WASHINGTON, D.C. | Given the political rancor in the nation’s capital, I have assiduously avoided visiting this city, my love for its stately monuments and Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s elegant architecture notwithstanding. But recently, I heard about an initiative by an organization called the National Links Trust to secure a long-term lease with the National Park Service to restore and run a trio of municipal golf facilities, all of which are located on government land in the District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To handle the course work, leaders of the trust enlisted architects Tom Doak, Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, all of whom agreed to donate their design services. They also secured support from Mike Keiser, the developer best known for his groundbreaking Bandon Dunes resort, and induced Troon Golf to agree to manage the properties, known as Rock Creek, Langston and East Potomac. All of this, of course, hinges on the trust’s proposal being accepted.
“Our goal is to upgrade these facilities, some of which have courses that were designed by Walter Travis and William Flynn, and improve their operations while keeping the golf affordable and accessible,” says Will Smith, one of the National Links Trust principals and a D.C. resident as well as the co-founder of the Outpost Club, an invitation-only national golf society. “We think that will be good for the golf community here, especially given the rich heritage of these places and the fact that they have amassed some $30 million in deferred maintenance costs over the years. And good for the greater game of golf, too.”
I liked the sound of that and the mission to revitalize Washington municipal golf so much that I ended my boycott of the District and drove down to have a look.
Smith lives in the Northwest quadrant of the city, which is just a short drive from the Rock Creek Golf Course. The track is routed across a portion of Rock Creek Park, the largest (1,700 acres) and oldest (established in 1890) urban park in America. Flynn first laid out a nine-hole, parkland-style course on this rolling property, with President Warren Harding presiding over its opening in spring 1923. Then four years later, the architect added a second nine. Par for that 18-hole layout was 65, and it measured some 5,000 yards from the back tees.
“It’s beautiful ground for golf,” Smith says as we ride around the course in a golf cart on a crisp fall morning. “With lots of character and movement.”
Sadly, it is also in sorry shape. Only the greens are irrigated, which means the turf on the other playing areas has hardened and browned. And the back nine, which Smith calls “over-treed,” is currently closed. Even so, Rock Creek fairly bustles this Friday with golfers, each having paid $25 to play the front nine twice.
Despite the poor conditioning, it is easy to see the potential and appreciate the plan Smith and his colleagues have devised. “Gil (Hanse) and Jim (Wagner) would do the design work, and the idea is to use some of Flynn’s best features to construct a nine-hole course,” Smith explains.
“Then, we’d build a driving range and maybe a little par-3 (course) for kids. We want to make it a place for families, to play golf and also to relax at the clubhouse over food and drink before and after rounds. It is a true sanctuary, and so close to the city center.”
Next, we head to Washington’s Northeast section and the Langston Golf Course, where it costs $32 to play 18 holes on a weekend. Located on land that borders the Anacostia River, which is a tributary of the Potomac, and the National Arboretum, the facility was founded in 1939 by African-American golfers who at that time had no other place to play in D.C. due to segregation laws. Langston started with a nine-hole track that was constructed by the Park Service with assistance from a couple of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal creations, the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. And it took its name from John Mercer Langston, who was the first dean of the law school at Howard University. The course grew to a par-72, 18-holer in the mid-1950s, with three holes routed on a finger of land called Kingman Island. The layout measured a tad longer than 6,600 yards from the back markers and some 4,600 yards from the most forward tees.
“Langston has long been a hub of social activity in this area and something like a community center,” says Smith, who earned an undergraduate degree from Yale and a master’s in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia before working as a shaper with Doak and Hanse and then helping form the Outpost Club. “And people seem to come here as much to hang out as to play golf. The First Tee of Greater Washington, D.C., runs programs at Langston, and two of the city’s most historic African-American golf clubs – the Royal Golf Club (for men) and the Wake Robin Golf Club (for women) – play here as well.”
World Golf Hall of Famer Charlie Sifford also teed it at Langston in years past. Calvin Peete, Joe Louis and Ted Rhodes, too. Muhammed Ali visited once, and Bob Hope competed in a celebrity pro-am here. For seven years, Lee Elder ran the facility, and when Stephen Curry announced his sponsorship last year of the men’s and women’s golf teams at Howard University, he chose to do so at Langston.
“We haven’t figured out a designer yet,” adds Smith. “And we are not yet sure exactly how much work needs to be done. It, too, boasts a great piece of property, with gentle rolling hills and a creek that snakes through some of the grounds. … The course is overgrown in a lot of places, especially along the Anacostia. You can only imagine how good it would all look when those areas are cut back.”
Unlike the other two facilities, East Potomac boasts three courses – an 18-hole track called the Blue; a nine-hole layout with par-3s and -4s known was the Red; and a short executive course called the White. Situated in the city’s Southwest quadrant on a flat, man-made peninsula with the Potomac River on one side and the Washington Channel on the other, it affords players near constant views of the Washington Monument during a game – and of jets taking off from and landing at nearby Reagan National Airport.
Even more special is the history. According to Smith’s National Links Trust partner, Mike McCartin – who learned to play golf as a young boy at East Potomac and like Smith earned a master’s in landscape architecture at Georgia – the facility was home to the first full nine-hole course in D.C., which opened in 1920. Travis was the designer, and his inspiration for what ended up being a traditional, links-style course was the Old Course at St. Andrews. He moved significant amounts of earth (for that era) to build mounds and bunkers and also made the layout reversible, another nod to the Old Course, which for decades was played both clockwise and counterclockwise. Then, Travis added a second nine, and that became the Blue, with the Red and White coming on line later.
Travis’ course was so well-received that the USGA selected it to host the 1923 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. And it became a popular place among D.C. denizens to tee it up. But the layouts at East Potomac started to suffer neglect during World War II and were damaged by floods. Then the Blue was “modernized” in the 1950s by the father-and-son team of William and David Gordon. Locals feel that through the years it lost a lot of the look and feel Travis originally gave it, as well as the strategy and playability.
Under the National Links Trust plan, Doak will handle the renovation of the Blue, which is an inspired move given the superb reversible track called The Loop that he recently crafted at the Forest Dunes Golf Club in Northern Michigan. He also knows and appreciates Travis’ work, having served for many years as the architectural consultant at the Garden City Golf Club, which features perhaps the Old Man’s best course design. Doak’s mandate would no doubt entail restoring the character of the land on the old Blue Course, where an 18-hole round on the weekend today sets back a golfer $35, and maybe even its reversibility. Thanks to the trust, the architect will have Travis’ original plans for those 18 holes and thus will not be flying blind.
It is an exciting time for D.C. golf. And if the National Links Trust is able to prevail with its bid – a decision is expected this winter – I look forward to returning many times in years to come, no matter how bad the political climate in Washington gets.
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