't want to get priced out if it did. Even the new publicly accessible Jack Nicklaus course that just opened in Virginia is too rich for his blood. 

"Love Jack. Love golf," he says -- but not at $95 a round.

Right now these are all just ideas about sustainability and how to use the city’s assets. (Washington’s chief financial officer doesn’t even think the city can afford to study the councilmembers’ redevelopment proposal.)

But beyond all that, does it even make sense to build a trophy course in today’s golf economy?

Jim Koppenhaver of Pellucid Corp, which advises golf clients, says not really.

“We’ve overbuilt what we call premium, penal, and pristine courses in the country,” he says.

In other words, he says there are already too many immaculate, difficult courses that are pricey to maintain and play. Americans are playing 50 million fewer rounds of golf than they did in 2000. So Koppenhaver says supply should be built in line with what the average golfer wants: fun.

“The majority of them, they enjoy golf for the challenge of it, they enjoy it for its outdoors, they enjoy it for the social experience,” he says. “And they somehow tolerate the fact that you’re never gonna be very good at it.”

Unless you spend a lot of time on it. The question for D.C. is how much money golfers will spend along the way.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

Butch Duvall has been golfing East Potomac for decades. He learned to play at Langston, a historic mecca for African-American golfers.

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