© Adobe stock

While a California legislative attempt to swing a 5 iron to the heart of accessible golf in the state may have proven a strike askew, the ideology behind the issue has yet to reach the back nine.

Introduced in early 2021 by California Assembly member Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), California Assembly Bill (AB) 672 targeted the state’s municipal golf courses as potential sites for low-income housing in high-density areas. Specifically, the bill threatened:

To remove municipal courses from the protection of the Public Park Preservation Act, the game’s public golf protector against commercial/residential development for a half-century;

Provide exemptions to the California Environmental Quality Act;

Make it easier for rezoning of public open space land with a one-size-fits-all zoning element.

Kessler

Referred to both the state assembly’s Housing and Community Development and Local Government Committees, respectively, AB 672 died before it could reach a vote in either. Though AB 672 didn’t gain much tread in the 2021 cycle, the Southern California Golf Association called AB 672: “The most damaging piece of legislation (regarding) golf to be filed in a generation.”

And said generation is far from expiration. A two-year bill, AB 672 automatically comes back alive at the onset of 2022. And with the return comes a shot anew at the lifeblood of California golf, for both players and employees of the state’s public game.

According to a 2013 report from “Golf 20/20,” the game creates more than $13 billion annually and supports nearly 130,000 jobs in California. Many golf experts believe the game’s growth amid the pandemic timeline may have only enhanced such figures.

Jensen

California, the nation’s most populous state (and owning what would be the fifth-largest economy in the world), sports the second-most golf courses in the country, behind only Florida.

As the game’s numbers pertain to accessible golf, the SCGA states that 22 percent of all California courses are municipal, though it’s estimated that 45 percent of all golf is played across those courses on a daily basis. In addition, if not moreover, about 90 percent of the state’s junior and developmental programs take place across that 22 percent.

“It’s all indicative that municipal golf has for 100 years, is today, and will continue to be to the degree to which it survives, the growth and sustainability engine of the game’s much larger ecosystem,” says Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the SCGA. “And without the feeder, at some future stage, the top disappears.”

Ferrin

The attack on municipal golf — inept though it may have been in this go-round — is, at its core, very much a battle for land.

“While this bill was an example of clumsy, legislative overreach — which is why it never even got to committee — it does get to the heart of the challenge to municipal golf,” Kessler says. “And that is its encumbrance of large tracts of land in places where there’s incredible competition for use of that land. In this case, it was housing. And the truth is that if you closed every course in the state and turned it into housing, it wouldn’t even put a dent in the problem.”

In concert with the reaction and messaging from the SCGA, AB 672 received stark opposition from the California golf community at large, ranging from the Northern California Golf Association to the NorCal and SoCal PGA sections to The First Tee chapters to Audubon International to beyond.

“Why were we in the gunsights? Why were we singled out? It doesn’t make sense,” says Jim Ferrin, past president of the California Golf Course Superintendents Association and current president of the California Golf Alliance, a non-profit that coalesces a unified voice for the industry. “When you’re trying to take something away from a local community and put it under the umbrella of the state, what was once yours is no longer under your jurisdiction. It’s under the ownership of the state to do what they want.”

According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, 480 California course employees — namely superintendents — made contact with 92 different legislators across the state in opposition to AB 672.

“We had a lot of response from our superintendent network in opposition to the bill," says Jeff Jensen, Southwest regional field representative for the GCSAA, who put out an action alert to mobilize said response. “And it wasn’t just municipal course folks, but also people from private clubs and daily fees. Everybody in the state has a big stake in this. Yeah, this was specific to municipal golf, but further down the line a lot of this comes back and it’s a cascading effect.”

Adds Kessler: “We think it received a very strong response. And there’s no substitute for people who live in a state assembly or senate district to contact their representatives and express an opinion. Golfers and the golf industry turned out on this issue.”

An Attack on the Game's Spirit

AB 672 not only posed a direct threat on golf’s key feeder system, the bill also evidenced a legislative lack of comprehension about the game’s communal, recreational and environmental benefits.

“Publicly-owned courses are crucial to the future of our game,” Jensen says. “They provide affordable golf to all levels of players, including reduced rates for seniors. And many of the municipals host junior programs and serve as feeder market for other facilities, such as resort play and also for private club golf members down the line.”

The belief system is shared across the game’s guardians.

“Muni golf, public golf, really facilitates the entrance of people into the game,” Ferrin says. “Affordable and accessible golf, it brings juniors into the game, facilitates high school golf and also college golf to a degree. Without muni golf, the game wouldn’t be available to the masses. Public golf brings a greater value to the community.”

From employment to environment, those outside the game would seemingly need an education on what a course brings to a community.

SilverRock in La Quinta is among the 184 municipal golf facilities in California.
© Guy Cipriano

“The municipal courses provide greenspace in an urban environment and are a great habitat for wildlife,” Jensen says. “The courses filter storm water for runoff, prove carbon sequestration, produce oxygen, reduce noise and also provide cooling environments for hotter areas. From a golf perspective and also a history perspective … once that greenspace disappears, it’s gone forever.”

Attacks on the game are coming by way of impressions askew.

“There needs to be a greater understanding that golf represents good stewards of the land,” Ferrin says. "We’re not polluting, we’re not overfertilizing, we’re not throwing around pesticides left and right, and we’re some of the most responsible users of water in the world. We need to better get that word out, because when that image changes then we won’t get attacked the way we are right now.”

Those employed at municipal courses across the state took note of the bill’s dangers.

“We may not have been as much under threat as muni courses in high-density areas, places where they’re really having issues with affordable housing, but we were definitely paying close attention to it, keeping our finger on the pulse,” says Josh Heptig, director of golf course operations for the County of San Luis Obispo Parks & Recreation, whose duties involve overseeing three courses. “A bill like that gets passed, and you never know exactly what the unintended consequences are going to be, or what it could open the door to and try to change a golf course into something different.”

Heptig says that messaging from this bill cycle mowed fairways for the fight ahead. “I think the various organizations did a good job trying to get in front of this, sending out notifications,” he adds. “A large group of people are now well aware, so moving forward, it might not take as much of an outreach or education effort to rile the animal as it did the first time.”

The South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course, a municipal facility in La Jolla, hosted the 2021 U.S. Open.
© guy cipriano

Back nine battle

When AB 672 or bills akin return anew, the golf industry best be prepared for a strategic fight, while also readying more curated, if not creative messaging.

“It’s not going away any time soon. Much more tailored, well-crafted assaults are going to continue to come forth,” Kessler says. “There’s an entire political ethic in the state which doesn’t believe golf is a good use of the land. Golf should not take a victory lap. It should see it as a warning shot for much more intelligent, well-honed, well-focused and well-crafted things that will come in the future based on the same thinking dealing with land use and water use.”

Avoidance of premature bows appears a uniform thinking.

“While we were happy with the response, what comes out of the AB 672 situation is that if it had garnered the right sort of political support, it had the feasibility of becoming a reality,” Ferrin adds. “(Garcia) wasn’t able to foster the support of trade unions that she was hoping to get. Had they gotten that, the bill could have passed and we wouldn’t have had the available resources to fight it.”

Most municipal facilities by state California
184Illinois
183Texas
179New York
117Florida
99Minnesota
90Ohio
89Colorado
85Michigan
74Kansas
69Source: National Golf Foundation 2021 Golf Facilities in the U.S. report

An improved message of municipal golf’s true optics may be a means of effective strategy.

“I’m very concerned about where this is going, and there’s a lot at stake in this game for us,” Jensen says. “This is a threat to our industry, and in California’s particular political climate right now, golf is often seen as rich, white and elitist by many folks. But when you go to any of the state’s municipal golf courses, you see that’s not even close to being the case. Whether it’s Rancho Park in Los Angeles, Tahquitz Creek in Palm Springs or any of the munis up in San Francisco, you see a melting pot of players. And we need to get that message out there.”

Working forward may involve looking back. Taking a page from the Home of Golf, Heptig believes that, like the Old Course at St Andrews, opening one of his courses as a community park space one Sunday a month (the Old Course is closed for golf almost every Sunday) may bring needed allies to the golf cause.

“I think that the biggest thing the golf industry as a whole needs to do is get more non-golfers involved, and how they see golf courses, how the golf message is being told to them,” says Heptig, who works as a government advocate for the GCSAA. “A lot of times, the golf message isn’t being told to non-golfers by us, but by groups that don’t necessarily support what we do or how we operate.”

Whether such messaging and outreach borrows from the past or reaches for the future, the battle is now afoot. And the public game defenders believe, candidly, if not gravely, that golf needs to be better prepared for the fight ahead.

“The golf community needs to be aware that this thinking is out there, and it’s going to pop up again in different ways moving forward,” Kessler says. “This was a shot across golf’s bow, in that golf needs to stop being complacent in assuming that the California body politic isn’t hostile to golf’s continuation, especially in the state’s big cities. And golf is not particularly well-equipped to deal with it.”

Judd Spicer is Palm Desert, California-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.