Tulsa grant puts city on par to revitalizing public golf courses

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Editorial appearing in Tulsa World, Sunday, January 23, 2022

Photo: Bare patches are seen in the grass on fairways at Tulsa’s Page Belcher Golf Course earlier this month. Stephen Pingry, Tulsa World

Ken MacLeod

The Tulsa City Council has at long last acknowledged the deteriorating conditions at municipal golf courses at Page Belcher and Mohawk Park and taken a first step toward rectifying that situation.

The council has approved $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for golf course improvement with the caveat that there is a match of those funds from the private sector, a signal that eventually the city may be open to a public-private partnership with significant oversight of the courses.

A citizen’s golf advisory committee, of which I am a member, is very confident it can generate the match. Many Tulsans have already indicated they are concerned with what has transpired at the city courses and may get involved.

The combined $2 million could make a dent in the multitude of problems that currently exist. But there’s no reason to spend it or any capital improvement funds unless all parties — City Council, Mayor’s Office, Tulsa Parks staff, Tulsa Park Board and the course operator — can agree on some fundamental changes to the business-as-usual approach that has led to the current conditions, particularly at Page Belcher.

It’s going to take everyone working together to turn this around, but it can certainly be done.

We believe the changes should include:

An initial commitment from the city to adequately fund the maintenance operations at both facilities until revenues are where they should be. This means providing sufficient water at Page Belcher and repairing the irrigation system at Mohawk Park to stop the degradation and preserve the remaining turf grass. Currently, for different reasons, neither facility is able to access the water it needs to maintain healthy turf grass. That must change, even if a subsidy is required for a time.

Both courses need to have some of their capital needs projects addressed in the next bond issue.

The greens fee structure needs to be reexamined at both facilities with any increases designated to maintenance. Page Belcher is generating far less revenue than similar 36-hole facilities in Oklahoma City on a similar number of rounds. That gap needs to be tightened.

A new set of standards must be agreed upon by the city and management team that ensure any improvements are maintained and that provide the resources for maintenance crews to work toward long-term improvement and not degradation. Simply put, decisions have been made to forego water, fertilizer and weed control over the past 15 years based on short-term subsidy avoidance but creating long-term turf damage that continues to expand. We have to turn this around.

Patrons of Page Belcher and Mohawk Park are justified in feeling left behind in a golf craze that has swept the nation, and the success of the game in Oklahoma outshines nearly every other state with this one glaring exception.

Let’s take a look around.

The PGA Championship May 19-22 at Southern Hills Country Club will bring an estimated $140 million in outside income to Tulsa, according to Ray Hoyt, president of Tulsa Regional Tourism. We’re hosting one of the most highly anticipated major championships ever right here, one that basically sold out its corporate opportunities and daily tickets except for practice rounds months ago.

Do Tulsans love and support golf? Next question.

Golf has been booming since the pandemic. The supply and demand imbalance created when 14 courses opened in Tulsa and its suburbs between 1988 and 2000 has largely balanced out with the closures of seven of those courses.

Along the U.S. 75 corridor near Page Belcher, courses that have closed include Clary Fields in Sapulpa, Cotton Creek in Glenpool, White Hawk in Bixby and Okmulgee Country Club. Page Belcher should be serving all of those golf communities.

In Oklahoma, communities near Tulsa and across the state are investing in the game. Locally we see that with renovations at Bailey Ranch in Owasso, The Canyons at Blackjack Ridge in Sand Springs and Heritage Hills in Claremore.

Kickingbird Golf Course in Edmond is closed this year for a renovation of more than $18 million including new clubhouse, range, irrigation system and more. Oklahoma City continues to upgrade both courses and clubhouses in its municipal golf system and continues a crucial supporting role by providing all five of its facilities free water.

The state of competitive and recreational play in Oklahoma has never been stronger. From juniors to the PGA Tour, the current success of Oklahoma golfers is astounding. One of the great junior programs in the nation is the First Tee of Tulsa at Mohawk Park, which under the leadership of Janice Gibson and support from Southern Hills has introduced the game to over 123,000 golfers. It needs a strong commitment at Mohawk Park to continue its wonderful mission.

Boiled down, to grow acres of turf grass, you need adequate sun, water, air flow, fertilizer and weed control. The superintendents at both facilities would love to have the resources and staff to provide superior playing conditions, but their budgets have been inadequate, to say the least.

Yet, both facilities have the potential to be generating enough revenue to provide proper maintenance and playing conditions. It’s going to take some help and a renewed commitment from the city to putting out a good product to get there.

Both complexes have tremendous layouts, and thousands of golfers remain devoted despite the conditions. I’m one of them. If you are as well, please email ken@golfoklahoma.org and let us know you’re willing to help going forward.

Ken MacLeod is the publisher of Golf Oklahoma, executive director of the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame and a member of the citizens’ advisory committee for Tulsa golf.

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