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Bringing D.C. Up to Par

Norton Seeks Improvements to City’s Public Golf Courses

Anyone who has golfed at D.C. public courses knows they are not likely to be confused with Pebble Beach.

While the East Potomac, Rock Creek and Langston courses may never host a major, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is trying to bring them up to par by offering legislation controlling how the National Park Service, which owns the courses, contracts their maintenance.

“Anyone who’s gone on a D.C. golf course or ridden past one knows they are distinguishable from most parks,” Norton said in an interview last week. “These golf courses are of no relation to what today’s courses look like in terms of amenities.”

The cause of their poor condition, according to Norton, is that the NPS doles out short-term contracts that stifle investment in the courses.

“We have to give contractors a certain number of years, so they get a return on their investment,” Norton said. “If you had a contract for seven years and you’re not going to have it after that, you’re not going to put in a lot of capital improvement, as in clubhouses and other things that nice golf courses have in this area.”

The three public courses are managed under separate contracts by Golf Course Specialists Inc. The company’s marketing director, Michael Williams, indicated support for Norton’s bill, the Golf Course Preservation and Modernization Act.

“She seems to have a very good understanding of what’s going on here,” said Williams, who added that it’s no coincidence East Potomac, considered the nicest of the three courses, has operated under a lengthy 20-year contract.

Rock Creek, meanwhile, has been on a year-to-year basis since 1995. While Rock Creek doesn’t even have a driving range, Williams said the heated range at East Potomac has been rated one of America’s best.

“That’s very reflective of what you’re able to do as a company with a 20-year contract,” he said.

Another benefit of Norton’s bill, according to Williams, is that it would remove the courses from “concessions law,” which restricts the type and amount of marketing and tournament activities courses can engage in.

Because the courses are intended to be available for easy public use, they were completely prohibited from hosting higher-profit tournaments, which temporarily close courses to the public, until three years ago.

Williams said that while Golf Course Specialists is sensitive to public-use and commercialization concerns, the courses need more freedom to operate and generate revenue.

“Nobody wants to come in and see ‘This tree sponsored by.’ We’re not for that,” he said. “However, under concessions law we can’t work with businesses that would sponsor banners and events. We can’t work with the industry, with the [Professional Golfers’ Association] and [United States Golf Association], the organizations that really promote and have the same interest as us and the Park Service, which is to promote the game of golf.”

He added, “We haven’t been able to do the things that every other golf course has done to keep itself operating a viable, quality golf course.”

Norton’s bill also allows one of the courses — most likely East Potomac — to be renovated and charge higher prices, which would subsidize the other two and allow them to offer cheaper golf. Langston and Rock Creek have “the least appeal to the private market,” according to a release from Norton’s office, and they “have depended on their informal association with East Potomac, which attracts the largest number of golfers.”

But all three courses still would be affordable, Williams and Norton said.

A weekend round of 18 holes currently costs $28 at East Potomac and $27 at Langston and Rock Creek.

Norton said she is interested in the courses’ survival because of their rich history, especially Langston’s. That course, located at 28th Street and Benning Road Northeast, opened in 1939 only for black people, who were barred from golfing at the city’s other clubs.

It is named for John Mercer Langston, who was the first black Virginian elected to Congress (in 1888) and before that organized Howard University’s law department.

“These are all three historic places,” Norton said. “It’s not just some golf course. One of the things we’re anxious to do is have the historic qualities maintained.”