Jim Harris: Sure, Close Golf Courses, But Use Sense When Doing It


War Memorial Park Golf Course and Hindman Golf Course, both venerable Little Rock city golf courses that have seen better days and are sadly outdated in many ways by today’s game of golf itself, will be shuttered. Hindman Golf Course will close June 28 and War Memorial’s course will close after its traditional Fourth of July Classic, Little Rock’s mayor said last week.

That closing day for Hindman, if you didn’t notice, is a Friday. Little Rock’s Parks and Recreation Department, a majority of city directors, and the new mayor, who made it look like a begrudgingly accepted closure recommendation from the Parks Department even though it was his mission to do it all along, can’t even bring themselves to allow the course to stay open for one last full weekend in June. You know, Saturday and Sunday, the days that golf courses tend to do their biggest business.

I don’t disagree that these courses need to go. I hate it, but I get it. At one time, when upkeep costs for an 18-hole course wasn’t so astronomically high compared with the low greens fees required to attract public golfers, Hindman was in decent enough shape, somewhat comparable to many of the state’s country clubs (at least the ones outside Pulaski County), and its classic-style layout provided a terrific test for any golfer. It had maybe the best par-4 in the state in No. 9, which seems to play about 70-100 yards longer what the card says, especially if a golfer sprays his tee shots or doesn’t have much pop.

“If you can play well at Hindman Park, you can play anywhere,” Kenny Johnson, a Dumas lawyer and one of the best amateur golfers and guys I’ve known in my life of playing and covering the game, once said to me many years back, probably after he’d won another Pine Bluff Country Club Four-Ball with his longtime playing partner, Jimmy Clouette.

In fact, probably a few weeks after he’d said those very words, I had a day off and was back up in Little Rock to try Hindman again, walking it under a brutal, broiling afternoon sun. I was much younger, much lighter (in weight, not in my fair complexion), and yet still I about collapsed at the top of the crest behind No. 9. I went all cart on the back side. Not sure if I even broke 100 that day. Surely I didn’t break 90. But the temperature that day did – I remember it was 103 at one point.

Parks and Rec’s financial records say it only brought in $1.4 million from three city-owned golf courses and a fourth, the First Tee of Central Arkansas, that it somewhat subsidizes, though First Tee was built by Jack Stephens’ largess and has a completely different mission from War Memorial, Hindman and Rebsamen Park Golf Course. Rebsamen has the city’s best 18 public holes, in addition to a hacker’s short nine holes, and is often packed with golfers and slow in pace of play on weekends. Despite its popularity, according to Parks and Rec’s figures the other three are such a drain that the city paid out $2.6 million to fund public golf.

The city has been threatening to shutter War Memorial for several years now, and not because it wasn’t making money. Non-golfers have envied all those acres of greenspace west of War Memorial Stadium for parkland that they say would better serve its citizens – bike trails (apparently because the many miles of riverfront bike trails aren’t enough), soccer fields (because Murray Park’s space and available land out west, plus the private soccer enclave of Greg Hatcher and who knows what else, isn’t enough), and ball fields (don’t get me started about how the city has pretty much crapped on Little Rock’s major youth baseball complex, Junior Deputy, over the years, yet has been willing to fork over several thousands of dollars to individuals who bring in national youth basketball tournaments and other events while spinning numbers of their “economic impact.”)

Finally, Little Rock elected a mayor who could do for these non-golfers what they’ve always wanted: turn War Memorial Golf Course into a mini New York Central Park. My guess, having not spoken with the man, is that Mayor Frank Scott Jr. doesn’t play much golf or like golf, nor does he possess a clue about War Memorial’s value to citizens, many who look like him, and many others who fall well below him in annual income. One statement floating around among the mayor’s backers of his plan early in this fight to keep or close War Memorial was that golf was expensive and more of a “country club” game.

My gosh, that’s why Hindman, Rebsamen and War Memorial (and let’s not forget ol’ Rock Creek, much of which is where First Tee now sits) were provided to the tax-paying citizens of Little Rock: You know, the ones who don’t make enough to afford the five-figure joining fees and the $600 a month dues required of “country club” golf.

Like most city services, I don’t believe it was ever envisioned that public golf would be a moneymaker. If it were, then Scott, his Parks and Rec staff, the city board and the rest of the bunch who have pulled this off would have or should have privatized the operations of the money-losing courses. Give a golf company the incentive to make more than the reported $1.4 million the clubs supposedly brought in in 2018 and see if you don’t get improved numbers. It’s also fair to say, though, that any private bidder who took one look at how the city has let War and Hindman fall off lately might have passed on the opportunity anyway.

What I’ve seen for the past few years in Little Rock golf is, with the exception of Rebsamen, little investment in the other two major courses. (Again, not slighting or discounting First Tee here, but I question how it’s even in the discussion considering its chief focus is youth golf, lots of teaching and classes, and providing for scores of underserved youth a free avenue into the game It has just nine actual full-size golf holes, with nine other pitch-and-putt holes for its Par-3 course and a spacious driving range. War Memorial has no driving range and Hindman, well, for gosh sakes it does have a hard hill and some 1980-era beaten-up balatas to hit into a ravine).  

War Memorial’s course last year was all but unplayable nearly right up to its 86th annual Fourth of July tournament, ostensibly because (we were told) inclement weather delayed much course prep and grass growth. Its greens, converted in recent years from common Bermuda to the fancy Champion Bermuda that provides a great, fast putting surface it’s plush, requires a lot of heat and sun to come into annual fruition. From July on until it gets cold again, though, it’s a great surface.

Hindman has all but become the proverbial goat ranch, although that might be unfair to goats, who would have to look long and hard for something to eat. Canada geese seem the happiest occupants of Hindman these days. I enjoyed late last summer being part of the course’s weekly two-man scramble event on Thursday evenings; I wonder where all those guys (white, black, Hispanic, some of means and a little golf talent and others just having a good time) will go now for their fun game.

I said before, I’m OK in the grand scheme that something has to go from expensive city-provided services. Famed columnist and my occasional Twitter rival, John Brummett, put is as perfectly as anyone could when he tweeted last week that “subsidizing golf is not appropriate for a broke city.”

However, a few things stink worse than a stagnate Fourche Creek just off Hindman’s fifth fairway hole and No. 6 tee box. The city cited Hindman’s frequently flooding as part of the reason it was time to close. But then, in the very same breath, the city notes it had some parkland plan drawn up that doesn’t seem to even factor in this same land being “frequently flooding.” Apparently it only will flood for golfers. Disc golfers will be welcome.

Speaking of floods, Rebsamen Park was unplayable for a few weeks when the Arkansas River rose to new heights recently. To get Rebsamen back to playing shape will likely cost another chunk of that Parks and Rec money, and in the meantime they’re sure to lose some green fees because of the flood problems and ground saturation. Next year, will our city officials be noting that Rebsamen “lost money in 2019” when we know the reason was Mother Nature and the followup maintenance required? Will the city just say, “to heck with any money for improving Rebsamen” in the future as it takes this whack at golf?

I also noted that the mayor, his lackeys, the directors who think this is a good idea (hooray for B.J. Wyrick and Ken Richardson, who were against it), and Parks and Rec didn’t even have the foresight to maybe enhance these empty coffers by allowing the courses to remain open during their most profitable time of the year. With Rebsamen mushy and down, those courses would have even more play for the foreseeable few weeks.

Why, in fact, do you shut any golf course down just as its busiest time of the year has arrived: two more months of summer, with much less rain than we’ve seen, and “golf weather” going through October. What’s the rush? You’re not plowing War Memorial over starting July 8, are you? I fully understand your cuts here are really to the greenskeepers, mowers, pro shop workers and other staff needed, but you’re sacrificing the bulk of the money these courses bring in each year, during these summer months.

Why close two courses when, by closing just one, you’d be sending more golfers from the closed course to the other? Do you expect Rebsamen to absorb all the golfers? Do you expect First Tee to surrender much of the time it devotes weekdays and Saturdays to teaching youths and make it available to this overflow?

Close these courses. Fine. Most of us who love golf may not be able to afford CCLR, Pleasant Valley or Chenal, and God knows we’re not getting invited to Alotian anytime soon. There are affordable “lesser” private clubs like Eagle Hill Golf and Country Club (plus the nice deal you get with all the other Lindsey-owned courses if you join) and semiprivate Country Club of Arkansas in Maumelle (which also has a nice reciprocal deal with other courses around the state). For more affordable country club golf, there is Maumelle CC. Then there is Sherwood’s public Greens at North Hills and North Little Rock’s 36 holes of public golf at Burns Park. There’s Rebsamen when it dries out, and I’m wont to disclose again (though I’ve tried for years) that First Tee has been the biggest secret in Little Rock public golf as far as quality layout and fun, if you’re good with nine championship-length holes instead of 18 (frankly, as much time as 18 holes require now, I am good with it).

But, please, tell me there was actually some business thought put into this, and somebody really believed it made sense to close the courses just as they’re approaching their prime earning season, that somebody actually thought it made sense to close Hindman Park on a FRIDAY, before a sure-to-be-busy weekend.

Yes, tell me that was all in the thought process. I don’t believe it. What I believe is, this is a willy-nilly move by people who focused only on some nebulous “reimagining” of life in Little Rock while showing no common sense, yet are entrusted with running our broke city and managing our tax dollars. Sadly for Little Rock, I don’t think this is the last poorly-thought-out plan we’re going to see from this group.

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