No lip service

No lip service

GCI's Bob Lohmann highlights two programs -- First Links and Links Across America --that are actually growing the game of golf.

August 20, 2012



For a long time, it felt to me that golf’s many governing bodies were a little too interested in offering plausible lip service to the goal of growing the game. These sentiments were good PR and they were, after all, what a governing body was supposed to say. Happily, I think we’ve all moved past that stage — to a point where people really mean what they say, and money is being put where the mouth is, so to speak.

There are still issues of practical operations and maintenance, but let me cite two examples of programs that are really working.

The First Links program is a notable collaboration of the PGA of America and the American Society of Golf Course Architects. The PGA put up $50,000 in grant money to cover the initial expenses for ASGCA members to consult with golf facilities seeking to build a learning facility for beginning or otherwise novice golfers. Great initiative, if only because it grew from meaningful collaboration between these two organizations.

First Links is designed to encourage facilities to modify an existing layout or use undeveloped areas to teach beginners or assist “lapsed” players in returning to the game. Course facilities apply for these grants and an ASGCA member is sent out to approved-applicant courses to assess the site for game-growing opportunities. One of the grant recipients, Elliot GC in Rockford, Ill., chose Lohmann Golf Designs to handle consultation to one approved course this summer.

My colleague and senior design associate Todd Quitno just got back from Rockford, where he got a lot done. He went above and beyond, actually, providing some serious, much-needed planning and design services, including a detailed costing out of eventual construction.

Yet here is where the First Links program could use some follow-up programming: It offers no financial mechanism to move a project like Elliot GC’s from planning to construction, and from the completion of construction to operations and maintenance.

That’s why I called in Leon McNair from Links Across America just about the moment Todd returned from Rockford — because Links Across America provides that mechanism, that bridge to construction and day-to-day operations that these “grow the game” facilities need.

Links Across America (LAA) is part of The Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation (WGCF), philanthropic arm of Wadsworth Golf Construction. Basically, Leon and LAA work with cities and park districts, or private entities, to identify facilities that are worth saving and/or upgrading as practice facilities and short courses aimed at developing new golfers. Leon pulls in various golf industry firms, plus grassroots organizations like the First Tee and local YMCAs, to put together plans for 1) operating these facilities under a sustainable economic model; and 2) upgrading them so they can optimally serve the young and novice golfers we’re targeting.

I say “we” because my firm, Lohmann Golf Designs, has been involved from the get-go. We designed the very first LAA project to be built, The Links Learning Center at Randall Oaks, a universally accessible short course and golf practice facility in Dundee Township, Ill. And we’re involved in others — but more on that in a moment.

Part of what makes the LAA model work is that Leon has assembled a stable of course builders, managers and architects who have agreed to provide services either gratis or at cost. Once the pro formas for upgrading and managing these properties are vetted, LAA and Wadsworth Golf Charities do their part by kicking in very generous grants to get these projects redesigned, built and operating. It takes this sort of cooperation to make it work — to enable a First Links initiative to move from good intentions to reality.

The First Tee is also a great program but, like First Links, it has fallen a bit short in providing for development funding, mostly in the long-term costs needed to sustain the maintenance and operations of its facilities year after year. But LAA can partner with First Tee projects to provide that management vision, capability and funding.

Leon and LAA believe this isn’t just about building short courses, but sustaining those courses for the long term. This requires monetary donations, of course, but it depends on the time donated by all the partners.

It’s about the pooling of resources, and I don’t think we should be intimidated by how many partnerships it takes. Elliot GC seems to be on its way to getting a great short course where kids can really learn to play and behave on a golf course. Most likely the idea would have never been acted upon without cooperation of the ASGCA and PGA, nor will it come to fruition without Links Across America and its team of design, construction and operations partners.

That’s a lot of moving parts, but most worthwhile things have at least that many.

Randall Oaks was such a success, such a fun and satisfying project to be part of, we naturally have partnered with Leon and LAA on others. We’re hopeful about a great facility planned for Peninsula State Park in Wisconsin, way up in Door County. Construction may well begin there in 2013.

LGD is part of another one in Gilroy, Calif., at Gavilan Community College, where they want to turn an old 9-hole muni into a par-3 track conducive to beginning players. We’re working with the First Tee of San Jose out there.

But the “poster child” for these projects, so far as I’m concerned, is now taking shape in Rockford, where, some 15 years ago, a well-heeled fellow built himself a pretty cool 9-hole, par-3 course. It had all the bells and whistles, serious mounding, elaborate green complexes and dramatic land that featured 70-80 feet of elevation change. The course had a reputation for being a “toughy”, but still had its share of loyal patrons and drew adequate rounds in its first decade of existence.

Eventually, though, the economic lag and decline in golf began to take its toll on the course’s profitability and the owner’s resolve. To boot, the owner had passed the operation on to his family, who lived a considerable distance away. The troubles of operating the facility from afar, along with the high costs to maintain the property, eventually moved them to shut the course down. The course lay fallow for 2 years.

Enter Links Across America, which recognized a potential win-win scenario and suggested the family donate the facility to the Rockford Park District, thus making a selfless gesture to the local community while also relieving themselves of the property’s tax burden. The Park District, while grateful for the endowment, recognized immediately that these nine holes, if revived in their current state, would still cost a fortune to maintain — and they were way too hard to fit any “grow the game” scheme.

Re-enter Links Across America, which further brought its networking capability and $150,000 to the process. As part of the LAA network, we were retained to create a scheme to revive a portion of the site. Phase I calls for reclamation of four of the nine fallow holes and building a new one, resulting in a modified 5-hole routing. We’re taking the top layer off all the greens and regrassing, installing a new irrigation system, and generally taming what were some highly flamboyant, largely unplayable greens and greenside bunkering. The new layout will be much simpler to play and maintain, and will be complemented in a future phase with the reclamation of the existing range.

The First Tee of Rockford took up residence in the old farmhouse on site — they will administer all golf programs there, while the Rockford Park District (RPD) will maintain the course. The RPD also secured a nice grant from the state of Illinois for further upgrades based on four-season program offerings (with all that elevation change, there is some stupendous sledding to be had out there).

The process in Rockford is analogous to the larger purposes of these facilities. Without these short courses, there are precious few places where kids can bridge the gap — yeah, they might have learned how to hit the ball, but what about raking bunkers, tending flags, where to stand, where to leave your bag, how to play a match? In other words, what about the overall playing experience? An understanding of this will be required of them eventually, and “playing” golf just happens to be the really fun part!

Without outfits like Links Across America, we’d have a bunch of great ideas and plans but too few working facilities.

Bob Lohmann is founder, president, and principal architect of Lohmann Golf Designs and a frequent GCI contributor. Check out his blog at