Ben Crenshaw looked out the clubhouse window at Lions Municipal Golf Course. It was a brisk late-February day by Austin standards, but the practice putting green, located about 40 feet away, was packed.
High schoolers working on their 4-footers. Two guys in their 50s, both wearing jeans, putting for a Coke. A dad sneaking in some practice while his 5-year-old daughter climbed on the large stone lion that sits on a raised platform in the middle of the green.
“I can’t imagine this place not being here,” said Crenshaw, shaking his head. “‘Muny’ means so much to this community.”
There are 2,497 municipal golf courses in the United States, approximately 17 percent – or one in six – of all golf courses across the country.
Lions Municipal Golf Course – known locally as “Muny” – is Austin’s oldest municipal course, established in 1924 by the Lions Club, an international service organization. It sits in the heart of the city, just over 2 miles from the Texas State Capitol. Its location and affordable green fees – just $26 on weekdays, $13 for juniors – attract an eclectic group of golfers.
Lions is the course of police officers, bartenders and school teachers, but on any given day you might see former University of Texas football coach Mack Brown playing nine with his buddies or actor Matthew McConaughey on the driving range with his son. It has also hosted some of the biggest names in the game, including Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sandra Haynie, Betsy Rawls and Tom Kite.
Lions has long been one of the city’s most popular courses, logging about 60,000 rounds per year. It also hosts Texas' oldest amateur tournament, the Firecracker Open, played annually over the Fourth of July weekend. But the course’s significance goes far beyond the golfers it currently serves.
In 1950, Lions was the first course south of the Mason-Dixon line to integrate. A 9-year-old caddie named Alvin Propps and a friend played the course in defiance of the Jim Crow Laws of the era. They were detained, but Austin Mayor Taylor Glass let them go instead of jailing them for trespassing. Subsequently, the city council decided to let all golfers – black and white – play at Muny rather than build a separate course for African Americans.
At a time when Jim Crow Laws still dictated that schools be segregated and blacks use separate water fountains, Lions became a beacon of hope for African Americans. Four years before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, a pair of determined pre-teens inspired change that quietly marked the beginning of desegregation of golf courses in the South.
“I wish I could express how good I felt,” said General Marshall, who as a boy caddied at Lions from 1946 to 1950. “When they integrated this course, black golfers from all over the state of Texas would come here to play golf.”
In fact, so many people wanted to play at Muny in the 1950s and ‘60s that buses were used to shuttle players in from other parts of the state. Public figures such as boxing legend Joe Louis, an outspoken advocate for black golfers, held clinics at Lions that often attracted thousands of spectators.
But the future of Lions Municipal Golf Course may be in danger.