Bobby Jones Golf Course Threatened by the Sale of Underground Atlanta

Golf. You know. That thing that old men do when they get bored after retiring. That unbelievably frustrating game where your only opponent is your own mental fragility. That sport where you can top 17 tee shots in a row, but you keep coming back because of a beautiful drive down the 18th fairway. Yeah golf.

The world’s most expensive and addicting sport is at the center of a controversial property swap between Atlanta and the state of Georgia. Desperate to complete the sale of the financially dragging Underground Atlanta to South Carolina developer WRS, Atlanta is considering a deal with Georgia where the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Buckhead and a few surrounding properties are exchanged for a state owned parking deck near Underground that WRS needs for their planned renovation of the mall. While no one seems too upset about dropping Underground, a group of golf purists are opposing a state takeover of Bobby Jones. The state is planning major changes to the course including building a Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, adding additional practice grounds for youth golf programs and Georgia State University, and, most notably, cutting the course down from 18 to 9 holes.

Bobby Jones Golf Course is a three-star public course that was inaugurated in 1933 when Atlanta converted it from an old sewer plant. It is rumored that legendary golfer and founder of the Augusta National Golf Club Bobby Jones designed the course. His original design, however, is part of the reason why the state wants change it up. 18 holes have been crammed into 128 acres even though most 18-hole courses use at least 240 acres. Conditions are also less than stellar. One reviewer implores future visitors to “enjoy sandy greens, water hazard sand traps, and mud fairways” in a round of 18 that he thought was a waste of $32.

The purists have a much fonder view of the course. Tony Smith, the president of Friends of Bobby Jones Golf Course, has fought against plans to reduce the course from 18 to 9 holes since 2015. In response to criticisms about the course’s condition, he said, “I disagree with bad condition. It’s relative. It plays 46,000 rounds of public [golf] a year, so it’s never going to be up to the standard of a private country club.” In response to another common criticism, that a 9-hole course with a driving range would be better suited for drawing younger and more diverse players, particularly women, Smith said, “We’d like to keep it this way. We think there’s a great history here. I disagree with totally redesigning and tearing up the entire course that Bobby Jones helped develop.”

Despite Smith’s reservations, Atlanta seems to be moving forward with the property transfer. The City Council’s Finance and Executive Committee voted on Wednesday to send the transfer legislation to the full City Council for a vote. They did not, however, include a do pass or do not pass recommendation. This could be in anticipation of a public meeting next Friday at the course’s clubhouse. Mayor Reed is expected to attend and hear concerns from Smith’s group and other golfers who are concerned with how the transfer might affect the historic course.

This whole episode is fairly typical of the battle between development and conservation in suburbia. Atlanta’s urban sprawl has been transforming surrounding communities for quite some time. While golf might seem to be at issue here, what is really driving the backlash is the fear that development-friendly authorities such as the state of Georgia might move in and disrupt the lifestyle of suburbanites (the irony is that residents are trying to conserve a golf course, which have devastating environmental effects on ecosystems with the chemicals and herbicides that are required for their upkeep). Residents worry that changing the golf course is just the beginning. Increased tourism will come with the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame and encourage more development and infrastructure.

Mayor Reed has listened to some of the residents’ concerns and agreed to a conservation easement, which will presumably protect the area surrounding the course from future high density development. He also guaranteed that the course will remain open to the public. We will hear more at the public meeting next Friday of what he knows about the state’s plans for the course.

My gut tells me that the purists will be unhappy with the outcome. And I feel for them. Whenever I play with my father and am ready to quit after 9 holes (even with a 10 stroke limit on each hole, my scores can get pretty outrageous), he always reminds me that golf is an 18-hole game. Playing 18 tests a golfer on the two things he needs most, patience and a short memory. Bobby Jones created these 18 unique holes in a specific way to challenge the golfer’s mind and spirit. Any alteration dilutes the purity of the course and, ultimately, the purity of the game.

But what chance does purity stand in the face of a lucrative development deal? Well whatever the chance is, it’s probably not as hopeless as my short game.



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