The municipal course has been managed by Golf Detroit since late March.
Article by Laura Herberg, Community ReporterWDTE.org(September 4, 2018)
In the 1990s, golfers could choose from six municipal golf courses in Detroit: Belle Isle, Chandler Park, Palmer Park, Rackham, Rogell and Rouge Park.
Today, four are operating. The three run by the city are: Rouge Park Golf Course, Chandler Park, and Rackham Golf Course.
The city floated the idea of selling Rackham under the Kilpatrick Administration and under Mayor Mike Duggan’s leadership as recently as this past March but has run into difficulty because the deed requires it to remain a public course. The Belle Isle Golf Course falls under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as part of its lease of the island park.
As for the other two, Rogell was sold in 2007, closed in 2013, and the city now plans to buy it back and turn it into a park. Palmer Park Golf Course is currently closed, and an advisory council has been created to determine the future of the course, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Earlier this year, despite questions being raised about whether city administrators followed proper protocols for granting contracts, Detroit City Council awarded Signet Golf Associates II a two-year contract to manage the three open courses. The company also operates the Belle Isle Golf Course and driving range for the Michigan DNR. Signet is operating all of these courses under a new brand it developed called “Golf Detroit.”
Karen Peek, director of operations for Golf Detroit, previously worked for American Golf, which managed Chandler Park, Palmer Park, Rackham and Rouge Park for Detroit from 1991-2010. She spoke with WDET Reporter Laura Herberg at the Rouge Park Golf Course in mid-July for a CuriosiD story looking into the question of who designed the course.
They had a bigger conversation about the course’s history and future.
CLICK HERE for an edited transcript of their conversation.
WDET listener, Jeff Currier, is a 32-year-old golf enthusiast from Ferndale.
He asked CuriosiD: “Who Designed the Rouge Park Golf Course?”
Article by Laura Herberg, Community ReporterWDTE.org(September 4, 2018)
THE SHORT ANSWER With the help of Andrea Gallucci, an archivist at the City of Detroit, WDET found a map of the Rouge Park Golf Course from 1928. But, unfortunately, it did not indicate who designed the Rouge Park Golf Course.
It’s not unheard of for a golf course’s designer to be unknown. Of 84 courses known to have been built in Michigan between 1921-1930, the designers of 37 appear to be unidentified, according to a list on Michigan Golfer. This could be because records were destroyed, a designer backed out, or the course might have been designed by a city employee.
But WDET is not giving up the search! A document indicating the designer of the Rouge Park Golf Course may be out there. Read through the steps we took in trying to answer this question, and then let us know if you have any theories or leads by commenting on this post or leaving a voicemail at (248) 660-9338.
THE COURSE In 1923, the city of Detroit acquired land for what was — and still is — the largest park in the city: Rouge Park. Plans for the development of the natural area included amenities like swimming pools, walking trails, and 18 holes of golf.
A May 15, 1927 story published in the Detroit Free Press provided this description: “An 18-hole golf course, to be the finest public links in the city, is now under construction and will be open to the public within a year or so. This new golf course, being built over the rolling terrain of the park, with many sporty holes across water, up hill and down dale, is expected to relieve the congestion on the other municipal courses besides being one of the finest courses, public or private in the district.”
The first nine holes of the course were completed in 1928, the next in 1929. Today, the par 72 course is one of three city-owned courses currently in operation, along with Rackham and Chandler Park.
The Rouge course is known for being affordable, approachable for beginners, yet still interesting for experienced golfers. The Rouge River and wooded areas not only create obstacles for golfers but a haven for wildlife. On a tour of the course, WDET spotted a bunny and what appeared to be a groundhog.
WAS IT DONALD ROSS? The most popular theory about the course’s architect is that it was a famous, Scottish-born golf architect named Donald Ross.
A course review posted on the website GolfBlogger on July 11, 2011 proclaimed, “I ventured into Detroit to the Rouge Park Golf Course on the promise of a Donald Ross course.” Adding later in the review that “the greens all are stereotypically Ross. They’re small, round, and crowned.”
A reviewer on TripAdvisor called the Rouge Park Golf Course a “Nice Old Donald Ross Course.”
When WDET spoke to Detroit Historian Ken Coleman, he says he thought Ross designed it because the golf architect was active in the area around the time the Rouge was built.
Ross, as a designer, was prolific. He is credited with designing more than 400 golf courses nationwide, primarily from early 1900 through the 1930s. In a map created by WDET of golf courses built in Southeast Michigan between 1921-1930 (based on information from Michigan Golfer), the Rouge Park Golf Course is surrounded by courses known to be designed by Ross.
Golf architect Raymond Hearn is familiar with the Rouge Park Golf Course because his company recently sent the city of Detroit a proposal to redesign it.
Of the course, Hearn says, “It is classic in the sense that its lay-of-the land design. Whoever designed it used the land pretty well.”
Hearn admits this is a Ross trait, but he also says it was typical of many other designers active during Ross’s time. Overall Hearn says the Rouge Park course is nice but, “It’s not this classical gem that has never been discovered yet by someone that’s the Rembrandt or the Picasso sitting in the corner of the attic with dust on it.”
Bradley Klein, the architecture editor for Golf Channel and author of Discovering Donald Ross: The Architect and his Golf Courses says, “In many cases you don’t know you’re on a Ross course because it’s become overgrown with trees or the greens have gotten rounded off, or the bunkers have lost their shape. Even his best-designed courses have evolved dramatically [since they were first built].”
GIVE ME PROOF “The best way to know you’re on a Donald Ross course,” says Klein, “is there’s evidence.” In other words, you know who the designer is when it’s documented in course plans, meeting minutes, newspapers or letters.
Karen Peek, director of operations at Golf Detroit, the company contracted by the city since March to run the Rouge Park Golf Course says the question of who designed it is one that’s been asked over and over again.
“I don’t have a definitive answer for you,” Peek says. “It’s unfortunate that no one documented who it was.”
Peek previously worked for American Golf, a national company that managed the Rouge and other Detroit-owned courses for about 20 years. Back in the early 1990s, she says, American Golf tried to figure out who had designed the Rouge Park course.
“There was a significant amount of research that went on during that time to identify some of the selling points, anything of notoriety about these golf courses.” But, she says, the research did not turn up the Rouge course’s designer.
Additionally, the course is not on the official list of Ross-designed courses maintained by the Donald Ross Society. Nor is there any record of it in the Donald Ross collection in the Tufts Archives in North Carolina.
A search in newspaper archives from the 1920s turned up several references to the park and the course, yet none mentioned a course designer, Ross or otherwise.
A new two-year operating contract approved by City Council last month may have staved off the closure of Detroit’s golf courses, but one lingering question remains: Is there a long-term future for golf in the city?
All four courses are in need of significant repairs — with estimates of between $5.9 million and $8.6 million for basic repairs at just Chandler Park, Rackham and Rouge Park. The fourth course, Palmer Park, is in much steeper decline and could be turned into a driving range.
On the high end, up to $18 million is needed to do comprehensive upgrades, according to a 152-page report completed late last year for the city by the National Golf Foundation. The suggested upgrades included a complete renovation of Rackham’s clubhouse, demolishing Rouge’s existing clubhouse to build a new one overlooking the river, a basic fix-up at Chandler and building a new golf learning support building at Palmer Park. The city for now is focused on only bringing the courses up to industry standards with basic repairs.
A chief concern also is whether the city might sell some of the courses, specifically Rackham, which is located in Huntington Woods and is one of the most popular courses in metro Detroit. The lingering concern stems from a previous attempt by the city to sell the course in 2006 to a private developer.
The city says it remains committed.
“Does golf have a future past this contract? I would say yes,” said Brad Dick, Detroit’s General Services Department director. “The future is good. People are there and want to play.”
Huntington Woods officials told the Free Press they have expressed interest before about purchasing Rackham from the city but this time they’d have to look hard because of the deteriorated condition of the course, which needs up to $4.3 million in repairs.
“We want it to remain a golf course,” said Huntington Woods City Manager Amy Sullivan. “We want it to be as prestigious as it originally was when it was deeded to the City of Detroit by the Rackham family. If Detroit is interested in selling it, we would certainly take a look at that opportunity but given the condition of the golf course right now, it’s something we would have to take a good, hard look at.”
The declining revenues and deteriorated conditions at the city’s courses have also raised concerns among avid golfers and experts who say they’re hidden Detroit jewels that deserve significant reinvestment.
Detroit officials say there’s no deal on the table right now to sell any of the courses and the city will seek a long-term contract with a vendor within the next year and a half. The Detroit City Council approved a $180,000 management contract in late March for Signet Golf Associates II, a North Carolina-based company, to operate and maintain the three operating courses.
The ideal long-term contract could be anywhere between 10 to 15 years, officials said.
But challenges remain.
The golf foundation report revealed that the four courses generated just more than $2 million in gross revenue in 2016, down 22% from $2.6 million in 2015, placing the courses at an operating loss.
According to the report, Detroit’s not alone in its struggles. Nationwide, about 67% of all public golf operations are not able to earn revenue sufficient to cover all basic day-to-day expenses plus depreciation and capital investment. This stems from the lingering effects of the economic recession, declining interest in golf and the condition of the courses.
According to the report, the golf industry is a $22.3-billion industry, down from a peak of $29.1 billion in 2005. But experts argue the game remains popular and has a deep well of interested prospects.
Dick said the city hopes to break even on its three operating courses this year and make a “modest profit” over the next two seasons of about $40,000.
On Palmer Park, which won’t be open this year, the city is in the midst of determining whether it wants to put a driving range on the course and transform the back nine, where the final nine holes are played, into a site that can be used for other recreational purposes throughout the year.
The overall rounds played at each of the four courses has varied over the years but Chandler Park has declined about 30% since 2011, according to the golf foundation report, and the most serious decline — 84% — has occurred at Palmer Park. Overall, Detroit’s total rounds have declined by 21.3% since 2011. Only Rackham exceeds the national standard of 31,527 rounds of golf.
But many believe the city’s golf system could have a comeback story in the making.
“I’m a firm believer that golf isn’t dead,” said Richard Singer, National Golf Foundation’s director of Consulting Services, who led the report process. “In Detroit, I think there’s great potential there. They’re kind of hidden jewels but I think the lesson from it all is you can’t just let it sit there and take care of itself. … The city has to commit to them. You’ve got four separate golf facilities in the city and each has its own physical and business issues it has to solve. They all have their unique stories.”