AUSTIN, TEXAS | On an early spring morning coated in pollen, 73-year old Cary Petri sits at a table in the grill room at Lions Municipal Golf Course, eating breakfast dished up by the cook working the flat top behind a counter.
Petri’s breakfast is in a paper bowl and topped by a dash of hot sauce he has poured from a plastic pitcher kept in the refrigerator for the regulars to use as they wish. The menu is listed on a sign that may predate the Kennedy administration, plastic letters pushed into a white board detailing the delicacies – hot dogs, fries, barbecue.
If the roots of golf are in Scotland, they stretch to the western edge of Austin where Lions Municipal has been a part of the Texas golf landscape since 1924. It’s where Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite played as kids. It’s the first course in the South where African-Americans were allowed to play.
Soon, Lions Municipal may be gone. The University of Texas, which owns the land on which Lions sits and leases it to the city of Austin, recently granted a one-year extension on the lease while it determines what to do with a 140-acre plot that may be converted into a mixed-use development in real-estate starved Austin.
Almost a century of golf – all the moments and memories – is in danger of being plowed under.
“This is my whole life. I’ve been out here since I was 5 years old – my brother (Randy), too,” Petri says. “My brother is 78 now and if you find somebody you think can beat him, well come on over. We’ve got a pocket full of money.”
That’s the kind of place Lions Municipal is, a public golf course where the regulars feel like they belong to something more than just 18 holes. The carts may be worn, the range needs more grass and the greens could use some TLC, but Lions has a heartbeat. It’s a place where the game isn’t just grown, it has been sustained for generations.
It’s not as if “the Muny” is struggling for players. Last year, approximately 60,000 rounds were played there. That’s close to 165 rounds a day, all played by a collection of golfers as diverse as a rainbow.
This is golf at its core. The parking lot is cluttered with pickup trucks. While Petri eats his breakfast, Dave Liebich is on the microphone in the pro shop, calling the next foursome to the first tee.
“This course has raised a lot of golfers,” Liebich says.
It costs $26 to walk 18 holes Monday through Thursday, and $40 to ride during the week. Weekend prices go up a few bucks, and juniors can play for $13.
Lions Municipal sits on the edge of a neighborhood, just three blocks from where Crenshaw grew up. He spent many of his days at Lions, where he made his first ace as a 10-year-old, then made his second two days later.
Crenshaw has taken an active role in trying to save Lions, offering to redesign it, recapturing some of the original features that have been changed through the years, should the university and the city reach an agreement to keep the course open. It’s an uphill fight, but Crenshaw and the legion of Lions supporters have passion on their side.
“It’s been a place people just revere,” Crenshaw says. “It has a lot of strong feelings to it. Really sentimental. It makes you think about different places around the country that are losing their public golf courses. You think something is being taken away from the public. Of course I’m a golfer and I’m a big proponent of knowing it’s made differences in people’s lives. It’s given people a reason to live in a lot of respects, a chance to be with your friends, to know the game. It’s hard to believe that it would be gone.”
Here is the dilemma:
“The lease has expired and with Austin exploding on the real-estate front and job markets and everything else, of course it’s valuable land,” says Scott Sayers, Crenshaw’s longtime agent and one of the leaders in the fight to save Lions Municipal. “The University of Texas (approximately 10 minutes away) says it’s worth $100 million. Is it? That’s debatable but it could well be.
“So the city of Austin has a little bond money for the purchase of the land, maybe $5-7 million and the university does need some things from the city for their new medical school, some streets straightened and some additional land. We were hoping to be able to work at least a partial trade and get a lot of credit toward a possible purchase.
“Now some of the council members are saying you may need to use that university money for affordable housing or for parks on the east side of town, not green space on the west side of town. So it’s become a bit of a turf war.”
It’s the only public course west of Interstate 35, the main thoroughfare through Austin.
“A lot of the (city) council members think it’s a white man’s country club,” Sayers says. “It’s far from it. It doesn’t look like a country club. You have the aspect that only 12 percent of the play is from the zip code that’s around the golf course. They’re coming from all over the city to play.
“There’s the importance. You pull all that out, plus the history, plus the 140 acres of green space and you’re putting in shopping centers or condos.”
Under the terms of the agreement in which the university leases the land to the city, the golf course pays approximately $500,000 annually. That’s pennies on the dollar compared to converting the course into a real estate development. But it’s not just about the money to a golf community that in 2017 voted the course onto the Texas Registry of Historic Golf Courses, a part of Texas Golf Hall of Fame.
“It’s just going to be a crying shame if something happens to it,” says 72-year old Billy Clagett. Like Crenshaw, he grew up near the course.
“It was a haven for me. When I got there, I felt safe. For the next generation, they’re not going to have a place to kind of grow up. We might have been the last generation to have that available to us.”
The Lions story can be found in the photographs and fading newspaper pages hanging on the clubhouse wall. There’s a photo of Ben Hogan clowning around on the first tee and trophy shots of tournament winners through the years.
The Firecracker Open has been played at Lions on every July 4 since 1946 and on Dec. 26 every year many of the golfers who grew up nearby gather for a reunion. There’s a photo of Crenshaw in the middle of the group at the most recent reunion.
“We have a putting contest and Ben has never won it,” Petri says.
Then there’s what happened at Lions nearly 70 years ago. One day in 1950 two African-Americans who lived in the nearby Clarksville neighborhood and caddied at Austin Country Club showed up at Lions Municipal and teed off.
Someone called the mayor and asked him what the course should do. Desegregation had not yet swept through the South yet. The mayor said: “Let them play.”
“Shortly thereafter, Joe Louis (the boxer) came over and did an exhibition and word quickly got out around the state that here’s a place African-Americans can come play golf and they came from all over the state. Then things changed and some of the barriers were rolled back,” Sayers says.
Erik Lopez, head pro and manager of Lions Municipal, learned the game there. He would pick up balls on the range so he could hit balls there.
He wants something better for Lions. The carts need new batteries and the range needs a new ball picker but those things will wait until a decision is made about the future of the course.
“We’re just putting lipstick on a pig, so to speak,” Lopez says. “This is the muny of munys. I came from a broken home. My parents divorced but I was able to use this place. I’d come out here for hours and hours and hours.
“I’ve had multiple opportunities to go to private facilities. But I’ve been with the city for 20 years now. The cool thing is you get to run the place where you grew up.”
Lopez talks about the golfers who play Lions. The state 1A high school championship is an annual event. A junior program has more than 100 participants each week. An elite golf team has been created with parents lobbying to get their kids on the roster. The concierge from the Fairmont called that morning to book times for hotel guests.
Matthew McConaughey and former Texas football coach Mack Brown have gotten lessons from Lopez at Lions. One of the Special Olympians that Lopez has worked with has won a gold medal. A war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder credits golf at Lions for saving his life. Now he coaches a high school team.
“I didn’t have a whole lot but I had golf,” Lopez says. “I could have turned to drugs or alcohol. We’re trying to build this program to bring kids from east Austin who aren’t as privileged and try to get this up and going. If you save one kid, it’s well worth it.”
Outside, a group of men and women are on the practice green where the statue of a lion has become a landmark (it honors the Lions Club that originally ran the course). They’re waiting to hear their names called on the loudspeaker, sending them to the tee.
Inside the clubhouse, Petri has finished his breakfast and is waiting on his regular group to arrive for another trip around Lions.
“Ask anyone who grew up around here and they’ll tell you they had the best childhood of anyone,” Petri says.
He knows times change. He’s seen it. He’s living it.
Some things, though, are worth saving.
Lions Municipal is one of those things.
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