Author Archives: Golf Detroit

Categories Golf Detroit, Rackham Golf

Can this woman save Detroit’s public golf courses from extinction?

Article by Max Marcovitch for Golf.com (June 26, 2019)

If Karen Peek feels the stresses of her job — the metaphorical time bomb she holds in her hands — she does a good job disguising it. “I’m just as excited today as I was last March, because I’m seeing it,” Peek said the other day, grinning ear to ear. She was sitting in her office at Rackham Golf Course, a Donald Ross design that is the busiest of the city’s three municipal courses.

Minutes later Peek was out on the course, tending to her duties as director of golf operations for the three munis: Rackham, Rouge Park and Chandler Park. She greeted a regular as he headed for the 1st tee, sent off members of a local Elks chapter as they commenced their weekly round, and checked in with groundskeeper Doug Melton and his affable dog, Baxter.

It hadn’t rained in three days, a welcome change amid the unseasonably wet weather. In Peek’s race against time, rain impedes progress. On an inclement day, Rackham might be lucky to have 20 players on its tee sheet.

Rackham is six miles north of Detroit Golf Club, site of this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic. It doesn’t get the attention that DGC does but it has rich history of its own, extending back to its opening in 1923. Ben Davis, the first black head pro at a municipal course in the U.S., taught there for 50 years. Among his students was famed boxer Joe Louis, a Rackham regular. The two would play money matches. In the 1940s, Louis hosted an annual golf tournament at Rackham, aimed at showcasing talented black players.

Rackham is also where Peek fell in love with the game. As a kid, she convinced her best friend to attend a youth golf clinic with her at the course. Volunteer pros — Davis among them — painted small circles on the 1st fairway and had the juniors swing their clubs back and forth for one carefree hour. Peek was hooked. She recounts excitedly slinging her golf bag over her shoulder and riding her bike down to the course.

Fifty years later, the details flow with a nostalgic yearn. The clinics were a staple in a vibrant golfing community. For Peek, they were the gateway to her livelihood.

All of which is to say, few can speak with the more authority about Detroit golf — its history, spirit, decline, heart — than Peek. She grew up on it. She lives it. She loves it.

Now, she’s trying to save it.

*****

The initial vote was 4-4. Everyone knew the fate of Detroit’s golf hung in the balance. The city council faced a dichotomous choice in March 2018: approve the hire of Signet Golf Associates to take over the operations of its three public golf courses or don’t. The latter option was as ominous as it sounds.

“There was an immediate conclusion that the alternative was ‘we’re going to close the golf courses,’ ” Peek said.

From 2011-18, total rounds played at Detroit’s four public courses decreased by 21 percent. From 2015-16, revenue dropped 22 percent. In 2018, the city closed Palmer Park golf course, leaving just three munis standing in a tenuous purgatory, wondering if they might be next. The city was blunt in its rationale.

“[Palmer Park] hasn’t made money in quite some time, and we didn’t think it was worth investing money into it,” Brad Dick, the director of Detroit’s General Services department, told CrainsDetroit at the time. “We’re post-bankruptcy and looking to be fiscally responsible.”

Slowly, the golf community came to the same fear: Was the game on the brink of extinction in the city?

Ray Custard — known by the regulars as “Sugar Ray” — is a superintendent at Rouge Park. He recalled tensions rising at the time.

If the courses closed, “them people would go crazy,” he said last week, pointing to a foursome meandering its way to the 5th tee box. “I’d start bowling. But I don’t like bowling.”

In 2017, the three remaining munis skirted that ill fate. A week after the deadlock, a tie-breaking ninth vote awarded Signet a two-year contract to take over management. Some called it a “bridge” contract. Cynics might say it was an ultimatum.

Rackham Golf Course Hole #10

Peek refers to it as an “experiment” — and one she’s taken on with vigor. In some ways, her new job was a venture she never saw coming. In others, it’s a role she’s been building toward her whole life. Nearly four decades ago, Peek parlayed those youth clinics into private golf lessons, then three Q Schools. In 1983, she became the first black member of the Michigan LPGA, and became head professional at Rackham Golf Course. But when she left the golf industry in 2005, feeling her lifelong passion gradually dwindling, she figured it was for good.

Then Signet came calling. “What an amazing opportunity this could be, to take this once again and just lead it in a direction of being vibrant,” Peek remembered thinking. “Seeing people stand in line on those tees, seeing people laughing and having fun, seeing those league groups out every day.”

Peek rushed to hire staff, lease golf carts, buy maintenance equipment. It was chaotic, but she loved every minute of it. Slowly, the upkeep of the courses began to improve — aerification of greens, verticutting, maintenance of the rough, consistency of the bunkers. Last May, the city invested a modest $2.5 million in capital improvements, helping Band-Aid over some of the more glaring issues. Without any long-term assurance, change has to come incrementally.

Peek’s mantra is simple: If each prospective golfer is welcomed with open arms, each staff member shares her passion, each day builds on the previous one, everything will work out for the best. Enough hard work and people will stream through the doors. Enough prayer and the rain will hold off. “Show your joy, and that will separate you from competitors,” she says.

“It might take a little more to get back, to get to that level. All I can hope is what the city sees is solid and substantive enough, that even if we fall a little short, they’ll still know we’re the ones for this,” she says, her voice building. “You’re not going to find better people. You’ll see people here who love what they do.”

Among those people, Peek says, is a local school teacher, who works in the pro shop twice a week.

“I guarantee you, I could take you to places today that you’d think you were interfering with their day by playing a round of golf,” Peek says. “Over here, you don’t get that sense at all. You get the sense that, ‘Yes, we want you — we desperately want you to be here — and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to have you here as well.’”

There are days Peek pulls into her spot at 5:30 a.m. to a half-filled parking lot. Those days give her hope. She thinks her courses are making progress, estimating a double-digit revenue increase and a nine percent increase in rounds played from 2018. It’s cause for hope. Now if only that damn rain would hold off.

Still, a vital decision looms. In February 2020, Signet will either be awarded a long-term lease or not.

Peek prefers to imagine a completed rejuvenation of these courses, a sustainable ecosystem of public golf. There are kids waiting to fall in love with the game, like she did. There are clinics to be run, leagues to be formed, future professionals to be bred. After a decade filled with pessimism, Peek offers her life’s tale as a vessel of optimism. She knows what golf has given her. She’s now doing everything to pay it back.

What would it mean to save Detroit golf?

That infectious smile returned as she sat back in her chair.

“A great way to finish,” she said. “It’d be a perfect No. 18 for me.”

Rouge Park Golf Course
Categories Rouge Park

The Future of Operations at the Rouge Park Golf Course in Detroit

The municipal course has been managed by Golf Detroit since late March.

Article by Laura Herberg, Community Reporter WDTE.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.

Rouge Park Golf CourseAs 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.

Categories Rouge Park

WDET’s CuriosiD: Who Designed the Rouge Park Golf Course?

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 Reporter WDTE.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.

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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].”

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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.

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Categories Golf Detroit

What’s the future of Detroit’s golf courses?

City Council eyes massive repairs for Detroit area golf courses.

Article by Kat Stafford, Detroit Free Press (April 20, 2018)

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.”

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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.

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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.”

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