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In the early days of golf, many courses were located on common land that people used for various purposes other than golf. People grazed livestock on the links, they played different sports or simply enjoyed walking through the dunes. Many of the classic links are still located on common land where golfers and nongolfers find ways to share space and enjoy the outdoors in their own way. These golf courses are a community asset in a broader sense than what many of us are used to.
Most golf courses today are limited to golf-related activities. There are plenty of good reasons why – including concerns about safety and liability – but there are also missed opportunities to form tighter bonds between golf and communities, and to let more people enjoy the wonderful environment of a golf course. Chambers Bay, host of the 2022 U.S. Women’s Amateur (its fourth USGA championship), is a great example of a modern course that functions as a shared space – offering enjoyment and open space benefits to golfers and the community as a whole.
Chambers Bay sits within the Chambers Creek Regional Park, which had an extensive public trail system before the golf course existed. As plans to convert the former sand-and-gravel mining site into a golf course moved forward, Pierce County officials saw an opportunity to integrate a public trail into the golf course. This would connect various elements of the existing trail system and allow the public to enjoy the spectacular seaside location.
When asked whether the trail concept would work, the golf course architects at the firm of Robert Trent Jones II were all in favor.
“We had done the same thing in California for the Links at Spanish Bay,” said Bruce Charlton, president and chief design officer at RTJ II, “so we didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t do it safely and successfully at Chambers Bay.”
The architects routed the trail down from the bluffs above the course, alongside “sorting bin” relics of the old mining site, and between golf holes down to the coastline. The trail brings people past some of the most famous holes on the course and right to the edge of Puget Sound near the iconic Lone Fir behind the 15th green.
“We made sure there was plenty of space between the trail and the centerlines of the golf holes for safety,” said Charlton, “but we also created points near tees and greens where golfers and people using the trail would cross paths. We felt like having some opportunities for interaction between different users of the site was important.”
Eric Johnson, the director of agronomy at Chambers Bay, said impacts on the golf course from the trail system are minimal. “People usually stay on the trail and don’t leave garbage behind,” said Johnson. “We get some worn areas on top of the mounding near the trail from people walking up to get a better view of the course and the water, but that’s not really a big deal since it’s far from the line of play.”
“Probably the biggest thing from a maintenance perspective is being careful of people using the trail when we’re driving on it and avoiding the trail at certain times. It can be so busy that it’s almost impassable for vehicles on a nice, sunny day,” said Johnson.
Allowing a range of public uses on this county-owned golf course is something the people involved in designing and managing Chambers Bay feel strongly about. “Where golf courses can give everyone a chance to enjoy the outdoors, I think the sport of golf should embrace that,” said Charlton. “Obviously, you have to keep safety considerations in mind, but the concept of golf courses as open space that can be used for more than just golf is something we need to be incorporating further on golf facilities around the world.”
While it might be warm summer days that draw the biggest crowds to the trail at Chambers Bay, in many other places it’s winter when golf courses can open their doors to activities other than golf. At the Town and Country Club, a private golf facility in St. Paul, Minn., allowing public access to the hilly property for winter recreation has been a tradition for more than a century.
“We are the king of the hills when it comes to sledding,” said Bill Larson, Town and Country’s golf course superintendent of 33 years, “but we also groom a trail for cross-country skiing, people go snowshoeing or take their dog for a walk – in the winter we’re like a giant dog park.”
The property is closed to the public during golf season, but once winter sets in and snow begins to accumulate, the club opens some gates for public access. “We put steel fencing around the greens, certain tees and any other areas we know are at risk for damage from winter activity. We’ve also learned to only open certain gates so traffic doesn’t concentrate in sensitive areas,” said Larson. “Beyond that, we’ll cruise around on our snowmobile and talk to folks. If I see anything I don’t like, I’ll let it be known on social media or on the neighborhood message boards.”
“By and large, people are pretty good about using the course because they appreciate the winter access,” said Larson. “We even have a group of neighbors that come out and help with spring cleanup as a way of saying thanks. It’s a nice arrangement.”
Damage to the course is minimal from the winter activities and the club plans to continue the tradition so long as Larson feels comfortable with it. “For how much the community appreciates using the course in winter, it’s worth picking up some extra trash and the sticks dogs leave all over the place,” joked Larson.
It’s easy to understand why courses might want to avoid the challenges and headaches that can come with allowing activities beyond golf, but Chambers Bay and many other courses are showing that golf and other types of outdoor recreation can coexist to the benefit of everyone involved. Access to open space and outdoor recreation is more valuable than ever, especially in our growing urban and suburban communities.
When golf courses open their doors to more people, they enhance lives and elevate golf’s standing in the community. They also create opportunities to grow the game. Golf courses are wonderful places and golf can be hard to resist once you’ve seen it up close.
George Waters is a manager of education for the USGA Green Section. Email him at email@example.com.