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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gsupantherfan1
gsupantherfan1

Having played Bobby Jones many times, I must admit I am torn on this decision. It is true that the course isn’t in top condition, but you just can’t beat playing 18 holes.

Davo65
Davo65

I would normally try to defend yet another Atlanta landmark getting trashed, but this course is fraught with issues; too small, too crowded, flooding…it should be re-designed. A 9 hole would be fine there and still preserve some history of the place.

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

9 holes is a slow death by rounds. Those trying to sell this must be the streetcar forecasters. Stop trying to fake it, fix it or do something else besides golf but don’t waste money.

Will Durant
Will Durant

I personally don’t care about the number of holes or if they just make it a state park with no holes. I do not want to see a dime spent by the state on a Go Golf museum or the equivalent.

We had a friend of the family who supervised the maintenance on it when I was a kid and it appeared immaculate to me then. I still have a half-dozen Civil War Minié balls he gave me that came off the course.

George Chidi
George Chidi

First question: why the hell does the city even own a golf course? Serious question. I am comparing the value of owning a municipal golf course against the value of … oh, I don’t know how to put this delicately … not watching crack heads smoke up on Broad Street after a hard day’s panhandling up and down Peachtree Street and along Marietta near the hotels, and I’m finding the comparative value wanting. The redevelopment of Underground is more than a lucrative development deal. It has the power to fundamentally alter patterns of social dysfunction downtown. This development can’t really… Read more »

Will Durant
Will Durant

Why in the hell did the city ever take ownership of Underground? It has been nothing but a money pit, literally, since the early seventies. It had its 15 minutes of fame and then the ‘burbs started allowing liquor by the drink. After that it was nothing but a tourist trap. The swap is probably a good deal for both but I haven’t seen any numbers other than the developer kicking in a couple of million as a sweetener to the state for the parking garage. Is it a revenue producer for the state? Regardless, as I stated earlier if… Read more »

gsupantherfan1
gsupantherfan1

North Fulton is a much better course. Last time I played 18 at Bobby, it wound up taking close to 5 hours due to the slow pace of play. I do believe the city operates 4 or 5 golf courses (Bobby Jones, North Fulton, Browns Mill, and one or two more). Not sure how or if they are profitable though. North Fulton is the best imo.

Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

There is nothing requiring Atlanta to give up a golf course to acquire a downtown parking deck. You cited a few landmark properties (though I think the Constitution building long past being capable of saving), but there are ample others ripe for teardown.

DAinGA
DAinGA

These are two different issues. 1) does the sale make sense for the city and the state? It seems to be yes, it does. 2) What does the state plan to do with the property? The museum is a separate matter and shouldn’t doom the sale. There is no guarantee that the state would go through with a museum even if the sale takes place. Look at what happened with the State of GA museum that was talked up. Nothing came of it. So instead of worrying about the potiental boondoggle that MIGHT come out of state ownership, focus on… Read more »