“Something needs to be done – they need to make a decision one way or the other,” Ed Howerton, the Augusta Municipal Golf Course manager, said as he tried to keep ahead of the growing grass on 90 acres with his one operational mower.
“If they want to keep this, they’ve got to spend some money,” said Ira Miller, the assistant manager as he searched the 18th green for a suitable patch of grass to cut a new hole. “Otherwise they should just get rid of it.”
“If they can afford to do it now, they could have afforded it before everything got unkempt and the golfers stop coming,” said Larry Harris, who’s been playing the Patch “too long” but keeps returning anyway with his friends.
This is what life has been like at Augusta’s only municipal course as Augusta commissioners continue to wrestle for solutions to annual budget deficits that keep the facility from reaching its potential. Another alternative plan will be presented at the public services committee meeting July 8, and it just might be the trick to turn things around.
“I really think if we do what we’re talking about, we can get it up from 12- to 13,000 rounds to 25,000 rounds a year,” said Paul Simon, the former chairman of The First Tee in Augusta who wants to merge the adjacent facilities and create a cost-effective joint facility.
Simon is asking the commission to approve spending $2.25 million to renovate and remodel the municipal course, which would then be managed in partnership with The First Tee to combine resources that can offset in expenses the $200,000 the municipal facility has been losing annually in recent years.
“We can operate it less expensively than anybody else because we already have six holes next door and have to have a superintendent of the golf course,” Simon said. “We have to do things to the golf course that together we can do cheaper. Nobody else can do that because they’re not next door to them and can’t combine the operation.”
Simon’s plan, which he first presented to Commissioner Marion Williams after hearing a handful of scattered proposals at a recent meeting of the Augusta Commission, is to first renovate the depreciating 18-hole course and then manage it in conjunction with The First Tee for three years. If it starts making a profit by then, the management agreement would automatically extend for 10 years. If it doesn’t, the commission can decide whether to extend the agreement or find another solution.
“Whoever operates it, they can’t make any money on it in the condition that it’s in,” Simon said. “It’s got to be refurbished. Put in all new greens, tees and grasses and Marion Williams wants to beautify it. We would operate it for no fee until it becomes profitable and then we’d split profits with the city. Our 50 percent goes back into The First Tee.”
Simon had some preliminary sketches for the redesign drawn by Harrison Minchew Golf Course Architecture. Minchew previously worked with Arnold Palmer’s company when it redesigned Forest Hills Golf Club. His plan is to maintain the current routing of the course but to rebuild the green complexes and add new tees that both lengthen and shorten the course for players of varying skills. The current par-71 layout ranges from only 5,046 to 5,987 yards.
“The golf is too long for a lot of people and takes too much time,” said Simon, who was recently contacted by an associate of Jack Nicklaus’ design company interested in getting involved. “What I want to do with the Patch is make it family friendly. This design that Harrison did, what we’ve done is lengthen the course for golfers who can hit the ball a long way but on the other end of the scale put more tees in and reduced it several hundred yards for women and old folks like me. My feeling is we’ll get a lot more play and make the whole thing profitable, and do it at a lower fee cost.”
Currently Augusta Municipal has only one superintendent, Gene Harris, who works with no maintenance budget. Howerton and Miller both step in daily to help maintain the course. The First Tee has its own superintendent and a part-time four-man staff.
Under Simon’s plan, all costs to maintain the 24 holes would be shared between the Patch and First Tee on a 75/25 percent basis, though each clubhouse would operate exclusively.
Simon would like to close down the Patch for a period of months to do a complete overhaul and re-open “with a bang.” That part of the plan isn’t as popular with those employees and players who use the facility regularly.
“I think they should do it in phases, six holes at a time, and that way between the remaining 12 holes and the six at The First Tee there would always be 18 holes open,” Miller said.
Augusta Municipal has been serving the community since it first opened in 1929. It maintains a loyal following despite the conditions and a clubhouse that doesn’t even have a snack bar. The green fees are a welcome bargain, maxing out at $20 for non-members with an 18-hole cart. School-age kids can walk and play for just $2.50 per nine holes.
“The course has one of the best layouts in town and anybody can play it,” Miller said.
Simon brought the course superintendent from the exclusive Sage Valley to look over the Patch, and Chuck Green had praise for the sporty little course.
“You’ve got a jewel here,” Green told him. “If I could have this course for a few months I could change it. It’s a nice piece of property.”
Augusta deserves to have it properly maintained as a viable recreation option for its citizens. Simon’s plan has many merits and makes room for multiple options. A merger with The First Tee could even allow for moving the third hole at the Patch, which runs parallel to The First Tee, providing room to add more holes at The First Tee facility to expand to nine holes or even into an executive course.
And the Patch could provide incentive for the 1,000 kids who annually take part in The First Tee’s developmental program.
“Kids would stay at First Tee until they qualified to play the Patch for a discount rate,” Simon said. “Gives them something to look forward to without turning all those kids loose over there.”
Whatever the case, something desperately needs to be done to stop the ongoing frustrations and give Augustans a municipal option they deserve.
“If only they can get it out of their minds that they want to make money and see it as a quality-of-life issue,” Miller said. “A lot of people feel this is the mecca of golf with Augusta National and you’ve got a municipal course that looks like crap.”
If all goes well, perhaps the Augusta Commission can finally change that.