Last week, The Seattle Times ran an article headlined, ‘Study questions ‘best use’ of golf courses Seattle operates’. The article stems from a report that the City commissioned in 2017. The report was apparently due a year ago, but was only recently released, as reported by Erica C. Barnett at the C is for Crank.

A number of candidates immediately jumped into the fray, including former councilmember Heidi Wills on her campaign facebook page. “The City is wasting time and money studying the best use of our city’s golf courses. These green jewels are our inheritance,” she opined.
 
Merely studying what the best use of rarely used 528 acres (11%) of Seattle’s city-owned open space — amidst an open space shortage, a housing crisis, and rapidly devolving climate situation— is a waste of time and money, Wills alleges. The city’s report is mostly full of fluff, seemingly tilted to elevate the importance and forthcoming increased usage of municipal golf into the future, in order to justify the large expenditures it will require in coming years. Unsurprisingly, the data indicates the opposite.

Total rounds are in freefall. (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

Golf’s Severe Lack of Diversity

The data shows a disturbing lack of diversity, heavily tilted toward men being the dominant user — no municipal course in 2016 saw more than 17% of users were female, and half saw as little as 10%. This isn’t really surprising, golf has long had a diversity problem, as well as a troubled history of misogyny. Also worth noting, according to the report, nearly 70% of players stated they don’t actually play most of their golf in Seattle. The report doesn’t have any data on racial diversity of users, but notes that until the 1960s, minority golfers faced significant discrimination.

Yikes. (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

According to United States Golf Association, “From 1934 to 1961, the Caucasian-only clause was a part of The PGA of America’s by-laws that prevented non-whites from membership, and from competing on the PGA Tour.” In 1999, the Newstateman, in an article titled ‘No Jews on their golf courses’, wrote, “For miles along the Florida coastline, from Miami to Palm Beach, there are tangible signs of Jewish philanthropy tucked alongside clubs that still have partial or complete bans on Jewish members.” Oddly, while there is a section on history, virtually none of this is mentioned.

The youth have other interests. (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

Despite claims that high school golf teams are a top user, in 2017, only 1.3% of rounds by high school golfers were logged: 2,703 out of 206,010 rounds. In 2016, rounds played by those 18-25 years old, were less than 3% of total rounds.

Seattle’s Golf Courses are Bleeding Money and Customers

Green fees? Freefallin’. (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

All of the golf programs are bleeding money. Green fees are falling like a rock (16% in just two years). Operational costs are increasing. And there is a long laundry list of outstanding maintenance and facility upgrades that will push the golf programs millions of dollars into the red in coming years.

Colman Pool. (Credit: City of Seattle)

Utility costs will not be declining, and the report states, “SPU fees have increased an average of 6% a year since 2010.” The report doesn’t state how many CCF of potable water are used by the courses, but gives a cost of $520,000 for Interbay Golf Center. Backing out the cost from Seattle Public Utility’s rates, that looks to be about 60 million gallons of water. This is on top of the 37.5 inches of rain Seattle gets in an average year. How much water is 60 million gallons? The Colman Pool in West Seattle (pictured above) is roughly 500,000 gallons. It would be like filling it up, and emptying it out, 120 times — most of that occurring in summer and the shoulder seasons. Sixty million gallons is the United Nations-recommended amount of water for 12,500 people for an entire year. Interbay is only a nine-hole course!

Jackson Park’s massive decline. (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

In 2000, Seattle had 564,109 residents, and 280,000 rounds of golf were played on municipal courses. In 2017, the number of rounds dropped to 206,010 while population skyrocketed to 725,000. The report claims that between 2015 and 2017, there was a 16% drop in rounds played — however, this doesn’t take into consideration our population boom. When adjusting for population, golf saw a 43% decline between 2000 and 2017. That is a tremendous drop in less than a generation, and it likely isn’t going to change.

Climate Change Implications

The smog of wildfire season has put a damper on recent summers in the Pacific Northwest.

Climate change is already affecting golf in Seattle. Wildfire smoke the last two years had a significant effect on the number of rounds played. That isn’t likely to change as the region gets warmer, and trees continue to die. How many rounds do you think will be played in summer when the western slopes of the Cascades start burning? It isn’t even summer yet, and wildfires have already begun to affect air quality in the region. Then there is the heat — Seattle’s heat wave last July will also not likely be an anomaly, affecting the ability of people to play golf in the summer. Changing rain patterns that see larger and more violent downpours and flooding, will also have an effect on course conditions.

Did WSDOT estimators prepare this analysis? (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

Oddly, despite all of this data, the report optimistically predicts this will be the year things turn around for golf. And then a dramatic leap, followed by continued increases in usage. Literally nothing in the report points to this happening. Seattle has gotten wealthier, younger, denser — and golf is not thriving. This graph, by the way, is reminiscent of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) traffic projections.

Jackson Park Golf Course: poor land use all the way down. (Credit: Google Maps)

On the question of what the golf courses should become, should they change, I have mixed feelings. Unfortunately, all of our municipal golf courses will be relatively, if not directly, adjacent to future light rail stations. Jackson Park Golf Course will have two adjacent stations. Given our compounding housing and climate crises, we should be planning for something other than golf courses. We could add ecodistricts with tens of thousands of homes directly adjacent to transit, while preserving over half of this acreage as open space and parks, ones that wouldn’t require payment in order to access, or toxic chemicals and a ridiculous amount of water to maintain. As we densify, we also have an open space shortage (and massive disparity) that will only be possible to address by removing cars from public right of ways.

Interbay is the outlier here. (Credit: City of Seattle Golf Study)

That being said, three spots seem worth highlighting in this report. Interbay Golf Center is the least worst, financially. Restaurant revenue is up. Driving ranges are popular, seeing a 40% increase in revenues in just a few years. What does this mean? People want to eat and drink in parks! But it also means driving ranges are great — unlike golf courses, ranges don’t take up much space, can be urbanized, aren’t an environmental nightmare, and they’re economically accessible to a greater swath of population from beginner to expert. I didn’t learn to play golf on a course, I spent months on a driving range and pitching green. We could re-purpose the golf courses, increase the number of driving ranges, and expand access to open space for much more of the city.

Golf. Is. Dying.

CityLab reported on this very issue last year. This is not unique to Seattle, nor the US, but a global phenomenon. Much like climate change, this change is abrupt and drastic. We should be reacting to that change, not sticking our heads in the sand to preserve a floundering and inequitable status quo. Determining whether or not municipal golf courses are the ‘best use’ of public land — especially as they continue to bleed financial and water resources—is absolutely something that should be studied. It would be financially imprudent, and environmentally irresponsible, not to.

This is a cross-post from Mike Eliason’s blog on Medium.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. I would assume Premier Golf has the stats, but the study arbitrarily takes into account just four years, 2013-2017, when the courses have been in existence for 80 to 110 years. Just because there’s been a slight decrease in golf play at local courses doesn’t mean it’s dying. Probably the two biggest factors are commuting time because of traffic congestion (much of it resulting from road closures because of construction) and substandard maintenance at some courses (particularly Jefferson which needs additional screening to reopen the permanent tees on holes 11 and 12). The other issues he ignores are the public health benefits as well as the environmental benefits of golf courses. Over 200,000 people is one third of Seattle’s population. How many other activities draw that kind of use? Certainly not tennis courts or even biking. Golf courses convert carbon gases to oxygen and store carbon in grass root systems, as well as trees and plants. They have a huge positive benefit in their present locations, adjacent to I-5 and on both side of the Duwamish Valley. His argument that smoke from forest fires will decrease golf play is specious at best. Golf courses actually help decrease the public health impact of those fires. Unlike trees in national forests, the green areas in golf courses aren’t susceptible to burning. Even the water use is beneficial, since the water vapor that evaporates is recycled into rain that helps clean the air. Seattle is not lacking for water, and if it is the entire courses don’t need to be watered. Water the tees and greens, but do so for fairways and rough sparingly, if at all. As for who uses the golf courses, white males versus minorities or females, this reflects the general population makeup of Seattle and people who participate in sports. I would guess similar numbers are true of other sports, whether football, basketball, tennis, soccer, or baseball. The fact is golf is open to everyone. It doesn’t require a team, a league, or umpires. It provides health, exercise and stress release benefits, and increases quality of life. The cited article ignores all of this.

  2. Just want to point out that the single biggest factor in factor that drives the number of golf rounds people play is the weather. Nobody golfs in the rain. So the premise here that declines in 2016 & 2017 indicate falling popularity in golf is totally false, as indicated by the Seattle Times story that is linked to in this story, which states: “2017 was very poor weather year, whereas 2018 was a stellar year. In 2018, they achieved record revenues in virtually every category. Our revenue was almost $1 million better than budget, and in 2019, we are running already a half a million dollars ahead of budget revenue for 2019 (as of the end of May)”

    For anyone that remembers 2017 – that was the year Seattle set all kinds of records for the number of rainy days. So if you were to include 2018 in the graphs in this article, it would clearly refute the premise that “golf is dying”

  3. It seems we should not get rid of a park for housing. This is not the way to make the city more livebale. I do not get how somebody in good faith can claim anybody is better off taking a park and building housing. At least with golf you can pay to go there. If there is housing, nobody can go there apart from the people who live there. What’;s the endgame, A NYC style living with no park spaces? This false notion that we “need” to provide housing for people who want to live here needs to stop. There is no right to live in any particular place. There is no need to provide “affordable” housing to a select few lucky winners of a “housing lottery” (there will never be enough affordable housing and always people will be “denied housing” as the UW Prof stated it so succinctly). Affordable housing will be farther out and have longer commutes. That’s how the market works. Not clear why one need to pick one class of people and provide them with something for free that all other pay for in their housing.

    I am wondering when somebody will come and say they need to use eminent domain to get my house as I am denying housing people deserving housing and my house/lot needs to be changed into a little apartment complex. This is really the logical next step in the “denying housing” argument. All our parks, all our houses are really “denying housing” to many families.

    Lastly, 2017 was a very bad weather year. Play is up significantly in 2018 and in 2019 so far. So golf is not dying, it is simply a fucntion of weather. As all park use is, go to Magnussen Park when it is raining/cold. Guess what, it is pretty empty. Go on a warm nice day and it is full of people enjoying the ourdoors.

  4. Golf courses may not be best use of land but let’s treat them for what they are – parks and green spaces. Four of them for the city of this size is nothing. Portland or Spokane have 3 times as many.

    In spite city’s negligence and public perception, Seattle public golf courses paid for themselves over the decades and contributed revenue to the parks budget. What other part of the parks system was expected to do that?

    I agree water use and management could be better – there are ways to use recycled (brown water) or storm water like many course are doing already (see Legion Memorial remodel In Everett).

    Also, what do long removed racial golf bylaws or articles from 70 years ago have to do with managing Seattle parks? Your quotes were quite misleading. Spend one Saturday on any of these courses, in particular Interbay or Jefferson, and you will see a melting pot.

    Lastly, if we redevelop half of golf courses, like the city and some candidates are proposing, we’d loose that green space forever. That is against the law in Seattle, at least for now.

  5. Seems absurd we have 4 golf courses and not 1 mile of forested mountain biking. Even Discovery Park has a minimal amount of trails (4-6 miles) while Forest Park in Portland has 30. I think the financial component is important but then people keep making the false analogy to the fact that discovery park and other public parks don’t turn a profit either. I guess where’s the fine line between a public amenity that makes people want to move here and those that are just nice to have. Anecdotally, Seattle and the PNW is a mecca for those seeking trails and nature. Personally, Discovery Park is one of the reasons I live in this city but golf…not so much and I do like golf. Does anyone really think of Seattle as a mecca for golf? I think there’s a happy medium somewhere in this debate…turn some into parks but keep the driving ranges, etc. There’s no shortage of golf courses outside the city.

  6. It seems like you’ve picked 5 data points, 2017 is an outlier, and you are calling it a trend,

  7. Have you ever golfed at Jefferson park? Despite the historical barriers, today the golfers are largely older Black and Asian men. Most of the rich white guys play at private courses anyway, which we should definitely be taxing more.

    I’m having a hard time believing we need to pave over even half of this green space when we have nearly 100x more land zoned for only single family homes in Seattle that’s being utilized much worse. Only a few hundred people a day use the courses? Try 1 or 2 people a day using a single-family lot that could house a few dozen families if we actually built up like a real city.

  8. Can I selfishly say I would love to see one of these golf courses turned into a more native landscape park that allows mountain biking 🙂

  9. Golf needs to be encouraged more, and even subsidized to get people on the courses. It’s like giving away free ORCA cards to get people to ride the bus.

    • Agree 100%. I mean, golf used to be whites only and men only. Just like a whole lot of things.

      We need more and more amenities and opportunities for lifetime sports and one’s that get people outside in the city and accessible to a wider spectrum of families.

  10. I really like the idea of replacing golf courses with ecodistricts with significant park space. Golf is a super-wasteful and exclusionary sport (for above-stated reasons) and I don’t think full golf courses really are justified in city limits.

    However, we don’t have to go all-or-nothing: Anecdotally, the Green Lake pitch and putt course, the Interbay mini golf course, and the interbay driving range all seem to get a ton of use by a significantly more diverse crowd, and take up way less space and other resources than a 9-hole executive course, so perhaps we could appease the golfers to some extent by including one of each in the replacement developments. None of these options require owning clubs, either, so I think they tend to be more inclusive and accessible to people without cars.

    As a very occasional golfer, I can say I have more fun doing a 1-hour round of pitch and putt with beers and friends as I do during a 2-hour, 9-hole round at Interbay. If I ever get the urge to do a full round of golf, there are great municipal courses in the suburbs, where space is at less of a premium.

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